Running As A Secular Pilgrimage

AJW's Taproom“You know, AJ, when it’s all said and done, we are all just pilgrims on a pilgrimage.”

Those words tumbled out of Tom Nielsen’s mouth as he and I were climbing together out of El Dorado Canyon at mile 54 of the 2006 Western States. It was hot. We were tired. The day had turned into a war of attrition. Yet in that moment Tom’s words resonated with me. They did so then and they do so even more today, over 10 years later.

Tommy Nielsen is my mentor, my guide, my Jedi Master. Whether he knows it or not, his aura has been along with me in every 100 miler I have run, from my first at the Angeles Crest 100 Mile in 2000 to my most recent run at Hardrock this past July. If there ever was a muse in this sport, it is Tommy. And his simple declaration about running as a pilgrimage was profound.

A pilgrimage is, in essence, a journey of moral or spiritual significance. Most often it is a journey to a shrine or a sanctuary or some other place of safety. At its core, the pilgrimage brings one into oneness, or possibly even wholeness, with that which gives life meaning and purpose. Journeys that lead us toward redemption or forgiveness are often the objective. The most sacred pilgrimages are done on foot and for centuries religious faiths the world over have made the pilgrimage a centerpiece of their transcendent experience. For Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews, and many others, the spiritual search, the process of finding, has been central to the revelation of faith.

What Tommy’s words sparked in me just over a decade ago on that hot, miserable day was the realization that what we do as long-distance runners, particularly 100-mile runners, is acutely akin to a pilgrimage. In fact, for many of us, it is our secular pilgrimage reinvented and reinspired each day we lace them up and work our way forward from point A to point B. We really are “all just pilgrims.” But what exactly does that mean?

Literally, a pilgrim is a traveler, one who has come from afar. Additionally, a pilgrim is one who is searching for something better, something deeper, something greater. In that searching, the pilgrim longs to connect with the extraordinary and in the process seeks refuge in that part of the world that opens up possibility and connectedness in ways no other places do.

For me, my mentor Tommy, and many, many others, that place is on the run. And that may be part of why we do what we do. What we are searching for, what we are seeking, is often ours and ours alone. But what binds us together is the process, the pilgrimage, the quest for that place of hope, that sanctuary of peace, or that haven of faith that comes to us when we are out there doing what we love, doing what makes us whole, doing what we may just be meant to do.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Year

The Answer Brewpub logoThis brings a change to the usual AJW’s Beer of the Week section of my column. I am awarding AJW’s Beer of the Year or… AJW’s BOY!

I’ve published my brief beer reviews at the end of this column for five years and yet I have never done a beer of the year. So, I’ve decided to do that this year and am calling this new award AJW’s BOY. AJW’s Beer of the Year was chosen from among from the 52 beers I have reviewed over the 52 previous Fridays of 2016.

The AJW’s Beer of the Year for 2016 is Larceny IPA from The Answer Brewpub in Richmond, Virginia. Rivaling the big guys like Heady Topper, Pliny the Elder, and Sip of Sunshine, the good folks at The Answer have created a beer that can match up well to just about any other. If you find yourself in Richmond be sure to swing by The Answer, you will not be disappointed.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you compare your own running to a secular pilgrimage? If so, what sorts of tangible and intangible things are you seeking in your running journey?
  • Have you sampled any of AJW’s 2016 beer suggestions? What has been your favorite beer this year?

There are 11 comments

  1. Justin

    Awesome post, AJW. Reminds me how in rock climbing circles we often spoke of classic climbing spots as “meccas,” to which the acolytes among us would make pilgrimages. Backs bent by heavy packs, we donned harness and craned our necks, flagellated ourselves against the rocks in an effort to ascend. As I’ve been running longer distances, I find a very similar reconnection of body, breath, and mind, especially on mountain trails. Thanks for your voice.

  2. Sophie Speidel


    I have often thought about my favorite race, Hellgate 100k, like a pilgrimage of sorts. It brings together the broken and the tired ( from a year of racing) as well as those seeking redemption (from a year of disappointments) and those seeking enlightenment (“if I can run all night in the dark of December in the mountains…).

    My favorite singer-songwriter wrote this:

    “We are travelers traveling
    We are gypsies together
    We’re philosophers gathering
    We are business or pleasure

    We are going or coming
    We’re just finding our way
    To the next destination
    And from night into day…”

    She describes my feelings about ultrarunning in general, and Hellgate in particular. She’s never run Hellgate, but she knows about searching.

    Happy New Year, Andy!

    1. AJW

      Thanks for the great comment Sophie! Your Hellgate experience closely mirrors my decade long journey at Western States. Each time I left that starting line I was seeking. Not sure what but something. Most times I found more than I was looking for.

      Happy New Year to you too! And that singer songwriter who I believe is your sister:))

  3. Jer

    IMTUF sort of arrived in 2016. Course records, good sized field, and the year Tommy Nielson came to Idaho. One too many epics over the years left him hobbled with a bad back before he even got into the good stuff.

    Please make another pilgrimage my friend.

  4. scott

    Awesome post AJW. In an age when we don’t often have reason to make each day sacred and meaningful, running long makes those precious races into the center of my year.
    I remember you’ve made reference in Taproom columns past to your AC pacer Andy Roth talking about Secular Pilgrimages in his work as an academic too!

    1. AJW

      Yes Scott, Andy and I spent hours ruminating over the secular pilgrimage concept while running 100s. Funny thing is, we ‘d never discussed it with Tommy and then out of the blue in ’06 it just came out. Hope you get to have a pilgrimage or two in 2017!

  5. Andrew

    Excellent analogy! As someone who lacks belief in a higher power, I have always found ultras as my only “spiritual” outlet. I always had difficulty putting this in words to my friends who asked why I did this. “Secular pilgrimage” is perfect! Thank you.

  6. Ben

    Reminds me of lines from the poem ‘The Golden Journey to Samarkand’ :

    ‘We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
    Always a little further… ‘

    A useful running mantra, on occasion.

  7. Burke

    I really enjoyed this piece. I think that eventually we all find that one race that represents the holiest of holy’s for us on a personal level. We all need to be stripped down to our core from time to time to grow as runners and as people. I am beyond excited to be back on a pilgrimage this year.

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