Updated: Jan 20
Art Hutchinson is the author of the acclaimed ‘60s-era redemptive novel, “Covered With Snow” (Carmel Head Books, 2021). The following is a chapter from his upcoming devotional memoir, “Relentless Forward Motion: Quirky Stories and Enduring Lessons for the Christian Life from the Small, Strange World of Ultramarathon Running”
Modern people struggle to grasp how common it was for most people, across history, to hoof it over distances that only the most fanatical step-counters try to cover today. If one wished to go where a boat could not, one did so on foot. After Jesus and His disciples went away in the boat to a secluded place by themselves, the crowd, ran there together on foot from all the cities, and got there ahead of them. (Mark 6:32-33) In some places foot travel persists as default, but most folks today view powered transport as a right, and failures as fodder for comedy, e.g., the iconic film, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” (1987).
In many nations, motor-scooters entwine traffic like swarms of angry bees. In posher places, motorized skateboards, Segways, and those pseudo bicycles that rush along with no pedaling fill that transport niche. (Those gadgets strike me as cheating. I’ve logged thousands of miles on real bikes and my wife is of hearty Friesian stock, from northern Holland, where literally everyone—from kids to elderly—pedals for basic transport in every condition: sleet, dark, gale-driven rain, you name it.) Leaving bicycles aside (they were only invented in the 19th century) we can tend to map our experience onto the past and assume that before the internal combustion engine, most folks enjoyed the animal equivalent—sitting in a saddle, or riding in a wagon: a team of horses in every barn, a pack of dogs to pull every sled, and a string of camels to navigate deserts!
Such visions are myths. Cavalries and chariots were expensive, and thus elite. Camels were ultra-elite. Foot soldiers marched, by definition. And despite what manger scenes and Western movies may depict, it is unusual for an adult to ride a mule or donkey hour after hour. (Grand Canyon treks are the exceptions that prove the rule.) Those too frail or too young to walk beside pack animals rode inside the wagons they pulled, of course. But for most of a typical journey, the able-bodied trudged alongside.
Some ran to share news. 2nd Samuel 18:19-32 records two men—Ahimaaz and an unnamed Cushite—running to report Absalom’s death to King David, his father. (Sometimes it’s not good to be first.) Others ran to illustrate news playing out in real-time. King Ahab rode in his chariot, but the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he girded up his loins and outran (or, ran in front of) Ahab to Jezreel (1st Kings 18:46) Granted, Elijah’s run from Mount Carmel’s summit was net downhill, a drop of sixteen-hundred feet in elevation, but the shortest route is twenty miles.
Centuries later, in Greece, one professional runner-messenger was so keen to report a military victory that he ran himself into a grave. (More on him later.) But aside from messengers, continuous long-distance running was as rare as long unhurried foot treks were routine. People walked and ran for all sorts of pragmatic reasons: to herd and to hunt; to migrate for opportunity; to escape war, famine, and persecution. Within villages and between, folks walked on a daily basis to buy food, conduct business, visit healers, hear orators, and engage religious duties. The recreational health and fitness we know today played virtually no part in this historical picture.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Matt 28:1-8) ran as messengers of a different sort of victory, away from a grave, shocked to have found it empty. (The Greeks’ victory at Marathon does not compare!) I find it remarkable that the first post-resurrection running recorded for us in holy writ was done by a pair of women, and while it was still dark. (John 20:1-2) Take a moment to mull those facts and enter into what that likely entailed: rugged paths, cobblestones; no street-lights or flashlights. On hearing the ladies’ gospel, Peter and the other disciple (likely John) ran to the tomb to verify. John took care to note his win of that impromptu footrace. (John 20:3-4) Guys. Later that day, two disciples walked seven miles to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13) then seven more miles back to Jerusalem that same night. (Luke 24:33) One of those two may have been Peter. Do the rough distance math. No one is recorded as complaining.
Most moderns find it hard to relate to such endurance, yet the Bible is replete with multi-day treks by men, women, and children long before Jesus’ time. Abram et al left Ur of the Chaldees to trek hundreds of miles to the Promised Land; Jacob fled Esau alone a similar distance, also on foot; Jacob plus family and flocks fled from Laban and then, much later, retreated to Egypt. The Israelite Exodus involved well over a million souls who wandered in the wilderness forty years. Moses reminds them that their feet did not swell (Deuteronomy 8:4) which implies that, with so much walking, they ordinarily would have. Under Joshua, on the seventh day camped at Jericho, starting around dawn, the priests circled that city seven times. (Joshua 6:15) This was no fun run. Cautious calculations put that one-day trek at about thirty miles—under a desert sun, in priestly regalia, carefully carrying the Ark of the Covenant along with their priestly shofar trumpets.
Later, other Israelites were force-march-exiled hundreds of miles, to Assyria, then Babylon. (Captors seldom give rides; when they do it is best to refuse.) The remnant’s return trip—as told by Ezra and Nehemiah—took months. The massive population re-shuffle King Herod required for his census (as Luke recounts in his gospel’s Christmas story) entailed a foot-travel migration so extensive that there was no room for Joseph and pregnant Mary at the inn. A few years later, they fled with the child Jesus to Egypt on very short notice. Did they have beasts of burden like donkeys and mules to help? Maybe. But that trip also surely involved a great deal of walking.
Then there are Scripture’s military marches. After crossing the Jordan River, Joshua leads a surprise attack against Israel’s enemies, by marching all night from Gilgal (Joshua 10:9). Much later, Gideon and his three hundred men fight all day and then, when the enemy flees beyond the Jordan, he and his band go after them, exhausted, yet pursuing. (Judges 8:4)
Gideon’s band was tiny, reduced on God’s orders from thirty-two thousand (Judges 7:2-3). But they were not elite the way Green Berets or Navy SEALS are elite—winnowed by arduous trials. The test God had Gideon put them through (observe how each man drank from a body of water; Judges 7:4-8) was idiosyncratic, a fount for endless speculation. (Were those who kneeled to drink narcissists? Were the hand-sippers alert and situationally aware?) But God’s selection method seems to have had nothing to do with physical superiority or military prowess. The three hundred men were not superman specimens, better warriors than the ninety-nine percent Gideon sent home. Like Jesus’ inner circle centuries later (on the mount of transfiguration then, later, in Gethsemane) the three hundred surely craved sleep. One can imagine blisters and grumpy moods (a.k.a., “hangry”). In their flesh, they were fully men, pushed far past their physical capacities. In their flesh, they surely would have wanted to stop to eat, drink, and refresh. Yet they kept going because God was with them. In His power, for His glory, He had more work for them to do.
Aside from generalized mentions of hunger, thirst, and fatigue, the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ travels with His disciples are low on travel drama. But read the Gospel accounts alongside a map of ancient Israel and, with a few simple inferences, it becomes clear that walking endurance was ordinary. A Sabbath-day’s journey (the maximum distance the rabbis allowed Israelites to walk on that one day per week; Acts 1:12, roughly one thousand steps) is remarkable because, on the other six days of the week, most people walked a lot further than that.
In the Mosaic ceremonial law, Jewish men were required to make thrice-annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Often, families came too. Only some lived within a day’s walk. Many lived further. For city-dwellers to witness John the Baptist’s preaching and baptizing out in the wilderness, by the Jordan River was no small feat for feet. Likewise, Jesus fed the five-thousand and the four-thousand so far from civilization that the disciples’ logistical worries as day waned—that people might faint if forced to walk to find food and lodging—feature prominently in the accounts.
Jesus’ ten virgins parable implies another shopping trip—by the five foolish, to buy lamp oil from dealers—an outing that becomes eternally damning. The Good Samaritan parable is rooted in extensive foot travel for everyone involved. The Apostle Paul alludes often to running races, endurance, finish lines, victories, prizes, and even spectators to exhort believers to intensity and to accountability in how we live. He was reluctant to brag of his own epic sleep-deprived feats of endurance and pain, but when he did (2nd Corinthians 11:23-28) it was in love and with purpose, to strengthen his hearers in faith and adjust their expectations toward similarly relentless forward motion. Nearing his finish line promotion to glory (that is, his death) Paul forthrightly compares his post-conversion life to both a boxing match and a running race: I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. (2nd Timothy 4:7)
Jesus spoke of endurance too: by it you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:19) That is high stakes! But in one key respect (at least) the good news of Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection for sinners is unlike an ultramarathon. The Gospel grabs all the stoic-ascetic lies of human religion—grim white-knuckle façades of self-effort; repeated failures to clean up one’s act (and thoughts) completely in fake solo strength—and replaces them with what Christ already did in history. The joy set before Jesus—enduring the cross, despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2)—is the same joy He gives to all who will daily pick up our own, in His name, and proclaim, victory at Calvary!