I have been running for several years, and like many people who decide to run, I started doing it to get into shape. Running also helps me clear my head of any stress I encounter throughout the day. However, I have also come to realize that running can give people a chance to get involved in something that benefits not only themselves, but associates them with a group of people who share and value the same ideas regarding life and how to experience it. Personally, running has given me a chance to really value life, which I have found to be similar to many claims made of “religion.”
Even though I have been running for many years, I have never quite felt anything outside of the typical strain and fatigue until I competed in a half-marathon this past October. I do not know if it was because this race was in the middle of the night, the fact that there were hundreds of people running with me, the electrifying pulsing beats I felt from the music, or the fact that it was my first half-marathon; maybe it was a combination of it all! When I ran that race, however, I felt something that I have never felt before – this sense of euphoria, a runner’s “high.” Describing the experience is difficult because it is something you cannot easily explain; like the mystic encountering Otto’s numinous for the first time, the experience is ultimately different for everyone, and borders on the ineffable. “[R]unners experience the so-called runner’s high, that sense of euphoria, the breaking free of the mind from the body which allows persons to reach a meditative state similar to that attained by Eastern mystics who place themselves into a trance,” Higdon reports in his brief examination of this particular phenomenon. ((Hal Higdon, “Is Running a Religious Experience?” in Sport and Religion, ed. Shirl J. Hoffman (Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, 1992), 80.)) This runner’s “high” made me feel like I was on top of the world. I felt the natural world embracing and pervading me completely; I could actually taste the oxygen that I was inhaling and exhaling; I escaped reality and entered this new, visceral world, and was filled with a multitude of emotions. It was an incredible experience and feeling I did not want to end, and towards the end of the race, I even had tears running down my cheek because I knew my journey was indeed coming to its inevitable conclusion. I was so angry because I felt like I could have gone another thirteen miles, but I knew my body could not take any more physical punishment. That runner’s “high” made me feel like anything at that moment was possible.
I guess the best way to even begin to describe the experience would be to emphasize the presence of goose-bumps pervading your entire body. You feel an exhilarating shiver throughout, yet it has a warm feeling to it at the same time. Your mind is so incredibly focused that you cannot stop to think about anything else. You slowly notice how your surroundings suddenly become the most magnificent things your eyes have ever beheld; the buildings, the trees, and the stars all take on a newfound profundity and splendor. You feel like everything around you has slowed down tremendously, yet you are traveling at your normal pace. You embrace the breeze, the moment, and the focus that it has to offer, and once it is all done, you ask yourself, “Why have I never felt anything like this in my entire existence before now?” Perhaps that is what it means to truly break “free of the mind from the body,” as it was indeed “trancelike.”
I have never actually told anyone about the experience until recently, because I thought this feeling was simply a figment of my imagination. However, after reading Higdon’s piece, as well as the testimonies of others, I began to realize that I was not alone in feeling that way during a mere physical exercise. Others had felt this way before, and continue to do so; for example, surfers, or as some of them refer to themselves, “soul surfers.” (( See Bron Taylor, “Surfing into Spirituality and a New, Aquatic Nature Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75, no. 4 (2007): 923-951.)) I envy these surfers because they seem to talk about their experiences as if they occur every time they catch a wave, while I have only experienced it once. However, regardless of how rare the experience might be for me, the common ground we share is easily apparent when I read and hear them discussing their various cosmological encounters and healing experiences.
The more I thought about the “high” I experienced, the more I realized how closely it and normative understandings of “religious” experiences relate to each other. As I have begun to share my experience with others, I have also realized that being raised Catholic has never provided me with the type of experience I felt when I competed in that half-marathon. Regardless of the fact that I do still consider myself a practicing Catholic, when I run, I feel an appreciation for life much different from what I am taught or led to experience by members of the clergy; I want to hear something that will help better mold me as a new person and give me a new perspective on life. Institutionalized religion, it seems, can have a tendency to plateau and cease to fully engage its adherents with anything as transformative and ethereal as that non-rational “wholly other” I encountered this past October.
Ever since my runner’s “high” I have gained a new perspective on how I view and see running as a whole. Whenever I run now, I experience this sense of awareness, this mindfulness, of living in the moment – clearing my mind of whatever thoughts are lingering, and when they vanish, seeing things in a different way. I feel more connected with the natural world, and the best part of it all is that there is always a different experience I have when I run; it is never the same. I always experience something new each time; I create my own individual path and shape my own understanding of the world around me, instead of following a prescribed path because an institution has instructed me to do so. Prescribed guidelines can only go so far, and the insight I gain by pushing myself to the limits of my own physicality while running takes me one step further.