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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Diaz-Gilbert

The Spiritual Dimension of Ultrarunning

Updated: Jan 19

Away from the world at the 2017 Wildcat 100 mile ultramarathon in Pensacola, FL.
Photo credit; Jon Gilbert

A Solitary Sport

Ultrarunning is a solitary sport. Ultrarunners run in a variety of environments from flat roads and landscapes to extremely challenging geographical settings in a variety of climate conditions. They run in deserts, mountains, technical trails, and jungles in rugged terrain, high altitude, and harsh weather and temperatures. They run through blistering heat, freezing temperatures, torrential rain, thunder, lightening, hail, and desert sand storms. They run distances as short as 50 miles on a flat road or in a treacherous and technical trail, to longer and more punishing and grueling distances, some in taxing and hellish multi-day events. The ultrarunner endures what is unimaginable to most.

An important component of training for running an ultra event is mental preparation for the rigors, extreme difficulty, and discomfort of an ultra. To prepare mentally before an ultra event, physical tapering, resting the mind, spending time in solitude and reflecting is also necessary to help the runner cope with the mental demands of the race. Gardening and weeding before an ultra helps me to relax my body, to settle my mind, to collect my thoughts, and to visualize the race and the finish.

Ultrarunning is not a game played in an hour. The time limit is more demanding. Ultrarunners are on the course from 12 hours, to 24 hours, to 30 hours, to 48 hours, to several days. The sport of ultrarunning is not played in nine innings like in baseball, or in three twenty-minute periods like in ice hockey. This sport is not run in four fifteen-minute quarters like in football or in four

twelve-minute quarters like in basketball, or in two forty-five minute halves like in soccer before screaming, cheering, and sometimes angry fans. Ultrarunning is unlike any other running event. Unlike other sports, such as alpine skiing and swimming, the long time commitment of ultrarunning affords ultrarunners the opportunity to think about what they are enduring, and to experience and talk about some kind of spiritual experience.

Away From the World

Ultrarunners are bodies in motion for non-stop miles, hours and hours, and in some cases, days with little rest and an abundance of sleep deprivation. Consequently, whatever the distance, they have lots of quiet time in isolated environments away from the world to contemplate and reflect on a spiritual level about the grueling and arduous journey they voluntarily subject their mind and body to.

Some ultrarunners integrate Zen philosophy and Buddhist traditions and spirituality in their training and running. Others turn to God, scripture, and their Christian faith. Research shows that running ultra distances in isolated environments affords runners the opportunity to reflect and to be spiritual.

In a study of ultrarunners who ran the Western States 100, participants expressed the existence ofGod and their spirituality. One stated, “What a fantastic thing that God has given me the privilege of doing for many, many miles. It’s just God, and the mountains, and me.”

Another stated, “Instead of a mantra, I say the rosary; it’s easy to do with a catholic background. It always gets me through." The study also shows that ultrarunners reflect on spiritual and existential questions including God, nature, the meaning of life, and sing and pray during ultra events. In another study, an ultrarunner indicated that “…running allows us…to be as spiritual as we can because we are out there and we’re suffering and maybe that's what it is to be closer to God.”

The peace and solitude of a solitary trail run
Photo credit: Jon Gilbert

Paths to Ultrarunner Spirituality

Carolyn Eardman and Jay Hodde’s Ultrarunner’s Prayer asks the Lord to watch over the ultrarunner’s body, mind, and spirit, and the trails and mountains. The prayer asks the Lord to remind the runners of their struggle, and that their personal victory at the finish line is only possible through His guidance.

Prayer is not uncommon in sport. Nick Watson and Mark Nesti point to research that concludes that prayer is very helpful for athletes who have strong religious beliefs. They note that research findings support the ancient Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition of prayer to seek comfort and strength during times of great suffering, difficulty, and hardship. They add that, whereas athletes of these monotheistic faiths will direct their prayers to God, athletes who are faithful to Buddhism and Zen philosophy will turn to meditation to quiet the mind and find focus.

Along with scripture passages, I carry a copy of the Ultrarunner's Prayer in my pouch during ultras. I say a pray of gratitude at the end of each mile. I thank God for giving me the strength to carry on when I'm mentally drained, physically exhausted, and sleep deprived. I carry my rosary and I pray the Rosary. I pray for my family and friends, and fellow runners. I talk to God. I find comfort in God's creation. I am lifted by the sunset, the sunrise, and the full moon during a 100 mile or 24 hour ultra that beams a ray of light on the course in the darkness of the night. I am reenergized by the presence God in the deer, horses, cows, and canine along the course. Something so simple has so much spiritual meaning.

Ultrarunners turn to Buddhism and Zen spirituality, their own spirituality, nature, scripture, prayer, Christianity, and God to help them articulate their ultrarunning spiritual experience and their spirituality. There are many paths that lead ultrarunners to experience their version of spirituality to get them through the ultrarunning journey.


Originally published in Huffington Post

I am the author of Come What May, I Want to Run: A Memoir of the Saving Grace of Ultrarunning in Overwhelming Times. My spirituality is a major theme. You can order the book here from from the publisher, Amazon, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble.

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