What comes to mind when you think of running? What about when you think of running 13.1 miles? What about 26.2?
For some, even the mere thought of running is tiring at best and torturous at wost. For those less antagonistic, running isn’t necessarily abhorrent—it’s just boring. For others, though, running is exhilarating, grounding, clarifying, and freeing—not in spite of its challenges but, on the best of days, at least, because of them.
That’s the case for 32-year-old half-marathoner and IRONMAN-70.3’er-in-training, Bethany Faller.
Bethany was born in Korea, but raised in the 901. She works in marketing at NICS (Network of International Christian Schools), is a proud new homeowner, what they call a “social butterfly,” and has a beloved five year old son, Isaac.
Bethany is the sort of person non-runners like me tend to regard with a sort of bewildered admiration—mixed in with a bit of the oversimplified cliché that runners are “just a different breed.” I was eager to learn what motivates someone not so different from me to wake up early and hit the streets (or the trails or the Greenline) for hours on Saturdays, when she could be sleeping in or brunching it up with friends. What compels such discipline?
I had the chance to sit down with Bethany recently and have a long conversation centered around one simple question: “Why do you run?”
Her answer wasn’t, “Because it’s what I’ve always done,” or “Because I love it,” though the latter is true, and the former will practically be true in another decade or two, if she keeps it up. Bethany only started running in high school for exercise purposes—not because she “just couldn’t help herself” or had any lofty, long-distance dreams. It was at this time, though, that she encountered a girl with whom she went to high school who had completed an IRONMAN triathlon (consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a full marathon run… yes, you read that right). She was impressed by the mental and physical strength of triathletes and began dreaming of completing the competition for herself one day.
After college, she began running more, but, again, only to stay fit. In addition to being her chosen form of physical exercise, it functioned as a sort of mindless escape—a chance to “run from my problems,” as she put it. “I’d put my music on and not think about anything.”
Which is understandable, given that she faced the daily challenges of raising her young son as a single mother. But eventually, running became for Bethany a place not of pressing pause on life as she knew it, or of withdrawing from hard things, but rather of processing her life and facing hard things head on.
This went hand-in-hand with her decision to enroll in graduate school in 2018—motivated to earn a second degree “to show Isaac [who was two years old at the time] that you can do hard things.” It hadn’t been long after Isaac was born that Bethany had started taking her running more seriously. It became something that she did not merely do to stay in shape, but to stay sane as a single mother.
“I decided I wanted to improve and do this for the rest of my life,” she said. When it was announced in 2019 that the St. Jude IRONMAN 70.3-mile triathlon was coming to Memphis in 2020, she signed up, wanting to once more show Isaac, and herself, that “we can do hard things.”
And specifically, “that our bodies are more capable than we think.”
For this race, there was an added challenge that ended up yielding unforeseen dividends in not only her life as a runner but also her life as a mother, a friend, and an individual with a deep need for community, consistency, and the paradoxical freedom brought about by commitment and discipline.
What was this challenge, exactly?
No music (whether from headphones, a personal radio, or anything else) would be allowed during any part the race— not even one of the 70.3 miles. To prepare, Bethany decided that she wouldn’t train with headphones. No more blasting music to drown out her thoughts, frustrations, longings, and fears; no more relying on running as an escape from life and its difficulties.
What was once an intentionally mindless, just-trying-stay-sane practice for her became—out of sheer necessity—the very opposite: a time of mindful reflection, processing, and even prayer.
“Instead of running away from my problems, I began processing them.”
She started to, for example, spend one mile thinking through a recent hard conversation with a friend. The next mile would be spent in prayer about said conversation (and said friend). Then, she might spend the third mile reflecting on some specific aspect of her past week parenting Isaac. And the fourth: brainstorming what could look different in the future. And on and on she’d go, arriving home at the end of a run not having merely cared for her body and stretched herself physically, but also having tended to her mind, checked in on the state of her soul, and invested—even from afar—in her relationships with those she loves the most.
