Turning to Running and the Rosary during Times of Stress
You know those people who move through life dealing with the demands of being a responsible and actively engaged member of society with grace and ease? These are the folks who ride the waves of life’s ups and downs with the poise of Kelly Slater. They are our friends, family members, and co-workers who deal with life’s curveballs with the skill of Ted Williams. And they’re the people who handle life’s storms with the steadiness and focus of Des Linden running 26.2 miles on a rainy, windy, and chilly Boston day. Instead of bombarding you with another metaphor, let me tell you, I am not one of those people.
“Wave” by F Mira is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Instead of calmly dealing with the joys and challenges of the many roles that I play, I can spin out when life throws me one of its curveballs or when pressure – either real or perceived – begins to build. As a result, my stress levels rise rapidly, anxiety creeps in, and I am left feeling inadequate and overwhelmed.
Before continuing, I need to explain what this post is and what it is not. It is a brief description of the ways that both long-distance running and prayer have significantly helped me work through the stress brought on during periods in my life of uncertainty. It is not an instructional or scholarly article regarding the medical/psychological benefits of running and exercise. I am neither a physician nor a counselor, and I would never suggest that someone dealing with an anxiety disorder should replace a carefully constructed treatment plan of therapy and/or medication with running and prayer. I am just a woman who, like many of you, is constantly juggling several things and who, perhaps like some of you, finds herself overwhelmed by and anxious about the juggling act. With those disclaimers out of the way, here is a brief look into my experience with running, prayer, stress, and anxiety.
My Running History
My running history is pretty common. I began running when I was a kid, and I always LOVED the annual school-wide field day as well as the yearly parochial school track meet held at a local college’s track. My first road race was the Knights of Columbus Turkey Day Run when I was nine. I (kind of) trained for the race, but having not run the full route, I was unsure where the finish line was located. I did, however, know which street it was on, so when I hit that street, I took off in a sprint. Unfortunately, I was still about a mile from the finish. Have you ever sprinted for the better part of a mile without the fitness to sustain that effort? Well, I have, and I threw up at the finish line right in front of my older brother and his friends. It was, um, less than awesome. But, after getting over the pre-teen humiliation of losing my breakfast at the finish, I continued to run. I eventually made my way to high school track and cross country, and I loved every minute of it.
Lacking the camaraderie and motivation of team training and scheduled competition, however, I fell away from running regularly in college. Despite my on-again/off-again relationship with running during my twenties and early thirties, I always considered myself a runner and thrived on the strength, confidence, and peace that I felt when I ran.
Running in Times of Stress
When I was thirty-one and a newly-minted mom of three, my husband and I moved our family out of state so I could pursue my PhD. In doing so, we left a strong network of family and friends, and our adjustment to our new city, new climate, and new life was challenging. On top of these changes, I had started an intensive and demanding program.
Here I am with my youngest during the first semester of my PhD. I’m all smiles, but I am significantly underweight and showing my telltale signs of stress: adult acne and the onset of a cold sore.
Stressed, overwhelmed, and over tired, I found myself struggling. I was constantly concerned that I had moved my family away from everything they knew only to be told that I just couldn’t cut it in my program. I’d like to tell you that this fear and the imposter syndrome-induced anxiety that accompanied it ended after a successful completion of my first year, or after I passed Candidacy Exams, or even after I landed a great job, but I would be lying. The truth is that I dealt with challenging stress and anxiety for my five years of doctoral work. Now having gained the title “Dr.,” I don’t think that the stress is magically going to disappear into the academic ether. I’m on the tenure track, and pressure is sure to come and go. Instead of crossing my fingers and hoping that the stress and anxiety will go away, I plan to continue to turn to the two things that helped me cope with them while I was in school: long-distance running and the rosary.
I returned to distance running after the first year in my program. I found that hitting the pavement provided a much-needed space for reflection. On days when I had been struggling with a draft or reading and marking student papers for hours on end, getting outside, working up a sweat, and moving my body through space provided a calm that had eluded me. I soon began incorporating prayer into my runs. Praying a decade of the rosary for specific challenges and points of worry added an even more significant sense of peace. On days when I had trouble grunting out a “Hail Mary,” I would simply repeat “Jesus, I trust in You” over and over again. Let me tell you, this phrase is particularly helpful while running hill repeats in the height of July heat or February cold!
An Instagram post from this past fall when I was #runningthroughthedissertation and #runningthroughthejobmarket
I have turned to running and the rosary over a marathon training cycle, a season on the academic job market, a years-long search for a diagnosis for my husband, a heart attack and heart surgery endured by my father, and a successful completion and defense of my dissertation, among several other situations. Distance running and prayer have helped me work through several instances of situationally-induced stress and anxiety, and I am immensely thankful for these two sources of calm and reflection.
Again, I am neither a physician nor a counselor. I am merely a person speaking to the assistance that running and prayer have provided me over the past several years. And I hope that if you find yourself a bit overwhelmed with the daily juggling act, perhaps lacing up your running shoes and praying a rosary while moving your body through space will provide some much-needed peace. And remember, if a rosary or “Hail Mary” isn’t working for you, “Jesus, I trust in You” is always a great phrase for getting you through that long run, speed workout, or hill repeat. I pray that you all enjoy many peace-filled runs in the coming days.
Jennifer is a wife, mom of three, runner, and PhD. She and her family recently moved back to the Carolinas after a five-year grad school stint in the Midwest. Jennifer is a cradle Catholic, and she began running almost thirty years ago, participating in her first road races as an elementary-school kid at the annual Knights of Columbus Turkey Day Run. She frequently turns to both the rosary and distance running (oftentimes simultaneously) for assistance in embracing the joys and the demands of family life and academic life. You can connect with Jennifer on Instagram. (@jennifer_2582)