Amish Runners and the Bird-in-Hand Half-Marathon

I often take along my running shoes when I travel to Amish communities.  When you’re in the car for long hours and saddled up next to the table for many more, hitting the pavement for a jog becomes a basic necessity.

Amish Half-marathonThe scenic roads of Lancaster County are popular among recreational athletes.  In parts of the County there is almost a steady stream of runners and cyclists passing by in the warmer months.  With widespread asphalt surfacing and many corners of the county seeing relatively low road traffic, it’s no wonder.

Runner’s World features an article on Amish runners in the past month’s issue.  Trevor Dixon writes about full-moon runs in Lancaster County’s “Valley of No Lights”:

Last October I ran with Smucker, some of his Mennonite friends, and about 20 Amish. The Mennonites wore running shorts and running pants, and synthetic tops. The Amish men wore black pants held up with suspenders and long-sleeve, button-down shirts. Most were clean-shaven (Amish don’t grow beards until they marry, which is usually a few years after they formally join the church). The one woman in the group wore a long dress and a head scarf. I should note that they all wore running shoes. I should also note that we were running by the light of the moon.

Todd Weaver, another Mennonite, Terry Yoder, and a few others had started the full-moon runs in the fall of 2007. Smucker joined in 2008, and early the next year he brought the marathoning Amish man, and then that man brought a few of his friends. These days, the full-moon runs draw as many as 30 people, Mennonites, Amish, and English…

The discussion during the full-moon run was the same one that every group of runners I’ve ever joined has participated in: personal bests, upcoming races, business ups and downs, good-natured insults. A few of the faster Mennonites sped ahead the last mile, and when they got to the Bird-in-Hand Fire Station, doubled back to join the group.

“You can tell they’re Mennonites,” one of the Amish cracked, “they’re going the wrong way again.”

It sounds like these are mostly unmarried Amish youth, but maybe not all.  The Amish have a complicated relationship with sports, sanctioning some activities as upbuilding and a means of socialization (youth group volleyball games or schoolyard softball matches), but largely frowning on organized competitive sports.  As an essentially solo endeavor with potential for individual glory, long-distance running does not seem to fit the mold of Amish-approved athletic activities.

Dixon on the issue:

As more Amish race, though, and get faster, there are risks. No one wants a repeat of the softball ban.

It’s not something I’d previously noticed, but every Amish schoolhouse has a ball field next to it. Consequently, the Amish have for generations been really, really good at softball and baseball. So good, in fact, that some, in the past, were recruited to play on semipro teams. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Smucker’s uncle, who was Old Order Amish, pitched semiprofessionally under an assumed name (his Amish catcher did the same). They didn’t want their parents or church elders to see their names in any stories or box scores in local papers. They weren’t sure either would approve. They were right to have worried.

Smucker’s uncle and his battery mate eventually retired without having been found out, but 15 years ago, some other young Amish men weren’t quite as careful, or quite as fortunate. They started playing in a number of leagues, and wearing uniforms, and after a while, it was apparently too much for the church elders to ignore. Whether it was too obvious a display of pride, or modernity, is not exactly clear. Kids can still play, but Amish church members in Lancaster County are now banned from playing softball and baseball.

None of the runners wants that to happen to their sport. None thinks it should happen. Of course they want to run faster, they say. Of course they want to improve. And yes, sure, winning is nice. But those are all secondary goals.

Read the article in full here: Amish runners.

The Amish Half-Marathon

Amish youth are also among the runners of the Bird-in-Hand half-marathon, mentioned in the Runner’s World piece.  This annual event started in 2010 and enjoys support from the local Amish community.

The BIH half-marathon’s website describes the race:

It’s a course like nothing you’ve ever experienced! Weaving around the famous Amish farmlands of Lancaster County, this is a course that challenges your body and refreshes your soul. Dotting the route are water stations staffed by Amish families, eager to offer you refreshment. And Amish one-room schoolhouses serve as your rest stops.

From a video on the site I learned that the half-marathon is one of a number of fundraisers for the Bird-in-Hand Volunteer Fire Company, 60% of whose members are Old Order Amish.

An “Amish Pasta Party” the day before provides loads of carbs for runners to pack away.  “Pace buggies” lead off the race, with “sag buggies” offering runners assistance. This year’s event takes place the weekend of September 7-8 (Fri-Sat), and also features a hot air balloon launch, a kid’s fun run, and a bonfire and s’mores jamboree.  I may need to get back on a training regimen (or at the least make plans to hit the s’mores party 😉 ).

Amish Half-marathon photo credit: bihhalf.com

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    12 Comments

    1. That all sounds like incredible fun. Since my plan is to move to Iowa this year (within a couple of months), I like the idea of moonlit runs. That will be me, the only woman in the group, in long dress and head covering. I used to powerlift in black yoga pants and long-sleeved t-shirts, with a small knit cap as my covering. I look forward to running again. It was great trail-running here in new Denmark, but it is all hills.

      1. Robin Stone

        Question for Magdalena – what part io Iowa are you relocating to? I live in NE Iowa, very close tot he Hazelton and Edgewood Amish communities.

    2. Jean

      Iowa?! That’s where I am! I’m looking hard on start training for Tough Mudder http://toughmudder.com/. I am fournate to live right beside Raccoon Valley trial. Best time for me to run is after our children is in bed with husband as babysitter. I do so look forward to it! Yup, many people assume I’m Amish but I’m not. I fully intent to keep my plain clothing. That’ll be interesting….

    3. This is clean healthy fun and I hope it doesn’t get out of hand for the Amish that they have to put a stop to it.

    4. Ann Whitaker

      Makes me want to take up running! Thanks, Erik for another great post! I’ve danced by the light of the moon, but now, moon walks (runs) seem in order. 🙂
      Have a great day!

    5. Lee Ann

      Sounds like fun and alot of support there for that run. I haven’t heard of moon runs before, but here in AZ we have hiking under the moon.

      Great way to stay in shape with that run.

    6. Tom(KY)

      A s’mores party that takes place just outside of Hershey PA, seems to be a natural fit.

    7. Alice Mary

      Luna...tic?

      Forgive me, I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but before I even read the blog, I was thinking about taking some nighttime walks and wondering when the moon would be full, thus the “lunatic” reference. I haven’t been able to run for years (had one bad knee replaced a couple of years back) but I do enjoy walking after dark. I grew up walking a lot, since we never owned a car.

      Now I’m wondering if the Amish who do these moon runs wear blinkers or reflective clothing, or are the roads so sparsely traveled by auto or buggy that it doesn’t matter?

      Say, do the Amish play soccer? I’ve heard of them playing volleyball, softball, baseball. It’s interesting to hear about what’s banned, sports-wise. I’d be interested to hear of any other sport bans, and the reasoning beind them.

      Alice Mary

      1. Alice Mary I haven’t seen that soccer is too popular in any Amish communities I’ve visited, nor heard much that it is, though I’m sure there are kids who kick a ball around.

        “Lunatyk” is actually the word for sleepwalker in Polish. It’s what you’d call a false friend. A Pole might tell you that he or she is a “lunatyk”. Don’t be alarmed though 🙂

    8. Darlene

      We were in Bird-in-Hand last month and drove by a runner who was wearing suspenders. My husband pointed out the “Amish runner” and we chuckled. Today we chuckled because he probably WAS an Amish runner!

      I started running last June and enjoy an early morning run. No midnight runs for me as I run alone and am a scardey-cat (with good reason…ever watch the news? 🙂 I’ll be running my first 5k next weekend and have now informed my husband that maybe I COULD train for a 1/2 marathon…

      And Erik…it’s a smore’s JAMBOREE…that’s like a step ABOVE a mere “party.”

      Running and smore’s…a match made in heaven…

      1. Darlene good for you on the 5K, enjoy it…and actually the jamboree reference was my own term, it’s officially listed as a s’mores party so I may be over-selling it 😉

    9. Lindsay

      I think I may be in for the BIH half. I’m running the Chicago Marathon again this year and this race comes at the perfect point in training where I need a dressv rehearsal run.

      The article also mentioned a Ragnar Relay team made up of all Amish gents that was one of the top teams overall. But also lots of races offer a team component…I run on a team sponsored by a local running store and our combined time determines our place.