Article: The Ascetic Life of the Ultrarunner, by Miriam Díaz-Gilbert

Miriam Díaz-Gilbert’s article describes how her experience training for a highly rigorous sport can be compared to Christian ascetic practices. Here are the article’s introductory paragraphs:

The early Christian ascetic body. The modern-day ultrarunner body. What kinship do they share? This personal narrative explores the similarities between the two and how the ascetics’ treatment of the body resonates with my spiritual ritual as an ultrarunner.

The early Christian ascetic experienced a demanding and difficult life of self-discipline, self-denial, prayer, fasting, repentance, and celibacy. The goal of the ascetic life was spiritual development, spiritual edification, and uniting body and soul with God. Paul introduced the practice of asceticism to Christianity by using athletic terms that emphasized the “self-sacrifice, discipline, and self-control” required in living as a purposeful and unwavering Christian. Christian ascetics such as Antony of Egypt, Evagrius Ponticus, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila, among others, are often described as athletes. As an ultrarunner, I draw strength and inspiration from their example and recognize our bodily connection. Today’s ultrarunners are literal ascetic athletes who engage in extreme, meaningful bodily experiences and practices very similar to the ascetics. Ultrarunning has a distinct spiritual dimension that lends itself to solitude and reflection, and is a kind of embodied spiritual practice that I call “ultrarunning spirituality.”

Ultrarunning is defined as running any distance beyond the standard 26.2-mile marathon. The most common are 50 and 100 miles, and 50 and 100 kilo-meters (31 and 62 miles). Six-hour, 12-hour, 24-hour, 48-hour, and multi-day races of five or more days are also ultramarathons, referred to as “ultras” or endurance runs. For the uninitiated, the thought of running a standard 26.2-mile marathon, let alone an ultramarathon, is unimaginable. This sentiment is understandable. As a young girl watching the Olympics, I was in complete awe of marathoners who ran 26.2 miles. They appeared to have super powers and to be superhuman. Now, as an adult, I have evolved from a marathoner to an ultra-endurance runner, and have experienced the exhilarating suffering and joy of this chosen path.

Achieving the feat of running such grueling distances requires discipline, training, and a love of exercise. These key words: discipline, training, and exercise define asceticism (taken from the Greek word askesis). The Greek, Latin, and Semitic roots of these words have historically been used to interpret the language of Christian discourse including “asceticism,” which is used to refer to athletic training and physical discipline, and to describe spiritual endeavor.

Miriam Díaz-Gilbert’s bio from the article:
Miriam Díaz-Gilbert is ABD in Christian Spirituality from LaSalle University, where she earned her MA in Theology & Ministry and was inducted into Theta Alpha Kappa. She has been running ultramarathons fourteen years. She recently completed her 23rd ultra and 9th 50-mile ultra endurance run. She currently teaches Spirituality & Healing at Rowan University. As an adjunct professor at Neumann University and Manor College, she taught theology and religious studies. She is also working on her memoir—Come What May; I Want to Run. The title comes from 2 Samuel 18:23.

The article’s citation:

Miriam Díaz-Gilbert. “The Ascetic Life of the Ultrarunner.” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 18, no. 2 (2018): 201-217.

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