Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    a woman running in front of a city skyline

    The Chapel of the Road

    The long run is a holy hour (or two, or three) that trains and shapes my heart.

    By Mary Grace Mangano

    February 22, 2024
    • Benjamin Fudge

      Beautiful article! As a runner, who also never wore headphones, I too found it to be my special time of prayer, contemplation, and solitude. Now at age 73 I don't run so often or as much (now a long run is more like 3 miles!) but I still find the runs I do to be holy moments and times I cherish. Thanks for putting into words so beautifully the joy of this sport!

    My breath comes in brief clouds in the predawn dark of my early morning run. The road holds the quiet of a house where people are still sleeping, or of an empty church with its small candles guttering below statues of saints. Though I began in darkness, my ears tuned with sharp attention to tree branch snaps and passing cars, the sun now begins to brighten my path. My feet are a metronome on the pavement, in rhythm with the road. The whole sky opens before me – and with it – the day to come.

    When I first started running long distance, I was training for my first (and what I thought would be my only) marathon. At age twenty-six, I had decided to run twenty-six miles as part of a twenty-six-point bucket list I’d created. In my experiences with sports growing up, running had typically been the punishment for poor performance, a necessary evil in the form of conditioning, or a means to an end in order to score a goal. But in college, I’d started jogging with a friend both to exercise and to spend time with her. Together we’d run a handful of 5Ks, 10Ks, and then eventually a half marathon. A few years later, I’d finally taken the plunge for the full.

    As I began training in the months leading up to the marathon, my usual routine after a long day of teaching was to head to Central Park for my midweek runs. In a noisy city like New York and in a profession where people ask questions of me most of the time, my headphone-free runs became a place of solitude and peace. (I initially started running without headphones because I lost mine, but then never looked back.) Running, though an activity, has also become a place for me, although strangely not tied to one physical location, much like home is where the heart is (as the saying goes) or the way that a church is not a building, but a people. It is a place of pilgrimage for me. It is a place of prayer that often exists beyond words, yet involves my whole body, mind, heart, and soul.

    The New England-based running brand Tracksmith organizes long runs in the cities where they have brick-and-mortar shops and their clever calendar event name is “Church of the Long Run.” All are invited to this church (well, those with a Strava account). Although I disagree with making running itself a religion in this way, where it would seem that the road or the run is being worshiped, I have found that in many ways, running can be church-like. It can be liturgical, seasonal, communal, spiritual, personal. Most of all, I have found that running, like prayer, changes me. While running is not my religion, it is one of the ways that I pray and experience God – in nature, in other people, in my own interior castle. When I go for a run, especially a long run, it is like entering a chapel – the chapel of the road. Like a worship service, there are rituals involved with preparing for a run and making oneself ready. Unlike a liturgy which is composed of intentional and sacred activities, though, the actual rituals of the runner aren’t as important as the sacred space those rituals create.

    a woman running in front of a city skyline

    Photograph by Ilya Jokic.

    In the years since I started running more seriously, I’ve moved four times (twice in the same city and two more times to different locations). My job changed. We experienced a global pandemic. I started and completed a graduate program. Throughout all of these changes, running was a constant. Running, like life and nature, has seasons, and that cyclicity gave me comfort. Typically, winter is a season of quietly maintaining fitness, continuing to run despite extreme cold and darkness. Spring brings races, from 5ks to half marathons, and bursts of speed. The weather warms and more and more runners flock to the park. Summer means marathon training, humidity, and heat. And then fall is showtime – it’s when all those months of preparation pay off and we actually run the race. Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens … God has made everything appropriate to its time, but has put the timeless into their hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done.” There is a time for everything. The distinct seasons remind us of this. Nature, our liturgies, and even running reflect this. But the timeless spoken about here, which is in every person’s heart, is something I’ve come to understand better from my running.

    It is good, I think, that we have things that do not change and which we can rely on so that we can notice what does change – especially ourselves. We might think, “Oh, this time last year …” and remark on all that has transpired since then. A baby is now a toddler, someone was with us who we lost shortly thereafter, that was a dark time and now we have come through it. With running, I experience these same seasons of training or maintaining or building, but also recognize how I am not the same and yet I am still myself. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen tells Alice, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” The structured, disciplined commitment I have to prayer and to running both keep me in the same place and help me get somewhere else.

