For example, there is the story of a Christian ascetic who one day slaps a mosquito on his shoulder. Upon realizing that this was a denial of suffering and that such tribulation was a part of his walk with Jesus he promptly went down to a nearby swamp, shed his clothing and stood waist deep in the waters for several hours. Upon returning from the swamp he walked into the city and no one recognized him because he was so disfigured and swollen from the mass of mosquito bites he endured.
An observer might react in a similar way to the story of multiple runners who compete annually in the Badwater Ultramarathon, which runs from the depths of Death Valley to the heights of the Mt. Whitney portal amidst the searingly hot temperatures of mid-July. Enduring stomach illness, sunburn, melting shoes, festering blisters, tearing muscles, hallucinations and sheer exhaustion to complete a 135-mile course that gains some 8,000 feet in elevation.
All for what? A belt-buckle, a certificate printed on cheap parchment and a technical tee?
Or is the experience about something more?
A perusal of recollections of Badwater Ultra experiences include references to the spiritual journey, the solitude of the course and even one reference to fellow Badwater “Mystics.”
The feelings of pain that a runner experiences in training and in racing all pale in comparison to the rush of completing a race or struggling through salt-crusted dehydration to attain a long awaited form of marathon moksha – a release from the pressures and suffering of this present world...or in the case, this present race.
The organizers of another ultra-marathon akin to Badwater, the Ocean Floor Race, which takes competitors through a torturous 160 miles in the Egyptian desert don’t shy away from such spiritual talk:
a theme that seems to be fairly constant among entrants is how liberating it can be. Many people are consumed with pressures of modern living….By totally removing a person from that environment and stripping away these interruptions they are briefly liberated and removed from the modern pressures society imposes on them and taken on an adventure that people will rarely get to experience in a location few will get to go.
Other runners engage in running asceticism for the simple pleasure of the “runner’s high.” The “runner’s high” is actually a physio-chemical reaction induced by the body’s release of endorphins during extreme conditions. There is a rush of emotion, physical relaxation and an overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquility. In many ways the “runner’s high” can be said to substitute the “mystical union” that people such as Bernard of Clairveaux or Teresa of Avila have described in their own mystical memoirs. As with running asceticism, these mystics engaged in austere practices for the sake of some ecstatic moment of release and overwhelming elation akin to a “runner’s high.”
Emile Durkheim called asceticism "the negative cult" and included it as an essential component of religious life in his collective musings on religion in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. He said that it is the aescetic virtuosos (the elite marathons and ultramarathoners of the world) that exist so that the laity (the everyday marathoners and weekend warriors) might follow their example, albeit in a limited and restrained fashion. He wrote concerning those ascetic virtuosos, "the contempt that they profess for all that ordinarily impassions men strikes us as bizarre. But those extremes are necessary to maintain among the faithful an adequate level of distaste for easy living and mundane pleasures. An elite must set the goal too high so that the mass does not set it too low. Some must go to extremes so that the average may remain high enough." (320-321)
"By the very act of renouncing things, he has risen above things. Because he has silenced nature, he is stronger than nature," said Durkheim. Indeed, he intimated that the ascetic may even become "equal or superior to the gods." (316)
Replete with ascetic dimensions and ecstatic spiritual experiences for the individual runner, one can easily deduce how religion is like a personal spiritual discipline. However, the religious characteristics of running do not stop there. Beyond personal practices there is also a growing communal element of “religious running” that includes prophets, fellowships and spiritual gathering places.
No more vocal and more outlandish than the Old Testament’s Isaiah, ultra-marathon legend and running spokesperson Dean Karnazes certainly qualifies as a running prophet.
Dean Karnazes sees running as more than a physical experience, but a spiritual awakening. He wrote in 50/50: Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days – and How You Too Can Achieve Super Endurance, “The marathon is not about running; it is about salvation.”
To that end, Karnazes preaches the running gospel in word and deed by regularly appearing at running events and engaging in physical feats of running extremism such as the running of 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days that he recorded in the above book. The man is an animal for running extremes and has a voracious appetitive for publicity, all for the sake of converting you, the reader and couch potato, into a runner.
Then there is Kaj Arnö who founded "Runnism" the official religion of running. He wrote: