A few years ago, I started running, and it’s gone pretty well, all things considered. I even ran in a 5K race. Once.

But I still hate almost every second of it, and have had to search far and wide to find techniques that make it a bearable way to pass the time.

First, I took the radio route. It didn’t work — that stupid Walkman ended up being nothing but extra weight I had to haul, which was a big, serious problem, considering I haven’t yet embarked upon the pumping iron portion of my almost mid-life crisis.

Then I tried devoting my attention to the sights along the way.

I’m very lucky in that when I first started, I was living in Florida, with a running route at my doorstep — beautiful Lake Hollingsworth right in the middle of town, which is Exercise Central hereabouts. At certain times of day — say, at seven o’clock on a summer evening — everyone in town seems to be there, jostling for space on the sidewalk.

Babies peeking out from strollers, faces red from the sun, an overheated infant being a small sacrifice to pay for mom’s thighs or dad’s gut, I suppose. Older folk out for a leisurely stroll. Women who live in the big houses along the lake walking briskly in pairs, the glare of the setting sun bouncing off their glistening makeup and glittering gold jewelry. Men, no matter what age, bursting through or flowing out from under tank tops. The disgustingly fit, sporting “Xtreme Triathlon” t-shirts breezing by the rest of us poor slobs. Experienced roller bladers passing you at least twice as you go around, and the inexperienced toppling over with alarming frequency.

People watching made the torture endurable for a bit, but after a while, I’d seen everyone interesting at least three times, including the guy who appears with a rabbit tucked in his arms, and the couple who walk their dog around in a baby carriage, and I found myself once again helpless before the flood of dreary thoughts flowing in one of two useless directions: the stresses of the day and basic physical exhaustion.

So I started to pray.

Not the runner’s prayer — “Oh God get me to the end of this!” — but that little thing called the Rosary.

Oh, of course not. I’m not racing around the lake in my black exercise halter and blue running shorts, rosary beads slapping against my thighs, whistling Dominique. That’s why God gave us 10 fingers, after all.

Such a modern thing to do, isn’t it, combining prayer and exercise in one 45-minute block?

There’s actually a serious point to be made here.

Praying the rosary while I run really does ease the pain of exercise. I suppose it is because it forces me to move my thoughts away from myself and my own little silly struggles — both the running and the high drama of life. I offer each decade for an intention — for various friends who are having problems, my parents and my children. In mentally reciting the words to the prayers and contemplating whatever intention I’m offering within the context of the Mystery at hand, I don’t get nearly as winded as I do when I don’t pray, and the time doesn’t even seem to exist.

Connecting running and prayer has turned out to be an effective way for me to confront my own peculiar spiritual weaknesses and working at them as a whole person, body and spirit. The burden of self-centeredness is lifted in praying for others, as I forget my own microscopic suffering in the act of running, which then points me to the possibility of doing the same on the bigger canvas of daily life.

When I have a particular sin I’m struggling with — say, envy — I can remember St. Augustine’s words on the importance of will, and again make those connections — I can finish this run — it might feel better in the short term to stop now, but I won’t enjoy the benefits of what is really just 10 minutes more out of my life. So there might be some perverse pleasure in wallowing in envy, but I know I’ll feel truly at peace if I just decide to let go of it. What do I have to lose?

It’s kind of a weird thing. I started running for pretty selfish reasons that, I admit, are a sad expression of my ties to contemporary cultural values — I don’t want outgrow and then have to purchase new clothes, plus I want to eat — but it has turned out to be a powerful physical metaphor for spiritual growth and wholeness as well. The only way I can get around the lake is to simply stop dwelling on myself and pray without ceasing, directing my thoughts first to God, then to others through Him.

And with each step forward, I get the message into my rather dense brain that it’s the only way I’m going to get through life, as well.

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