The Spirituality of the Long Distance Runner

On 21st May 2023 I attempted my first marathon running in aid of the charity Lost Chord UK. Little did I know just what a spiritual experience it would be from the moment I stepped off the plane in the beautiful Austrian city of Salzburg and saw the snow-capped mountains.

In the taxi to the hotel I was thinking about what piece of music I should play on my flute as I crossed the finish line; yes you read that right, I had decided to finish the marathon playing my flute!

“How about 500 miles by the Proclaimers” I said to my friend Sally? The radio had been playing gently in the background the whole journey and just before we reached the hotel, about 5 minutes after I had suggested the tune, the familiar beat of the song I’d been talking about caught my ear. Of all the billions of songs in the world what are the chances that it would be that one?

The taxi driver was a charming, chatty gentleman who’s parting words were “everyone’s a winner who finishes a marathon”. I will always hold onto those words…for it is true.

We spent the day before the race visiting the tourist sites of the picturesque city. After visiting the amazing Cathedral we found ourselves in an enclosed square. I shall never forget what happened in that square. A wind that was so strong I had to put my arms over my face and move towards a wall blew right at us for what seemed like several minutes. Sand was everywhere, in my ears, my shoes, my hair…We’d been talking about the Holy Spirit and it truly felt like we were experiencing the Pentecost experience from the Bible.

“On the day of Pentecost, all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting.” – Acts 2:1–2

We made our way to the start line and passed the church of St Sebastian which had a statue of the Saint with darts in his chest. My friend said “I wonder who the Patron Saint of runners is?” We googled it and yes you guessed it…St Sebastian.

The atmosphere on the day of a race is electric. I had woken up really early and decided to listen to podcasts about the Scottish athlete Eric Liddle of Chariot’s of Fire fame. I felt so fired up by his inspirational life. After a seeming eternity of waiting we set off and as I rounded a corner about half a kilometre in there was a Scottish pipe band playing ‘Amazing Grace’. “Thank you Eric…I know I can do this.”

Running a marathon is like a metaphor for life itself. It is just one mile/kilometre/step (one day) at a time. Some parts are harder than others but some parts you think you are flying, lifted by the euphoria of the moment.

I ran listening to the Coach Bennett, the Nike Running coach and at various points he asks you to think of people who had helped you get to the finish line. I ran the marathon in aid of the UK charity Lost chord UK which provides interactive music sessions for people living with dementia. My dear friend Hils O’Neil lost her Mum to dementia and we have been running a series of community concerts to her memory at Kingston Library, Hils Mum was affectionately known as SBV – Show Biz Val. – I ask you, what are the chances of me thinking of her and thanking her for being in my life and looking down and seeing a man hole cover with the initials SBV on it? And yet that is exactly what happened.

At about mile 24 I felt like I was having a heart attack and had to walk. I felt like a huge wet towel was gradually being tightened around my chest. I found a bit of energy to start running again and heard a soft and gentle Scottish voice say “go on Clare you can do it”. My name was on my top so that wasn’t that strange – I shouted out “Eric Liddle would be so proud of you”. I decided to run along with the gentleman who I found out was called Ian. He was supporting a lady from Munich called Jenny who didn’t think she would be able to complete it. I said “We’re all going to complete it! We can do this.” Jenny was the name of Eric Liddle’s sister in the film. I couldn’t believe the synchronicity.

We ran a bit, walked a bit and approached the finish line which was like a mirage in the desert. I saw my friend Sally who passed me my flute and I ran across the finish line playing Scotland the Brave.

I do not think that the synchronicities I experienced that day are coincidental. You can see the whole of life as a magical, interconnected experience or you can think it is meaningless.

I finished the marathon on the last day of Mental Health Awareness week. I have struggled this week with great turmoil, there have been many darts shot at me from all directions. Whilst I had hardly no aches from the run I have had other side effects from running in 31 degrees heat and blaring sun.

I couldn’t stick to the training plan due to one thing and another. I didn’t prepare that well and we all know that if you fail to prepare you prepare to fail. I completed the race but it was slow. I was asked my speed by a waiter the next day at the top of a mountain and he just laughed and walked away. That was hurtful and the seed of embarrassment and failure was sowed in my heart. I read an article that said you shouldn’t bother running a marathon if you can’t do it in less than four hours and someone else wrote and asked if I had really done it.

The conditions were such that I ran it at the speed I did; my speed, my own race. I got the medal to prove I did it – even the legitimacy of this has been questioned! I could have done it faster if I had not stopped to take photos, thanked people for cheering and playing music along the way, taken videos to try and capture the moment and if I hadn’t met two inspirational souls and decided to finish the race with them.

My aim was to finish and that for me is a win.

It was a spiritual experience and one I will never forget my whole life.

This week I realised that you can do your best and it’s still not good enough for people. I have a choice this morning and that is to either give up literally and metaphorically or regroup and go after the crown that lasts forever and live up to my book and Simply be more.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. Corinthians 9 v 24-26 Clare Langan CEO of a Lost Chord UK which provides interactive music sessions for people living with dementia and other complex needs.