A Review of
Run the Mile You’re In:
Finding God in Every Step
Hardback: Zondervan, 2019
[ Amazon ] [ Kindle ] [ Audible ]
Reviewed by Andrew Stout
Just a few short years ago, I would have told you how much I hated running. Sure, I’d run in high school as part of conditioning for basketball and baseball, but I never enjoyed it. I only saw running as a means to an end. In the fall of 2015, I hadn’t run so much as a mile since college. However, my 30th birthday was right around the corner, and I felt like I needed to do something to counteract my increasingly sedentary lifestyle. So, I laced up an old pair of tennis shoes and ran a slow, painful 2 miles around my neighborhood. Fast forward to April of this year, and after months of training, I was crossing the finish line in my first marathon. What changed in between? I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but running went from something I felt I should do to something I love to do. It didn’t happen overnight. It took about a year of forcing myself out the door and onto the pavement every few days before I actually started looking forward to each run.
One thing that contributed to the shift from experiencing running as drudgery to running as enjoyable – at times even joyful – was reading about the stories and experiences of other runners. Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2007) is the classic running memoir. A couple of my other favorites are Benjamin Cheever’s Strides: Running Through History with an Unlikely Athlete (2007) and Peter Segel’s The Incomplete Book of Running (2018). Cheever combines fascinating personal anecdotes from his own amateur running career with historical vignettes about running. Segel’s recent book is a hilarious and at points moving account of his running experiences, including finishing the Boston Marathon in 2013 shortly before the bomb went off at the finish line. As I read other runners recount the joys and struggles of racing, training, or just leisurely runs, I consistently find new reasons to get excited for my weekly long run.
Ryan Hall’s new memoir has plenty of running stories, and it aims to motivate its readers to success in all areas of life. Unlike the other memoirs I mentioned, Run the Mile You’re In is written by a world-class runner. Hall participated in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, he holds the American record for the half marathon (59:43), and he is the only American to run a sub-2:05 marathon. Despite these accomplishments, the part of the book that I found most interesting (and most motivational) had nothing to do with the records that Hall has set. In chapters 24 and 25 (there are 26 chapters in the book, reflecting the 26.2 miles of a marathon) he tells the story of taking on the World Marathon challenge about a year after he had retired from professional running. This event, which requires participants to run 7 marathons in 7 days on all 7 continents, is about as unthinkable a challenge as you could dream up. Hall recounts the ups and downs of running on compacted snow in Antarctica, along the Pacific Ocean in Chile, in the humidity of Miami, on a winter day in Spain, putting up his best time in Marrakech, along the beach in Dubai, and struggling through a stress fracture in Sydney. As he describes each race, the experience of camaraderie with the other runners, and the astounding discipline (not to mention calorie intake!) that the challenge required, the theme of the book hits home: “I knew that if I focused on the finish, I could get overwhelmed by how far I had to go. The closer I got to the final line, the more I had to stay present and focus on running the mile I was in” (203).
These chapters are effective, in part, because they consist of an interesting narrative of an astounding accomplishment. Hall punctuates the story with advice and observations, like this one that will resonate with most committed runners: “This is what is so special about running. It doesn’t matter how fast or how slow you’re going, all the runners in a race get to share similar experiences…We understand what we’re all going through, regardless of level” (209). For most runners, I suspect the story of this marathon challenge will be worth the price of the book. Unfortunately, the rest of the book tends to reverse this formula. Hall operates in self-help mode, encouraging readers to “maximize their God-given potential,” to shun negative thinking, and to focus on the positive. He doles out advice – a mix of generally wise insights and facile truisms – and offers stories from his career as a runner to substantiate this advice. Instead of letting the stories of his career inspire readers on their own merits, he spends too much time imploring his readers to think positively and to maximize their potential. Despite Bible verses liberally scattered throughout, the book has more in common with Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking than with the grand redemptive narrative of Scripture.
As you might guess from his accomplishments, Hall’s approach to athletics is intense. The training routines he describes are extreme, and Hall acknowledges at several points that his professional running career was undoubtedly cut short because he pushed his body too hard. Hall’s approach to Christian spirituality is similarly intense. He relies a lot on direct visions and words from God. Hall acknowledges that the intensity of his approach to training wasn’t smart, and that his professional career could have been extended had he learned earlier to listen to his body rather than push it to meet unrealistic goals. I wonder if there is a spiritual parallel here as well. Hall identifies his pastor as Bill Johnson of Bethel Church in Redding, California, and he has audited classes at the church’s School for Supernatural Ministries. I think that the charismatic theology that informs Hall’s approach to spirituality relies too heavily on extraordinary direct intervention from God, and undervalues the ordinary ways that God communicates through creation and Scripture.
There are plenty of good running stories and advice in Hall’s book to keep runners interested and motivated. His faith in God, both in victory and defeat, is similarly inspiring. But as a book that deals with the place of faith in athletics, I found it to be lacking in depth. Hall’s highly personalized application of Bible verses aren’t necessarily wrong, but they lack the breadth of perspective that comes when those verses are read as part of the larger redemptive story of the Bible. Still, as I go out for my next long run, I’m sure I’ll be able to dig a little deeper thanks to what Hall has shared from the ups and downs of his running life.
Andrew Stout is the Access Services Librarian at Covenant Theological Seminary. His articles and reviews have appeared in Religion and the Arts, Literature and Theology, and Pro Ecclesia.