by Marc and Julie Anderson
BERLIN — It might seem unusual to write prayer intentions on a marathon bib, but Father Scott Wallisch is not your typical runner.
The archdiocesan vocations director and a priest in residence at the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Father Wallisch was one of three archdiocesan priests who completed the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 24. Joining him were Father Nathan Haverland, pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Marysville, and Father Greg Hammes, pastor of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Topeka.
The three started running together in 2008 when they lived at Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood. Father Hammes was newly ordained and associate pastor there, while Father Haverland and Father Wallisch, both seminarians, were engaged in pastoral work.
At the time, Father Wallisch challenged his two friends to a 5K. A 5K run is five kilometers or 3.2 miles.
The trio entered their first race together that summer. Since then, the priests have competed in numerous races of varying lengths.
Father Hammes said he’s lost count of the races he’s participated in. Since 2011, he has annually completed at least one marathon.
Yet, none of them had competed in a marathon beyond the region until Father Haverland competed in the Chicago Marathon last fall.
Once that Father Haverland caught what the other two men referred to as “the running bug,” he decided the threesome needed to find another marathon to compete in. And not just any marathon; they wanted to go to one of the six majors, held in Boston, Chicago, New York, London, Tokyo or Berlin.
Chicago didn’t hold much appeal for Father Haverland who had “been there, done that.” So, he considered the other destinations.
“Germany would be pretty awesome,” he remembered thinking, adding he had “never really considered visiting there.”
Somehow, Father Haverland convinced the other two that Berlin was their new destination — not that it took much convincing. Both priests had their own reasons for entering the race.
Father Hammes turned 41 on Oct. 2. Last year, he wondered if his best running was behind him. He was proved wrong in Berlin.
He beat his personal best time, a record set several years ago, by at least one minute.
As satisfying as that was, Father Hammes said one of the main reasons he agreed to the marathon was because it would take him to the land of his ancestors.
The trio arrived in Germany several days in advance. After enjoying a bit of Oktobefest, the priests traveled to the Moselle River Valley, site of a Hammes winery owned by Father Hammes’ distant cousins. Through them, he can trace his lineage to Johannes Hammes, born in 1657.
“They were so welcoming,” Father Hammes said. “I felt really connected to my roots.”
Meanwhile, Father Haverland, in only his second marathon, beat his previous time by nearly nine minutes, dropping from five hours 28 minutes to five hours 19 minutes.
“I’ll take it,” he said of his time.
And of crossing the finish line near the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark, he said, “It was just a beautiful moment.”
Father Haverland credits his parishioners with having encouraged him a lot in his months of training leading up to the race.
“Everybody was very proud and supportive,” he said.
In fact, all 115 students enrolled in the parish grade school surprised him after Mass the Friday before he left for Germany, treating him as if he was a major sports celebrity.
“It was really cute,” he said, noting it was “definitely a sight to see.”
Like the other two, Father Wallisch also exceeded his personal goal. He completed the marathon 16 minutes faster than expected. He had only planned to run about 15 or 20 percent and walk the rest, but got caught up in the excitement.
“I’m a runner,” he said.
Indeed. He ran roughly 15 of the 26.2 miles.
“It had been one of my bucket list items to do an international marathon,” Father Wallisch said. “That was pretty awesome. This might be the last [marathon] I ever get to do.”
The timing worked out well. While overseas, the archdiocesan vocations director was also able to go on to attend the transitional diaconate ordination of Carter Zielinski, a seminarian studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Prior to the trip, Father Wallisch posted a Facebook message asking for prayer intentions.
“I was overwhelmed by how many people wrote back with very specific intentions,” he said.
“I prayed a lot of rosaries,” he added.
Because the priest wrote all of the requests on his bib, every half-mile or so, he could look down and find the next one.
Prayer kept him going, said Father Wallisch, especially as he reflected on Europe’s secularization.
“I could just feel the absence of God there,” he said.
He had noticed few families there had more than two children. And Father Wallisch realized the same could happen to America if the faith is not passed onto the next generation.
But only days later, he was privileged to witness the love of “31 guys willing to lay down their lives for God and the church” in Rome, he said.
“That was a shot in the arm for my faith,” he continued.
Father Haverland also ran in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5, finishing in a time of five hours twenty-three minutes fifty-five seconds.