Stretching their minds
Long-distance runners break spiritual barrier

by Michael Guilfoil
Staff writer
Dan Pelle - The Spokane (WA) Spokesman-Review

A veteran of 149 marathons, Carol Dellinger often runs near Mount St. Michael in northeast Spokane. ``It's a euphoric feeling,'' she says. ``It doesn't get any better.''

Most people observe their religion while sitting quietly in a church or temple.

Carol Dellinger celebrates hers outdoors, panting, sweating and grinding away shoe soles on pavement.

Like the vast majority of those entered in next Sunday's Bloomsday race, Dellinger doesn't run fast. But she runs long. Very long.

On Saturday, the 39-year-old dental hygienist ran the Nashville Country Music Marathon, her 149th 26.2-miler. She also has logged several 50-mile "ultraruns" and roughly 25,000 training miles since trading her baseball cleats for running shoes back in 1985.

"I'm a baptized Lutheran, and went to church every Sunday until my 18th birthday," says the Deer Park native. "Now, running is my religion. I feel like I see more of God three hours into a marathon than I would ever see sitting in a church listening to a sermon."

Most distance runners agree something spiritual occurs somewhere out there beyond Milepost 5.

It's hard to explain to nonrunners, who equate a trip up Doomsday Hill with pain rather than epiphanies.

But the idea of achieving clarity through running isn't some New Age concoction. More than a century ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With 60 seconds' worth of distance run --

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!

How far must you go to discover the spiritual side of running?

The Tendai Buddhist monks of Japan's sacred Mount Hiei undertake a seven-year commitment that involves running long distances every morning. During one 100-day stretch, they cover 52.5 miles a day, wearing out as many as five pairs of sandals along the way. Their goal: enlightenment.

Chris Marr, a Spokane businessman and practicing Buddhist, runs 40 or so miles a week and enters four marathons a year. Next Sunday, he'll run the Avenue of the Giants Marathon in Northern California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

Marr began running for health reasons when he turned 40 eight years ago, and gradually got drawn into what he calls "the running lifestyle."

"When I first started, I was looking for p.r.'s (personal records)," he says. His best marathon was 3 hours, 36 minutes in Sacramento. "But now that's not such a big deal. The longer I run, the more satisfaction I get from the process."

Marr manages two car dealerships, is chairman of the state Transportation Commission and chairman-elect of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce. Because of his busy schedule, he relies on the solace of running alone to help organize his thoughts. "I use that time to write things in my head. Or I shut that down and just go out and escape. Then it's more about sanity."

On weekends, Marr looks forward to running with others. "Running really changes your circle of friends," he says. "You don't meet a whole lot of runners who are jerks, to be honest. Distance running requires some degree of introspection. It tends to weed out people who can't spend a whole lot of time with themselves."

Despite Marr's enthusiasm for running, he's not on a mission to convert nonrunners. "It's like religion, where you really can't go there with a lot of people," he says. "Logically, you can't explain why you roll out of bed at 5 a.m. to go run nine miles."

Besides, Marr doesn't know of anyone who was lured into running because of its spiritual side. "It's kind of a hard thing to envision until you've actually experienced it," he says. "And you have to trust that it's there, because you're certainly not going to feel it for the first couple of weeks, when you're dragging yourself out there and every muscle aches."

Marr describes running's biggest reward as psychological. "It's that sense of freeing yourself from your surroundings and being able to focus on where your mind's going."

He says Buddhists call that mental state the middle path. "It's about nonattachment; about releasing everything else," Marr says. "Running is an easy way of getting into the mode where you distill things down to what's important in your life."

Before you assume all runners buy into this middle path spirituality, though, read how author and former elite distance runner John L. Parker Jr. describes the Zen of running as seen through the eyes of the skeptical protagonist in his 1978 novel, "Once A Runner":

Quenton Cassidy knew what the mystic-runners, the joggers, the runner-poets, the Zen runners and others of their ilk were talking about. But he also knew that their euphoric selves were generally nowhere to be seen on dark, rainy mornings. And he also knew that in the end they just didn't want to put it all on the line. Not really they didn't. They just wanted to talk."

Forgive Cassidy his competitive arrogance. At the time he offers this insight, he's a college stud flirting with sub- -4-minute miles.

Bloomsday president Jerry O'Neal has witnessed more of life's ups and downs than young Cassidy, and, at age 59, has come to depend on the spiritual side of running.

"I've run through divorce, the death of parents, broken hearts," says the anthropology professor. "The one consistent ritual I've done is run. I think it teaches you about yourself. In some ways it humbles you, but it also offers you wonderful insights."

O'Neal recalls running by a church with a friend one day when someone called out, "You need to come see God." Without missing a stride, the friend replied, "He's running with us."

O'Neal calls running a form of meditation. Only one other experience even comes close for him: fly-fishing.

"How do you know whether you're a coward or not until you come to a hill?" he wonders aloud.

O'Neal, who sprinkles his conversation with quotes from Thoreau, Tennyson and Lakota Indians, says the way to discover running's spiritual side is to find a special place to run, shift into autopilot and use the time to look inward. "Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living," O'Neal says. "Running's spiritual side compels you to ask yourself, `Who am I?' `What am I about?' `What am I doing in this world?'

"I don't think all runners are spiritual," says O'Neal, who used to train as much as 100 miles a week. "But too much emphasis on competition can ruin it. Because what if you don't beat everybody else? Do you stop running?

"I stopped competing instead. I didn't need someone else telling me if I did a good job or not. I already knew."

Sally Lavin is serious about running, "But I'm not a serious runner," she says. "There's a difference."

Lavin, 47, teaches English at North Central High School and helps coach the girls cross-country team.

"Running by myself is like going on a retreat," she says. "Running at the end of the day gives me lots of uninterrupted quiet time to reflect and think things out."

But running with a group can be really wonderful, too, she says. "A 10-miler with other people gives you the time and space to reach a depth of sharing you don't normally get. That's why there's kind of an unspoken code, that what's said on a run is kept among those people."

Dellinger, the marathoner, compares running to therapy.

"Just the other day, we had a major crisis at work. It was a really stressful day," she says. "But afterward I laced up my shoes, headed out the door and, 10 minutes later, the stress was gone.

"I've always been a muscular, stocky gal," Dellinger says. "I still look like the first baseman I was rather than the runner I am.

"I'll never crack an hour at Bloomsday, and I've accepted that," she says. "But it's such a euphoric thing to go out there and run. It's almost like having little wheels on your feet. It just doesn't get any better."


•Staff writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at (509) 459-5491 or by e-mail at