Running As Prayer: Surviving These Everlasting Hills

Yesterday I reached two milestones in my marathon training. One, I completed my first full month of training and experienced improvement without injury. Two, I had my hardest workout of this training cycle: an extended (and brutal) run through a series of steep and long hills. The words ‘hill workout’ on a training plan can strike fear into the most motivated runner. Hills are a necessary evil for race training. Without them, you won’t develop the needed endurance or speed for your race; with them, you grow stronger and faster over time. If you find a runner who says, ‘I love hill workouts!’ please report this phenomenon to the American Psychiatric Association so they can include this condition in their next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

I began incorporating hill workouts a month ago, which may mean I’m not totally right in the head. I began with the shorter version of hill training sessions, working on speed more than endurance. Here was my first training goal for running hill sprints–surviving and not throwing up. Surviving + not throwing up = successful training session. I have not thrown up on a hill workout yet. I still have two months to go, so I’m not in the clear. I’ve noticed a gradual increase in strength and speed, so I’ve kept the hill workouts a weekly fixture on my training plan.

But yesterday I took an entirely different approach to hill training. I opted for a longer run instead of the sprint workout, searching for the longest and steepest hills near my house. Veterans of the Knoxville Marathon have warned me that you have to be ready for some considerable elevation gain on race day. Not wanting to face exhaustion on the hills during the race (or vomiting in public), I set off for an intense course to acclimate my body to the next level of intensity I could endure.

A Test of Peak Intensity

The first few hills weren’t so bad. It was the last few hills that humbled me. It’s so much harder to summon enough willpower and ascend steep hills when your legs feel like an inferno. If my illiotibial (IT) band could curse, it would have strung a series of expletives at me for two miles straight. It wasn’t a dangerous or unwise training run, just peak intensity for my current conditioning. But I didn’t throw up and survived the run. Again: surviving + not vomiting = successful training run.

Usually I take one day off after a hard workout or a long run. This workout requires more than one day. The Recovery Advisor on my Garmin watch told me I needed 72 hours of rest, which I’ll take–gladly and with carbohydrates. The Garmin message just as well could have said, ‘You’re an idiot and not as strong as you think.’ It didn’t have to. My quads and hamstrings sent the message clearly enough.

A Miniature Theology of Hills

Terrain and landscape are stock metaphors in the Bible for the spiritual life. Psalm 23 speaks of ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’ Psalm 121 is a journeying prayer, spoken on an ascending road. The psalmist asks for help given the portending danger of the hills ahead: ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber’ (Psalm 121.1–3, ESV).

In Christ’s life, Jesus endures the heat of temptation in the high places of the wilderness. And most of all, of course, is the hill of Calvary where Christ won redemption for humankind by enduring death on a cross.

Hills induce both the physical and the spiritual athlete to pray that most ancient and necessary one word prayer: help.

Running Hills with Friends

The solitude of running is wonderful when you’re steadily striding along flat terrain, enjoying a comfortable pace and a good cadence. But solitude isn’t an advantage when you’re facing a test of peak intensity. This is why I train with a real runner, my friend and fellow pastor, Wil Cantrell, on most of my hill workouts. You can tackle some hills on your own strength, but sooner or later you will need the encouragement and help of friends. It’s no small part of the Passion story that Simon of Cyrene carried the Lord’s cross up the hill to Golgotha.

In the same manner, there will be tests of spiritual intensity that you simply cannot survive without help. I have known seasons in my own life with God when my spiritual resources were so depleted that I could not pray. I have taken comfort that the faith of my friends sustained me. I have taken comfort in the words of ancient and liturgical prayers that gave me words when I’ve had no words. I have taken solace that the Holy Spirit ‘helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words’ (Romans 8.26, ESV).

Just as the runner can become so winded on an incline that he cannot speak, so the Christian will pass through seasons when words and prayers do not come. In those seasons and traversing those hills, it’s a good idea to run with friends.

An Unlikely Running Companion

In the communion of saints, I’ve befriended Christina Rosetti in my journey of faith. I guess you could say she’s another running partner for me in the life of prayer. Rosetti grew up in the Anglican tradition, but her faith did not spare her from a lifelong struggle with ‘melancholy’–the Victorian name for depression. Though she suffered much, she wrote from her struggles and became a witness of hope and possibility in the face of her suffering. Here’s a traveling poem from Rosetti.

 Up-Hill

Christina Rosetti

Christina Rosetti

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

Running Hills with the Pack

I’ve learned from my friend, Wil, that running with a pack can be a good strategy on race day. I think I’ll be especially mindful to stay close to other runners when the elevation begins to climb. Maybe their presence can help me. Maybe I can help them. Together we’re facing these hills together with the goal of crossing the same finish line. Without throwing up, of course.

2 thoughts on “Running As Prayer: Surviving These Everlasting Hills

  1. Good luck with the training! When is the marathon? Prayers winging your way to help you with whatever challenges you are facing–any kind of hill–physical or spiritual.

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