Running as a Spiritual Practice – The Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon

Someone asked me last week, “Why drive 7.5 hours and pay $100 to run 13.1 miles when you can just go out into the neighborhood and run for free without wasting a whole weekend in the process?” It’s a valid question, and so while driving the 7.5 hours to Oklahoma City on the seemingly neverending interstate, I had a chance to think about it and landed somewhere in the realm of spirituality.
What makes an act spiritual?
There are many race distances, but the one that really does it for me is a half-marathon. It’s long enough to feel like I’ve accomplished something but short enough that the training doesn’t completely dictate my life. The path towards accomplishment has a number of elements closely associated with spirituality such as journey, struggle, ritual, and participating in something greater than yourself.
Journey
Training for a race is a journey. As with any journey, there are times when things go really well and times when we are faced with challenges. With running, these challenges can come in a number of varieties, from minor injuries to a string of bad weather to life just working against your schedule, all making training difficult. It’s the challenges that mark us though. They make us stronger and give our effort greater meaning, all byproducts of a journey.
Struggle
It is also the nature of a journey that we endure a type of struggle. I do not mean to equate “struggling” with the kind of struggle that life brings to our doorstep whether we like it or not. That’s called suffering, such as physical suffering through illness, emotional suffering from the loss of a loved one, or suffering from natural disaster. But what both struggling and suffering teach us is humility, and a humble spirit brings us closer to spirituality.
Ritual
Ritual is a significant part of spirituality. Take any spiritual practice from any religion and it’s steeped deep in ritual. I find a great deal of ritual in running half-marathons. There is the ritual of hydrating a few days before the race, the ritual of participating in “resting activities” the day before a race, the ritual of waking early and preparing your body the day of the race, and most paramount to me, the ritual of crossing each mile. Not too unlike Stations of the Cross, each mile in a race comes with its own significance on the journey towards the finish line.

Something Greater Than Yourself – The Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon

On April 19th, 1995, a bomb was detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City killing 168 and injuring more than 680 people. I was born and raised in Oklahoma. I was 22. Sitting an hour an a half away in Tulsa, I will never forget it.

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Every year, on the last weekend of April, the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon honors those whose lives were lost, whose lives were forever changed, and for those who continue on in the spirit of strength, peace, and hope. It is a fundraising effort for the memorial who, despite being a part of the NPS, does not receive any annual operating funds from the federal, state or local government. The race, however, is much more than a fundraiser.
I have visited the memorial numerous times, and there’s not a time I haven’t left impacted. I’m not sure what consecrates something as “holy ground” but if there is some, it’s at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

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What makes something holy ground? Perhaps it’s paradox, something that should not or cannot be. Moses and the Burning Bush; how can something be on fire and yet not burn? The OKC National Memorial; how can a place where 168 people were murdered be a place of peace? Yet that is what I find when I am there. I always cry, but I am also always filled with hope. I am always horrified at what happened, but I am also convicted of what good can still be done on this earth.

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Each chair represents one of the lives lost.

As far as the race goes, which I’ve been fortunate to run four times in the last six years with two of the most significant people in my life, the lowest bib number a runner can have is 169 because bib numbers 1-168 are in the name of those who died in the bombing. Just before the start of the race, with 15,000 plus people lined up in corrals, 168 seconds of silence is observed. If you ever want to feel the power of silence (another paradox), stand in the middle of 15,000 people and listen to 2 minutes and 48 seconds of silence. Along the route, each name of the 168 has a banner so runners can remember what was given and what can still be received.

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And then there is the physical nature of the route itself: the first water stop under the bridge of I-235, the capital, the First Christian Church on Walker Ave, Gorilla Hill, The long 2.25 miles of Classen Blvd, Heritage Hills, and the finish at Automobile Ally provide a kind of Stations of the Cross; each mysteriously meaningful to me in their own way.

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The start line

And now, forgive me for being so bold, but the running of that race provides its own kind of testament. It is a testament to life, to joy, to love, to forgiveness, to healing. Everyone on that route, runners and volunteers alike, prepared their bodies, prepared their minds, prepared their spirits to be there. No matter how we ran it, in a wheelchair, carrying a flag, in full firefighter gear, walking with a friend, a double amputee on blades, a parent pushing their cerebral palsy child, in the memory of someone, in the memory of the 168, in the hurting of our hearts, the hurting in our bodies, the healing with our lives, the healing of our love, healing with our love, with our love, with our love, we ran for something greater than ourselves. And when you’re running alongside those people, there are no races, no creeds or colors or politics; there is only community which transcends any definition, community that comes from shared experiences.
It’s a pilgrimage for me, and by my participation in it, from the beginning of training to crossing of the finish line, I am transformed, and that my friends is spirituality.

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