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When My Religion Had No Place For Me, Running Became My Sanctuary

6 mins
17 Apr 2023
When My Religion Had No Place For Me, Running Became My Sanctuary

How running gave this writer a journey back to the spirituality he thought he'd lost...

image Team Woo

words Will Hunter

“I hate running. I always have. I am bad at it. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t understand why anyone would do it for fun.”

I lived by these words for the first two and a half decades of my life. I clung to them like a mantra. In a complex, terrifying and ever-changing world, the only solid truth I knew was that I hated running.

Growing up, I was good at school. Nerdy and curious and eager to please; the classroom was comfortable and familiar territory for me. But when the bell would ring and we would file down to the damp changing room to put on our little red tracksuits, my heart would sink. Football, rugby, cricket, netball – you name it, I was terrible at it. Clumsy and unsure, I just couldn’t get my body to do what I wanted it to. Sports seemed so natural to the other boys and they bonded over them. They slipped effortlessly into this playful, youthful masculinity that was inaccessible to me. Even then – my queerness nascent and unacknowledged – I knew I wasn’t like other boys. Running though, was the worst.

Once, on Sports Day, when I was 11, I was chosen to run the 1,500-metre race; just under four laps around the 400-metre track at the leisure centre down the road. When the starting pistol went off I knew things were going to be bad. By the time I finished the first circuit, a few of the other boys had already lapped me. By the time I got to the third, every single person had already finished. During the excruciating final lap, the eyes of the whole school were on me, I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I had no choice but to be in my body, take another breath, take another step. But things got worse: all of a sudden my mum was running next to me, cheering me on and encouraging me across the finish line. While I now appreciate this for the act of pure love and care that it was, at the time – gawky and 11 – I couldn’t have imagined a worse scenario. It remains to this day, the most embarrassing moment of my life. I told myself, there and then, that I would never run again. And I stuck to that promise for a good 15 years.

During the pandemic I, like most people in the UK, found myself increasingly stressed with no outlet for my energy. Working in A&E, experiencing the pandemic first hand and in real time, I would go home after my shift buzzing with anxiety and adrenaline. Then I’d sit at home and stare at a screen, feeling like there wasn’t much else to do. A few months of this caused a serious deterioration in my mental health. I ended up having to take some time off work. I went home to my parents’, and I started therapy. My therapist, like many, gently suggested that maybe I needed a physical outlet. Try running or meditation, they said.

If there was one thing I hated more than running, it was meditation. I always have. I’m bad at it. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t understand why anyone would do it for fun. My brain is always too busy, swirling with memories of what I’d seen, fearing what might happen, questioning my future and regretting my past.

So it appeared I had no choice but to try running. Anxiously, I dusted off some old trainers and set myself the goal of running once around my local park. At first, I hated every minute of it. Troubled thoughts swirled and old fears about being bad at running rose to the surface threatening to drag me under. But the calm voice in my running app reminded me that whatever pace I was running at was okay.

As I got further from home, something strange started to happen. I found myself relaxing into the run. The repetitive pounding of my old trainers on the pavement, the deepening of my breath and the sensation of all my muscles working in unison created a meditative state that brought me closer to something greater than myself. Suddenly I was aware, fully aware, of my body and the world around me. For the first time in a really long time, my thoughts just… stopped. No fears, no worries, no regrets, no ruminations. I had no choice but to be in my body, take another breath, take another step. When I finished that first run, I sat on the steps outside of my house, my breath still ragged, my legs burning with effort and I felt a sense of peace that I have not been able to access before.

As a queer, Black man raised in the West, I have often felt disconnected from mainstream spiritual practices. I was raised Catholic but I stopped believing in God when I realised I was queer. I felt I had no place in an organised religion that condemned me for something I had no control over. Running, however, has become a sanctuary for me. My access to that peace, that place of calm is almost instant now. I lace up my trainers and my mind goes quiet. My body, my mind and my spirit are all in tune and I get to tap into the world around me. This, for me, has allowed me access to spirituality in ways I thought weren’t available to me. I even managed to start meditating, realising that I can find the sense of peace I get when I am running if I just let myself drop into it.

Running has done exactly what I feared. It has brought me back into my body and tuned me into my thoughts. As often happens, what I feared most turned out to be exactly what I needed. I realised that during that excruciating run all those years ago, I discovered a truth that I now see as a fundamental pillar in my life. A truth that pushes me forwards, even when it seems like everything is too much, spiralling out of control.

I have no choice but to be in my body, take another breath, take another step. I have no choice but to keep going.

This article has been brought to you in partnership with New Balance, which is working to get people on the move with its 2023 TCS London Marathon range.

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