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Holy Runners

Running For Body and Soul

Published Marc 1, 1999 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

In Genesis 3:19, God admonished man into earning his bread through the sweat of his face. For generations, men and women toiled in the fields and factories, earning their living through sweat and blood. Today, in the information age, few of us sweat at work. Many compensate by sweating on leisurely pursuits.

Running priests and nuns make a notable exception to this societal evolution. By dedicating their lives to prayer and the service of man and God, praying on the run arguably qualifies as work through sweat.

In her autobiography "Inner Marathon: The Diary of a Jogging Nun," Sister Joan Sauro of Syracuse wrote that she ran to keep the body and soul together. She ran to strengthen her body so it would not tire of praying. Her prayers ran in circles, like her running, breathing the same words over and over.

Sauro remembered a Russian pilgrim who ran "with his Bible in one breast pocket and his Philokalia in the other." He prayed the rosary as he ran. His left thumb wore thin from rubbing against the beads of the rosary, and his breathing and his prayers melted together.

Fr. Joseph Champlin, the Rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Syracuse, is a prolific writer and speaker. At age 69, he runs and swims to stay fit and get energized. He enters the occasional road race, and has a marathon best under four hours.

Sr. Nora Gatto, the principal of Rome Catholic High School, has been running for 20 years. She runs every day, totaling between 40 and 50 miles per week. Her daily run gives her time to pray and to prepare for the demands of her vocation. Staying fit gives her the energy to keep pace with her teen-age students.

Gatto competes regularly in local and national races. In 1997, she completed the Long Island half-marathon in less than two hours, which gave her the confidence to train for longer distances. In October 1998, she ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC.

Sr. Nicolette Vennaro, a teacher at Bishop Ludden High School, enjoys longer runs. An accomplished ultramarathon runner, she holds the Syracuse Chargers open women's record for a 60-kilometer road race of 5 hours, 55 minutes, 44 seconds.

Fr. Jim Maher, a priest at St. John's University in Queens, shatters many stereotypes. Standing more than 6 feet and weighing more than 200 pounds, he runs marathons to raise money for New York City's largest soup kitchen. He views running as a means to accessing the positive energy that comes from God.

The most famous holy runner arguably is Sr. Marion Irvine, the "flying nun" from California. Mistaking the word "elite" to mean "refined and well-mannered," she followed Arthur Lydiard's training methods for elite runners. Her error paid off with significant weight loss and numerous age group records. In 1983, at age 54, she ran the California International Marathon in 2:51:01 and qualified for the 1984 Olympic marathon trials.

In becoming the oldest American to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the marathon, Irvine received the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) Runner of the Year Award. The other recipient in 1984 was Joan Benoit Samuelson, the Olympic gold medalist in the marathon.

Ten years and many outstanding performances later, Irvine was elected to the RRCA Hall of Fame. Her American age group record of 40:37 for the 10K, which she ran at age 61, still stands.

In sweat and in prayer, holy runners are ambassadors of service and goodwill, and role models to many. For it is in running we give thanks, and through sweat we give glory.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at

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