Hitting the buffers – lessons in askesis

Longest run – 10 miles

Total miles – 16.5

Knee pain (out of 10) – 1.

Days until marathon – 17

It is amazing to be running again. Like so often in life it is only when something is taken away that we realise its true value. I know am not the first long-distance runner to have to confront injury but the experience of working through it has been profound.

It is the second time this year that circumstances (to a large extent of my own making) have brought me to a place of having to confront my limitations. In both cases I am retrospectively grateful for the experiences that were, at the time, uncomfortable, painful and humiliating. Is that no so often the case though? The heart-attack victim who, once recovered declares that ‘it was the best thing that ever happened to him’ because it brought an intense focus to a life that had become bland and humdrum. The disabled athlete who can say they are ‘glad’ to have their disability because it has made them the person they are.

Christian ministry can however be an environment that can have the opposite affect. We spend much of our time in leading others, speaking publicly to others, offering care, support and advise to others. People look to ministers for guidance, encouragement, direction, inspiration, insight, wisdom. They expect much and as ministers we are tempted to believe that we can deliver. The ego within us begins to believe that perhaps we can fulfil all these needs and expectations. We collude with those who would adulate us and put us on a pedestal. We work hard, and then harder, to maintain what has become a way of being, a persona and role that we find increasingly hard to slip out of the skin off. We have become gods to those around us and we rather like it. We have become gods to ourselves and started occupying the throne that we started out pointing others to. But this is unsustainable. There is only one God in the universe, and its not us. Yet there are too many stories of ministers who have hit the buffers. They have got the equivalent of an injury and cannot carry on. Sometimes these injuries can be healed, sometimes they spell the sad end of a ministry.

The only way to avoid hitting the buffers is what the desert fathers called askesis. It is what runners call a training programme, at least a realistic one that is not just about achieving a goal, but also about avoiding injury. Such a training programme must build in a humble respect for the power of the ego to drive us faster and further than our bodies are ready for. Askesis is that hidden discipline, that private regime, that makes the goal possible. It is not the thing itself, but the foundation for it.

We need similar training programmes in the realm of Christian ministry. We need more wise spiritual guides, ministerial physios of the soul, who can help us in our ego-focussed, programme-driven, consumer-church world to develop appropriate means of attending to our souls in realistic awareness of the temptations that ministry and the self place on them. We need far less attention and noise about growth, models, techniques and gimmicks and more attention on the spirituality required to be the sort of person people do not adulate, but emulate. We need less energy spent on what we do and more on who we are, and who we are becoming. Ministry is a marathon not a sprint.

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Physio, injury and the soul

Longest run 3.5 miles

Total miles 3.5

Hours of physio – c8

It has been a fascinating (and also frustrating, irritating and humbling) experience being injured. After an initial phase of feeling angry and gutted, I have come to see the injury as part and parcel of the challenge of running a marathon. The fact is our bodies are not really designed to run 26.2 miles non-stop. Small imperfections and instabilities in our apparently well-balanced bodies are found out with ruthless precision by the intense challenge of doing just that. In many ways it would be no challenge at all if our bodies were simply able to ran that far if only we kept going. What is far more challenging is attending to some of the more hidden and to some degree mysterious elements of our physique that normally work away silently and invisibly in the background to make any kind of movement possible.

I discover through injury that the problem I have is called iliotibial band syndrome. Or ITB syndrome for short. The ITB is a band of tough tissue that runs down the thigh, across the side of the knee and connects with the tibia below the knee. When you run the ITB slides across the knee with each stride. A small bursa, or sack of fluid, lies between the ITB and the knee to prevent the ITB becoming worn away. Naturally, over-use of the knee and the extreme challenge of long distance road running puts immense pressure on this otherwise perfect system.

I discover that I probably have a slight imbalance between my left and right side, maybe in the hips, which translates to the knees. The physio, whilst stretching the ITB which has become tight, also works to strengthen muscles in the hips and knees which have become lazy from this imbalance.

The body is an incredible thing. We take it for granted much of the time. In a way though I am glad that I’ve taken up this challenge. It has given me a huge appreciation of the wonder of our createdness, I’m also strangely ‘glad’ to have got injured as it given me a respect body, its complexity and its vulnerability.

I guess most powerfully though I have reflected this week on the challenges of our own frailty and brokenness. We are not machines. We are created beings, ‘wonderfully made’ but also fundamentally flawed. We are made out of goodness, made good and made for goodness. But we are also imperfect, damaged, and awaiting renewal. These last 3 weeks I have been confronted with my own frailty and forced to concentrate on a different kind of training. The external visible task of running has had to give way to the invisible and slightly mysterious business of training hidden muscles into action again.

In a similar way our whole lives are a creative partnership between the internal and the external. Much of our lives we carry on with our external tasks and activities relying on our internality, our minds, bodies, souls to make it happen. At some point though we have to confront our frailty, whether that be physical , mental or  spiritual. My huge concern is that the secularity of our age has duped many into living as though there is no soul and no need for spirituality. And we have lost many of the spiritual exercises and habits that enables us to keep our souls full and the rest of us alive; prayer, contemplation, rest, wonder, worship. Perhaps only injury, from the relentless challenges of the modern driven world we live in will bring us face to face with that reality.

Injury, limitations, freedom

Total miles 0

Longest run 0

Calories 0

Internet searches on knee injuries 25

I haven’t posted for a couple weeks. Partly this is due to being away, on holiday in France. Having said that I was intending to write a post from there until I developed an injury 2 weeks ago. I ran once in France but found the injury recurred. I have not been able to run since. Having done some research this evening I am convinced that I have something called iliotibial band syndrome which is an inflammation of a band of muscle running down from the hip to the knee. The symptoms described fit mine exactly. Hopefully, ice and more ice, plus some physio exercises will enable me to get over this in time to run in 5 weeks time.

So, quite frankly I have been pretty down about this over the past 2 weeks, all the focus, effort and determination to run this marathon has looked as though it may be in vain. And I guess there is nothing so demoralising as working hard for something only to find it wasn’t worth it.

However the whole thing has made me reflect on limitations to freedom. Until this past fortnight I have taken my fitness, and my bodies ability to grow in fitness for granted. I was starting to revel in my own fitness. That enjoyment was grounded in a faith in my physical body’s capability to provide the structure for the freedom I had to run and run. Suddenly that was taken away as my knee tensed up and running became impossible.

Freedom is related closely to discipline. Our culture prizes freedom highly, as a given, a right, and also almost as a commodity, a thing. But freedom is something that is the result of something else. The discipline of running, that started as hard work, developed into a freedom that has given me significant pleasure, life and benefit. All of it has however been based on an assumption that my body will allow that freedom to develop. Yet when it was taken away I was angry, moody and then depressed. Presently I am engaging in a new set of disciplines; physio, ice, rest etc in the hope of getting my physical freedom back. I will be much more grateful for it when I achieve it again.

In France we saw a great sign placed by disabled parking bays. It said ‘You can have my parking bay, if you’ll have my disability’ . It made the point rather well. We want the freedom to park where we want. The offer to swap one limitation for another addressed the disparity in freedom experienced by a minority, a freedom most of us take for granted.

I guess in a strange way I am coming round to thinking that this injury is no bad thing. If I can make it round the course in early October I shall have done it having overcome a significant limitation. And that will make the achievement greater. However I am also glad in a way because it has brought this whole endeavour into perspective. There will come a time when my physical limitations, my degenerating body, will make the very idea of a marathon ridiculous. Yet as Paul says ‘therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16). This inward training, discipline and growth is that which will stay the course; the ultimate freedom.

What I’m running for…

I’ve really enjoyed writing some of my reflections on running in the past few weeks. Some of the stuff that these reflections have touched on; happiness, faith, purpose, well-being connect with what I’m raising money for, the work we do connecting with folk in Poole workplaces. So in case you haven’t made it to ‘The Background’ page yet, here’s a summary of what I’m hoping to raise funds for.

 I’ll be running to raise money for Poole Missional Communities the charity we started to help the church connect with folk in lots of different contexts in Poole. PMC has various strands of work, all expressions of our vision to help the church connect with folk in lots of different contexts.  In particular I’m running to raise money for work:space which is our work in Poole’s workplaces. Over the past 4 years we have developed a range of opportunities that we offer to folk in the workplace which aim to serve people. Work is pressurised and often stressful. We are engaging with the workplace to offer Christian meditation, courses such as The Happiness Course and God@ work which help people engage with well-being and spirituality at work. We are also facilitating discipleship groups in the workplace which help people connect faith with work and for some provide a place to explore faith.

