'And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” - Romans 10:15
EIGHTEEN years after his first run for a cause cast him in the national spotlight, the man known as 'The Running Priest' has yet to see the finish line.
It shouldn’t be a surprise since Father Robert Reyes has spent a good portion of his 58 years running for his countless causes, mostly political in nature, and, like the Energizer Bunny, just keeps on going ... and going..and going.
Spin.ph finally caught up with the cleric during one of his short visits to Metro Manila from Catanduanes where he is currently assigned at the Franciscan mission in the island province. A few weeks prior to the interview, he took part in the 'Million People March' at the Luneta where he volunteered, fittingly, as a runner between the command center at the Manila Hotel and the stage at the Quirino Grandstand.
Over a dinner of curry rice and apple tea at one of the newly-opened Japanese restaurants along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, we asked Fr. Reyes why he continues to run.
Running for His Life
Running helped Robert Reyes stay alive.
In 1968, the high school freshman from Malabon contracted tuberculosis from his family’s neighbors. It took two years of treatment for the teenager to be declared clear of the disease by a doctor who made a request that would ultimately shape his life.
“Can you bike, swim and run? You have to rebuild your lungs, they have become very weak so try to engage in cardiovascular sports,” the doctor instructed the 15-year old.
Fr. Robert said he initially did not bike or run because it was either too dangerous or he did not have the time. Instead he took up swimming, then his favorite sport, and would regularly go to the Army-Navy Club in Intramuros with his father.
When he entered the Jesuit seminary in 1970, the novitiate in Novaliches had a bike, lots of running space and a swimming pool.
“The first reason why I went into running was because I was in the seminary, I had to cope with the loneliness of life. I biked, ran and swam. I didn’t do it all at once - the triathlon wasn’t born yet. I developed all three sports but not to compete. I was always conscious that I needed to strengthen my lungs and I succeeded," Fr. Robert remembers.
Running against Oppression
As early as the 70s, Reyes was already using sports in his activism but admitted it was a very dangerous way to run.
“If I was discovered I would be dead. The only nice thing was that the roads were better, the traffic was lighter and there was more discipline because there was martial law,” he recounts.
When martial law was declared, the future priest had just enrolled in the first year of a Philosophy course at Ateneo where he was recruited to become an activist and joined the Social Democrats or the Socdems, an alternative to the communist party started by one of his Jesuit mentors.
“During the time I became a courier for the underground,” Fr. Robert recalled. Back then, the seminarian would deliver coded messages and money to revolutionary forces that were kept hidden inside his underwear, rubber shoes and shorts.
“I would run and pretend I was just running around while I was delivering messages from Ateneo to Balintawak (in Quezon City) and then back,” the priest said.
This experience closely stuck with him even as he was ordained into the priesthood in 1982.
Running for a Cause
The first public run Father Robert did that garnered national prominence was in 1995 in protest of the following year’s gathering of leaders from countries belonging to the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Manila and the former US Navy base in Subic Bay.
The ‘Epic Run Against APEC’ from Subic, Zambales to Quezon City covered a distance of about 165 kilometers and took him three days to complete.
“It was my first long run. There was a Carmelite convent in Zambales and I ran from there to the Carmelite Sisters in Quezon City. It was practically an ultramarathon (a race that spans 50km or more),” he recalled.
In 1996, Fr. Robert ended up being assigned as chaplain of the University of the Philippines, a center of student activism. It was a perfect match for the outspoken cleric who ran countless times to bring attention to causes he is passionate about: environmental issues, graft and corruption in government, peace and order and the fight against poverty being among the few.
One of his most publicized runs was the ‘Takbo Para sa Kapayapaan, Kalikasan at Kalayaan’. Trained and assisted by global runner Cesar Guarin, the already 40-year old priest was able to promote his advocacies across Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao from 1996 to 1998.
In doing so, the Running Priest saw, smelled, tasted and felt first-hand the beauty of the land he was fighting so hard for.
“I really saw a lot of outdoors, seascapes and mountainscapes. I would start running at 3 or 4 a.m. Running, when you hear the crickets, the chirping of the birds in total darkness - it’s very mystical. Those were my favorite time of running- from 3 to 5:30 a.m. when I can run at a pace of 8-9 kilometers per hour,' he recalled.
Thousands of kilometers and 15 years later, the Running Priest is far from being done. His most recent run for an advocacy was a previous day’s event, the ‘Run for Mother Mary and for Motherland’ at the Quezon Memorial Circle against the 'Pork Barrel' issue involving millions of pesos in misspent congressional funds.
Running for Love
When I asked if it was still necessary for him to continue running, Fr. Robert smiles before narrating the difficulties, challenges and the physical toll of his chosen vocation, ultra running.
“When I’m about to give up, I meditate on the Passion of our Lord. Especially when I was getting blisters - every day I would get a blister in a different part of my sole. My thighs would bleed from the abrasions as a result of the friction of the fabric of my shorts. I put band aids on my nipples because they would bleed from the chafing. Ultra running is very painful.”
Fr. Robert credits his Christian vocation for sustaining him.
“It’s more the idea of the solitude of a runner. When you’re running, you are alone with God. The run gives you an opportunity to really think of Jesus in a very personal way because nobody is talking to you. In long-distance running, say you’re running 50-60 km a day, you should conserve all the available energy, just surviving the day.”
He shares that one of his discoveries when he became an ultra runner was that “God created beautiful feet."
“It’s in the Bible. That’s why that (passage) has always struck me. When I look at my blistered feet at the end of a long running day, I still tell God, ‘What wonderful feet! How could you have thought of it? How could you have created such wonderful feet?’”
Fr. Robert added that he did not develop into a competitive runner but into another type that is different from the norm.
“People don’t understand when I say it - I became a spiritual runner - the running has spirituality because if it didn’t become that, I would have stopped long ago.”
The Running Priest, who admits he is “definitely running less now," will soon be training for a year in order to prepare for another ultra running mission. This time he plans to run the 200 km circumference of typhoon-lashed but evergreen Catanduanes, a feat nobody has done. He said several groups are talking to him to raise awareness for different causes and fundraisers.
“I don’t have to run, (but) I love to run … That’s why up to now I’m still running. With or without a cause, I’m running. It’s part of my life - not only my physical but also my mental and spiritual health," he admits before sipping his tea.
We're pretty sure the Running Priest has yet to run his last race.