By Sarah Hayes
Just as St. Paul told the Christians at Corinth that "I do not run aimlessly," Catholic runners and walkers throughout the country are competing in road races with a specific purpose.
Whether individually or in groups, they are raising money and raising up prayers for vocations.
Around 160 priests, Religious and laypeople are in training for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.'s Run for Vocations team, for which runners and walkers will compete in the Oct. 25 Marine Corps Marathon, Half Marathon or 10K run.
Team members raise money -- at least $500 for marathoners, $350 for half-marathoners and $250 for 10K racers -- for a fund that supports the archdiocese's seminarians.
Money goes directly to seminarians' individual needs, Msgr. Robert J. Panke, the archdiocese's vocations director, told Our Sunday Visitor, especially unexpected expenses, such as medical bills or auto repair. In one case, he said, the money covered the cost of a last-minute plane ticket for a seminarian so he could go to his father's funeral.
But there's more to the Run for Vocations, now in its 10th year.
"The neat thing about this run is the goal is not to just raise money for vocations, but to raise awareness that the call to promote vocations is a call for every Catholic," Msgr. Panke said.
During training for the races, runners and walkers are invited to meetings and spiritual events where they have personal contact with seminarians and hear their stories. The night before the races, runners and walkers gather for Mass.
Beyond the physical aspect of the training, "it's really a spiritual journey," Msgr. Panke said, who added the archdiocese encourages men to run while they're discerning the call to the priesthood.
One such man is Nathaniel Hurd, 32, who is studying to be a priest for the archdiocese at Theological College, the national seminary of The Catholic University of America in Washington.
Hurd had been a long-distance runner for years, but not on a competitive level. Rather, he used running as a way of relaxing and conversing with God. In fact, the former atheist, who joined the Church in 2005, had what he called a "Paul on the Road to Damascus moment" during a 2001 run in his native Vermont, when he recognized God for the first time.
He joined the Run for Vocations team in 2007 as a layman who had decided that a vocation to the priesthood was not for him. Still, he was happy to raise money for priests and seminarians. Unfortunately, a work trip forced him to miss the 2007 race, but he joined the team in 2008, this time as someone who was seriously discerning a priestly vocation.
"I had mistakenly thought I'd discerned [previously]," Hurd said, but the question kept tugging at him, and he joined the Washington archdiocese's affiliate program in the spring of 2008.
"Being a part of the team [in 2008], that was a different experience," he said. "What struck me was just how much people in this archdiocese love their priests and love their seminarians."
That love and encouragement got him through a rough patch at mile 15 of the marathon, when his legs started to feel like jelly, and the cheers of spectators helped him get through the next 11 miles.
This year, now that he's a seminarian, training has taken on even more significance, Hurd said."I am able to see, day to day, the guys I'm doing this for," Hurd told OSV. "When I go out for a run, I'm running for the guy down the hall. I'm running for a brother seminarian at a different seminary."
While Washington's Run for Vocations raises funds for vocations, other dioceses ask supporters to lift up prayers for vocations.
When Father Rick Nagel, director of Young Adult and College Campus Ministry for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, came up with the idea of forming a team to run the 2008 Indianapolis Mini-Marathon, the largest U.S. half marathon, he envisioned getting a few runners on board. Much to his surprise, 90 runners and walkers took part in the first Race for Vocations in May 2008, with 30,000 prayers for vocations logged. Last May, 210 runners joined the team, most of them laypeople.
While open to all ages, the young adults in the archdiocese organize the Race for Vocations, and a majority of the runners and walkers are young-adult age. It's a way for young people to feel included in the prayers of the Church, Father Nagel said, especially since the point of the program is to raise awareness to vocations of all kind, including the sacred married life and the sacred single life.
"I think it's particularly a way a lot of young adults can pray for vocations of all kinds, the universal call to holiness," he told OSV. "It reminds them that they're called to live sacredly."
The team is branching out to Catholics throughout the Hoosier state. In 2009, runners from the Diocese of Lafayette joined the Race for Vocations team, and for the 2010 race, runners from the Diocese of Evansville will take part as well. Father Nagel hopes to add the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in 2011.
Team members have had outreach opportunities before the run starts, when runners and walkers are placed in corrals to await the starting gun, and after the race, when the archdiocese puts up a tent during an after-race gathering at a downtown park. Each visitor to the tent gets an armband with the following verse: "I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith" (2 Tm 4:7).
In the Diocese of Honolulu, runners and walkers also secure spiritual pledges, such as praying a Rosary for each mile, offering Masses or fasting, said Father Peter Dumag, diocesan vocations director.
Father Dumag came up with the idea for the AKUA Run/Walk for Vocations series (Akua means "God" in Hawaiian) last year, while running the Honolulu Marathon, his first.
"I did it by myself to pray for the perseverance of our seminarians ... and, also, to thank God for the priesthood," he told Our Sunday Visitor.
As he ran, he noticed others were running or walking for special causes, such as Team in Training, which raises funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and was inspired to start the series for vocations.
So far, 150 runners and walkers have joined in the series, including sisters running in full habits. Even Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva has gotten on board, walking in the 8.5-mile Great Aloha Run last February. Each participant wears a red T-shirt that features a runner racing a golden cross on the back.
In addition to the camaraderie on the course, AKUA runners and walkers get together the day before the race to celebrate Mass together and to load up on carbohydrates to stay fueled for the big day.
"The race day itself, we make it a point to gather together and say a little prayer together, then off we go," Father Dumag said.
Step by step, Alicia Torres, 24, is getting closer to her dream: to enter religious life.
She has felt called to join the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, a new Franciscan community forming in Chicago, but first must clear a major hurdle: Repaying nearly $100,000 in student loans before she can join an order. The Loyola University of Chicago graduate is using a lot of legwork and a related blog to reach the finish line.
Torres, young- adult outreach coordinator for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Respect Life Office, and five friends raced in the Chicago Half Marathon on Sept. 13. She used a blog, thenunrun.com, to chronicle her spiritual and athletic journey during training and to solicit donations for her cause.
She was already working with the Laboure Society, a Catholic organization dedicated to aiding aspiring priests and Religious pay down personal debt so they can enter formation, when the idea of running the half marathon as a fundraiser came to her. So far, it has paid off. In addition to being profiled in major Catholic and secular news outlets, including The Chicago Tribune and National Public Radio, she has raised roughly $30,000 of the $94,000 needed to repay her educational loans.
Torres, who has moved to Our Lady of the Angels with two others to further discern her call, has long been drawn to religious life, but received a serious nudge during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States in April 2008. She became familiar with Our Lady of the Angels through her work, helping its founder, Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Bob Lombardo, put together a young-adult holy hour each month. As a group began to meet to discern a life as Franciscans there, it became clear to Torres that she belonged there.
"When I started going to Our Lady of the Angels, it felt like home, and it was so beautiful to be there," she said.
The mission, which will have two religious congregations, one for men and one for women, will be centered around Eucharistic Adoration, Torres said, and outreach to the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Chicago's West Side.
As she works toward eliminating her debt, Torres has continued to blog and has chosen her next race, the Hot Chocolate 15K on Nov. 1. She and a friend are also discerning whether or not to run a marathon next spring.
Sarah Hayes is OSV's presentation editor.