Deacon Seamus Kettner and Matthew Conner see many parallels between running and prayer life: 'Perseverance is needed'
DETROIT — Deacon Seamus Kettner says he ran the Boston Marathon in true “Boston weather.”
It was a rainy, darkened day with the temperature in the mid-40s on April 17, but that didn’t diminish the energy from the crowd, said Deacon Kettner, a Diocese of Lansing seminarian studying at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, who is preparing to be ordained a priest on June 10.
“For the 15 minutes leading up to the race, it was pouring rain, and I was thinking, 'I wish I wore my over gear before getting to the start,'” Deacon Kettner told Detroit Catholic. “But the crowd was huge, and we had 30,000 runners in total. I never ran a race where I was in a marathon with so many runners all working together, pacing each other.”
The Boston Marathon is the epicenter of long-distance running in the United States; the entire affair is one big party for the town, with fans cheering on the runners while grilling food and playing music.
It was around the 16-mile stretch that the crowd was getting a bit mild, so Deacon Kettner, who had been running for more than 90 minutes at that point, picked up his arms to pump up the crowd.
“I don’t know what got into me, but I was thinking what would happen if I just raised my arms a bit,” said Deacon Kettner, who clocked in at 2 hours, 42 minutes, and 1 second. “I raised my arms, and the people would erupt in cheers. They didn’t know my name, but if they were close enough, they could read (my) jersey. They all started chanting, ‘Firefall, Firefall.'”
“Firefall” is in reference to the team name he and fellow Sacred Heart seminarian Matthew Conner were wearing in the race, with the name coming from Acts 1:8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
“Oh boy, did I feel the Holy Spirit come upon me,” Deacon Kettner said.
Conner, who is studying for the Companions of the Cross and in his first year of formation, came up with the idea of wearing "Firefall" jerseys during the race. Besides he and Deacon Kettner, the group now includes several friends the pair have made across the country who want to combine running with prayer.
“The inspiration behind Firefall was to start a Christian, specifically Catholic, running club,” Conner said. “I recognized most of the faith-based conversations I had during training in the last couple of years. There are a lot of parallels between persevering in training and persevering in prayer. There are a lot of days where you go to do that easy running, waking up at 5:30 a.m., and there are days when you wake up at 6 a.m. to do a Holy Hour in the chapel. (In both cases) there are a lot of days when you’re tired, you don’t want to do it. Perseverance comes in both running and prayer.”
Conner finished at 2 hours, 55 minutes, and 10 seconds, an impressive mark for someone who took up distance running only a few years ago when he walked on to the track team during his senior year at Benedictine College. He completed his first marathon in 2022, which qualified him for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Nationals.
For Conner, the physical exercise quickly became a spiritual exercise.
“Running has always been a time for me to clear my head, straighten my thoughts, and take some time to pray as well,” Conner said. “After joining the cross country and track teams at Benedictine, the communal aspect, the team aspect of it becomes even more important."
During Conner's senior year, he discovered many of the faith-based conversations he was having on campus took place in the context of practice.
"Because you have a great group of guys you are training with, spending a lot of time together, it naturally lends itself to talking about those heavier subjects or more weighing things in life,” Conner said.
Deacon Kettner was also a late convert to distance running; he was more drawn to basketball and football while growing up in Pinckney and attending Novi Detroit Catholic Central High School. He discovered a love for distance running during his first year of seminary, and ran his first marathon, the Detroit Free Press Marathon, in 2019, and has run a marathon every year since — including a “backyard marathon” in 2020.
“I used to think running was too individualistic, but I met a good friend who showed me how to run in a group, train with other guys, and the team aspect of running," Deacon Kettner said. "I learned what it was like training with a group, learning to compete against yourself, and relying on others to support you. There are a lot of parallels you can draw from that.”
Deacon Kettner and Conner both got helpful advice from a Boston Marathon veteran, Fr. Richard Cassidy, a professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
“We have a very fine running track on the other side of the parking lot (at Sacred Heart), where I’ve been running for a few years,” Fr. Cassidy said. “But I suggested to Deacon Kettner to run out in Kensington (Metropark in Milford), running the loop there, because knowing Boston, you have to know how to handle the hills. That is how I trained for Boston, and I showed them it is a great place to train.”
Deacon Kettner’s usual training route started at Sacred Heart, winding through the city to various churches, including the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Detroit in southwest Detroit, Our Lady of the Rosary in Midtown, and Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church in Hamtramck; Conner’s training route is usually from the Companions’ formation house near the campus of the University of Detroit Mercy and up through Royal Oak and Ferndale. Both seminarians said the training sessions are optimal times to pray decades of the rosary or contemplate Scripture.
On the day of the marathon, Conner was thinking of a family friend back home in Cincinnati who had an important doctor’s appointment.
“I’ll start every run with a Sign of the Cross and end with a Glory Be, but I remember that Monday when in Boston, I had a family friend who had a major doctor’s appointment that day, and I found out about it Sunday night,” Connor said. “The race started at 10 a.m., Monday morning, and the doctor’s appointment was 10 a.m. Monday morning. I heard from them after the race that the appointment went really well, but I was praying for them throughout the race.”
Deacon Kettner usually prays all four sets of mysteries of the rosary during a marathon, spreading them out five miles at a time over the 26.2-mile course as a means of pacing.
He also likes to draw from the letters of St. Paul, which have many references to running, but on race day, he went with the prophet Habakkuk 3:19.
“When he says, ‘God, my Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet swift as those of deer and enables me to tread upon the heights’ — I needed that last part, 'to tread upon the heights,' because I knew Boston was going to be hilly," Deacon Kettner said. "So I needed that Scripture passage, so my feet would be as swift as deer, treading upon the heights.”
Vocations Sacred Heart Major Seminary