When her running took off, she began to see other positive changes in her life, too. “
The discipline of getting up and doing it everyday has created discipline in the most undisciplined person ever,” she said, which was exactly the “discipline that Isaac and I so desperately needed.”
It has created rhythms and routines in her life that have extended far beyond daily runs and much-anticipated race days. She emphasized the sense of structure and the establishment of expectations it has granted Isaac, who often asks her, “Are we going running today, Mom?” Not only that, it gives her more time with her son. Even if the two of them don’t talk every moment of every run (though they often do, which I find especially impressive!), they are together. He often takes his naps while she is running, and she notices that when they skip a run, she’s not as mentally and emotionally present with Isaac as she wants to be. “It’s become integrated into our lives; it’s a part of us.”
Bethany has also seen the hard work and discipline of running influence other areas of her life. “It’s during these past 5 years when I took off with running that I learned the importance of community, of being faithful and not flaky.”
In a cultural moment when most of us are more inclined to click the “interested” button on Facebook rather than commit to the “going” or “not going” options, Bethany has found that the steady, disciplined commitment to training for the IRONMAN 70.3 competition, as well as the 10 half-marathons she already has under her belt, has helped her say yes and stick with yes far more often in her friendships—to be a “faithful” friend rather than a “flaky” one. And that, she says, has given her the sort of deep, healthy friendships that she longed for but didn’t have before Isaac was born, and before running became a decisive priority in her life.
But that’s not to say she’s perfect and never misses a day—or a week. She told me about a time recently where she missed seven straight days of running. “I felt awful,” she recalled, “but I’m not perfect.” She went on to share about how she seeks to embrace a spirit of forgiveness when she falls short in this area and others, making an active effort to receive grace when she doesn’t reach her goals or when she slips out of her regular routine.
She has to remind herself in those moments of her “why.”
For Bethany, running is not a competition, whether with herself or with others, even on race day. As it is now, running isn’t a place for Bethany to show up and perform. Instead, it’s a sort of sacred rhythm, a set-apart time where she is free to release her burdens, seek clarity, and enter back into the sometimes-monotonous, sometimes-monumentally-overwhelming pace of everyday life with a centeredness and sense of clarity that keeps her awake to her purpose and able to be fully present with those around her.
So, what about that 2020 St. Jude IRONMAN 70.3 competition whose no-music policy sparked Bethany’s unwitting running revolution? Well, as you may have guessed already—it was cancelled (thanks a lot, COVID). Trained up as she was, Bethany had to delay a year. The goal was to run it this past October, but, after buying her first home, starting a new job, and realizing she needed more time to improve as a swimmer, she decided to defer till 2022. She’s been in the pool much of this fall and continues doing easier runs to keep up her on-land endurance. In January, her formal IRONMAN 70.3 training officially starts, and, shortly after that, she plans to be at a race at least once a month to prepare for the IRONMAN 70.3 in October. She also has her sights set on the St. Jude half-marathon in 2022!
Which brings us to this weekend.
“Out of all the half-marathons I’ve ever done, St. Jude has been my favorite,” she remarked. The past two times she has run it, she said it was, “one of the hardest runs, with the best spectators, and, of course, one of the best causes. There’s something special about it. It pulls the city together, knowing that kids are fighting for their lives and don’t have to pay a bill.”
Although her 2022 St. Jude IRONMAN 70.3 training has kept her focused on her swimming game this year, she’s still committed to St. Jude Marathon Weekend and will be downtown bright and early to drop off a couple friends who are running the half and others who are braving the full. After she and Isaac grab breakfast, they plan to spend the rest of the morning in the middle of the action, cheering racers on until her friends cross the finish line.
“Life is hard,” she said, “but we can do hard things.” Implicit in that honest-but-hopeful estimation of reality is a third conviction that Bethany now lives out in her day-to-day life and is modeling for her son and all those who come in contact with her: