Running and Faith

Photo of a runner's legs.
Will it all pay off?

In college, I ran 12 track races that were PRs, most only by a second or two, but over 25 that weren’t. I ran about 10,000 miles in college, including miserable workouts that left me rereading my training log and wondering why I was bothering to put myself through this, terrible long runs where I found myself in the middle of hilly suburbs desperately needing a toilet, but also a lot of amazing, exhilarating runs as well. I went to bed early, ate reasonably healthily, and generally tried to always “live the life,” as my coach would say, but would often wonder if it was worth it.

My point is that running is hard. There are lots of times it inconveniences me or the other people in my life, and there are times at which it is straight-up miserable. But for every reason to quit, I have one reason to keep at it that, so far, beats them all: faith.

Ask any runner if they’ve ever thought about quitting and they will likely say yes. If you ask those who said yes why they’ve considered it, they’ll likely cite many reasons. Running at a high level, even if that level is not Olympic or even local elite, requires a lot of time, energy, and emotional investment. When we’re training, we all feel like we sacrifice other experiences for running: the late night bar outings, of course, but also other, bigger things. Sometimes we’re plagued by pain or injuries that add even more to the emotional strain of training for what sometimes feels like very little improvement or the simple thought that life would be so much easier if I just didn’t run … which brings us back to faith.

Faith: a firm belief in something for which there is no proof.

Often in post-race interviews with professional runners, one will hear them referencing their faith in God. They give thanks for God’s role in their victories or in their return from injury and sometimes use God to help rationalize defeats or setbacks. Ryan Hall is probably the most famous example of this, but many runners (and other athletes) seem to think about God in their running. My faith is of a different sort, but I do think it’s connected.

The role faith plays in my running is simple: everyday that I continue to train, the belief that this could all pay off, that I might make the huge improvements I have so long been seeking, and that my wildest dreams are at least possible, overcomes all the negative emotions, all the inconveniences, and all the possible indications that maybe I should stop dreaming so big.

I was recently in a conversation with a man, I’ll call Mike, who ran for a college near mine. Mike was explaining why he no longer trains seriously, though he was a pretty good Division III runner back in the day. After the final race of Mike’s college career, a faster competitor told him, in what was presumably meant as a word of encouragement, that if he continued to run he could make the Olympic Trials in four years. And Mike’s response was, “That’s ridiculous! All the guys who make the Trials have run way faster times in college, so I definitely won’t make it. I might as well stop training and devote myself to other things.”

Mike’s reaction was perfectly logical and I might well reach a similar conclusion for myself. I imagine that every woman in this year’s Olympic Marathon Trials ran a faster 10k PR than I did in college, but I haven’t checked and it doesn’t matter, because that’s the thing about faith: it’s not logical. It doesn’t make sense. It’s believing without proof.

It’s not that I believe I will run a certain time or achieve a particular big dream running goal. I know most of my goals are unlikely to happen. Yet my belief in the possibility that lies within me keeps me running. As long as I have my faith, I can never quit.

I have faith, that this college runner, me, has a Olympic Trials Qualifier within her.
I have faith, that this college runner, me, has an Olympic Trials Qualifier within her.

Like many things I’ve learned from running, this faith I have in running connects to faith in a broader sense: faith in myself; faith that it will all work out and that even if I don’t really know what direction I’m headed, I’m going to figure it out. Of course, this kind of faith in a non-running context is somewhat less meaningful because I was born into relatively comfortable circumstances, so the belief that it will all work out is pretty logical if statistics have anything to say about it.

Even so, I have moments of doubt: Will I work hard enough? Can I pick a direction and stick with it? Can I be organized and committed enough to keep going when things get difficult? When these negative thoughts creep in, I always return to my faith.

Running is hard; it can be lonely. Attaching it to something bigger and deeper than oneself can give runners what they need to persevere.

How does faith factor into your running?

I am a runner based in Boston. I am also an AmeriCorps member and soon-to-be grad student. I like to write about gender disparities in running and the mental aspects of training and racing.

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  1. I think faith is the single greatest gift running has given me. I never understood the concept in Sunday school or religion class – none of the explanations there made much sense to me. But with running, the concept of faith clicked. So, I don’t just have faith that my tempos and intervals and long runs will turn into PRs, but I have faith in myself, that I will come through in the clutch, that I can handle what comes my way, and in goodness, that it will guide me in the right direction. Great post, Chive!

  2. I love this. Running and pursuing your goals requires so much faith, but if we knew we’d for sure easily achieve them, it wouldn’t be as much fun, right? It’s so hard sometimes but as you say, when the negative thoughts come, just stick to your faith and fight them off.

    (Also, not every Trials qualifier ran faster in college; I didn’t run in college and made the Trials, so you have a (huge) leg up on me! 🙂 )

  3. Thanks for the comments. I’m glad you both get it. And Tea, I agree that the risk, the no-guarantees nature of running and of pursuing other kinds of goals is a big part of what makes it worthwhile and exciting.

  4. Love this post, chive. Thank you! It made me think. My initial reaction was that I don’t really have faith at all: I have very loose goals that I don’t get too emotionally invested in because experience has shown that shit happens…but the I realized that I do have a different sort of faith that keeps me going. Not faith that I’ll hit a certain time or even get to run the stupid marathon, but faith that the process of training for the distance will be worth it in and of itself, regardless of what happens on race day.