Bishop Michael Byrnes admits that he is intimidating as a role model for regular exercise. He competes in endurance events that are longer than 25 miles and it is not uncommon for him to run 50 miles in a week.
"I know it's hard to look at me and be convinced [to do the same], because I'm insane," laughed Bishop Byrnes, 52, who on May 5 was ordained an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit.
And yet, this marathoner's mental state is not unique among his brethren. Many other clergy embrace endurance running as a way to stay healthy while enhancing their self-discipline and prayer life.
Regimens like Bishop Byrnes' may be completely alien to the "fitness-challenged," those who would jockey for a close parking spot or cannot fathom how mankind functioned before the TV remote was invented. Such people might also wonder what possessed Atonement Father Dan Callahan, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish and a member of Blessed John XXIII Council 4976 in Toronto, to complete 12 Ironman triathlons — each consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon. Father Callahan, 60, said that preparing for and competing in these exhausting events is a way of life.
"It's what energizes me to do everything else I do," said Father Callahan, who is popularly known as the "Iron Friar."
Bishop Byrnes, a member of George F. Monaghan Council 2690 in Livonia, Mich., has a similar philosophy. "We don't belong to ourselves. To be on our game, we have to be able to serve with energy and for the long haul," he said. "It's really about celebrating the body, having the opportunity to be outside and using what God has given — and to finish."
Before his recent episcopal appointment, Bishop Byrnes served as vice rector and dean of formation for Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary. With the help of a close friend, Father Todd Lajiness, Sacred Heart's dean of studies and the K of C state chaplain, he spearheaded a drive to get more young men from the seminary interested in distance running by taking part in the Detroit Free Press Marathon Oct. 17, 2010.
His persistence had great results: About 60 seminarians turned out to participate. Most competed in relays. Some ran a half-marathon. And a couple went for the full 26.2 miles — as did Bishop Byrnes and Father Lajiness. Wearing Sacred Heart t-shirts, the group turned the event into a public celebration of priestly vocations.
The race also marked the first full marathon for Father Lajiness, who had competed in numerous shorter races and triathlons in the past. At age 43, he claims to have felt "phenomenal" at the end.
"It sounds kind of strange, but it's pretty consistent that when I finish a race, there's this kind of rush. You feel really good," said Father Lajiness, a member of Anchor Bay Council 5981 in New Baltimore, Mich.
Clergy interest in endurance events is not limited to the Motor City. For instance, Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., Auxiliary Bishop James Conley of Denver and Father Jim Crisman, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Denver, all took part in last fall's Denver Marathon.
While training for the marathon, Bishop Paprocki, a member of Tonti Council 1567 in Chicago, raised funds for the restoration of Springfield's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Bishop Conley of St. Patrick Council 9699 in Wichita, Kan., and Father Crisman of St. Francis of Assisi Council 14688 in Aurora, Colo., teamed up in a relay with seminarians Jason Wunsch and Ryan O'Neill of Denver's St. John Vianney Theological Seminary to publicize vocations awareness and support.
As for Father Callahan, he is gearing up for the Ford Ironman Lake Placid on July 24. Through his annual involvement, he has raised considerable funds for the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement and St. Joan of Arc Parish. Along with competing, Father Callahan celebrates Mass the night before the race during which he gives a special blessing to all of the athletes in attendance.
"Honest to God, there isn't a dry eye in the house. They have worked so hard," Father Callahan said.
Speaking of hard work, how about Father Luke Willenberg? In the Boston Marathon this past April 18 — his first full marathon after competing in five triathlons since 2008 — Father Willenberg developed a leg cramp after 17 miles but, incredibly, still managed to finish in 3 hours, 1 minute and 25 seconds. He placed 1,580th out of 15,445 male entrants, nearly cracking the top 10 percent of arguably the world's most competitive marathon. He is determined to drop below the three-hour mark next time out.
"In long-distance races, you always race with yourself. You try to push and challenge yourself more and more," said Father Willenberg, 29, assistant pastor of St. Luke Parish in Barrington, R.I. A native of Poland, he also serves as chaplain for Bishop Hickey Council 3623 in Riverside, R.I.
In general, these clergy have participated in other sports dating back to youth but over the years became attracted to the challenges of endurance competition. Bishop Byrnes describes himself as "somebody who's very task-oriented, goal-oriented — my life seems to work better that way." In addition, he said, exercising helps him to tackle his daily routine. "I just feel better — I've got energy. I don't need to take naps, I sleep better at night."
