Jason Byassee: Marathons as grace or heresy?

To run 26.2 miles is a massive achievement. But grace is always greater than our works.

I love Sarah Coakley’s comparison between our culture’s obsession with bodily health and the ancient Christian heresy of Pelagianism. For Coakley, efforts to make the body infinitely pliable, to keep it “jogging on (literally) for as long as possible,” amounts to a new version of the old teaching Augustine rejected. The Pelagians taught that if we worked hard enough on holiness we could earn our favor with God. Coakley and Augustine both insist that God grants favor out of sheer goodness and mercy. Salvation is God’s doing; all that’s left for us is to give thanks.

Having just run a marathon -- the Outer Banks Marathon, from Kitty Hawk to Manteo, N.C. -- I’m more interested in Coakley’s comparison than ever.

People keep asking me why I did it. I don’t actually know. I’ve written before about how training with someone gets you going farther than you ever could by yourself. True enough. But 26.2?!

Part of the allure is the danger. People do die running these things. There is a sort of epic struggle trying to max out what the body can do. Sure enough, my running partner had tendinitis flare up in his shin and couldn’t run after mile 13. Around 20-something my right arm got very cold. Odd. But the extreme exertion is part of the point. Where else in our culture do we put ourselves in danger for some worthy goal?

A recent documentary about the growing enthusiasm for marathons described another part of the allure. These races are populated by two kinds of runners: those who compete and those who just want to complete. My friends and I were decidedly in the latter camp. Yet we ran “with” those who finished in less than three hours. Imagine playing on the same court as Michael Jordan or studying at the same library desk with Cornel West.

When we arrived for the race I saw the attraction even more. There were not only thousands of runners. There were also thousands of fans. Apparently in a tourist area like the Outer Banks, locals are delighted to have visitors in a down economy, especially in the off season. Every mile, cheering strangers shouted words of encouragement that were almost as helpful as their Gatorade and Gu. I made a point to look them in the eye and say thanks (until 20, when I could no longer speak out loud. Then I mouthed it). It reminded me of a time when I was in Cameron Indoor Stadium with a friend when Mike Krzyzewski walked in just before tipoff. The building rose in applause. My friend turned to me, “What would it be like to get a standing ovation just for showing up to work?” Truth is, most of us could use such recognition. In a marathon you get it 26 times.

The main reason I ran has to be theological. I don’t mean to be trite: the martyrs are the first theologians, their work written in their blood, and millions of persecuted Christians are out there now (in fact, the popularity of extreme exercise may be a reaction to hyper modernity’s noxious safety). But bear with me. This will take telling some details of the race.

After I left my training partner at mile 8 I did nothing but pass people until 21. I was in a groove, feeling great. But at 21 that fell apart. The last 5 miles for me were all want-to. I drank and ate and stretched as much as I could and just soldiered on.

Somewhere around mile 22 I found myself crying. I didn’t mean to, and am not a person who cries frequently.  But I realized I was going to make it. I’d worked for this goal for over a year, I was on the homestretch, and it was going to happen. The finish was anti-climactic compared to this realization: I’d set out a goal and here I was fulfilling it.

Sounds like Coakley’s heretical “sweaty Pelagianism,” doesn’t it?

Then at 24 I began crying again (so much for my claim about being a rare cryer). This time it wasn’t about my success. I’d seen a pelican soaring over the water. A common sight at the beach, sure. But pelicans, according to St. Augustine, are Christ symbols. He’d heard stories of mother pelicans slaying their young, then wounding themselves and pouring their blood on their young, reviving them. To his credit he’s not sure it’s true biologically! But if it is, what a great image it would be of the savior who wounds us and himself in order to save.

When I saw the pelican, I saw Jesus, who wounds himself to save us. And suddenly all human effort to achieve, all desire for danger for the sake of some greater good, all community in which Jesus’ beloved creatures cheer on one another to greater deeds, all of it made sense. It’s odd to pound out 26.2 miles in order to see the very Jesus you can see in your Bible, your church down on the corner, your own heart. But no one ever said marathoners are anything other than odd.