The tattoo on Martinus Evans forearm reads “No struggle, no progress.”
Evans is the founder of a unique organization, the Slow AF Running Club. Evans, who was featured in a New York Times article this summer, grew up on the East side of Detroit. He was always a big kid - he was known around the neighborhood as “Marty the fat kid.” He played high school and college football, but coaches were always trying to get him to lose weight. In 2012, hip pain brought him to an orthopedic surgeon who took one look at him and told him: “Mr. Evans, you’re fat. You have two options: Lose weight or die.” Evans decided to take up running, and told the doctor ‘I’m going to run a marathon.’ The doctor laughed and replied ‘running a marathon would also kill you.’ He did it anyway. He ran the Detroit Marathon in 2013, and from that day on, he was a runner. A slow runner, mind you, but a runner.
In 2018 he was on mile 16 of the New York Marathon when a man yelled something to him from the crowd. As the article’s author, Danielle Friedman tells it “You’re slow, buddy,” the man shouted, adding an expletive to indicate just how slow. “Go home.” Mr. Evans tried to ignore him, and turned his attention back to the course, which he eventually finished in just over eight hours, or six hours behind the winner.
The incident inspired him to print a t-shirt that read ‘Slow AF’ on it. Others started requesting the shirt, and he started selling them, and then people started asking if they could run together or share messages of encouragement on a website together. And thus, a running club was born. Evans now has, in true form to our modern age of social media fame, a website, a podcast, an instagram, and a best-selling book. He’s graced the cover of Runner’s World, posed nude for Men’s Health and appeared in an Adidas ad. He currently has 94,000 followers on Instagram.
Yom Kippur is more than a fast day. It is more than a long day of prayers. It is also more than a day of repentance and refinement, more than a day of catharsis and starting over, although all of that is really important.
It is primarily a day of re-examination; a day of values clarification. Who am I? What is my motivation for doing things? What are my goals? What are my values? Are those the right things? Am I satisfied with where I am right now? If I am not satisfied, is it because I still have a ways to go? Or am I not satisfied because the thing I seek is not something that will truly bring me peace?
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the struggles we all face as humans of 21st century America who have a constant drumbeat of materialism pounded into our heads at every moment. This is partially the kind of messaging that forces us to re-evaluate and reflect, but not the only one. We all have things that motivate us and goals we want to achieve. But sometimes, the goal we set for ourselves denies us the pleasure of the reason for the thing in the first place.
That was something I learned from listening to Martinus Evans on a podcast he did. You see, his motivation for starting to run was, at first, to prove that doctor wrong. Which is totally valid - spite is a powerful motivator. But it is fleeting, because once you’ve selected an enemy or a boogeyman, and then you’ve vanquished it, the only way to recapture the feeling of accomplishment in that goal is by eventing another boogeyman. You know the expression ‘if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail?’ It’s kind of like that, except ‘if all you want to do is defeat an enemy, you’re going to constantly invent enemies.
I have an example from my own life, and it so happens to be a running example, because I am a runner, and possibly a potential future member of Martinus Evans’ Slow AF Club, since in the past 35 years since I took up running, I seem to be getting slower by the year. But when I was young and fast, I ran cross country. And the cross country team for my high school in Los Angeles was in a parochial school league - our opponents were all Catholic schools, like Chaminade, and Alemany and Notre Dame. And so one meet we were running out in the north valley against Alemany, and we were at just past the 2nd mile. I had just done the really big hill, up and down, and then down a long glide through a grass field with a split rail fence along the left side. And the course at the end of the split rail was going to take a left turn back up a gradual hill, and then across another field to the finish. But by the grass field with a split fence, I was totally gassed. I just didn’t feel an ounce of strength left in me. There was a kid about 10 yards ahead of me from the other team, but I figured I would do my best to keep him close and hope for the best.
So we’re coming to the rail, and there’s a man there, and he starts cheering for the kid ‘Go son go! Do it!’ And the kid blurts out ‘Doin’ it for Jesus!’ And I get a fire in my chest and bolt of lightning down my spine. And I say to myself ‘Nu - uh. Not today. This kid needs to get beat. And I make it my mission to catch the kid, and pass the kid, and beat the kid. And over the next 200 yards I reel him in, and I know that running is sometimes more about will than about speed, so I know I need to pass him and break his spirit so he won’t catch me. So I pass him and turn up the speed a bit more. And I put 30 yards between us and then decide - now I really need to go. And I just blew him away. I was so motivated I actually caught the next two runners in front of him before the finish. Let me tell you folks, I kicked Jesus’ butt that day.
But that happened 30 years ago, and I’ve never really had the same kind of motivating experience since then. Because running for spite won’t get me off the couch at 5pm on a Thursday when I’ve had a long day at work.
