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Phil Harrison’s history of running

  • 26 February 2018

Philip Harrison SJ is a member of the Jesuit Missions London Marathon team for 2018 He describes his long relationship with running as he gets back into training.

Long distance running was a grace that arrived unexpectedly in my late twenties on a cold winter’s morning in Stamford Hill, North London. I was studying philosophy at the time and trying to decide which ethical theory was the one by which I should live. Inspired, I grabbed my shoes (they were not even proper trainers), laced them up and walked down to Walthamstow Marsh to run. The clear air shook from my lungs the shackles of my student lifestyle and as my tender feet pounded the hard earth, I started to register the strange combination of pain and exhilaration which would become a regular feature of the next few years of my life.

I had decided somewhat arbitrarily that the best ethical theory would be the one that could keep me running faster and longer than all the others. John Stuart Mill seemed to recommend a calculation of the benefits of running, both to myself and to society; Immanuel Kant drove me out of bed each morning with the rule that everyone should run; and I relished alongside Aristotle the virtues I was developing through exercise. In the end it was his idea that we are just happier when we are doing good that won out and kept me running over the next few years.

Read more about some of this year’s London Marathon runners here.

I took to heart the advice of my favourite author Haruki Murakami: “Everything I learned about writing I learned from running,” he said, and so I started studying with the same persistence that I was running. “Grow to your limits and let the limits expand naturally,” he argued. So I set the rhythm of my spiritual life to the rhythm of my morning runs. “Pain is inevitable, but you have to choose to suffer,” he wrote in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. So I imagined him watching on as I began to work through my personal problems.  I even began to believe that running was a kind of primitive instinct, an energy which I had to recover from the bare soles of my feet.

There was only one problem with this new-found persistence. I lost it. I never had time to run and the long-held ambition of running a marathon never materialized. I drifted in and out of running for years, first training as a teacher and later moving to Colombia to study theology. As a school boy I had borrowed Alan Sillito’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner from the English cupboard.  I felt like its heroic borstal inmate, discovering freedom through running, but then giving up victory just before the end of the race.

Would running ever make me a better person? My dream of pounding away my spiritual flab step by step seemed to have faded away. Finally, it was thousands of miles away from home, while helping to dig the foundations of a Church in the village of Karasabai in Guyana, that I decided I would go for it. Seeing so many of the villagers coming out to help rebuild their church inspired me to run, not for my own happiness but to share that happiness with others.

Support Phil and raise money for Jesuit Missions by visiting his fundraising page.