Rosaries and marathons are a perfect combination – at least, I hope so

Alberto Salazar (428) leads a 1983 race in Gateshead (Getty)

I'm getting the old beads together for one last run

Several years ago – back when I was, if not precisely in my prime, at least substantially less old, fat, and mentally ill than my current shambolic state – I had the idea of running a marathon. In December. Along Liverpool’s windswept Docks. While praying the rosary non-stop, all the way round.

If that sounds a silly idea, just imagine how silly it felt 12 miles in, when the recurrent knee injury that had dogged my training kicked in with a vengeance. And how silly it felt as I limped painfully, step by agonizing step, for the next 14-odd miles. Oh yes, and how silly it felt when I spent several hours the next day in A&E.

Still, I did it. Furthermore, once I regained the full and pain-free use of my legs and hands (we’re talking 4 hours and 39 minutes of rosary-related blisters, remember), I was very glad that I had.

As I wrote at the time, my motivations for doing a “Marython” were decidedly mixed. Like every occasional jogger, I wanted to be able to say I’d done a marathon. I could do with getting a bit fitter (I lost my figure after having our first child). I had a very good cause I wanted to help raise some money for. And, not being a naturally prayerful person, I thought it might be a good spiritual exercise as well as a physical one.

Ever the arrogant and ill-informed arriviste – all part of the “convert package”, I am reliably informed – I had naively imagined that I was the first person to combine long-distance running with rosary-praying. I later discovered that American marathon legend (and sometime coach of Mo Farah) Alberto Salazar is an enthusiastic proponent. Indeed, in Salazar’s remarkable 2012 memoir – a book with rather more Medjugorje in it than most sporting autobiographies – he credits it with his victory in the 1994 Comrades 55-mile Ultramarathon in South Africa. “I continued to pray the rosary, repeating the familiar words and phrases as if I were drowning, and they formed a life raft.”

These days, running magazines are full of features on the revolutionary wellness rewards to be reaped from so-called “Mindful Running” – that is, combining marathonning with meditation. Trust those man-bunned millennials to rediscover (and market) corporal mortification as an aid to spiritual progress. If we can source some Fairtrade cilices, we could make a (humane) killing around the running clubs of London.

Even so, whatever graces I may have accrued from limping painfully but prayerfully around Merseyside in aid of Filipino street children, I vowed that I was too old and unfit to ever have so recklessly silly an idea again.

Unfortunately, as a middle-aged dad of small children, “recklessly silly” is pretty much my métier. Even more unfortunately, I’m not alone in this. Chatting amiably a few months ago with a good friend of mine – Andrew “Pushing Forty” Tucker (as he likes to be known when discussed in international media outlets) – while our daughters were playing, I discovered that he too is a rosary runner: “Hey man,” I ventured, “how about getting the old beads back together, and going out on one last marathon in honour of the BVM? I hear the Jesuit Refugee Service are looking for runners for London…”.

So here I am, five years on from the last time I was too old and unfit to run a marathon without hospitalising myself, back in training again. And once again, in aid of a very good cause: JRS-UK do exceedingly important work for some of the most vulnerable in society. Do please check them out.

And now for the sales pitch (which I expect you’ve been expecting since you first saw the word “marathon”). Please, please, dear Catholic Herald readers, do think seriously about sponsoring me and Andrew. If we don’t reach our joint target of £4000, then the Jesuits haven’t specified quite what they’ll do to us – but, well, you know the Jesuits. Something fiendishly Jesuitical, I’ll warrant.

And if that wasn’t motivation enough, any kind hearted reader who a) sponsors us; b) shares this article on social media; and c) lets me know that they’ve done it (by email or Twitter) will be entered into a prize draw to win a signed copy of my new book Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation since Vatican II (Oxford University Press), due out in late May.

So go on. You’ll be making an old, decrepit man – plus his much older and decrepiter friend – very happy.

Professor Bullivant is donating his fee for this article to the Jesuit Refugee Service, in support of “London MARYThon 2019: Team JRS UK”: