Will and Grace

From sole to soul, a marathon spirituality

Many marathoners experience moments of grace on the run, but not all of their spiritual sensations are pain free. While 26.2 miles of pavement give plenty of opportunities for spiritual highs and physical adrenaline rushes, these moments are often punctuated by aching joints, bleeding blisters, black and blue toenails, and a long list of other possible bizarre afflictions. Three-time marathoner Mike Schmiedeler says that even though bodily awareness and spiritual highs can take the form of pain, he relishes the raw sensation. “You feel the most alive when you feel the worst,” said the 31-year-old Chicago television producer. “When I’m at mile 26 I feel like I’m so tired I can’t even sweat anymore. There’s some skin chafing going on and I feel God-awful, but it feels so good to push myself.”

From Couch Potato to Marathon Mom
First-time marathoner Kathryn King knows a thing or two about pain. When she first started running she could barely run down her neighborhood street. But marathon training has transformed this 35-year-old mother from a complete non-athlete into a devoted runner. Her training, over time, has become easier and easier physically, allowing her to experience the spiritual side of running and to develop some creative ways to pass the time on her training runs.

Accompanied by two close friends, her “Sole Sisters,” as she calls them, she pounds the pavement for weekend long runs. King, who mentally chants musical mantras and spiritual songs to pass the miles, says that her training runs allow her to experience a different sense of time. “Time is different because of the constant rhythm of your feet,” said the Raleigh, North Carolina resident. “It’s almost like a heartbeat. There comes a moment in which you lose track of time because you are so engrossed in it. But you can’t have that moment as a novice,” said King, who has been training for over a year for the 2004 Marine Corps Marathon. “You have to be experienced so you don’t worry about the details, and you just enjoy the process. People say [the training] is so hard on your body, but for me it has been better than anything I have done.”

It Does a Body Good
Emil Zatopek, a Czech distance runner, once described his 1952 Helsinki Olympic Marathon victory in this way:

“I was unable to walk for a whole week after that, so much did the race take out of me. But it was the most pleasant exhaustion I have ever known.”

Excuse me? Post-Marathon Exhaustion?
Pleasant? Certainly, there are those who would rather exhaust themselves by way of other types of marathons: TiVo episodes of The Sopranos; months in front of a laptop computer completing a first novel; the six-year pursuit of a PhD. But marathoners, deranged, as they may seem, seek out the aching calves, the sweat and salt, the sheer physicality of the challenge. On a long run, life happens differently. A soul is transformed while on the move. Muscle takes over mind, feet ignore fear, and there’s nowhere else to go but straight ahead.