Monday, 12 August 2013

Religion For Runners

Sometimes I run well sometimes I don’t.

Sometimes I push myself really hard and at the end I look at my GPS watch and find out that I’ve gone slower than average.

Sometimes I seem to be able to run with completely ease and clock a new Personal Best time.

Sometimes my running feels great.

Sometimes my running feels terrible.

There often doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason. Frustratingly the good runs seem to appear as randomly as the bad runs. I try and decipher patterns and causality.

What did I eat the night before? - or - What did I eat in the morning?

Have I been getting enough sleep? - or - Have I been getting too much sleep?

Have I been running too much recently and fatigued my legs? - or - Have I not been running enough and I’m losing speed and endurance?

It is enough to drive a runner crazy.

And it's at the point that I just want to give up that I think it is useful for runners to turn to god for help. Or more precisely religion.

There is a beautiful book by the philosopher Alain de Botton called “Religion for Atheists”. The book explores some of the central ideas and institutions that have developed predominantly through Judeo-Christian thinking and how they are useful whether one is a believer, agnostic or “god forbid” an atheist.

One chapter titled “Perspective” is particularly pertinent to the dilemma of runners randomly experiencing good and bad runs. The chapter first outlines the Book of Job in the Old Testament. It is the story of a righteous man - Job - who starts off with a beautiful life and great wealth. In a single day he loses all his riches and his children. As if that’s not enough mysterious sores begin to cover his entire body making any movement painful.

Job’s friends try and figure out a cause for why this has happened to him. The friends suggest that Job must have done something very bad indeed because, as one friend puts it, “God does not reject a righteous man”.

Job knows he hasn’t sinned and admonishes God for afflicting him. Then Job goes even further and question God’s very existence - not the best thing to do in the Bible.

God finally answers Job with a series of questions:

"Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou has understanding...
By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?...
Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost heaven... ? …
Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook... ?" (Job Chapter 38)

God’s answer to Job is meant to illustrate how little humans understand about the world, the limits to our understanding and instil in Job a sense of awe about the world around us.

Alain de Botton takes the story of Job and shows us that for millennia people have been struggling with the idea that bad things happen to good people (and often vice versa). Trying to reduce everything to a causal relationship will not help us and invariably flies in the face of our experiences. This is a lesson that religion teaches its followers but is often lost on us when we put on a pair of running shoes.

For me Job is the runner who has eaten right, who has done all the training, has tapered beautifully just before the marathon and then after months of preparation has run the worse race of their life. We’ve all been there and dare I say it for those of us who continue running it will happen to us again.

It's not just Judeo-Christian theology that has explored this problem. Islam has been able to distil this idea down to a single word: “Inshallah” (roughly translating as “God willing”). We can do the best training and preparation in the world but there will always be an unexplainable element that is out of our control. The believers might term this element "God's will" while atheists might call it "randomness". But for either group learning to accept it is one of life's hardest lessons.

So next time I run a bad race or find things not going my way in training instead of getting depressed I might just reacquaint myself with the Book of Job or at the very least console myself with the one bit of Arabic I know:

"I will run a PB Inshallah"   

(This blog post is for my friend @richardvadon who asked me on twitter “Why on some days do I run well and some days I’m awful?” Oh and the picture today is of me and my sister-in-law Lucy. We’d both just run a 10k race but Lucy ran a PB and my time was a full minute slower than my PB - I have no explanation why)  

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