Finding inner peace through endurance running

“When a runner focuses all his attention on a particular race, he is in a position to free his mind, liberate his mind, from uncomely distractions. Here one-pointed concentration is the pathfinder for a deeper meditative consciousness.” (Sri Chinmoy)

December 29, 2022


I recently travelled from Kaua’i to Oahu to participate in the 10-kilometer race at the 2022 Honolulu Marathon. It was another transforming experience of what I can only refer to as ‘running in paradise,’ and I put together a video about that weekend you can watch on my YouTube. Watching the video will take you less time and will be less strenuous than it took me to run the 10K. 😊

After my flight back to the US from Switzerland at the end of November, Eunjung and I first stayed for a week at a high altitude in Colorado. Unfortunately, I was down with the flu right away so I couldn’t train for the race as I had planned during the first week. Once I was back on Kaua’i, I could train only a few times before the race.

Despite my initial downtime with flu and lack of training, I ended up really enjoying the race, running together with so many other runners. More than 20,000 runners reached the finish line. Uplifted by the brilliant colors of the fireworks at the start, for the most part, I was able to maintain a good pace and finish the 10 Kilometer race in 51 minutes.

Looking back on my life’s journey so far, both running and orienteering have been some of the most beneficial sport activities for me. I was only 6 years old when I first joined my father in some of his long-distance runs. So running became my passion early on and at age 10, I became known as the youngest organizer of a running event (the Studweidlauf) in Switzerland which I continued to organize between 1986 and 1995. Since then, running became part of me for 4 decades now.

To me, running meant time to be introspective, and gradually, it became a spiritual practice. Large running events offer elements that seem to unite the physical and spiritual aspects of life. I have been running for a long time and joined countless running or orienteering events and here are some of my observations on how running is complementary to our spiritual practice.

Running takes me and other runners beyond our comfort zone. It teaches us that we are capable of more than we perhaps realize. Since running requires from us our effort, focus and willingness to challenge both our body and mind against the distance and natural elements, it builds up our physical and mental conditions. To reach the finish line or your chosen goal you need training, a strong mindset and physical endurance.

After my experience of running together with more than 20,000 other participants in Honolulu, once again I pondered on a few questions I usually think about during and after a running event: What is this link between endurance running and spirituality, what are the similarities between meditation and endurance running, and why is joining a running event often such transformative and spiritual experience to me?

According to a variety of spiritual practices, once we begin to focus on our physical body and the five senses in the present moment, awareness increases and the mindless chatter of our minds we are so used to begins to subside and over time and with some practice, we begin to feel a greater sense of self, happiness, and contentment. This is one of the reasons why I love running: I can be just present without many thoughts running in my head.

Running also helps us focus on breathing. Several meditation practices also involve combinations of deep breathing techniques while focusing the attention on and inside the physical body. Once you have run for a while, your mind’s need to comment on everything withdraws into the background and you feel like becoming one with your body, breath, and what’s around you.

To experience something beyond the physical body or access the spirit world, people from many ancient cultural traditions pushed their bodies beyond their limits for a very long time. For example, some American Indian tribes starve themselves until they gain insights that go beyond the five physical senses, or African tribes perform all-night ceremonies in which they dance themselves into a trance state to reconnect with the spirit world.

Running too allows me to get a glimpse into a state of mind beyond my usual thoughts and emotions after I pass through the initial stages of physical struggles and efforts. After running for a while, I sometimes enter a state of calm, lightness, and contentment where my body feels almost floating and moving by itself without me doing anything actively.

Both in meditation or running, self-transcendence is involved when we attempt to expand our capacity and improve on our previous achievements. For example, in running, self-transcendence can be measured by how fast or how far you can run. Even if you fail to make a new personal best time on a given distance, you can always train and do your best for your next run or race.

For the first third of the Honolulu race, I could maintain a steady fast pace. However, after about 4 kilometers into the race, I felt the effect of not enough training and had to slow down and even briefly walk a few times. As long as I remained detached from the time stamp at the finish line without blaming myself that I couldn’t run at the same pace throughout the whole race, I immediately felt better and could run again.

To discuss similarities or connection between running and spirituality, one needs to mention Chinmoy Kumar Ghose (better known as Sri Chinmoy) who was an Indian-born advocate of both meditation and running. Between 1978 and 1986, he completed over 200 road races including 22 marathons and 5 ultramarathons, and he advocated athleticism such as distance running, swimming, and weightlifting.

Sri Chinmoy said that running is a symbolic sport in the sense that it reminds us of spiritual seekers continuously moving towards their goal. He mentioned that these seekers run inwardly to achieve their ultimate goal in meditation. He also talked about several spiritual aspects of running such as self-transcendence, getting to know yourself, dynamism, and inner peace.

