Prayers Per Mile

In times of strength and sorrow, running is my prayer

by Robyn Bles
Illustration by Terri Scott

My lungs and legs move past the initial shock of exertion and fall into a steady rhythm with my heart. With each footfall, my body relaxes more into my pace. As the oppressive heat of the summer day lifts, I hear my breathing mingle with the sounds of the early evening. The cicadas’ song echoes the in and out of my breathing, and the crickets’ silence their chirp as they hear my thundering approach. With each passing mile, the clutter in my brain and the chatter in my heart seem to no longer matter.

That was a summer night when I was 16 years old. On that night, like so many others, my running was the place where everything fell into place and started to make sense. On that night 16 years of life, of church, of waiting for something more seemed to whirr and hum and become a song that I could finally sing.

Growing up a church kid, I did prayer, which was something you said before a meal or worshippers corporately squawked out at the same moment on Sunday morning. Until that summer, my personal prayer life consisted of a list of “Thank you for Grandma, and my friends” or developing my early negotiating skills: “Please, God, I promise I’ll be nice to my little brother if you just give me one snow day!” Those snow days never came; however, in what was most likely a testament to my mother’s prayer life, I did finally learn to be nice to my little brother. What also happened was that running taught me what prayer could be, and it has since become one long back-and-forth conversation with God.

The Truest Self

Some call it torture; others call it the greatest high. I call it prayer. That summer running became not only an outlet for everything that troubles a teenage girl, it also became my lifelong practice of living with God.  I had thought prayer required something I couldn’t attain: being quiet and sitting still. This has never been a gift of mine. I’ve always felt the fervor and urgency of Forrest Gump: “If I was going somewhere, I was running!” As an extremely energetic and talkative child (and adult), the thought of folding my hands, bowing my head and closing my eyes was akin to punishment. Why would I ever do that when I could go outside and play? But like a teenage crush, I fell headfirst into the hypnotic calm of running. This was movement, but calming and soothing.  With each stride, all the teenage angst and just-budding adulthood quieted for a moment and I was finally able to think clearly. I was finally able to breathe deeply. I felt the most alive I’ve ever felt and like the truest self I’ve ever been. And that’s how the conversation began.

Running has seen me through every major life event. My overeager ambition made me think it was a good idea to train for my first marathon during my first year of divinity school. Ministry pretty much kills your Saturday night, and with this training, my Friday night was also shortened due to early Saturday morning runs. I’d run early in the morning, come home to shower, eat, and nap, and then spend all afternoon studying. While my social life took a serious hit, my spiritual life soared.

Not only was this prayer practice the perfect pairing for my studies, that first year of divinity school I lost my three remaining grandparents. My grandfather’s funeral took place during the marathon I’d just spent the year training for.  My mom and aunt both said he would want me to stay to race,  but it took another prayerful run for me to agree with them. My grandfather was a Nebraska farmer. He loomed larger than life with hands the size of my face and overalls that could double as a tent for a small family. His tireless work ethic helped me decide that, yes, running this race was how I would honor him. After four grueling hours I crossed the finish line in Nashville, Tennessee—at the same time as the last shot was fired at his military funeral in Wahoo, Nebraska. Late is on time for me, so I can only give prayer the credit for that sort of timing.

Running as prayer has been the steadiest companion in my life. This prayer practice seemed to carry me through the world, to Bosnia, Switzerland, Venezuela and Ghana. And then, I ran right back to where it all started—the church.

Uncaged

I’m not one to believe in fate, nor has my prayer practice revealed to me that God is a planner or plotter of all things. Instead, this practice has taught me that God is not only in this messy business of our lives, but that God is willing to go the distance with us. And that prayer never became truer than last September.

I gave birth to a beautiful little girl. My 24 hours of labor made that first marathon seem like a walk in the park, but then she was here and she was perfect! And that’s when our worst fears started to unfold. The doctors told us there was something wrong. Our daughter had a minor blockage in her intestines, but an operation would repair it. Little did we know that what seemed like a simple operation could go so wrong. A series of accidents on the surgical table had our then three-day old daughter experience a heart attack and stroke. The next six weeks were awash in the NICU, more near-death experiences, and more and more prayers. Only this time, I was sidelined. After the utterly embodied experience of pregnancy and childbirth, I was now trapped in the postpartum policy of six weeks without workouts. To make it really stick, they fill your head with images of your insides falling out, which certainly had me following the rules.

After three weeks in this living nightmare, I was feeling caged. The physical aches of recovery were shrouded by the nightmare that went on in front of me. What if she never woke up? What if she did wake up? How much can her little body recover? The blanket of mystery that covered our world was mirrored by the cave-like, windowless NICU where we spent 10 hours every day. It was weeks before we saw the sunlight, and by that time my tired spirit could barely muster the recognition of a ray of hope.

At the three-week mark, just beginning to walk normally again, I had to wake my tired spirit from feeling powerless. I could do nothing but hold her hand, and now, pray. So I rose before the sun and started slowly shuffling around the block. There were no running steps; there was no quick pace for her recovery or mine. There was no way to speed up this process. We both had to allow our bodies to recover, but that recovery needed to be infused with the Spirit. Walking, moving, praying, I regained a sense of self, of wholeness, through every slow and steady step.

During those first weeks, and the many weeks since, I have spent countless hours in moving prayer. I’ve revisited my negotiations, pleading with God to heal my child. I’ve offered my thanks for the mighty little girl she is and the tremendous community that surrounds her. But unlike any prayer before, the resolution is still beyond my understanding. Though she is still recovering, we’re also trying to give her a life beyond doctors and therapists. As our family vacationed on the beach of North Carolina we introduced out eight-month-old to waves and sand, and my still recovering body delighted in lower-impact beach runs. Moving in rhythm with the waves I skirted the water, finding that sweet spot in the beach where the sand wasn’t too soft. And I heard God again.

I know her recovery requires more endurance and strength than I’ve ever needed before; and I know there will be times where I’ll need to rest in that soft sand, or play in those rolling waves. But I also know, thanks to the ever-present moving Spirit, that God will continue to run with me, helping me and my family find the smoothest path.

 

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