Sweating Your Way to Spiritual Enlightenment

Sweating Your Way to Spiritual Enlightenment

Sean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

Because this is the new way we worship.

Lodgepole forests, flowered meadows, alpine streams tumbling through canyons — it’s not what usually comes to mind when people think of a house of worship. To endurance runner Timothy Olson though, the Rocky Mountain landscape near his home in Boulder, Colorado, might as well be decked out with pews, choir stalls and an altar. “Going into nature is entering this cathedral of presence,” says Olson, who set a record for the Western States 100 ultramarathon in 2012 that still stands (14 hours, 46 minutes, 44 seconds). “I believe the essence of running is being in the present moment, and when I move, or just sit and experience nature, I feel like I’m connecting with the divine.”

A growing number of true believers are joining Olson’s congregation and discovering a spiritual transcendence in endurance sports that they don’t find in churches, temples or mosques. It’s all part of a shift in religious affiliation in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent, while a 2016 Pew study shows that among the growing number of the religiously unaffiliated, nearly half had left their inherited faith “over lack of belief.” And yet a third Pew study reveals that even though younger generations are becoming less formally religious, they’re just as curious about “the purpose of life” and feel as much of “a sense of wonder about the universe.” Enter endurance sports, a new form of gathering and worship for the 21st century.

Long days in the mountains running or climbing produce a prolonged period of intense focus that can feel transcendent or revelatory.

Anton Krupicka, ultramarathon champion

The search for spiritual transcendence through physical exertion — fasting, pilgrimages, self-flagellation, ceremonial dances — is as old as humankind. But these days there’s no need to wander in the desert for 40 days or lose sleep during a dark night of the soul. Instead, those who seek spiritual growth can sign up for an ultramarathon, triathlon, long-distance bike race or other extreme athletic event. The payoff, research shows, is an endorphin dump that contributes to an emotional peak after an extended workout — the addictive and elusive “runner’s high.” In addition to bliss-giving brain chemistry, endurance athletics foster a sense of community and provide mental health benefits, according to researchers at the Harvard Medical School. Studies published in Cell Metabolism and by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America show that movement can even lower stress and improve memory and focus.

The strongest intersection of religion and endurance athletics, though, lies beyond the physical and psychological out in the foggy border country of the metaphysical. Like the mystics of old, endurance athletes struggle to describe these kinds of “peak experiences,” a term introduced by humanist psychologist Abraham H. Maslow in the 1960s. “Long days in the mountains running or climbing produce a prolonged period of intense focus that can feel transcendent or revelatory,” says two-time Leadville 100 champion Anton Krupicka. “I feel like I’ve had some sort of very connected, intense experience that I find almost impossible to explain to someone else.”

The limitations of language makes perfect sense to Casper ter Kuile, a fellow at the Harvard Divinity School and coauthor of How We Gather, a series of reports on how millennials worship. “Whatever language they have either feels inadequate or dangerous,” he tells OZY, and notes that a lack of specificity surrounds transcendental experiences because people lack a nondenominational vocabulary to describe them.

Altitude lovers like Olson and Krupicka find themselves high on endorphins while grinding to the summit — a literal peak experience — but droves of city dwellers are finding a more modest quasi-religious and mental health payoffs through moderate exercise regimens like CrossFit and SoulCycle, according to research by ter Kuile and coauthor Angie Thurston. These new hybrid gym-churches are built around competitive tribalism as central elements of members’ lives. The movements’ founders are fully aware that they’re selling spiritual enlightenment along with the promise of a hot body, says ter Kuile.

Not all experts are on board with the endurance trend, even if it instills a sense of a soul awakening. “Regular exercise is highly effective for the prevention and treatment of many common chronic diseases, and improves cardiovascular health and longevity,” lead author Dr. James H. O’Keefe of Saint Luke’s Health System in Kansas City, Missouri, wrote in a 2012 report published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Great — so what’s the catch? “Emerging data suggest that chronic training for and competing in extreme endurance events such as marathons, ultramarathons, Ironman distance triathlons and very long-distance bicycle races can cause … [an] elevation in biomarkers of myocardial injury.” The study noted, however, that these biomarkers usually “return to normal within one week.”

Despite the risks and inevitable injuries, Krissy Moehl is just happy to see the influx of new runners, especially the explosive growth of women thriving in ultra-endurance events. “If I had to name a church, [I’d say] the trails are my church,” says the running legend, sniffling during a phone call to OZY from Washington state, where she’s just wrapped up a soggy morning run that lasted a mere 60 minutes. Moehl, whose ultramarathon record over the past 16 years includes 55 female wins, two outright wins and just two DNFs, adds, “When I started trail running, I felt like I found my tribe.”

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