As I mentioned self-transcendence above, I’d like to add what Sri Chinmoy said in this regard: “Self-transcendence gives us joy in boundless measure. When we transcend ourselves, we do not compete with others. We do not compete with the rest of the world, but at every moment we compete with ourselves. We compete only with our previous achievements. And each time we surpass our previous achievements, we get joy.”

To me, running and meditation are mutually beneficial. In a world filled with stimulants overloading our senses, meditation and mindfulness teach us to be one-pointed and how to bring all our awareness to one aspect. I often perceive running as an extension of meditation because it’s important not to get distracted by thoughts while running just like in meditation and to become the observer of yourself running.

Another aspect meditation and running can share is conscious breathing. Breath plays the key role in a variety of approaches to meditation. Inhaling and exhaling with mindfulness during running, much like in yoga or meditation, helps to nurture the unity of body, mind, and spirit. To make running a more meditative experience, concentrate on your breathing. While you inhale, feel that your breath brings not just oxygen but energy, and when you exhale, focus on exhaling tiredness and exhaustion. 

There is also an area of the brain that is very active both in mediators and endurance athletes. This area called ACC (Anterior Cingulate Cortex) can help them self-regulate and override impulses that arise during their respective practice.  So how do these two seemingly different perspectives of spirituality and science connect? Both endurance athletes and meditators can override impulses through conscious restraint, a task that is handled by the ACC as well.

In many of the spiritual traditions I studied for the past 15 years, there seems to be a tendency to put less importance to the body than the mind and spiritual aspects, which I don’t believe is healthy or beneficial for our holistic growth as a person. I often witnessed those who seemed ungrounded and struggled with their day-to-day activities. One of many reasons I remained passionate about joining endurance racing events for so many years is that it celebrates embodiment and our body instinct in service of the quest to live our life’s purpose.

Of course, endurance racing certainly isn’t for everyone reading this. However, as someone who has been sensitive and intuitive for as long as I can remember, such running races have been rewarding in several ways. To me, spirituality doesn’t solely include sitting in stillness and witnessing everything that passes through me. Balance is the key. When I remain static too long, I feel like becoming a stagnant pool. However, when I move my body, I feel like becoming an expression of a flowing stream of life force.

Back to this race in Honolulu I joined a few weeks ago, there is a reason why running races in Hawaii are special besides running through beautiful scenery in the islands. Before major events such as the Honolulu Marathon, special Hawaiian blessings are given by Hawaiian cultural practitioners (a Kahuna, meaning ‘expert’ in Hawaiian). We the participants at the Honolulu Marathon received the invocation/prayers a few minutes before the race began at 5 am with gratitude.

Hearing these beautiful prayers (Pule in Hawaiian) sung or spoken in the Hawaiian language always moves me deeply. Although most of us who were not native Hawaiians did not understand what was said, I believe these prayers supported us with protection and strength. We also watched beautiful Hula dancers and musicians perform the night before as part of the Honolulu Marathon Aloha Night at Beach Walk Plaza in Waikiki. If you’d like you can see it beginning from Min. 13 in my video.

Running together with tens of thousands of people who have a common passion is a spiritual experience for me in itself. I experienced this twice this year, first at the 10K race at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas event with 35,000 runners at the end of February and most recently at this Honolulu Marathon with more than 20,000 runners.

After training by ourselves, which can sometimes be a lonely endeavor, coming together and running with so many others is exhilarating and exciting. I don’t feel competitive with others when I run, rather I am focused on my personal goal which is to run the best time for a given distance. For others, it could simply be just completing the race regardless of the time it takes.

There is much cheering and encouraging happening in these races from the onlookers or families and friends of the participants. It is so heartwarming and inspiring to see and experience such camaraderie and genuine encouragement and cheering in such a huge scale.

When I had to walk in Honolulu a few times rather than running, other runners motivated me to keep running, and when I saw others walking or struggling, I too encouraged them to continue. So I feel running together with thousands of others cheering each other and being present in each of the steps or breaths promotes transformation deep from within.

After this weekend in Honolulu, I kept thinking about how we can cheer and encourage each other in our daily lives too. In our ‘busyness’ of our regular day to day lives, we (me included) tend to just focus on our own affairs and sometimes forget others’ struggles. So I decided to give some time and think about how we can do this better, cheering on each other’s achievements and encouraging those who are having a tough time not to give up.

In my next blog post sometime in January next year, I will share my thoughts on this and simple practices that will help us cheer and encourage each other and spread more positivity around us based on some of the values contained in ALOHA. And I will keep cheering on others I encounter in the New Year. Will you join me too in this cheering campaign?😊


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To live a life on purpose, acknowledge your thoughts andnemotions and redirect them toward your dreams.
~Yves Nager