When I lived in California, I got stuck in a brutal storm one Sunday afternoon mid-way through my long run. I’ve experienced a lot of great runs in my life, but this run in particular changed who I am as a person to this day. One of the things I love most about long runs is that you never come back the same person you were when you started. To me, the long run means more than just racking up miles on my running log–it is a spiritual awakening. No matter how physically tired I am at the end of a long run, spiritually, I always feel rejuvenated and alive. There is nothing quite like it.
And so the story begins:
“Have You Found God Yet?” the flyer read.
I briskly folded up the square of paper and stuffed it down into my running shorts pocket, and nodded a polite thank-you to the heavy-set woman sitting behind the table just beyond the Wal-Mart exit doors. She looked up at me from her work, and her eyes rounded with excitement as her weathered hands grasped her pile of pamphlets, ready to deliver her speech that she had rehearsed all day. She was here to save, and clearly this paper in my pocket was the ticket to salvation.
The church lady cleared her throat.
“Miss!” she called after me. “Have you found God yet? Come to the 7th Day Adventist, and you can begin your walk with God. You won’t regret it!” She held up a flyer and pointed to the bold print.
I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people. Leviticus 26:12, It read.
All I knew was I needed to get back home. Afternoon was fast approaching, and I still had my long run to get in, not to mention dinner to put on the table for my family of six. My heartbeat quickened at the thought of it. Sunday Long Run! I had looked forward to it all week.
“Walk? But can’t I run?” I couldn’t help myself.
“Perhaps you could! However you get there, I hope you choose the right path…” the lady called after me, but the wind swallowed up the last of her words. Another gust of wind picked up, and the papers waved vigorously in her plump hand, as though they were desperately trying to escape the conversation themselves.
“Oh my! Better seek shelter soon, the storms a-coming!” she exclaimed. She gazed up at me, curiously eyeing my long, lean runners’ body, messy blonde ponytail whipping in the wind, and tiny runner’s shorts exposing my muscular thighs. We runners all lack a bit of modesty, I suppose.
“Yes,” I said, somewhat hastily, “I’d better be on my way. Good day to you.”
I glanced up at the darkening sky, its black clouds fast approaching in every direction, then back at the church lady. A few elderly ladies from the church had joined her, and they were hurriedly packing up the pamphlets and taking down the folding chairs.
I quickened my pace and headed for the car, wondering if I should drop this whole long-run idea and turn in for the night. All around me, the world seemed to be quickening its pace as well. The afternoon church crowd began pouring out the store doors, shuffling to their cars, in a hurry to get back to the warmth of their homes and comfort of their Sunday afternoon Hallmark movies. A gust of wind picked up again, sending a shiver down my spine. It was supposed to be the worst storm of the year. I bounded across the parking lot, groceries in hand. With my running shoes lightly hitting the pavement, I reached my car just as the first drops began to fall.
“You’re really going out in this weather?” my husband asked, closing the fridge with a slam as the last of the groceries were put away.
“It’s just a little rain. I’ll be fine. Besides, you don’t want to deal with my bad mood if I don’t get out for my Sunday run!” I gave him a crooked smile, and he knew I was right.
Outside, the rain was now coming down in sheets, and the wind whipped, banging on the old wooden kitchen door.
“Mama, really? You’re running in this rain?” my daughter, five years old with a head full of blonde curls, stared up at me with large, worried eyes.
“Yes, really. What do I always tell you?”
“That girls are tough, Mama!”
I swooped up my little girl in my arms and held her tight. “That’s right! And don’t you forget it!” She giggled as we spun around and around.
“Off to do 11 miles! I’ll be back!” I called to my three pre-teen boys as I headed out the door. They barely looked up from their Minecraft video game on the screen to grunt a goodbye. It was just Mom going for a run again, anyhow.
I pushed the button on my Garmin watch, and entered the strange abyss of warm-yet-frigid air—an odd mix of sensations that only a Pineapple Express storm in February could bring. The familiar beep of the GPS dinged, and I was off. With the first couple steps, my breathing fell into that familiar rhythmic cadence I had grown to love over the years. It instantly brought a sense of calm my body had been craving all day, like a fetus feeling the heartbeat of its mother in-utero. I raised my head up to the sky to catch some raindrops on my tongue.
Yes. My Sunday slice of heaven, I thought, as I splashed down our long, muddy driveway, my long eyelashes catching the drops like a spider web.
At the end of our dirt drive, I headed east on the old country road, which wound back and forth in switchbacks up a steep hill. My calves flexed with urgency as I pressed forward, each pull sending a deeper strain up my legs. The rain had ceased to a slow drizzle, and it gently cooled my hot perspiration as I climbed up and up the road. My breathing quickened, and my muscles burned as the incline increased. My body screamed for more, and I could feel the contentment in my joints with each step. Oh, to be in motion once again!
