Running with Ali and Merton

So I was out running early this morning, dodging the raindrops, when I found myself wondering whether I should follow Muhammad Ali or Thomas Merton.

Should I go the way of the gentle, scholarly monk? Or should I follow the street-smart, charismatic boxer?

Boy, does that sound like some heavy, life-turning decision, or what?

But no, it was nothing that deep. I just means I was running in a strange city — in this case, Louisville, Kentucky — and really didn’t know my way around.  I was literally at a crossroads: Muhammad Ai Boulevard and Thomas Merton Square. Which way should I turn?

Muhammad Ali, in his famous knockout of Sonny Liston.

Yes, it was a real intersection, not some metaphor.

But it did give me something to think about during a dark, rainy run.

I had been in Louisville for less than 24 hours. Mrs. Trail Boy and I decided to take an overnight road trip with the family. We’ve never been to Louisville, but it’s only two hours hours away, so we decided it was time to check it out, with the boys, during a long, fall-break weekend. 

We got there Friday afternoon and had fun seeing the sights. We visited the Louisville Slugger bat factory, the Muhammad Ali Center, a fascinating geological park where we could see thousands of fossils (Falls of the Ohio State Park), a scenic waterfront playground, and lots of other things.

And of course, I needed to get in a run. So I got up this morning at 5:30 a.m. to trot for an hour on downtown sidewalks, in the rain.

It’s not exactly my natural habitat. But there were no trails near our hotel, and I wasn’t in the mood to drive for miles to find one.

So that’s how I found myself at this unfamiliar intersection, marked by two names that intruiged me. Merton and Ali.

Both of these men considered Louisville their home, but they were so different. Merton was a contemplative Trappist monk, who spent most of his time in a hermitage, praying and writing alone.

Ali, of course, spent much of his life in the spotlight, chasing fame in the boxing ring. He won an Olympic gold medal. He won and lost and re-won the world heavyweight boxing title. In the meantime, he became a polarizing figure over his decision to refuse to go to Vietnam.

I pondered all this as I ran along, in the dark. And then I realized it really wasn’t so strange. And the two men really weren’t so different.

Thomas Merton, in his Trappist hermitage.

Both were converts to their religion. Merton was born in France to a freethinking artistic father and an American Quaker mother. As an adult, he coverted to Catholicism and after years of prayer and searching, entered the monastery.

Ali was raised in a Christian home, but joined the Nation of Islam in the early 1960s, after being scarred by segregation in his hometown.

As they grew older, they grew in other directions, closer to each other. Merton believed wisdom was found in all world religions, and frequently talked with Zen masters and Tibetan Buddhist leaders.

As for Ali, after he retired from boxing, he devoted his life to peace, justice and philanthropy.

I’ve read several books about both of them. Both were fascinating men. From the little I know about Merton and Ali, I doubt they ever met. Merton died in the 1960s, just as Ali was achieving fame.

But on this intersection, they did meet, in a way. And I met them both, in my thoughts, on a rainy morning.


After getting the lay of the land in Louisville, I decided to make this workout a run of enlightenment.

No, that doesn’t mean I was going to chant or pray or speak in tongues.  It just means I wanted to see some cultural highlights around town as I ran.

So, armed with a visitors map, I ran a wide loop through downtown. I passed by some landmarks that I hoped would measure up to my goal. 

I ran past the Science Museum, the Courier-Journal newspaper, the First Unitarian Church, a few art museums and the Louisville Public Library.

But like any plan, it wasn’t perfect. I also found myself running past the Greyhound bus station, an adult bookstore, a Hard Rock Cafe and a bunch of boarded-up storefronts.

I tried to make sense of it, but it seemed just like a slice of life — the good, the bad and the ugly.

I wonder what Merton or Ali would have thought of it.


I have a trail race on Saturday morning, the Knobstone Trail Half Marathon. And it’s going to be a muddy one.

It’s been raining for the last day or so, and the ground is saturated.

During our drive back to Indy this afternoon, we stopped at Brown County State Park in Nashville, Indiana, to check out the October foliage and hike a few short trails. The trails were a muddy mess.

Now I know what awaits me in the morning. I don’t think I’ll be setting any PR’s.

But I’ll be having lots of fun on the trails.


One Response to “Running with Ali and Merton”

  1. And isn’t it funny that both Merton and Ali have ties with Louisville, Ky., of all places?

    Glad you enjoyed the Ali Center. We visited there when we lived in Lexington, and it’s pretty inspiring.

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