On Mother's Day, May 10th, 2015, I ran the Eugene 1/2 Marathon. On this blessed day, I had a divine revelation...some would say a “religious experience”. Paradoxically, agony and ecstasy cohabited my body temple for 13.1 miles. The image above is from mile number nine of named race. As one can plainly see from the countenance on my corpse, I still had 4 miles left of racing, and I was already suffering immensely. The suffering was not from an imminent bowel movement engendered by high volume plant roughage and beets, as some will undoubtedly speculate. It was the pain from serious racing. I held it together for a finishing time of 1:11.25, but I have officially retired from racing distances above 800 Meters. As a natural born sprinter endowed with fast twitch muscle fibers, I am a morbid 40 pounds overweight: obese by distance running standards. As one can plainly see from the professional and eventual winner of the marathon, Craig Leon, although he had 17 miles remaining, he looks utterly relaxed, graceful and in complete ease, like The Chosen One from The Matrix. After experiencing the Eugene Marathon weekend festivities, energy, and passion for a fourth consecutive year, I had the realization that running is Eugene's religion. Running is medicine for the soul.
TrackTown USA, Eugene Oregon, is Mecca for running. This town is an idyllic paradise on earth for runners. The average annual temperature is 52 degrees with no humidity, which correlates precisely with the optimal weather to set world records on the track and roads. For easy recovery runs, there are a plethora of soft bark trails. Furthermore, runners here don't have to worry about cataclysmic natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, or severe droughts. In fact, runners are protected in the valley from all calamities and have plenty of liquid sky to stay hydrated. Moreover, Eugene is the epicenter for hydration via fermented beverages, with a microbrew pub on every block. Additionally, Growler University is only about a block from the historic playground for runners, Hayward Field. One of the best known tracks in the USA, historic Hayward Field, host to Olympic Trials, World Juniors, and 2021 World Outdoor Track and Field Championships, is almost 100 years old. In these hallowed grounds, the immortal Steve Prefontaine mesmerized fans by accumulating an unprecedented record of 35 wins and only 3 loss. Fans are captivated by current Olympic Champion Galen Rupp and the great King Edward Cheserek as he floats toward future immortality. Just this past week in the Oregon Twilight Meet, Matthew Maton, became the 6th high schooler in history to run a sub 4 minute mile. Naturally, he is headed to the University of Oregon to make Hayward Field his playground for the next 4 years. The Holy Grail for runners is undoubtedly Eugene, home of “Runnism.”
All world religions have three aspects: myths, rituals, and mysticism. Take Christianity as an example. The mythology of Christianity is told in the stories and parables found in the Old and New Testament of the Bible. The rituals of Christianity involve, for example, the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, etc. Mysticism in Christianity involves what William James calls the “religious experience”. Take any world religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslims, etc and you will find the three elements of myths, rituals, and mysticism (experience). Is running the official religion of Eugene?
Running is filled with many stories, both written and spoken. The mythology for most runners starts with an infatuation with the marathon. The story starts in ancient times with the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger. This Greek soldier delivered a message from The Battle of Marathon to Athens. Legend has it he ran 25.4 miles without stopping, his famous last words before collapsing and dying were, “we have won”. This is the origin of the word marathon. Some of these running stories and parables have been memorialized in classic books such as Once a Runner, Born to Run, Running & Being, and Marathon Man. Other stories are only meant to be spoken out loud, at zero dark thirty runs. These stories told on the roads or on trails only survive in the oral tradition of runners. Some are short stories, spoken between a huff and a puff while on the run. There are also the jokes and small talk over coffee or the long road trip en route to a big race. The longer stories are saved for “church”: deep and emotional confessions about loss and gain, hate and blame are usually made during the long run.
The beauty in running is that the runner creates new mythology with every stroke of the foot. He or she is the shape shifter of his destiny and running is the vehicle, not only for a healthy mind and body, but also for doing good in the world. Every runner creates stories for himself as well as inspiration for his community.
But what about the element of ritual?
Running is filled with countless rituals. Preparing for the run is where the rituals begin, namely, picking the route, the amount of sleep you want, the time you get up, make coffee, have first BM, have second BM, breakfast choices, Gel, hydration, and nipple bandaid. Gear is another ritual with gadgets such as the Garmin watch, HR monitor, compression socks, fanny pack, hats, anti-chafing creams, arm sleeves, reflective sneakers, ID band, etc. Then, there is the ritual of perseverating about the splits over coffee. Also, the smack talk before a big race, the predictions, and the carb loading. The new en vogue ritual is beet doping to enhance performance. There are post run or post race rituals of recovery drinks, stretching, massaging, eating, and drinking. The rituals are endless. It is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Running itself is a mystical experience, allowing the runner to connect with nature and feel a profound oneness. One feels alive and connected to the present moment. Modern physics tells us we are all interconnected. This feeling becomes especially powerful when on the hallowed grounds of Hayward, in full sprint on Bowerman curve. To augment this experience, one can use evidence based sports psychology to enhance athletic performance. This is like Jedi Mind training for the runner. Usually at this point of the race, the soul is utterly exhausted and is dueling with another runner in an epic back and forth shadow dance. This experience is timeless. When a runner is racing, especially on the track, he feels so open and vulnerable, almost naked even. The outcome is in question and it is riveting to think one is writing a story, of guts and glory. They are deep powerful experiences and for the true runner, they are a religious experiences. Indeed, a runner's high is a powerful mystical experience. It is not coincidental that the euphoric endocannabinoid system that helps produce the runner's high is activated with intense aerobic activity. Runners get high every day with this built in endogenous pleasure center. Will running become the next religion in Eugene? In my estimation, it already is!