Running As A Secular Pilgrimage

AJW compares running to the concept of a pilgrimage.

By on December 30, 2016 | Comments

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?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.