by Dante Zappala

I went to church early. I put on my Sunday best: 3-inch split shorts, a tech T, a pair of well-worn Mizuno Wave Riders. At 5:30, I started my watch and began running south through the quiet streets of Germantown. I cruised down the middle of Wayne Avenue, not a care or a car to be found.

Mornings at this time of year make for romantic runs. We can waltz with a spring chill that is out past her bedtime, even as the heat tries to cut in on the dance floor. On this particular morning, I was smitten with that chill and what might be our last tryst before September.

Still before 6, I’d made it to Rittenhouse. Perhaps I was a bit too eager as I crossed an empty Lincoln Drive against the light. When the sound of pounding asphalt gave way to the gentle pats of hard packed dirt and gravel, I let out a long breath. I’d entered the sanctuary of Valley Green.

I made it to regular church a bit later that morning. Listening to the rhythm of the hymns and the cadence of the liturgy, a thought came to me. Running is possibly the foundation of religion. This may seem like sacrilege, but hear me out.

By the time we had organized religion, we had long evolved into great endurance runners. Unlike a cheetah, who has two minutes of intense effort to either pounce on her prey or go hungry, we succeeded by adapting for the long haul. We didn’t have to be explosive and fast. We could run after our dinner until it gave up or died of exhaustion.

What did those ancient hunters think as they logged all of those miles across the savannas of Africa? They required great faith. The food they chased may have disappeared in the distance, but they tracked it nonetheless. As we adapted physically to be efficient land travelers, could it be that we also adapted the psychological profile that makes religion so palatable to us now?

Churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples offer us a place of peace, a time of reflection, a fresh look at the mysteries and perhaps a glimpse of the answers. Many of us who run can attest that we’re getting a healthy dose of this as we trot through the woods.

Religious institutions rose as we became civilized. That is, we steadily moved away from hunting for subsistence and became agriculturalists. Rather than run free and trust that our legs and lungs would bring us food, we planted, harvested and domesticated animals. We left the Garden of Eden and God laid down the punishment: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground …” So, here we were, runners by nature stuck tilling the soil. Maybe religion filled the void.

I commonly refer to the Wissahickon Valley as my church. It’s a steadfast exit strategy from life. On a long, steady run, the field of view narrows. Breathing perfectly syncs with a certain number of strides to provide a repetitive chant that untethers the mind. Thoughts cross and collide. Discovery happens. What is this if not an epiphany?

For some, religion is a chance to find community, to delve deeper into ourselves and our questions through conversation and study. We get that on the trail as well. Running and sharing go hand-in-hand. Usually when the miles hit double digits, the conversations become more fluid, more honest, and more personal.

Relationships forged through running last a lifetime. And for good reason – once someone knows everything about you, do you really want to disassociate from that person? That is entirely too risky and could become very expensive. A monument to Forbidden Drive could be inscribed with the phrase, “You’re the only person in the world I’ve told this to…”

I climbed out of the valley that morning up Springfield and onto Germantown Ave. Making my way home, the world was slowly coming to life. Some folks were out with their dogs, others were getting coffee. I had to wait a few seconds for a car to pass before I crossed against the light this time. Church was over, and I was already praying for my next chance to go back.