Running as Prayer

Shane Fenwick
Runner's Life
Published in
4 min readJun 18, 2023

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Recently, I re-watched the film 3100: Run and Become by Sanjay Rawal. In it, Rawal delves into the diverse ways in which running plays a central role in the lives of people and their communities. The “3100” in the title refers to the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 mile race: the “Mount Everest of ultramarathons” which forms the centrepiece of the film. We follow a number of seemingly ordinary individuals who faithfully participate in the event year-in-year-out. For them, it is far more than a race — it is a spiritual act of devotion. Sri Chinmoy was the Indian spiritual teacher who instigated the race: an advocate of prayer, meditation, and running as a practice that cultivates connection to the transcendent. Here are a few things he’s said on the topic:

“Running means continual transcendence, and that is also the message of our inner life.”

“These long distance races remind me of our Eternity’s race. Along Eternity’s Shore we are running, running, running. We are running and running with our birthless and deathless hopes. We are running and running with the ever-transcending Beyond.”

“Running is a symbolic sport in the sense that it reminds us of spiritual seekers continuously running towards the goal; it resembles the seekers running inwardly to achieve the ultimate goal in meditation.”

During the film, we’re introduced to other individuals for whom running is likewise an act of devotion; an act of prayer. Shaun Martin, a Navajo athletics director and ultrarunner, speaks of the role running plays in Navajo culture:

“Running is a prayer. We use our feet to pray to Mother Earth. We breathe in father sky. Running is a celebration of life. And running is a teacher. Running helps us get through the hardships, and helps us get through any troubles we might be facing. And ultimately, running makes us the person we want to be.”

Every morning, Martin wakes and runs east to meet the sun and the Creator. It is an ancient practice which forms him; a gift handed down from those who have gone before.

Recently, I’ve been re-discovering the joy, wonder, and gratitude that can come from trail running. There’s something truly magical about the mix of movement and the natural world. As I become increasingly familiar with the trails around my new home in the Blue Mountains, I sense a kind of relationship forming with them. In speaking on nature, Parker J. Palmer once said that we experience both acceptance and indifference in its presence: complete acceptance of who we are yet an indifference to our individual egos. The trees, plants, rocks, and soil don’t care about the things which plague my own ego: neither my achievements nor my shortcomings. Rather, I’m welcomed with open arms. I’m accepted for who I am — as just one small part of a wider web of relations. The barriers between myself and nature begin to disappear. And if I pay attention, I catch a brief glimpse of who I really am beyond the constructed “self” of everyday life. I experience profound gratitude. The natural world becomes my wise teacher.

At present, I’m not sure what category I would “fit” into when it comes to all things religion and spirituality. And I think that’s okay — labels and categories can be helpful at certain times and unhelpful at others. As I have deconstructed the faith of my younger years, I have consequently lost certain rituals and practices — things that grounded and formed me. As such, I have had to seek new ones. I have learnt along the way that spiritual practices are vital when it comes to my own well-being and flourishing as they ground, form, and develop wisdom.

Running is one such practice that fills that existential need. For me, it has become a form of prayer, a means of cultivating connection to that Something Bigger. The times and race goals are nice, but ultimately, I run trails because of the sense of connectedness and well-being it fosters. Regardless of the pace, distance, and/or how well I am running, I know I can experience these out there on the trails. And in the face of challenges and difficulty, I can always come back to what truly matters: radical acceptance, courage, compassion, and wisdom. How are these being cultivated in each moment? How am I relating to my body with wisdom and compassion? What about my relationship with the land on which I run?

As I experience this interconnectedness, the inevitable question arises: how am I fostering the well-being of nature and our common home? I see that flourishing must include yet transcend the personal — it is communal, a “we” instead of just “me”. I cannot truly flourish whilst the earth is degraded and treated like another commodity to be exploited. In a world in which we’re becoming increasingly disconnected, running in nature becomes a little act of resistance.

Yes, it is a form of exercise. But running is that and so much more: it is prayer.

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Shane Fenwick
Runner's Life

Australian-based transcendentalist writing about all things mind, spirituality, health, and human flourishing. Endlessly fascinated by this wondrous universe.