Martinus Evans also talks about the fact that running to lose weight isn’t a motivator either. He calls himself, without any shame or judgment, fat. He’s over 300 pounds, and he’s ok with himself and who he is, and so he comfortably wears the title of fat. And acceptance is also part of his coaching philosophy. To Evans, if you start running to lose 20 pounds, what happens if you get there? Do you have the same satisfaction in keeping it off? Are you a failure if the weight comes back? And what happens if you can’t lose the weight? Well then, the running was just a means to an end, but there was no end. Running must be the end - it must be the reason. You need to do the thing because you want to do it, not because it will accomplish for you something else.
This is a profound piece of wisdom about our quest to find joy and meaning in life, but it’s different from the message I gave a few days ago about seeking joy in emotional and personal things rather than material possessions. This is about setting goals that are meaningful, but also that are in-line with the process of achieving them. This is running for running’s sake - this is baking because the act of mixing flour water eggs and sugar is pleasurable, because the feel of rolling out the dough under your pin gives you satisfaction. This is pulling weeds in the garden because it allows you to be in your garden in the sun. This is taking a walk because it feels good to take a walk. And yes, the health benefits or the pie you eat at the end or the tomatoes you harvest are also good, but they are only part of the experience. Process and goal are unified in the joy they bring.
Let’s go back to the part where Martinus Evans finds the joy and the pride in being 300 lbs and runs a marathon in around 8 hours. For the non-runners among us, the very fastest marathoners in the US run those 26.2 miles in just over 2 hours. Each year, to qualify for the Boston Marathon, runners must demonstrate that they ran another officially sanctioned marathon in around 3 hours. In the two half-marathons I ran, my times were just over 2 and a half hours, and just over 3 hours. My father’s last marathon, at the age of 67, was run at around 6 hours, or around 13 minutes 45 seconds a mile, which is running with a good bit of walking in it. So 8 hours is really slow. Slow AF. Martinus Evans is unfazed and untroubled. He’s so unfazed and untroubled, he wears his slowness emblazoned on a t-shirt. A t-shirt that has become immensely popular and is now worn by tens of thousands of other slow AF runners around the globe. He acknowledges honestly who he is, and is incredibly proud of it.
One of my favorite hassidic teachings echoes this sentiment. It’s one that I put in my book, in chapter 31. The teaching is based on a verse in Leviticus, which says -
וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת־עֲמִיתוֹ וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי אֲנִי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃
A person must not wrong their fellow (amito w/the Hebrew letter ayin), but fear your God; for I the LORD am your God.
The hassidic commentary to this verse goes like this:
What is a Hassid? The person that goes beyond the letter of the law! Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1767-1827) taught that a person should not wrong others - this is the law. And going beyond the letter of the law, that one should not wrong themselves.
One of the greats of Hassidut added: “A person must not wrong the truth (amito w/ an aleph)” of themselves since an ayin can be exchanged by an aleph.”
This important teaching highlights for us the need of an individual to be their authentic selves. The best, kindest version of that self of course, and a version that strives to do mitzvot and steer away from sin - but to be yourself. That means we must work to be happy with who we are, right now. Sure, I used to be 164 pounds, and I used to have hair, and I used to be 23 years old, and I used to run a 6 minute mile. And now I am 46 years old, and I weigh ten pounds more, and I’m bald, and I run maybe a 10 minute mile. This is me, right now. This is you, right now. This is us, right now. While we all are here at Yom Kippur striving to make ourselves the best versions of us we can possibly be, we are not defined by the most unflattering adjectives that another person may give us to make themselves feel better. Fat. Slow. Short. Bald. Rich. Poor. Disabled. Uneducated. We are all just the current version of our essential selves.
This is one of the principles that has made Brith Sholom Jewish Center such a wonderful and remarkable place. If I may speak frankly for a bit, we all know that this synagogue has persisted against the odds to keep on keeping on for many years. Once upon a time, as I have been told, there was an idea to merge with Temple Anshe Chesed, which considering the size of the Jewish community in Erie, is an entirely reasonable proposition. However, you and I both know that Reform and Conservative Judaism are significantly different, both in terms of liturgy, and in terms of the idea of obligation. Brith Sholom has chosen to be itself and keep going till the end, and I think that’s an amazing decision, and not just because it means I have a job.
That has also meant, for a very long time, our identity has been one of a very small shul, or even a shul that wouldn’t be around much longer. That is always quite a burden to carry - the idea that persistent lack of attendance or the passing of just a few more members might ultimately set in motion the end of the shul. I have always been very honest with the idea that when our time is up, our time is up. We are a shul that, in part due to the fearless leadership of our president and her unflinchingly honest words about our reality, has always been honest with who we are. We are the small AF shul, and proud of it. We stand now at 126 years old as a community, and whenever the end should come, there is nothing to be ashamed of. We are who we are.
