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Running for God: why marathons are catching on among the faithful
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Long a place where believers went to sit, churches are becoming a place where people go to exercise, or to be inspired to exercise. And increasingly, that exercise is running. - photo by Jennifer Graham
At the start of the Boston Marathon next Monday, runners will congregate by a church that posts a banner with an appropriate Bible verse: Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.

Many people of faith are taking this promise from Isaiah literally. Long a place where the faithful went to sit, churches are becoming a place where people go to run.

In Georgia, a layman started a program called God on the Run out of his garage; he's now sold 60,000 books in 49 states. Programs such as Pew to 5K mimic a secular training program called Couch to 5K and some churches are putting on their own races, either as fundraisers or to nudge their members into health.

"I believe very strongly the church needs to promote health," said Sara Hall, an elite U.S. marathoner who, with her husband, marathoner Ryan Hall, is outspoken about her Christian faith.

"The Bible says our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and that we honor God by taking good care of our bodies. However, those in leadership in the church have not traditionally modeled this well or made a point to incorporate this into church programs," Sara Hall said.

But that may be changing.

"It never gets old"

It's not unusual for athletes to gather to share their faith. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, after all, is 60 years old. But churches are starting to see running as a way to draw their members closer together while reaching out to the secular world. It's a savvy strategy: As church membership in the U.S. continues to decline, the number of runners is on the rise. The nation is now in what's been called the "third running boom." More than 19 million people not only competed in, but completed, a road race in 2014; a figure that has grown nearly 300 percent since 1990, according to Running USA, a nonprofit advocacy group with offices in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Santa Barbara, California.

This is not lost on the congregation of Corinth Baptist Church in Casar, North Carolina, which has raised more than $2,500 for church ministries by putting on 5K and 10K runs for the past two years.

The races, which started and ended at the church, were similar to secular events, with T-shirts and medals and advertisements on websites like Active.com. But there is no hiding the church connection, with Bible verses on the T-shirts: a portion of Psalm 121 on the front and John 3:16 on the back.

The event is not evangelical in nature, but purely for fundraising, church member Sara McNeilly said, although you never know the long-term effect. We try to be especially friendly and welcoming with the runners. We may be the only Jesus that somebody sees, she said.

Other programs are more assertive in their evangelism, like the team at Run for God, which began as a one-time program at a Georgia church in 2010 and has grown into a nationwide outreach.

The founder, Mitchell Hollis, was a serious runner, the type who, when he wasnt running, he was talking about running, like a lot of us do, said Dean Thompson, Run for Gods race director. Hollis was so obsessed with running that a friend chastised him not to let the sport eclipse God, so to keep focused on his faith, he had a couple of T-shirts printed that said Run for God as a reminder, and as a witness.

Later, Hollis, then a builder, was asked to lead a class at his church to help sedentary people get into a running program. He went to LifeWay, a Christian store, to find a Bible-based training program and was surprised that none were available, so he made his own up. The first class he taught, about 30 people showed up. The second time it was offered, he was shocked when nearly 200 people turned out.

Working out of their garage, Hollis and his wife, Holly, began selling a 12-week program a combination of athletic training and Bible study to churches around the country. Its now a thriving business that also sells T-shirts and other apparel, publishes a running devotional and a magazine, puts on five races and employs a full-time staff of five. The core program prepares people for a 5K (3.1 mile) race, and theyve also developed training programs for 10K (6.2 miles) and half-marathons.

Weve had Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, Catholics, all denomination use the program. Its neat to see all those folks that normally worship separately all working together, said Thompson, a champion high-school runner, now an Ironman at 49, who joined the staff full-time last fall.

When I was younger, in (my) 20s and competing, I never thought about the folks near the back of the pack. I was up near the front, and that was all I cared about, Thompson said. The Run for God program opened my eyes. Theres nothing like seeing a person finish their first 5K who didnt think they could. It never gets old, he said.

Methodist no more?

The wife of the late Jim Fixx, who wrote The Complete Book of Running, used to joke that her husband used to be a Methodist, but then he became a runner. For serious runners, thats only partly a joke. With the constant striving to do better, to run longer distances and to get speedier, many runners struggle to maintain balance in their lives. Given the genesis of Run to God, the team is cognizant that running can quickly become an obsession, particularly for newcomers filled with zeal.

We talk about that during our program, Thompson said. God tells us to take care of our bodies, and were doing that, and runnings great, but lets not lose the focus on whats the most important thing."

Jim Deren of Detroit, a former All-American distance runner at Eastern Michigan University, recently published a book, Run to Faith, that details the intersection of his spiritual and running life. For Christians, Deren said, running can be an unusually intimate small-group discussion, with an added benefit you dont get sitting around a table: physical fitness.

My time running with others has resulted in countless hours of sharing personal stories and experiences with my companions. I believe it is a great way for church members and believers to strengthen their relationships, as well as to reach out to others, Deren said. Both Christians and runners are excited to share their faith and sport, and offering a forum to do this often strengthens the church group."

That's been the experience at Woodside, a Presbyterian church in Yardley, Pennsylvania, that has used the Run for God program for two years. The church is nearly halfway through with 12 weeks of training that will culminate with a 5K race June 6. Last year, 250 people participated in the inaugural race, and 100 took part in an accompanying Bible study, said Maria Wilson, one of 10 church members who serve as group leaders.

The Bible study is held on Sunday, but a training session is offered every day, "so there are no excuses for people not to do it," she said. The only cost was the $25 race fee, plus the cost of the book.

"We are not doing this for ourselves, but to glorify God," she said.
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