'Persevere in running the race'
Cross country athletes glean life, faith lessons from the sport
By Susan Szalewski
‘Wow, this hurts. Why am I doing this?’
Running is a paradox.
It makes people feel good and offers peace and pleasure. But it also can be grueling and painful, something to endure.
Running is a little bit like life itself in that sense, and the sport can teach some valuable lessons about life – and also about following Christ.
Five high school cross country runners and one high school coach shared with the Catholic Voice what long-distance running has taught them.
Perservere through the pain
Running at an intense level can be painful, said Gus Lampe, a senior at Roncalli Catholic High School in Omaha and the top runner in the Class C division at the Nebraska state tournament in Kearney.
“In the moment, it’s like, ‘Wow, this hurts. Why am I doing this?’ Lampe said. “And then you’re done and you’re like, ‘Wow, this feels really good. I gave it my all, and not many people can say they did that.”
“It definitely requires a lot of perseverance, but it’s all worth it in the end,” said Lampe, who recently signed a letter of intent to join Creighton University's cross country team.
“Any real cross country race, where you’re putting your all out there, it’s pretty difficult at times,” said Thomas Rice, a junior at V.J. and Angela Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha and a member of its Class B state championship team. “I mean, it gets brutal on the courses sometimes, especially in bad weather. You never really know what you’re going to get, but it can be very brutal finishing a race.
“Then, I think, once you finish that race, once you’ve gotten through the tough times, it’s all better because of it,” Rice said. “It wouldn’t be what it is without the tough times.”
The same is true in life and in prayer, he said. “You wouldn’t be able to appreciate the good times that you have with friends and family if it didn’t come with some hardships.
“And I think you also build a lot of camaraderie with your teammates during the tough times, just as you maybe would build a relationship with God during the tough times.”
At the end of a race, when runners feel they have no energy left, they have to push themselves, said Jack Wade, a senior at Skutt Catholic and Rice’s teammate.
At that time, everything hurts. Legs feel heavy. Lungs are searing.
“You’re body doesn’t want to listen to your mind,” Rice said.
But a runner has to persevere.
That perseverance also applies to difficult situations in life, Wade said. “If you have pain in your life, it’s bothering you, you just need to get through it,” he said. “You can’t give up. You can’t give up because if you get through it, in the end, it’s going to help you out.”
“There’s a lot of times in life when you’re down,” Rice said.
“When you’re in that pain in cross country, it helps to visualize the finish,” he said, “to be able to see the finish or think about it in your head and know I just have to go this far to get through this.
“And in life, it’s a lot like that,” he said. “Sometimes it can be hard to see the end of the bad time that you may be in, but you’ve just got to envision the finish. You’ve got to say ‘Hey, I can get through this.’”
In running and in life, Lampe said, “you’ve got bumps and hills along the way, and it ain’t always easy. But it all comes down to the final race, and you’ve just got to trust what you’ve done, trust that you did the right thing.”
Persevering to the finish is rewarding, he said, and in life that means avoiding sin and evil at all costs.
Remember that you're part of a team
Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha won the state Class A competition, but it was a tight race with a tie-breaker needed to win.
Each runner’s performance was crucial, said Jesuit Father Robert Tillman, a counselor at the school and cross country head coach.
“When you look back on it, it was a real team effort,” Father Tillman said.
“What everybody did really counted. If one of them would’ve slacked off and let somebody pass them, or if they wouldn’t have passed somebody else, if they wouldn’t have given that second effort, we wouldn’t have had a tie.”
“They don’t know that when they’re running. But you tell them all season long, don’t let anybody pass you. And they didn’t. They passed some people, so that was good.”
At the state cross country meet, a team’s top five runners usually determine its score. The points of a team’s sixth or seventh runner doesn’t typically figure into the outcome of the race.
But senior Andrew Sauer, who ran in sixth place for Creighton Prep, broke the tie for his team.
A team’s sixth runner might let up in the race, but Sauer didn’t, his coach said. And Sauer won the day for his team.
The win was a reminder that everyone’s performance on a team matters, said senior Jacob Finney, a member of the all-senior squad.
Father Tillman said that as a coach he stresses a team mentality and he works to unite his team.
“One of the big things why I keep coaching is this whole idea of building community,” said the 27-year coaching veteran, “which is to me a very important aspect of the Church.”
“That’s one of the things I look for and I hope for on the team every year. It’s not necessarily whether we win or lose, but whether we have that community and building of bonds with one another and being supportive of one another and just feeling that oneness.”
Teammates’ friendships have budded over the last four years, Finney said. “We’ve all been able to go through this together. I think it’s definitely allowed us to all be close with each other.
“And I think Father Tillman does a great job of bonding the team,” he said, “especially the last two weeks before state. … I think he really cares about us. We do these pancake breakfasts and Masses on Sundays. Everything he does for the team really makes us all close to each other.”
