As a fan of long distance running for almost 35 years, I cannot let this day go by without remarking on how wonderful it was to see the performance of American men in the New York marathon Nov. 1. An American immigrant, Meb Keflizighi, won, the first time that has happened since 1982. And another American, Ryan Hall, took 4th. In fact, Americans took six of the top 10 spots. That has not happened since the 1970s.
Why is this noteworthy? Well, first of all, long distance running has been dominated by Africans and South Americans since the 1980s, especially the New York and Boston marathons, the premier U.S. events. Meb pointed to his racing singlet, which said “USA” on it, proudly in the last half-mile to highlight the return of American long-distance running.
But there was also something new: both Meb and Ryan Hall are openly and proudly religious, and this is definitely something new for American long-distance runners.
Meb crossed himself repeatedly after he finished and even a few times during the race. He is a proud Catholic and had a high-profile (for a runner) Catholic church wedding.
Ryan Hall is perhaps the most famous evangelical Christian runner since Eric Liddell of “Chariots of Fire” fame. Hall says he was inspired by God to run, and he has some of the single greatest American long-distance performances of all time, including the American record in the half-marathon (59:43) and a 2:06 marathon time.
Such open displays of religious fervor are unheard of in the world of long distance running, at least among the champions of the last 40 years. Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar were not at all openly religious (although Salazar went through a very interesting religious conversion after his top years as a runner). It is worth mentioning that perhaps the greatest Mormon marathoner of all time is Ed Eyestone, who went to BYU. I don’t know if he ever discussed his faith as part of his running the way that Ryan Hall does.
I mention this because for some of us (ahem!) running is a truly spiritual experience. One of my first feelings of being in touch with the Holy Ghost came one day while I was running. When I go on long runs, I always stop in the middle and try to pray, and some of my best, most sincere prayers have come during these times. Even runners who are not religious discuss how running helps them meditate, reduce stress and work out problems.
So, personally, I love the fact that I am not alone: the best American runners today are openly religious like I am. And they are FAST (unlike me), among the fastest in the world. It’s a wonderful thing.