Chicago's Running Nun talks about faith and sport

Sister Stephanie Baliga Sister Stephanie Baliga of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago runs a marathon on a treadmill in 2020. / Courtesy: Sister Stephanie Baliga.

When Chicago shut down last March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sister Stephanie Baliga was certain the shutdown wouldn’t affect the Chicago Marathon in October.

So certain, that she made a pretty crazy promise.

“I said in April, ‘I'm so sure that they're not going to cancel the race, that if they do cancel the race, I will run a marathon on a treadmill’,” Baliga told CNA in an April 6 interview.

“I made this kind of outlandish statement, which, classic me. Then from there, they actually canceled the race. So I had to actually do this, because I said it was going to.”

Baliga decided she would wake up early one morning, get on the treadmill in her basement, and run the marathon. But one of her friends had a better idea.

“One of my friends... said, ‘that's a stupid idea. Do you realize that people would be highly interested in this, if you did some publicity?’” Baliga said. “I'm like, ‘Are you serious? You think people will actually be interested in this? I'm going to run 26 miles on a treadmill. The only thing more boring than running 26 miles on the treadmill, is watching someone run 26 miles on a treadmill.”

Her friend convinced her. On the day of the treadmill marathon, dozens of people joined Baliga via Zoom to cheer for her and offer encouragement.

“I was talking to people the whole time, it was super fun,” Baliga said. “It was actually interesting because lots of people came on Zoom and talked to me during the whole thing, including Deena Kastor, the bronze medalist in the 2005 Olympics, which was crazy.”

Baliga held the world record as the first ever woman to try to record a time for a marathon on a treadmill. But she says the best part of the experience was raising more than $150,000 for the outreach program run by her community, the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago.

The Franciscans live and work at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, an outreach to the poor on the West side of Chicago.

“We have been feeding 3000 to 4,000 families a month during COVID, as well as doing a lot of other outreach to the neighborhood,” Baliga said. “We do a lot of other work with evangelization and things of that nature, but during COVID mostly we feed people.”

Since 2011, Baliga and a team of runners have raised more than $1.1 million dollars for the mission through the Chicago Marathon and other local races.

Baliga first became interested in running when she was eight or nine years old. She registered for a youth cross country team and soon realized that not only did she like running, she was actually pretty good at it.

She ran track and cross country in high school, winning 18 conference championships. She was recruited by the University of Illinois to run Division I cross country and track.

“It was a great blessing,” Baliga told CNA. “I was the sixth fastest freshman in the nation in 2006 … and our teams placed eighth, sixth, and tenth in the nation my freshman through junior year. So it was a great blessing to be part of that experience, and one of the greatest and coolest things that I've done in my life.”

Baliga was sidelined by an injury her sophomore year. She said the injury forced her to slow down and honestly evaluate her life and her priorities.

“I'd never been forced to stop doing anything,” Baliga said. “I was forced to actually reflect on what I was doing, and why I was doing it, and what was the meaning behind any of this?”

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She admits she wasn’t very involved in her Catholic faith at the time. She was raised Catholic, but her family wasn’t very serious about the faith. Running and academics were everything to her.

“It was who I was,” Baliga said. “I defined myself by these things.”

She did make a point in college to go to Sunday Mass, and she had made some friends in the process. Baliga started spending more time with those friends while she recovered from her injury.

“I had all this time because I couldn't run and I was spending ad nauseum hours a day running and doing running associated activities, like weight work and physical therapy,” Baliga said.

“Then they invited me on a retreat, where I had a very powerful experience. I did realize very intensely that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist.”

When Baliga fully recovered from her injury, she said she faced a crossroads.

“There was an interesting battle of the priorities of the things in my life at that point,” she said. “I originally tried to obviously get back in shape after the injury, which was a massive struggle because I was off for a long time and I'd really lost a lot of fitness.”

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“But then there's also like when I started to think about running too much, I knew my life wasn't balanced. I knew that I was kind of drawn to figure out this new place for running in my life.”

By her junior year in college, Baliga began seriously discerning religious life. She thought she would need to give up running to answer God’s calling.

“I was praying, and came to the point where I told God, ‘If you really want me to join this community, I will not run again. If this is really actually what you want, I will give up running.’” Baliga said.

“After that point, there was a lot of freedom ...And I felt like running kind of finally ... started to have a better place in my life, a more balanced place.”

Baliga joined the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago, and she has been able to continue running.

“This is the beautiful witness; when I gave God running, he gave it back to me in this amazing way that I never would have dreamed that would have happened,” Baliga said.

“I personally always wanted to be a marathoner. I knew that it was actually the distance that I was going to be good at. I'd always looked forward to post-college when I could run marathons... God gave me this great gift back of being able to do marathoning. And not for myself, because I've been able to do this with this incredible fundraiser to raise awareness and support and money for our work here on the west side of Chicago.”

For Baliga, running now complements her faith and her vocation.

“It's a beautiful match for people trying to grow in holiness, in my opinion,” she said. “Running is a good way to help people pray and help people to grow in holiness, if you take it seriously and do it for others and not for yourself.”

There are several spots still available on Baliga’s fundraising team for the 2021 Chicago Marathon. Participants can join in person, or virtually. For more information, visit https://missionola.com/marathon.html

This interview originally aired on Catholic News Agency’s podcast, CNA Newsroom. It has been adapted for print. Listen to the interview here, beginning at 2:00.