And now let us go back to the other idea - that of merging process and goal - of enjoying the acts that lead up to an accomplishment, and not just the accomplishment itself.
Being present in your own life is something I have spoken about before, but it is a message that bears repeating, both because it is so important and because it is so hard. We all want to fast forward in life through the tedious bits, and the boring parts, and especially the painful parts. A teaching I encountered this past year regarding Moses going up the mountain does this exceedingly well.
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה וֶהְיֵה־שָׁם וְאֶתְּנָה לְךָ אֶת־לֻחֹת הָאֶבֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר כָּתַבְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָם׃
God said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there*, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.”
* - JPS translation: and wait there
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, who died in 1859, teaches the following:
And this appears difficult; if Moses goes up to the mountain, he’s there. Why emphasize ‘and you will be there’ ?
Thus, from this is proof that even those that make an effort and climb and ascend up a cliff, it is possible that when they get there, they still are not there.
One stands truly on the mountain, but their head is given over to somewhere else. The main principle is not in the ascending, but rather in the being there, engaged in it for real. And only there. And not being above it, or below it, at the same time.
In other words, God reminds Moses when gets to the top of sinai to be there because he needs to be present in that moment. That moment, because it is going to be an important moment. But also, every moment that one decides to be present in can be an important moment. We must truly stand on our mountains, not have a grass-is-greener moment wondering if it’d be nicer at the beach or at the lake or in the desert.
In our high holiday prayers we ask to be inscribed in the book of life. We also ask at the unetanah tokef prayer ‘mi yanuah oo’mi yanuach’ - who will be unsettled and who will be at rest? What the original author of this piyyut intended is mysterious. Is yanuah - to be at movement - a good thing or a bad thing? Are we meant to be sojourners on a quest for meaning, or are we wanderers, lost and looking for a port in a storm? Is yanuach - to be at rest, a good thing or a bad thing? Are we at rest because we are at peace with who we are and what we are meant to do? Or are we resting on our laurels, sedentary, complacent, bored? Or does the piyyut mean it both ways, depending on the year - perhaps this year we will be unmoved and steadfast, and another year we will be bold adventurers. Or perhaps in a year we were meant to be yanuah - wandering - we stayed home instead and were not our truest selves.
The machzor asks that God grant us forgiveness for our sins, and that we will pledge our lives to God by both repenting the errors we have made and by returning to the path God has laid out for us. Essentially, the machzor is asking us to look at what we did last year, and what we didn’t do, and ask ‘what action did you take towards your best self, and what moments of inaction resulted in dissatisfaction?’ This can be the bad thing you did, but it can also be the good thing you did, but for the wrong reasons. We want to find paths for ourselves, God, that are true and right, and that also bring us joy in repeating them. We seek in the words of our machzor in the prayer of the hazzan in the mussaf repetition, shnat haiim tovim milfaneicha, which our erudite rabbinic translator has rendered as ‘a year of a fulfilling life.’
There is a great story on this topic, which I relay to you from Rabbi Alan Lew’s book on the High Holidays - ‘This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.’
A certain rebbe had a close disciple who fell into a long period of staleness that troubled him deeply. He felt as if all meaning had been drained from his life, and when he prayer, his prayers turned to chalk and died in his mouth before he could utter them. The rebbe, aware of his disciple’s problem, took him out of the village to a deep dark forest. Before they entered the forest, the rebbe said to the student, “As you are entering the forest, ask God to give you the answer to your dilemma, then forget about this prayer, because you must pay very close attention to the path through the forest. Otherwise, you’ll get lost and never come out of the forest alive.”
So the student entered the forest asking God for the answer to his struggle, and then he lost himself in following the path. As his rabbi had instructed him, he devoted all his attnetion to the path itself. Soon he began to take great pleasure in this path. He took pleasure in the working of his body as it found its own pace on the path and in the fall of his foot on the cool forest floor. He was taken with the path itself – a verdant mossy path of deep, brilliant green. When he finally came out of the forest, he was smiling broadly. The rebbe asked, “Did God give you an answer?” The student started to weep. “I forgot all about the question,” he said. “I put all my attention on the path, and after a while I took so much pleasure in what was in front of my face that I forgot about the question altogether.” “In that case” the rebbe said, “I would say that God gave you your answer.”
This is the ethos of Martinus Evans, and of the Slow AF Running Club. Moses being present when he stands on the mountain. The rebbe’s forlorn student, losing himself in the mossy path and rediscovering joy and meaning. Running because you like running, and not because you will lose ten pounds, or because you will win a medal for your age-bracket. This is being as purpose – finding meaning in the present and the now. A year of a fulfilling life, and a fulfilling life full of years, no matter how many that may be.
Gemar Hatimah tova.