Over the last several years, I’ve participated in a summer-long 5K racing tour – a series of 3.1 mile races that begins in late April and wraps up in mid-October. Last year, there were 12 races in the tour. The knowledge that the next race is coming up, along with some competitiveness as points add up in the age categories, keeps me running through the summer.
My experiences with training and racing have led me to draw many parallels between running and the spiritual life. Last year was a bit of an off year for me, as I expected it would be. Even with my lowered expectations, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in my race times and general performance.
I’m a heavy runner. Through most of last year, I tipped the scales at about 230 lbs. By the end of last year’s tour, my knees were ready for a rest. Around mid-November, I started running on a treadmill at the local YMCA. I reasoned that the flex of the deck would be easier on my joints than the unyielding pavement. Plus, I’m a fair-weather runner, easily deterred by snow, ice, and temperatures that numb exposed flesh. I’ve been running indoors almost exclusively, mostly on the treadmill, for four months now. It’s been a long, cold winter.
I know that the day is fast approaching when I will have to venture back out onto the roads. It just doesn’t seem right to pound out miles on a treadmill when a beautiful day is happening on the other side of the window glass. Even aside from that, though, I’ve discovered that there might be another reason to hop off the treadmill.
Jeff Smith, aka Coach Jeff, produces The Running Podcast Coach Jeff has been coaching and training athletes for 26 years. On a recent podcast, he fielded a question from a listener regarding long distance training runs on a treadmill. Now, when they say long distance, they’re talking about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. That’s much longer than anything I do. Even when I’m ramping up for the Oktoberfest 10K, my longest runs are in the 6.5 mile range and last just under one hour. Still, the Coach’s response was interesting.
The problem with running on a treadmill, according to Coach Jeff, is that there is no variation. Every foot plant is the same, and that can lead to repetitive motion injuries. I never would have guessed that what I was assuming to be less jarring and therefore less injurious to my joints could harbor unknown dangers.
That’s where the spiritual parallel drops into place. The equivalent of the treadmill might be what we can call “the comfortable pew.” The phrase comes from a book of the same title written over 40 years ago and referenced by our pastor emeritus in a recent homily at our clustered parish. We Catholics can become complacent, lured into thinking that just coming to mass every Sunday and parking ourselves in a pew is sufficient. It isn’t. While there is something to be said for stability and perseverance, the mindless repetition of any pious devotion brings with it the risk of complacency and presumption.