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An ‘Existential Singularity’

Good Morning. Today 40,000 people are making final  preparations for the London Marathon.

Some of them can barely believe they’re actually going to do this tomorrow – running 26 miles for fun is not who they thought they were.

And in an hour or so, across Britain, another 170,000 people embark on their own weekly run – puffing and panting over five kilometres in a Park Run.

Running is not as intimidating as it once was.

If we can run in company – where no-one judges us for our ability or speed or weight or looks – and if we can do it regularly, we not only become healthier… we feel better about ourselves.

I’m as surprised as anyone to discover I was harbouring an elite athlete inside – well, maybe not elite – but as I finish my regular neighbourhood jog, exhausted and exhilarated, I feel quietly proud… and slightly bewildered.  ‘How did this happen?’

‘Sport’ is the shortened form of the word disport – it’s about diversion, being ‘carried away ’ –  and sport of all kinds, still carries us away… from the disappointments of the everyday, from dashed hopes or bad luck.

And sport can bring us joy.

A new film, The Ponds, about people who swim, year-round, on London’s Hampstead Heath, explores the therapeutic properties of wild-water swimming.

One man, who was hit by a bus and recovered from two weeks in a coma, describes his regular, all-weather swims, as an ‘existential singularity’.

What a strange phrase – but also striking.

In the exertion of sport, just for a moment, you become more than yourself – get out of your self and away from your self.

You get lost… the way you do in great music or literature.

Maybe this is why sport has been called a ‘faith without explanation.’ It takes us beyond what we know of ourselves.

If you have faith, of course, you might reach for an explanation.

Like the Olympic sprinter Eric Liddell, in the 1980’s film Chariots of Fire, who said ‘When I run I feel God’s power in me.’

Whatever name we give that power, when we test ourselves in sport we make discoveries about ourselves.

For some, running is about solitude, a thinking time, a meditation… something close to prayer.

For others it’s about commitment and perseverance – early Christian teachers like Paul, saw the life of faith itself as a marathon. ‘Let us run with endurance the race set before us.’

But sport is also liberation, a release from the constraints of the everyday. A search for freedom, is how Catholic philosopher Michael Novak put it… and that rings true with the favourite, in tomorrows race.

Kenyan, Eliud Kipchoge, is almost mystical about the liberation of the long distance runner. ‘There is freedom in running,’ he says. ‘Go and run… and your mind will be free.’

I will seek that freedom on my 5k jog today…  and wish the same to everyone running this weekend.

((BBC R4 Thought For The Day April 27 2019)