Set goals and have the discipline to obtain them
“I think the biggest life lessons running has taught me is goal setting and discipline to stay true to those goals,” Finney said.
“I mean, Andrew and I weren’t anything special our freshman year. I don’t think anyone would’ve even predicted we’d be varsity runners. I think that goes for a lot of the guys on the team.”
But early on they set goals and did what was necessary to achieve them, he said, “no matter if you have a bad day and you don’t feel like running. But if you do it, you’ll eventually get to where you want to be.
“So I think it’s really shown that discipline can lead to results better than you could have ever imagined going back, looking at it freshman year.”
“It’s hard sometimes when you don’t want to get up or whatever,” Sauer, his teammate, said. Early morning or evening runs were necessary in the summer “to beat the heat.”
Runners learn how far they can push themselves, said Wade, of Skutt Catholic, “and that there’s never really a limit to where you can go and what you can do. And a lot of it comes down to teamwork and your friends and teammates pushing you to do your best.”
Find time to be alone with God
People often “find it a very good time to commune with God while they’re running,” Father Tillman said, “probably not so much during races, but during the training phases and the long days of running. It gives them a lot of solitude, where their thoughts can turn to higher things.”
“Cross country taught me a lot of life lessons,” said Rice, of Skutt Catholic. Perseverance is one of them. But in terms of how it affected my faith, going on long runs, for me, really helped slow life down and really let me connect with my inner self and with God.”
Being out alone in nature, he said, is a “a great form of prayer that just helps me kind of discover who I am.”
“I feel like running has definitely developed how I pray and how I think about prayer,” Rice said. “It gets you comfortable with thinking about things and silence.”
“Usually we run with our group, obviously,” his teammate, Wade, said, “but sometimes you just want to be by yourself – just think to yourself, think about the world around you and God.”
Lampe said he doesn’t listen to a lot of music when he runs. “Most of the time … I’m just in my thoughts or talking to my buddies. But it’s a really good time to just kind of be with yourself and God. I don’t know, there’s just something about running that’s just so natural, and I love it.”
“On the shorter runs, especially if a bunch of people are talking, I don’t necessarily pray,” Sauer said. “But on some of the longer runs, where I’m by myself or just with my twin brother (and teammate Michael) I do pray a little daily examen. It’s not super formal, and I don’t pray any memorized prayers while I’m running, but I can just look back on my day.”
“When we’re at practices with all of our teammates with us, it can be a little bit harder to pray,” Finney said. “But when it’s just me, as the sun’s rising or in the evening when the sun’s setting, I think I really come to appreciate God and everything He’s given me through running. It’s probably my greatest hobby, and it’s really given me, I guess, direction or something to look forward to in my life. So I will be appreciative towards God on those runs.”
“Prayer doesn’t always get answered right away or in ways that you want it to,” Rice said. “Kind of like how when you run. Just because you run, you’re not always going to hit a PR (personal record).
“You’re not always going to hit the goals that you want,” he said. “But I think when you look back on it as a whole, it really tends to be a beautiful picture – for prayer and running.”
“I think the greatest lesson I’ve learned (from running) that I can apply to my faith is patience,” Sauer said. “Because in running you don’t always get the results you want at every race you run in. Sometimes you have to wait until the next meet and have another week of practice before you can reach your goal.
“Then I apply that to faith,” he said, “because if I pray for something, God won’t always answer the prayer exactly when I want it, but I just need to stay patient.”
In running a race, Rice said, “you learn to appreciate your opponents.”
“Even though you’re not on the same team, you kind of learn that everybody’s in the same game,” he said. “Everybody’s doing the same thing, everybody lifts each other up.
“That’s a lesson it’s taught me for life,” he said of running. “It’s not like you’re against some people or whatever. It doesn’t matter who they are. You can just work with people and try to love them to the best of your ability. That’s what life is all about.”
Be grateful to God
“He has blessed me with so many opportunities,” Lampe said. “I’m just grateful for Him and all He does.”
Finney said he has seen God at work throughout his four years of high school running, especially in daily training. “I know He’s been there, keeping me healthy through all those miles. All seven of us (on Creighton Prep’s varsity team) were putting up 50- to even 60-mile weeks all summer long. … God was with us to keep us all healthy throughout the season.”
“I definitely saw God in our health,” he said. “No one really got injured this season. We had some injuries from track last spring, but our team was mainly healthy this year.”
“I also saw God in my teammates and the camaraderie between us,” he said, “just because we were pushing each other every day.”
When Sauer and his Creighton Prep teammates found out they had won the state championship, he saw God present there – in his teammates and in all his relatives who drove to Kearney to support him.
“My entire family was all there to cheer me on,” he said.
“There were so many people out there to support us,” Finney said, including recent Prep graduates who had competed in cross country.
“God worked through everyone to reach out to us,” he said, “to push us through those last tough couple minutes of that race. Then, yeah, everything went perfectly for that to happen, which can only, I guess, be explained by God.”