Faith, discipline help Houston runners find solid ground

January 24, 2016

HOUSTON — When 26,000 runners took to Houston's streets for the Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon, a few hundred seemed to have an extra spirited stride. 

That's because 400 runners attended a 5:30 a.m. Mass just before tackling their 26.2-mile or 13.1-mile journeys on Jan. 17 in Houston.

For Father Richard L. "Luke" Millette, the early morning Mass wasn't a problem.

"In the beginning there's always a lot of energy, it's a fun environment. Everyone's excited and supporting each other and eager to get started and get to the race even though it's very early in the morning," he said. The Mass, held at the George R. Brown Convention Center, offered runners a brief time to pray and reflect. 

While the sounds from the nearby Protestant prayer service, which is held at the same time, do drift into ears of the faithful attending Mass, Fr. Millette said "there's something profound about just having that simple quiet Mass as you prepare to go."

Stopping to stretch before heading out to the marathon's race corrals, Nancy Stancher agreed. 

"It's very peaceful and to get a blessing, it definitely sets your mind at ease," she said. While she attended Vigil Mass at her home parish of St. Paul Catholic Church in Nassau Bay the day prior, she still wanted to get a blessing. "I'm glad they have Mass, it's very calming before the storm because it gets busy out there (on the course)."

Mercy, Motion and Faith

Taking on the challenge of running such a distance may seem daunting, but the achievement is an incredible way to engage the faith, especially during the Year of Mercy, according to Fr. Millette.

"As part of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has challenged us to revive the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy," he said. "You can link this with the spiritual works of mercy, of engaging the faith in a very powerful way. In a sense, you can see a unity, between the spiritual and physical effects on the soul. 

"In the Mass, we have motion, movement, we are beings with bodies. We worship with our bodies and (the participants) are carrying that worship out into their run. There's something about allowing that spirituality to infuse them there and carrying that out and hopefully it shines through in what they do and their race."

Fr. Millette said Blessed Pierre Giorgio Frassati understood the connection between the physical and spiritual, sharing a similar spirituality. 

The Italian was known for his athleticism as a skier and rock climber, but also as a as a man of science and deep prayer. He would also go to Mass and adoration before going skiing. 

Efforts like Stancher's encourage Fr. Millette, who celebrated the Mass for runners for a second time.

"There's definitely a sense of evangelization, that people see that this is important. Here's a group of people here who really want God's blessings and really that want to that have an experience of God's love before they go and run," he said. "And it's more than just someone trying to fulfill their Sunday obligation. Most people would not go to that length to get to Mass at 5:30 a.m. before a long day of exercise like that. They could easily go to Saturday vigil and not have to go Sunday morning."

The Mass concluded with a special blessing for the athletes and a Rite of Sprinkling of the faithful with holy water. Runners often came up several times during the blessings, looking for any extra help for their run, Fr. Millette said. 

"It really inspired me how many people keep pouring through when I thought they'd be off getting ready for the race. More people just kept pouring through to asking for blessings, prayers," he said. "It's their choice to not go Saturday evening, it's their definite choice to be their that morning to receive those graces before they go run and I think there's something powerful in that and definitely a powerful expression of faith."

The Miles In-between

Taking on the challenge of running such a distance may seem daunting, but the achievement is an incredible feat that requires more than just a good pair of running shoes.

When Karina Brooks lost her father to lung cancer, many things gained a different meaning, even her running.

"When he was sick, every run began to mean more to me," she said. "During that time I grew to be thankful for the simple things, like being able to get up, go outside and run." And since it was lung cancer, even every breath she took held immensely more meaning.

Greeted with a brisk Houston morning, Brooks finished her second half marathon, making the 13.1-mile journey through the Bayou City. A parishioner at Fulshear's St. Faustina Catholic Church in west Houston, she said her family's support is crucial to her success. "My husband is very supportive and even joins me for an annual Turkey Dash as a family. When I go on longer runs, that's time spent away from my family."

Brooks hopes that she's demonstrating the results of discipline, will and commitment to her two children. "It's not always difficult, but when you do, it's fantastic. When you finish a run, you feel great. But when you're running, it's definitely not easy. You never see a runner making happy faces."

But along the run through Houston's neighborhoods, Brooks runs during the half marathon, several things do make her smile. "During the race, there are so many people cheering for you. Some of the signs, the things people write, and the costumes people wear are hilarious, and definitely entertaining."

Running is also source of inspiration for her. "Some people can't run. And to be able to run, accelerate body to that, breathe that fast, and still recover?" some people can't do that, she said. "How great is it to be blessed to be able to do that? It gives you a great perspective on life. My runs became more meaningful." 

This self-awareness, the idea that the human body has nearly unlimited capability, helps put athletics in a proper understanding, said Fr. Millette, an experienced distance athlete himself. 

"We can really see that God's given us our bodies, and by using them to the best of our ability and pushing our boundaries, we learn about ourselves, about God and what He's created us to do, and about what we're capable of when we really push that boundary and go further than what you know is possible," he said. "Getting outside of that comfort zone, that's when you can really discover more about yourself, more about God, and more about the world. There's a real profound unity between athletics and spirituality."

"The two can really come together, not only reflecting on what it takes to achieve that athletic ability, to put in that dedication and hard work, that can inform you to what it takes to develop your spiritual life, the same type of effort and discipline."