I came to an overlook in the road, and the view of the misty California savannah stretched beneath me as far as the eye could see. The tall old oaks whipped around with each gust of wind, and the Sierra mountain peaks sprawled out in the distance. Dark, powerful clouds hovered above. I drank in the view, and my steady breathing and heartbeat chimed in with the drum-drum of the raindrops to set the beat of the most beautiful symphony I had ever heard. The whole world was dancing to the rhythm of the storm, and my body was an instrument, as it rocked in the wind and my feet pounded the concrete. I was suddenly brought back to my conversation with the old woman.
Have you found God yet?
I reached the top of the grade, and my legs gave a warm burning hug of gratitude as I looped around and began the long, winding decent downwards. This is where I grew my wings. If there was a God, I was God’s angel, flying down from the mountain tops of heaven. The wind picked up, and the rain began pelting down with force and stinging my cheeks. But I didn’t care. I was one with earth and nature and all of its most powerful elements. My feet quickened beneath me as the storm reared its almighty head and wrapped around me, swallowing me whole.
Yes, this is my church, I thought, and my body danced to earth’s choir as my feet blazed down the hill. I reached the bottom of the grade, and I realized in horror that it was no longer just raining anymore, it was a torrential downpour. The sky had turned dark, and the water wasn’t just coming down, it was all around me, gurgling up at my feet in streams. I looked at my watch. 5 miles in, 6:52 pace. My first thought was to cut off half my run here, and turn back uphill to safety. But another gust of wind roared at me, and the sheets of water hammered at my body. My legs and arms fought back through the storm.
Is that all you’ve got! I thought. There was no way I was turning back now. Girls are tough, I always told my little girl. I pressed on, flying up and over the undulating hills, the rivers deepening at my feet.
I looked at my watch. 8 miles in, 7:05 pace. My legs were numb from the rain and the straining assault that was setting in on my muscles, but I pressed onward. Through the blinding, deafening pounds of rain, I could spot the yellow dots of warm light from houses I passed. I pictured our own house, with its strong, protective walls, the warm chilli simmering in our kitchen Crockpot, and the firelight dancing in our living room.
As my feet pounded on and my joints began to hurt, the cold settled into body, and I began to shiver. Through the blur of the rain, the porch lights from houses taunted me as I ran by. I was suddenly reminded of a Buddhist quote: “Humans are prisoners in a house built on ignorance, attachment, and aversion. By removing ignorance, the prison crumbles, leaving humanity free under an open sky.” I thought of the great Buddha, who fasted for 49 days, in order to reach the ultimate Nirvana. Houses, attachment, ignorance… Why was it that we, as humans, insist on living in a constant state of comfort? With comfort, we are shielded from life’s harsh elements. But doesn’t that shield also create ignorance? As the storm raged down on me, my question was answered. Ignorance and comfort bring bliss. But suffering brings truth, and truth brings freedom.
There, at the peak of my agony, the sky opened up, and lightning cracked from above. It was so close, I could feel the electricity. All I knew was I had to press on. I looked at my watch. 10 miles in, 7:09 pace. My legs tore at the wet ground, each step digging deeper into the water’s torrents. Through the pelting rain, I could see our steep country road looming in the distance–that 1 mile stretch of 500-foot-climb that tormented me at the end of each run. My body was growing weak with each step, and I was filled with a sudden dread at the thought of that climb.
Thunder boomed from above. I could hear the woman’s voice again.
Have you found God yet?
The sky lit up, and I felt an energy coming from deep inside me. It grew and bubbled up as I looked up at the mighty forces in the sky with awe and wonderment.
By removing ignorance, the prison crumbles, leaving humanity free under an open sky.
At that moment, I let go, and surrendered to the fatigue, the open sky, and to all of life’s discomforts. I took off my shirt, which was soaked and weighing me down. Shirtless, in the middle of a storm in February, I ran full speed up that hill. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. But it didn’t matter, I was free. Under an open sky.
“Mama! You’re ok!” The aroma of spicy chilli and buttery cornbread greeted me at the door, followed by my four kids, who rushed over with hugs.
“Eww—Mom you’re soaked!” they laughed, as I peeled off my heavy, saturated clothes and stood dripping in the warmth of the house.
I tossed my shorts to the tile floor, and a drenched, wadded up paper fell to the ground. I could barely make out the words:
Have You Found God Yet?
I looked back at the raging storm, gave a quick smile of gratitude, and closed the door.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, its about learning to dance in the rain.” -Unknown