The Catholic Runner's Long Loneliness

Photo by  Jakob Owens  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” is not only a phrase popularized in literature and film, but it is also lived out in the hearts of many who have sought to cover unnecessary and perhaps unreasonable distances on foot.  Loneliness has recently been called an epidemic, though. What is a marathoner to do?

My life is so blessedly far from lonely these days.  With four young children, I rarely shower uninterrupted and am trying to master the art of preparing a meal one-handed.  Sometimes I think I crave my daily run for the exact purpose of getting a little lonely. Give me an hour of trails, fresh air, my running rosary, and the ability to see a thought through to its completion and I’ll return home with a smile and a tank full of patience.  I’d like to think it’s the life-giving nature of the sport at work.

But is it always so life-giving? Running, like any good thing, can be abused.  It can be draining and depleting and depressing, and when it’s gone that way for me, my training plan included the word “marathon” in the title.  If you told me I could train for another one alone during this season of life, I would kindly demur then find myself a nice local Cross Country race and head out the door for some hill repeats.  

Yet here I am: aiming to run the California International Marathon (CIM to the marathoning crowd) this December.  Why, you ask? I’m joining a contingent of my teammates in an attempt to achieve the same goal: an Olympic Trials qualifying time.  The motive is less “everyone’s doing it” and more an opportunity to give back to a community that has given me so much. My only shot at this huge “reach” goal -- a goal that is most likely out of the range of my physical capabilities -- is if I get pulled along by a dozen or so of my teammates.  Not just on race day either but throughout the entire process, my Impala Racing Team will match me stride for stride.  At least twice a week, we will meet for both a speed workout and a long run (and ideally some medium-distance runs and tempo work in between).  We hope to push and pull each other to uncharted levels of fitness as we share miles and laughs and epic views and our life stories. We will take turns pacing, keeping the reps honest and splits even.  We will hold ourselves accountable to rest days and iron supplements and perspective. Inevitably yet collectively, we will suffer. We will risk injury. We will face our fears.

Speaking of fears, I recently read an article about addressing them as athletes.  The gist is something along the lines of, “You can’t escape your fears; you have to face them.”  Wait. Isn’t that what Fraulein Maria said? Well, I suppose she did go on to lead nine people in a race across the Austrian border (after extensive hill work, arbor sprints, fountain drills and stair climbing).  She probably could have found her calling as a sports psychologist, you know, if the whole singing thing hadn’t worked out. Back to the article, it suggested we write down our fears in order to name them and address them one by one.  I’m going to go a step further and suggest we then promptly offer them up. Mine go something like this:

  • I sustain a serious injury leading up to the race and have to take a few months off.

  • I acquire the toddler’s cold  t-minus 3 days before and am too ill to compete.

  • I get to the start line but push too hard the first half and find myself in a spiral of pain and loathing, missing my A, B, and C goals in the process.  

Here’s the thing: all of these have happened to me before.  I survived. I learned from my mistakes and I learned to accept the things I cannot change.  None of these outcomes have squelched my desire to glorify God with each step and with every fiber of my being.  

On race day…

… if God provides the necessary tailwind and temperatures

… if my immune system has done it’s good work

… if my hip rotators aren’t over-facilitated

… if my iron levels are robust

… if my fueling plan proves fruitful

… it will be my teammates who get me across that line.  

I could still miss the qualifier, but I am not afraid and I will not be alone.  Ultimately, I will consider it a success if even one of my teammates achieves the goal.  Maybe it’s the one who I blocked the headwind for three Tuesdays prior. Perhaps it’s the one who dropped her gu and needed one of mine.  Or it could be the one who hit up the porta potty while I hung back to help her pace. Now that would be a good story …

Maybe you, too, are staring at a goal so big you can’t get your arms around it: You want to qualify Boston.  You want to complete your first marathon. You want to drop a minute off your Turkey Trot time. You want to cover your three-mile loop without walking.  Find a team who can lift you up and then pour yourself out for them. At the very least, you won’t be lonely.

Cradle Catholic from Orange County, California, Allison discovered her love for running at 13 and went on to compete for the University of Notre Dame.  Currently, she trains with the Impala Racing Team in San Francisco, one of the nation's oldest and largest all-women's running teams. Allison has run every distance from the 800m to the marathon, hitting some National Champion highs on the Masters Track & Field scene as well as winning the 2012 Eugene Marathon.  You can find her keeping her four young kids alive, promoting classical education, pursuing PRs between babies, or on Instragram.