When it comes to book subtitles, there are few that can rope me in faster than A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. That right there is a book that I want to read and read it I did. Born to Run is ridiculously entertaining, engaging, and fascinating. Typically I would write a review for it1, but something else was on my mind as I went through this true story account of ultrarunning.
One cannot help but be drawn in by the way in which Christopher McDougall writes about running ridiculously long distances. I ran my first marathon this past spring. I plan to keep running marathons, but I also promised EA that this was far as it was going to go. No ultras. No Ironman triathlons.
Yet McDougall lays down a great case that humans were indeed made for covering great distances on foot. And reading accounts of the Tarahumara running 50 to 100 miles in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, I found myself thinking, “Wow, they just seem so free and joyous in how they do this. I wonder if I could go further.” This is in spite of the fact that at mile 23 of my first marathon, I temporarily lost my will to live2.
There is something about a radical, countercultural society that is attractive, but typically that is as far as it’s going to go: attraction. The sacrifice of becoming an ultramarathoner is great. The slackers among these people have easy runs of 20 miles. I don’t want to do that. I like my family and my bed far too much3. At the end of the day I want the benefits, the badge of honor, and whatever else comes with being able to tear off a 50 mile jaunt. But I don’t really want to actually run 50 miles.
I felt this pull to a lifestyle even more so when I read Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution a few years back. As much as running is a part of my identity, my faith is even more deeply ingrained. What Claiborne was doing - leaving everything behind to live with the poorest of poor - made a crazy amount of sense. And I felt that tug.
The reason that I felt that tug is because I feel that tug when I read the gospels. To extend the metaphor, Jesus calls his followers not to a 5K fun run but to a life of ultramarathoning. I believe that we are saved by grace through faith, but I cannot read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John and shake the reality that Jesus calls me to something gravely difficult. I’m attracted to that and, at the same time, it scares me to death. Love of family, bed, comfort, and whatever else throw up all sorts of barriers.
Immediately, a couple of obvious ways to deal with the gospels come to mind. One is to just Claiborne my life, go live among the poorest of the poor, bring Jesus to those that are called the “least of these” in Matthew. I believe that people are truly called to that and I think many more of us don’t take that call seriously enough.
The other obvious way is to do what we do with a lot of what Jesus said. Oh, he didn’t really want us to sell everything we have and give the money to the poor. He was being metaphorical. He was talking about the spiritual. We, myself included, try to worm our way out of things by making everything spiritual and esoteric. But again and again in the gospels, Jesus tells us he wants everything. The spiritual is great, but if we don’t give over the physical, mental, and whatever else then we’re not truly following him.
So deep in the canyons of all this, there is a third way. It is a way that recognizes the gospels for what they are: not just a feel good story that make us kind of want to aspire to a new way life but not really. The gospels are a charge for us to live in a completely new way. It is something with which we have to wrestle mightily. It is something where we have to seek out God’s calling for our lives.
For some of us that calling is going to mean moving to inner city Philadelphia. Or who knows? Maybe moving to the Copper Canyons of Mexico. For others it might mean staying in the suburbs. But wherever we are it is going to mean that we need to preach the gospel with our words and actions. It is going to mean telling others about Jesus. It is going to mean looking out for the poor. It is going to mean caring for the widow, the orphan, and the alien. It is going to mean following the way that Jesus lived.
I want to do that, but my God, that is so incredibly difficult. May God gives us the grace to step by step move toward that; to run toward that. May we run and not grow weary, walk and not faint.
- To sum it up, it’s great and you should read it. Though be warned, the language is a bit coarse at times and apparently these ultrarunners practice nothing resembling self-control in any aspect of their lives.
- Not really. But kind of.
- Lest any ultramarathoners out there somehow come across this, I’m sure that there are plenty that stay on top of their sport and spend a great amount of time with their families. I do not mean to convey that you hate your families.