I am thrilled to kick off the “Unexpected Sacred Spaces” series with the writing of my friend Lily Dunn. Lily and I met in our college writing department and reconnected through the blogosphere. Lily inspires me with the consistency, quality, and content of her work. She asks tough questions and weaves rich stories. I love following her writing! Check out and follow her fantastic blog here! She also has a wonderful weekly book chat on her blog for anyone looking for some solid recommendations for what to read next.
I’m not a runner. Actually, I’m not anything even remotely athletic. In fact, I don’t think I’d done any exercise whatsoever for about a year when my best friend (also not a runner) asked me if I wanted to run the Disney Princess Half Marathon with her. None of that stopped me from immediately saying yes.
I admit, I was lured in by the promise of a trip to Disney World. Had she suggested a local half marathon I’m almost positive I would have said no, but Disney World is quite possibly my favorite place on the planet. It was a decision I made with my heart rather than my head, and by the time I fully understood that this would require me to train and then run 13.1 miles, it was too late for take-backs.
Since neither of us had ever run distance before, we started training six months in advance. We had no pace goals, we just wanted to run the whole thing and to finish “in the upright position” as our Jeff Galloway training plan promised.
The first time I went out to run I made it one mile before slowing to a walk, panting, cramping, and being utterly convinced I was going to die. It was an inauspicious start, but as the weeks went by our bodies adapted to this new activity. Our breathing grew slower and steadier and our muscles grew stronger, even as our knees and feet and shins ached in unfamiliar ways. We were in awe of our newfound athleticism, proud of bodies that were rising to meet the challenges we were throwing at them.
Weeks before the race we planned our costumes. We made tutus out of tulle and bought plastic tiaras to fasten above our pony tails. When February arrived we were ready. We flew to Orlando, nervous but excited to prove ourselves.
The Disney Princess Half Marathon starts at the crack of dawn. Actually, it starts before the crack of dawn. Since part of the track takes you through the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, the race has to start and end before the park opens for the day. We had to be in our corrals at 5:00 AM the morning of the race.
We were excited and nervous and full of adrenaline and when those fireworks went off and we started running, the energy of tens of thousands of costumed runners was indescribable. As we ran, I looked around at other runners, many wearing homemade costumes that paid homage to their favorite Disney characters.
I was struck by the different kinds of people who were running alongside me. There were mother/daughter teams and groups of teenagers, college athletes and overweight soccer moms. There were families running with T-shirts that bore that face of a loved one they had lost. There were men and women who had battled cancer and won and who ran victoriously in bodies that were strong and beautiful. There were women who ran to prove they could love themselves again, even though their bodies were marked with the stripes of pregnancy and childbirth, and husbands who ran beside them in matching costumes to remind them they were worthy.
I ran most of the race with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes because I realized that this was holy ground. This was a sacred place for tens of thousands of people who were running, not because they were the best runners, not because they wanted to win an award or impress their friends, but because something in their lives – the loss of a loved one, an illness, the need to believe in their own worth, or the desire to embrace being fully alive – drove them to believe they could do a hard thing. And now all of their tears and sweat and shin splints and aching feet were worth it. Because they were doing something amazing.
Crossing the finish line of that race was an overwhelming experience. I felt that I had pushed myself to my limits and seen I could do things I never thought I was capable of. Olympic sprinter Eric Liddle (of Chariots of Fire fame) once said that when he ran, he felt God’s pleasure. After running this race, I thought I could understand what he meant. I had pushed myself to my limits and seen I could do things I never thought I was capable of. Something about spending all of yourself in that way seems to make room for a lot more of God.
Hebrews says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. I think faith looks a lot like 20,000 broken people running with everything in them, believing they are strong enough, bold enough, resilient enough, whole enough, and worthy enough to make it to the end. Maybe it’s sacrilegious to say so, but sometimes when I picture heaven, it looks like thousands of people in eccentric costumes running through Disney World.
Lily Dunn is a teacher by day, a writer by night and an ice cream connoisseur all the time. Since her first race she has run several more half marathons and one full marathon and cried her way through each one. She still doesn’t consider herself a runner. She currently lives with her husband in Daegu, South Korea and works out her faith on her blog, http://lilyellyn.com. You can also find her on Facebook and on Twitter and Instagram @lilyellyn.
If you want to contribute to the “Unexpected Sacred Spaces” series. Email me at Meredith.Bazzoli@gmail.com.
I am looking for submissions between 500-1000 words that talk about a place that has shown you glimpses of the divine or given a taste of holy community.
As the church shifts in our society, I want to chase echoes of church in unexpected places like McDonalds play places or bathroom stalls at work. Where have you seen church work? What communities could the church learn from? Where is it easiest for you to believe? Who helps you to continue in your faith tradition? In what unexpected ways have you experienced the divine or found healing from organized religion?
Featured Photo Credit: Michael D Beckwith