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{TryDay} How Ultramarathons Changed a Pastor’s Life

It's TryDay - which, in this B Side world, means it's time to share a story to hopefully inspire you to try something new.

I'd like to introduce you to my friend Mark who decided -on his B Side of life - to pursue ultramarathons. Actually, he didn't start out pursuing 100 mile runs...but I'll let him share that story.

Although Mark and I have never met in person, we've been friends for about 10...12? years via Facebook because of a mutual interest in books, the Midwest, and theology (and a good meme). Maybe someday we'll get to have coffee together, but in the meantime, enjoy his story of how ultramarathons changed a pastor's life.

man runs ultramarathon

Four things have revolutionized my life. I’m about to turn 69, my life is awesome (no one who knew me when I was young would have expected this!) and I’m grateful every day. Three of the four things won’t surprise readers of this blog, so I will (at Kelli’s request) focus on the fourth.

The four are: Jesus, Jeanie (my wife), parenting, and running.

Jesus taught a guy who felt perpetually unloved what love is and transformed me into someone who always feels deeply loved and valued.

Jeanie incarnated that lesson.

Parenting was by far the hardest and best thing we’ve ever done. Many of you know exactly what I mean.

And running? Running didn’t just change my life, it utterly transformed it into something completely different (and better) than it would have been. I never saw that coming!

I always knew I should take up running. It would be good for me. Like eating more vegetables. But whenever I gave it a go I found I didn’t like it. If each hour of running adds one hour to my life, who needs all those extra hours of misery?

Several things converged (by the providential grace of God) in February 1997. I was 42 years old. I always had my dad’s body. Same height, same shoe size, same body all over that he had until he was 40. Then he grew a belly. In his 50s he started having heart attacks (though thanks to modern medicine he lived to be 85). In my 20s I ate a big bowl of ice cream every day so I wouldn’t lose weight (OK, maybe that wasn’t the only reason). Suddenly at age 40, guess what? And all of a sudden too. Bye bye 31” waist, hello 34. Got me thinking.

About that time some friends showed up at the church I pastored wearing race shirts from the previous day. I looked up their results in the local paper. They ran a 4 mile race but there was also a 2 mile race and the guy who won my age group ran it in 14 minutes and change. The only time I was ever timed was in 8th grade where I ran a mile in just over 6 minutes. Hey! Give me a year and I could win this thing! (I didn’t know that the “good” runners all did the 4 mile and the casuals and newbies ran the 2 mile. Ignorance isn’t always bad.). More thinking.

Took my dog Teddi out for his walk the next evening (I walked, he ran circles around me) and thought that maybe I’d try running with him. I was still wearing street clothes and shoes but it didn’t matter as I only made it to the end of the driveway (about 200’) before it got unpleasant.

Still, a day or two later, I did it again and went about 50’ further. Running isn’t so bad if you quit as soon as it starts to feel hard! Kept at it (3-5 times a week), motivated by thoughts of not dying young combined with thoughts of glory at winning a 2 mile race next year. Took me 6 weeks to get up to a mile.

Something changed. They call it capillarization (more capillaries carrying more blood to more places) and what it meant is that running became a lot easier. Almost fun! Actually no harder than walking used to be. At least for one, then two and eventually (that year) up to five miles.

I was all set to run that two mile race the next year in around 12-13 minutes when, just before race day, I came down with a REALLY NASTY cold. Miserable. I went out anyway and still managed 13:37. But oh, what might have been! Time to start looking for my next race.

5K was the next step, then kept bumping it up every 6 months or so. 5 mile, 10K, 10 mile, half marathon. Then I learned of a race on the Pacific Crest Trail, high above Lake Tahoe (about 4 hours away). 25K (15.5 miles). I’d never run that far. I’d never done a trail race. I’d never raced at altitude. Scary!

man running ultramarathon through snow

It was SO MUCH FUN! Why run on pavement through towns when there are phenomenal trail races out there? One problem. Most trail races back then were ultramarathons (longer than a marathon, i.e., longer than 26.2 miles, generally 50K (31 miles) and up. Processing, processing…

As I said, I was a pastor and I had realized that with the church growing and demanding so much of my time and energy, I had come to a place where I had no non-churched friends. My only evangelism was of people who came to our church. But if I was going to consider running for HOURS ON END, I needed help. I turned to the few ultramarathoners in our town for advice. They weren’t church people (although a few years later I led one of them to Christ after he called me early one morning to say he’d just had a dream about Jesus and needed to know how to be saved).

I ran a 50K on trails and did well (10 minutes per mile) and had fun. I was hooked. I got involved with the ultra community (in person and online). I made LOTS of non-churched friends. Found out that conversations on a multi-hour run often went much deeper than chats in a coffee house. Ran more 50K’s, then a 50 miler, then 100K and eventually even a tough 100 mile mountain race. Made more friends. Ran some of the iconic races. The sport was growing rapidly. Instead of making friends by asking for advice, I started making friends who turned to me for advice.

I met, and became friends with some utterly amazing people. People you read about in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. People you don’t read about but who had amazing stories to tell. Led a recovering alcoholic/meth addict to the Lord after meeting her at a race. Went places I never would have gone, did things I never thought I would have done (like hiking the John Muir Trail and many others). Even created and directed a series of trail races. Gained the type of confidence you only get from being in good physical shape and being able to do things most people can’t imagine doing. Didn’t have any heart attacks! It’s pretty sweet being a healthy 69 year old, even if I now am often the oldest entrant in many of the races I run.

When I meet a trail runner it’s easy to find things to talk about. Easy to become friends. I now have more non-churched friends than church friends. People want to run or hike with me just to hear my stories, and, oh, the stories I can tell.

My advice to anyone - including you! -is always simply: “Get out and get moving.” I believe strongly in the power of nature to keep us emotionally healthy, whether a city park or the Grand Canyon. And the moving doesn’t have to be running. It just has to be consistent. Hiking, biking, swimming, pickle ball, CrossFit, whatever. Just try to find a venue where you are interacting with others who share the activity. Even the Bible says that physical exercise is “profitable”. So run with endurance the race set before you.

Oh the places you’ll go and the people you’ll meet!

Questions for Mark about ultramarathons or about what he means by the love of Jesus changing his life? Leave them below or as a comment on the social media where you found this link. You may also email them to:


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