As I mentioned in an earlier post, religion and politics are usually taboo topics for public conversation for me, but it is hard to write week after week about my running without making a confession: I am a running pagan. I worship the running gods.
I was not always a running pagan. I started out with the same Judeo-Christian background that many of us in the United States share, but somehow it did not take. At an early age I disappointed my devout grandmother by being more interested in the stories of Greek gods and goddesses than the Bible stories she was trying to get me to absorb. When I got a little older, I was absolutely fascinated to learn that those gods and goddesses of myths were really the deities that the Greeks worshipped in their daily life. I could totally see how that would work. Still, I did not convert to Greek paganism or any other type of paganism at that time.
My first realization of the running gods happened as spiritual revelations do to many people. I was in a time of great distress, climbing a particularly nasty hill, toward the end of an otherwise flat run. I looked up on the hillside, and there in the bushes was ... well... a running god. He presented himself to me in the form of a metal statue. He had the body of a man and the head of a coyote, sort of like a scrap metal Anubis. Spontaneously a plea popped into my head "Please, hill god, get me to the top of this hill." Surprisingly I immediately felt light as a feather and within a minute had floated over the top of the hill. Well that hill became a part of my regular running route, and I was sure that as long as I paid homage to the god of the hill, I would make it to the top, and I did, for several years. (I actually sent my son to photograph the hill god for this piece, but sadly, he has apparently moved on to another location. Maybe when I left there were no other runners there to help.)
After that, the running gods started subtly making their presence felt, most often on the trails. I remember one day in particular feeling a little uneasy on a run. I decided not to go further down the trail I was on and turned around. I felt like I had wings for the latter half of the run. A few days later I heard that the ranch below the trail I was running on had been attacked by a mountain lion and some livestock killed. I was pretty sure the trail gods had been watching over me.
As with any religion, understanding the gods helps one understand those unexplainable events in daily life. Why did I have that terrible race when I did so much training? Well I had obviously angered the running gods. Why did I PR at that marathon? Well obviously it was because I had made the necessary sacrifices to the gods of that particular event.
Yes, I said "gods" because over time I found there was a whole pantheon of running gods, each with their own personality and demands, just like those Greek gods. There are the track gods. Those are the most jealous of all the gods and demand the most in terms of sacrifice. Not only do they expect regular sacrifices, but also meaningful ones. If you aren't giving them every bit of energy and concentration, you are not worthy of their regard. They will accept nothing but a prime effort if you expect them to smile on you on race day.
The road gods also demand sacrifice, but they are more lenient in the type of sacrifices they will accept. They like constant attention and care more about the frequency of the sacrifice. If you are not paying homage to the road gods at least four times a week, you run serious risk of angering them if you aim too high on race day.
The trail gods are my personal favorites. They do demand sacrifice, but they are a lot more lenient in what they will accept. They are the most social of the running gods and prefer followers with a more philosophical attitude. Their concern is that when you are paying homage to them that you appreciate their beauty and honor their fellow gods. They have work closely with several of the nature gods (weather, trees, rocks, hills, forests) and demand that you treat their friends well. If you take any of these gods for granted, trouble is soon to follow.
I have a friend, Kai, an ultra runner, who is a perfect illustration of the temperament of the trail gods. He trains like a beast. Seriously. Everyone who knows him knows the level of effort he puts into all facets of his training. However, by his own admission, every time he attempts a 100 miler the weather just goes to hell. He thinks it is just bad luck, but I know the problem. He trains a lot of his miles on the treadmill. The trail gods do reward him for his efforts with really outstanding finishes, but they can't resist messing with him just a little to remind him that "trails not treadmills" is the best approach. (It's their version of that whole "no other god before me thing," I think.) He may find himself in an icy stream midrace, bombarded by a thunderstorm at the start, or find himself trying not to lose a shoe in ankle-deep mud that has suddenly appeared on the course. The trail gods are like that, generally benevolent but with a wicked sense of humor.
Like many deities, the running gods can be difficult to please. Unfortunately, there is no "Bible" for devout followers to study to avoid the wrath and punishment that comes with their displeasure. One learns the will of the running gods through trial and error. One thing I have learned for sure about the running gods is that there is no divine redemption. One cannot simply ask for forgiveness and be reinstated to a state of grace. A plea such as "Running god, I know I have been negligent in my training, but please let me PR this marathon," will fall on deaf ears. The running gods believe in redemption through penance. If you have transgressed, you can put yourself back in their good graces, but it takes persistent work and sacrifice.
In case you think that these running gods are just a figment of my imagination, let me mention that even Running Times once published an article mentioning these gods and their role in injuries. A quick Google search will show several other runners who have mentioned the power, benevolence, or wrath of these gods. One of my favorites is a pre-race prayer on a fellow runner's blog:
"So, Running Gods, please keep my feet from throbbing, my calves from cramping, my knees from aching, my tummy from churning, my chest from chafing, and my mind from straying from a positive outlook."
A similar prayer like this is a regular part of my pre-race routine.
Well, since this is turning into a religious treatise rather than a blog post, I think I will wrap this up. I am sure insights from the running gods will continue to pop up occasionally in my posts.
Just one last thing: Some of you may be wondering "what about the treadmill gods?" Well after many years of studying this question myself, I have finally concluded what all of us have suspected all along: On the treadmill, there is no god!