It is 6.45am on a glacial morning in early March. The streets of Glasgow are still and silent, the city only just beginning to wake up. I turn into my local park beneath a sky that is turning pink and gold. My lips feel frostbitten. It has been a long and dark winter, but, when I look across to the church spire that lies beyond the trees, the sun is coming up.
“I step out of the ordinary,” croons Heather Small from my MP3 player. “I can feel my soul ascending.”
In my head – and only in my head — I am a gazelle.
For a time, I am utterly content with the world and my place within it.
I am not the fastest runner, and I have often not been the most consistent runner, but for the last ten years, my running shoes and the streets of Glasgow have been where I’ve gone to work off bad days, and to fly high on good ones. I’ve muddled through frustrations, and prayed for wisdom, and re-centered my world whenever I’ve been living through things that have made it tilt a bit. If the streets of Glasgow have been unavailable, the streets of really anywhere at all will do. I’ve been able to soak in the fresh air and the glory of creation all over the world, in ways that I wouldn’t have if I’d not been a runner, from the banks of the Clyde to the trails of the Scottish islands to the streets of Shanghai in the rain. And when I’ve stopped, it has always been to find that in some way I’ve never tried to articulate before, the miles I’ve covered been good for my soul.
Of course I would be lying if I said that I didn’t also enjoy the more tangible benefits of being a runner – the personal bests, the race bling, and an enhanced ability to enjoy all manner of deep-fried Scottish deliciousness. These are all wonderful things, but on their own they wouldn’t be enough to keep me lacing up my trainers.
I run because I find surprising things on my runs. I’ve come to a delighted halt in the falling snow after happening upon two horses all dressed up in their quilted jackets. I’ve arrived back at my front door to discover that the essay or speech or research that I’d been wrestling with has written itself in my head while I’ve been gone.
I run because when I do, I’m more — more focused, more aware, more content. I’m better able to control – or at least, better able to productively channel — the manic gleam that I tend towards when it feels as though everything is falling apart and I’m standing in the middle of the maelstrom. I’ve lived with at least one person who would say bluntly that I’m less grumpy. In short, I am more of the things that make me more of the person that I want to be.
And I run because it is a transcendent and transforming experience.
I was not an athletic child. I was uncoordinated, wheezy, and far more likely to be found with my nose in a book than wielding a hockey stick. In my school reports, I was an “absent-minded professor” who had been given up on by the PE department. It has been twenty years and I remain a clumsy and distractible bookworm, but I am now a clumsy and distractable bookworm who has run a marathon.
To run 26.2 miles is to go on a journey that is much, much further than that. To run any distance at all — and perhaps especially if you’ve grown up thinking that you couldn’t — is to become a different person.
It’s to become someone who can believe in the possible. If you can do that, you can do anything. You can change the world.
I’ve said that I haven’t always been the most consistent runner. The commitment I made to myself during Lent year was been to become one, knowing, because it has happened before, that I am a better version of myself when I do.
There are some people who would say that I’ve missed the point of Lent, and that Lent shouldn’t be a self-improvement course.
But – why not?
After all, Christianity is a self-improvement course. A lifelong commitment to becoming who we really are, and aspiring to the fulfilment of our God-created and Spirit-inspired potential.
In that forty-day trek through the Lenten wilderness, we stripped ourselves bare, we became our most raw and real selves, and in doing that, then, yes, Lent can be a place where we can come to find ourselves and start over. And if we can do that, then, just maybe, we really can build the kingdom of heaven on Earth.
I turn for home. Heather Small is still singing in my ear, “I’m on my way, can’t stop me now, and you can do the same.”