Neither Bishop Byrnes nor Father Lajiness are concerned about their times so much as completing a race. And for the young men they guide, their emphasis is less on killer workouts and more on the basic need for priests to stay fit.
To this end, Father Lajiness believes it is key for each individual to develop his own regimen. "If that means you walk 20 minutes a day, then you walk 20 minutes a day — but it has to be something you're committed to," he said, adding that a good diet and sufficient rest are also vital. "It does take discipline on our part to start the process. I might be a little tired this morning, but exercise is going to rejuvenate me and be good for me."
Added Father Callahan: "If you don't feel like going, you just put your shoes on and go anyway. And you're glad you did."
RUNNING THE RACE
Exertion from running, biking and swimming requires one to turn deeply inward for strength, creating a natural path to deeper spirituality. In fact, Father Callahan said he doesn't view his regimen in terms of pain and fatigue. Rather, he said, "Your body is at one with nature, and your mind is free to pray."
For Father Willenberg, nothing can beat watching a sunrise over the Rhode Island waters while running. "I really find it great for meditation. I feel so blessed," he said. "Those are really deep moments of prayer and meditation for me."
Father Lajiness, meanwhile, gains fortitude by reflecting on Christ's final moments.
"As things hurt a little bit and you get a little tired, I think of the Way of the Cross," he said. "Our physical suffering can't in any way compare to Christ's suffering toward the end, but you do think, 'Yeah, it hurts, but I can keep going; I've got to grind through this.'"
Bishop Byrnes, who often prays the rosary as he trains and competes, also finds his spirit growing stronger as his flesh weakens.
"You have this awareness of God and awareness of Christ and you say, 'Thank you God that I have another day to exercise, to use this body you've given me,'" he said.
Bishop Byrnes considers intense exercise "a kind of a mortification" guided by the words of St. Paul, who in I Corinthians 9 uses the analogy of athletics as a means of applying self-control.
"I think that is a great spiritual benefit. It gets us into a mentality of doing something we just don't feel like doing," Bishop Byrnes said, adding that through this process he can better appreciate what a "mountaintop" moment is.
"I've been to Mount Sinai and Mount Tabor, walked up both those mountains. It's hard," he said. "Part of the mountaintop experience is that there is a certain kind of spiritual openness. I'm convinced it's [due to] the effort of climbing up that mountain, getting there."
These marathoners and triathletes also receive ample spiritual lifts on race days, thanks to considerable crowd support.
"People talk to me all along the way about faith," Father Callahan noted, adding that some of his most cherished moments occurred at the end of Lake Placid Ironman competition — which, last year, took him nearly 16 hours to complete.
"It's very emotional. There are literally thousands of people cheering you on," he said, likening the experience to the "great cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews 12:1.
Plenty of emotion was packed into the Detroit Marathon last October for Michael Weisbeck, a seminarian at Sacred Heart.
"The support from the community was almost overpowering at times. People in the crowd would recognize my Sacred Heart shirt and cheer me on," Weisbeck recalled, adding that he frequently got to promote his seminary and vocation with fellow runners during the half-marathon.
He and Robert Bacik, a fellow Sacred Heart seminarian, welcomed any morale boost that came their way since neither had a distance-running background.
"When I first started training in the spring of 2010, I couldn't even run a mile without stopping to rest," said Bacik, 31, from Jackson, Mich.
Weisbeck, who had never run more than five miles at once, said it took him several days to recover from his half-marathon.
"I remember invoking the Lord's help, especially during the last mile," said Weisbeck, 23, from Bismarck, N.D.
Despite these initial trials and tribulations, it appears that Bacik and Weisbeck have bought into Bishop Byrnes' so-called insanity: They now enjoy distance running year-round.
"Running has become a great stress release for me," Bacik said, noting that Detroit-area Knights of Columbus have assisted by funding his running-shoe supply.
Added Weisbeck: "Believe it or not, I have developed a passion for running."
Mike Latona, a staff writer for the Catholic Courier in the Diocese of Rochester, is a member of Our Lady of the Cenacle Council 3892 in Greece, N.Y., and co-author of A Coach and a Miracle: Life Lessons from a Man Who Believed in an Autistic Boy (Beacon, 2011).