We’d love to grow and develop this work; deeper where we already work, and broader into more workplaces.

So please check out my fundraising page  where you can make a pledge or donation. As the miles start to get more challenging seeing some donations come in will definitely be a motivating factor. I’m aiming to run in less than 4 hours – maybe you’d like to pledge a larger amount based on reaching that target! Thanks for your support!

Turning for home

Total miles 27.8

Longest run 16. 15 miles

Calories 3590

Bleeding nipples 1 (too much information?!)

An email from the Bournemouth Marathon team today tells me that I have 8 weeks until race day and that I really should be doing plenty of training. Fair enough. My long runs have now got to a length where I am running into new territory in my hometown of Poole. I spent some time last night researching a route to ensure that I could run over 16 miles.  In the end  I decide to run out to the front and along the Poole/Bournemouth promenade, taking in some of the route of the marathon course itself.

I don’t know what criteria marathon course designers use. I realise that for me a key feature is the balance between running away and running home. There is something really important about turning for home, about a point in the design of a long run where you consciously turn for home. Not long after I started running I had a twice weekly route which was about 5 miles. There were 2 ways in which I could run this course and I would alternate fairly randomly between them. However I began to notice that my times were often significantly better with one route than the other.  And the reason I concluded was that the faster route meant turning for home earlier. It had a longer home straight, and unconsciously I was speeding up to get home sooner on this route than the other.

The homing instinct, I believe, is not confined to pigeons or lost cats, it is hard-wired into us as human beings. I notice something taking place physically in terms of how I feel as I turn for home that I cannot explain except for the presence of a deep connection psychologically with the idea of home and homecoming. I would describe this as a function, an attribute, of the soul, the spirit. There is something deep within us that connects with the concept, the reality of home, when we head towards it, and feel so different from when we head away from it, we are expressing in ourselves that longing and desire to head home.

Home then is more than just a house, a place, a dwelling. There is a journey going on inside of us which is all about making a journey home. Sadly our consumerist culture continues to sell us the lie that if only we buy this or acquire that we will somehow find the home, the sense of wellbeing and place that we are longing for. But nothing we acquire, nothing we own can give us that sense of home that we long for. My route today took me past some of the most expensive real estate in the UK, if not Europe. These vast, gated, properties are names things like Utopia, Elysian Fields, Haven. Not difficult to guess what people hope to achieve by buying and living in them.

Augustine said ‘ Our hearts are restless until the find their rest in Thee’. Jesus told an extraordinary story about a young man who took his inheritance early in order to find fulfilment somewhere away from home (Luke 15). At a key point in the story he ‘comes to his senses’, and turns for home. As he heads for home he rehearses a speech to his father that suggests he is happy to be home even though he expects to be made a slave in is father’s household. Yet the yearning for home is so strong he heads home anyway. Scandalously, for the culture of the time, the Father, welcomes him, forgives him, and restores him to his former status as a son.  Yet somehow, whilst this younger son has simply returned to where he was before, he has now truly come home, it was just that he didn’t realise this was his home all along.

This, I believe, is the predicament so many of us are in. We are so disconnected from our home, as loved people made in the image of God that we do not now how to return. We seek our home is all the wrong places, because we fail to realise the only true home that will satisfy us is a spiritual home. And the testimony of so many who find this home, a relationship with a Father God who made us, loves us and welcomes us home, is that, whilst they did not know it at the time , this was the home they were looking for all along. As TS Eliot said ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

Running alone, journeying together

Total miles 22.75

Longest run 15.25 miles

1 kingfisher

Alan Stiltoe’s short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner used running as a means so exploring the isolation of the key character, a young boy in poverty who takes to running to demonstrate his independence .  Running is rarely a team sport. It is more commonly one individual against another, an individual against the clock, an individual against his\herself.

This week’s long run of 15.25 miles was run on unfamiliar territory. I did my best to find flat terrain but even so found myself tackling some pretty stiff hills. So the last 3 miles were hard. For the first time in my training for October’s marathon I really doubted that I could run my target distance. The idea of running 26 miles seemed ridiculous.

Hailie Gebrselaissie, who knows a thing or two about running, says that a significant proportion of marathon running is psychological. In this sense, whilst long distance running is essentially lonely, it is significantly affected by the company (or not) of others. When I trained for a half-marathon 2 years ago I trained with someone else. We talked as we ran and the miles flew by. He set the pace and prevented me from initially going too fast, and then later from tailing off into sluggish final miles. A running partner had a huge psychological effect, somehow taking my mind away from the nagging doubt that perhaps I wasn’t up to the challenge I had set myself.

Endurance, journeys beyond that which we can honestly imagine being able to achieve are best done with others. Runners draw from one another. They draw from supporters on the roadside. Cyclists swap the lead, sharing their collective slipstream. Migrating birds alternate the lead in formation and fly the most efficient formation for the group. Paul, the great New Testament journeyer, who comes across as an individual, travelled constantly with others. When left alone he wrote pleading for others to join him. Significant journeys cannot be done alone – they are best done in community with others where the responsibilities for setting pace, discerning direction, persevering when the going gets tough, can be shared.  ‘If you want to walk fast, walk alone, if you want to walk far, walk together’ (African proverb).

Happy are those who run…

Total miles: 23.5

Longest run: 13.1 miles (half marathon!)

Calories burnt: 3075

Jelly babies consumed – 1 packet.

It certainly feels to me that running is on the rise. More and more people are taking up running. I started running because I hated not being fit and just didn’t seem to have the time in the midst of everything else for team sports which I had enjoyed for most of my life. I run the Poole Park Run from time to time. This free, weekly, timed, 5k run started in 2011 with 65 runners and now regularly attracts more than 500. The Parkrun movement which started in Twickenham in 2004 now has 429 parkrun events in 9 countries each week. The Olympics seem to have had a positive effect, with an increase in sports participation since London 2012, particularly in running and cycling.

So is the rise of running a passing fashion? Is it a brief post-Olympic flush of interest? Or is something else going on?

I certainly think that running, whilst also being very accessible and flexible a means of getting exercise, taps into some fundamental aspects of well-being that we all need. Well-being, or happiness, is now something that is well studied. The science of positive psychology has explored the question ‘what makes us happy?’ and a consensus has emerged. Essentially there are 3 kinds of happiness and we need to be to develop all 3 to experience long-lasting happiness. The first is ‘pleasure’ which is the rush of happiness we get from those short episodes of experience; the foreign holiday, the new purchase, the funfair ride. Pleasure is important for happiness, but fleeting. The second is ‘engagement’, which is the sort of happiness we get from working at something over a period of time, achieving a goal, realising a dream. Finally the third kind of happiness is ‘meaning’, which is about working selflessly towards a larger purpose than ourselves, a deeper cause or a  bigger vision, probably one shared by many others. (I have been using a great course called The Happiness Course in some of my work in local workplaces to encourage people to explore these themes)

Running moves people on from ‘pleasure’ to ‘engagement’, as people set aside quick fix pleasures that aren’t doing them any good, set themselves a goal, train to achieve it and hopefully meet it. Yesterday I watched Poole Park runner Steve Way interviewed on the BBC following his amazing 10th place in the Commonwealth Marathon. He broke a 35 year old over-40’s British record in the process. But only 7 years ago he was drinking heavily, smoking 20 a day, eating a diet of fast food and 16.5 stone in weight. His story can’t fail to inspire others in a similar situation to his not so long ago.  We all know instinctively that there is something more than the quick fix happiness of food, drink, cigarettes, drugs, consumerism. The deeper sense of well-being we get from committing ourselves to a goal and achieving it is immense. Deeper still, and perhaps this is where connecting running to fundraising comes in for many people, is the commitment and perseverance towards a cause greater than ourselves.

For me however, this tells us something about our fundamental identity. Eric Liddle, whose story was immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire, once said: ‘God made me for a purpose, but he made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure’. This beautifully summarises the well-being that we are created for, and to which positive psychology points, one where we no longer selfishly seek our own pleasure, but discover a deeper pleasure, connected intimately with our own created uniqueness, in the service of God.