    In the way that being a church member or religious believer is both communal and personal, running can be, too. We worship in a community and we grow as individual believers in a personal relationship with God. All of it – our communal prayer and worship, our individual prayer and relationship with God – is meant to change us. It’s been my experience that running has this kind of shaping power, too. In all the places I have lived, I’ve found running groups of wonderful, kind people who come from various backgrounds and who I otherwise would probably not have a chance to know. Running with them teaches me about being open, about loving others, about receiving from others. Then there are times when running lets me be one-on-one with a friend. There’s something about actually moving together, instead of drinking coffee (which I also love to do) that signals we are on a journey together. We are accompanied and not alone. There are times, too, when a solo run is what I need. Time to think, to be quiet, to focus on one step at a time – or to be unaware of my steps and able to enter a meditative state – is so rare, and yet so necessary for the soul.

    What the runner is training, really and truly, is her mind and – perhaps – her heart.

    Nothing has taught me more about how running can change me than the long run. During marathon training season, the long run is what it sounds like. Each week, the runner slowly adds more miles to increase the distance her body can handle comfortably (a loose interpretation of “comfortably”). Early on, one realizes that what the human body can do is really quite amazing and, more often than not, running is a mental sport. The challenges, especially on a long run, are mental. The mind finds all kinds of ways to deceive itself or to attempt to convince the body to stop, to give up. And what the runner is training, really and truly, is her mind and – perhaps – her heart. The body is also trained, but the mind must learn patience and perseverance. The heart learns to find inner calm and peace despite external circumstances.

    Suffering is certainly involved on the long run, though. (Not to be gruesome, but I’ve lost a toenail or two). Running long distances has taught me about pain, about waiting, about enduring. I have found that the best way to take my mind off my physical pain is to offer it for others. While my own particular suffering on that run has a finish line, not all suffering does. It’s not always so neat. I’ve known suffering like this, that seems without end. But others have known it even more acutely. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observes that for those in the concentration camp with him, “the most depressing influence of all was that a prisoner could not know how long his term of imprisonment would be.” Referring to the Latin finis, he says it means both an end or “finish,” and a goal to reach, and explains that “A man who could not see the end … ceased living for the future … therefore the whole structure of his inner life changed.” He compares this to someone facing unemployment who cannot see an end or a future, or someone facing an illness. While my long run has an endpoint and a goal, through prayer, the temporary suffering I endure can be united to those whose suffering seems to have no end.

    At various times throughout a run, I find myself moving through the different forms of prayer quite naturally. I might start out by petitioning God – Lord, can you make a way here? Can you help me with this? I need you, Lord. Then, as I summit a hill, I might be silenced by the view of rolling hills and mist above the oak trees. At these times, my heart fills with awe and praise for the majesty before me – visible and invisible. I might swing back to petition as I round a bend in the road, asking God to bless or strengthen or comfort those I carry with me on the run. And then I find myself thanking him for what he has done since the last run, or for his mercy, his patience, his kind wisdom. On my evening runs, especially the wintry ones, as the light dies out and my steps quicken, as the blackness of night expunges my vision, I think about my death. In this body I live and in this body I will die. For now, he lets me run. And my run is an offering. In her book The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander says, “privations, pain, and weariness of the body are prayer; but so, too, are the pleasures and labors of the body. Body and soul together give glory to God: the sharper the capacity for sorrow and joy, the greater the hallowing.” Running is a hallowing of strident sorrow and gentle joy and mundane pain that saps my limbs and suffuses my heart, my soul.

    In so many ways, running is like prayer. At least, it’s one of the ways I pray – cor ad cor. The long run is a holy hour (or two, or three). I have to show up for it on days when I’m tired, when it’s cold and raining, or when I don’t feel like it. It trains me, and shapes my heart. In fact, my heart has literally slowed down since I started running marathons. Oftentimes, people will exclaim to me, “I don’t know how you do it, running all those races!” I don’t know how I don’t do it. I need to. I need prayer. I need community. I need solitude. I need to run.

    I show up with all that I’ve brought with me for the journey of the long run: my body, my mind, my heart, my soul, and start down the open road – the chapel of the road. I hear my breath as I begin. Se-lah. The sacred breath, the start of my prayer, of everything.

    Contributed By MaryGraceMangano Mary Grace Mangano

    Mary Grace Mangano is a poet, writer, and professor. Her work has been published in Church Life Journal, America, Fare Forward, Dappled Things, The Windhover, and others.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now