Going the distance: Fr. Zachary Burns, TOR, completes a 100-mile run
COLLEYVILLE — The morning Mass celebrated by Fr. Zachary Burns, TOR, on February 6 was remarkable for a few reasons.
First, every Mass is a miracle in which the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Second, that morning he celebrated Mass with his family in a hotel room in Huntsville, Texas, instead of with parishioners at Good Shepherd Church in Colleyville. And the third remarkable circumstance of that Mass: he would soon begin a run of 100 miles.
“Talk about a mental boost, to know you’ve had the Eucharist before you go out to do something like this is so helpful,” said the parochial vicar, who completed the Rocky Raccoon 100-mile trail run in Huntsville State Park in a little more than 26 hours.
Fr. Burns began running in sixth grade at the encouragement of his father, and he quickly learned to love putting on his shoes and heading to the woods of the Pocono Mountains near his home in Pennsylvania. Throughout high school, and then college at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania, he ran on the cross-country team. The grueling competition eventually dimmed his spark for the sport, and he stopped running.
However, during his formation for the priesthood, an ultrarunning friar inspired him to lace up his running shoes again, and they ultimately did a 50-miler together to raise scholarship funds for Franciscan University of Steubenville. The day after completing it, he thought, “That was the most fun thing I’ve done this entire summer.”
Fr. Burns’ enthusiasm for the sport was rekindled.
THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
In training for the Rocky Raccoon 100-mile trail run, Fr. Burns has logged many miles on his feet, freeing his mind to think about the parallels between running and the spiritual journey.
The first commonality he mentioned was discipline. “The spiritual life involves discipline. To persevere in life as faithful Catholics, we must have a certain degree of discipline built into our lives,” he said. You commit and persist, even when it’s inconvenient, even when you don’t want to, without excuses.
Another similarity is the “sacredness of the starting line and the finish line.” Fr. Burns explained that at the start line, “You are filled with anticipation of things that you don’t know — what’s going to happen ahead of me, how will I feel, what crazy things could happen — but I do know that it’s going to be difficult. You trust that there will be a finish line.”
In the race, the participant often finds periods of suffering. “You believe in your heart that suffering has to lead to redemption. It’s a reality of the cross that suffering and death leads to resurrection,” he said.
In the darkness near 2 a.m. during Rocky Raccoon, Fr. Burns realized he still had a marathon — 26 miles — ahead of him. He was exhausted and discouraged. He said, “In that moment, it was so helpful to remember the work I put in, like the days I pushed myself to get out and run in the pouring rain for hours. It was absolute misery, but you force yourself to do it. When you are in the race and it actually matters, it’s so helpful to look back at the work you’ve put in and let that drive you to the end.”
He compared it to individuals experiencing a life-threatening illness or a horrible situation. “The only thing that gets them through sometimes is that they are prepared for it. They put in the work spiritually.... When they face a harsh reality, they persevere in hope because they have already experienced toughness. This all serves as preparation for the real trials you will face in life.”
At the finish line, “it’s an image of heaven. You’ve reached this place where everyone is rejoicing, realizing the fruit of all their hard work and discipline and suffering,” the 31-year-old said.
Community is essential to distance running and the journey to eternal life. Fr. Burns said that except for a few competitive runners, participants don’t try to win. “Everyone wants the best for everyone else. You do not pass someone without wishing them well,” he explained.
The Franciscan friar continued, “It’s like religious life. We all know we’re shooting for this impossible goal, but at least we have each other, support each other, and push each other along.”
During his training, his three brother priests at Good Shepherd accommodated his schedule for long runs. At the event, his parents, brother and sister, and a few Good Shepherd parishioners attended for moral and practical support.
One of the inspirations for running was watching his parents challenge themselves as he was growing up. “I grew up watching them pushing themselves harder and harder in their running. The amount of effort they put into running was always inspiring to me when I was younger.”
Fr. Burns’ amount of effort inspired the middle school students and teachers of Holy Trinity Catholic School in Grapevine.
A frequent visitor to the middle school religion classes, Fr. Burns described the 100-mile event ahead of time and asked the class for their prayers.
Middle school religion teacher Jackie Cummings said Fr. Burns’ request for prayers was “powerful.” It demonstrated to the students, “When you take on a challenge, either one you’ve chosen or one you didn’t choose, you need to be surrounded by prayer.”
Cummings and math teacher Kayla Gilmore wanted the students to appreciate the magnitude of covering 100 miles on foot, so they devised a competition to see which class, or the faculty, would be the first to collectively reach 100 miles.
Each individual logged miles run or walked beginning on the same day Fr. Burns started his race.
Cummings loved listening to the students talk about miles – where they ran, who they walked with – instead of Minecraft and other video games.
“With the pandemic, kids are spending more time on electronics and they are more sedentary. For this contest, they put their electronics aside to walk or run. They learned it’s a group effort, and that you can do more than you think you can,” Cummings said.
Teachers shared in the enthusiasm, arriving to school early to put in a few laps in the halls.
Five days after the priest logged 100 miles, the seventh grade, a sixth-grade class, and the faculty each attained the century mark.
The two winning classes will get an extra recess with Fr. Burns.
Although the challenge is over, Cummings and Gilmore are still on the run. A veteran marathoner, Cummings plans to join Gilmore, a newbie to distance running, at the Cowtown half marathon in May.
And Fr. Burns?
After completing the event, he was “in a world of pain” and could barely walk, but two days later he was browsing the internet for future trail races.
He said, “While you’re doing it, you never think it’s particularly fun, but when it’s over, you realize that was the greatest experience. It’s like life. The things that we remember sometimes are the most challenging and difficult, but the things we ultimately overcame.”