- The Ascetic Life of the Ultrarunner
The early Christian ascetic body. The modern-day ultrarunner body. What kinship do they share? This personal narrative explores the similarities between the two and how the ascetics' treatment of the body resonates with my spiritual ritual as an ultrarunner.
The early Christian ascetic experienced a demanding and difficult life of self-discipline, self-denial, prayer, fasting, repentance, and celibacy. The goal of the ascetic life was spiritual development, spiritual edification, and uniting body and soul with God.1 Paul introduced the practice of asceticism to Christianity by using athletic terms that emphasized the "self-sacrifice, discipline, and self-control" required in living as a purposeful and unwavering Christian.2 Christian ascetics such as Antony of Egypt, Evagrius Ponticus, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila, among others, are often described as athletes. As an ultrarunner, I draw strength and inspiration from their example and recognize our bodily connection. Today's ultrarunners are literal ascetic athletes who engage in extreme, meaningful bodily experiences and practices very similar to the ascetics. Ultrarunning has a distinct spiritual dimension that lends itself to solitude and reflection, and is a kind of embodied spiritual practice that I call "ultrarunning spirituality."
Ultrarunning is defined as running any distance beyond the standard 26.2-mile marathon. The most common are 50 and 100 miles, and 50 and 100 kilo-meters (31 and 62 miles). Six-hour, 12-hour, 24-hour, 48-hour, and multi-day races of five or more days are also ultramarathons,3 referred to as "ultras" or endurance runs. For the uninitiated, the thought of running a standard 26.2-mile marathon, let alone an ultramarathon, is unimaginable. This sentiment is understandable. As a young girl watching the Olympics, I was in complete awe of marathoners who ran 26.2 miles. They appeared to have super powers and to be superhuman. Now, as an adult, I have evolved from a marathoner to an ultra-endurance runner, and have experienced the exhilarating suffering and joy of this chosen path. [End Page 201]
Achieving the feat of running such grueling distances requires discipline, training, and a love of exercise. These key words: discipline, training, and exercise define asceticism (taken from the Greek word askesis). The Greek, Latin, and Semitic roots of these words have historically been used to interpret the language of Christian discourse including "asceticism," which is used to refer to athletic training and physical discipline, and to describe spiritual endeavor.4
ASCETIC PRACTICES OF ANTONY, FRANCIS, CATHERINE, AND TERESA
The connection between my ultrarunning body and the early Christian acetic body is considered by first exploring a brief overview of the early ascetic life. When I think of Antony, Evagrius, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, I think of ultrarunners as a different kind of athlete. In his review of the ultrarunning documentary Desert Runners, scholar William Viney writes, "I watched the film with an ultrarunner on each side…spent the whole film with a lump in my throat, thinking, mostly of St. Antony and early Christian monasticism. I wondered if anyone else thought the same. Probably not."5 Viney is not alone. I too imagine our desert ancestors when I read about and watch ultrarunning documentaries, which take place in deserts throughout the world. Journalist Ken Chitwood observes that, "running is a new form of religious asceticism complete with its own ascetics, disciplines, literature, fellowship, shrines, meditative practices, proselyting, prophets and priests."6 I also think of the medieval ascetics that followed such as Francis, Catherine, and Teresa, and feel a strong kinship with them when engaged in similar bodily practices required to train and run ultras.
Like ultrarunners, ascetics are a rare kind. Antony and Evagrius fled the world for a desert life. Antony lived the ascetic life in a cave; Evagrius lived in a monastery searching for God and desiring to be with God. They renounced family, friends, and the material world. Centuries later, Francis, confused and uncertain about the direction of his life, also fled his world and family after hearing God's voice beckon, "Francis repair my church."7 He devoted his life...