It seems that there is no escaping the Obamas these days, even on the Disney channel. As I was watching Phineas and Ferb with three of the fittest under-ten-year-old boys in America, there was the first lady, recommending movement and fitness. It’s certainly not a bad message. And if Michelle Obama is looking for someone to lead the training, Lieut. Col. Pat Castle would be more than happy to step up.
The first lady might not be so happy about the direction in which the colonel would lead his charges, however — he’d lose her with his group’s slogan, “For Life!” Castle, currently stationed at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis, co-founded LIFE Runners (LIFE stands for Living In Faith Exchange) in 2008 with brother in arms Rich Reich, a chemical-research officer at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The group’s mantra is “Keep the faith, respect life from conception to natural death, run so as to win.” Admirably marrying conviction to habit, LIFE Runners exists to “raise funds, awareness, and prayers for pro-life activities,” as Castle puts it, “while training for and racing in marathons.” On the runners’ jerseys, a simple line: “REMEMBER The Unborn Jer 1:5.” (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”)
With runners from 19 American states and countries as far away as Turkey and Kenya, LIFE Runners competes in one half or full marathon each year. The group has been represented at marathons in Chicago, the Twin Cities, and Sioux Falls. It gets its energy from its indefatigable leader; Castle is the kind of character who puts his heart and soul into every moment, as if it could be his last. What keeps him moving? “Fishes and loaves,” he tells me.
At last count, 154 runners are signed up for the next marathon, on October 15 in Kansas City, including a marathoner Catholic bishop. Those training each have a $250 fundraising goal, so that the Sioux Falls Alpha Pregnancy Center can purchase a pregnancy-help bus that will provide free sonograms in rural areas. And any money raised above the $25,000 needed for the bus will be donated to the Kansas City Wyandotte Pregnancy Clinic.
As the Jeremiah quotation on their jerseys suggests, the athletic component of their mission is well matched by prayer. “Our first baby picture is a zygote,” Castle reflects. He adds, “If we don’t keep our ‘eyes fixed on Jesus,’ we labor in vain.”
LIFE Runners doubles as a self-help group. “Training for marathons requires great discipline (exercise for discipleship) and affords quiet time for prayer,” Castle explains. “The suffering times during speed workouts and long runs are potent prayers to help save the unborn.” In April, at a fundraiser for the Sioux Falls Alpha Center, he encouraged an audience of over 700 to “get rid of everything that slows us down . . . and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
Part of the lifeblood of LIFE Runners is a daily meditation. An “apostolate seed,” Castle says, was planted while he and Reich were marathon training in 2006. Work separated them, but the conversations continued, and toward the end of 2007, by which time their communications were mostly by e-mail, Castle began sharing their morning conversations with some family members and friends. Before long, a blog was born. LIFE Group focuses on the Christian’s calling to live the faith and share it. It connects over 1,000 people; there is even a radio component to spread the word.
Castle sees no reason that one should lose one’s faith in the military. “The Air Force’s core values are ‘Integrity First, Service before Self, Excellence in All We Do.’ My faith is compatible with those values. My thirst for the eternal isn’t a rarity in the military,” he tells me.
A husband and father, Castle puts energy into marriage training, too; he and his wife, Angi, lead Engaged Encounter weekends — retreats for Catholic couples preparing for marriage. “As couples grow closer to God through service/sacrifice, they also grow closer to each other,” he wrote in a May devotion. Castle’s zeal is contagious and his passion relentless. When I met him in South Bend this summer at a Vita Institute conference at Notre Dame, he had actually bought another conference participant a pair of sneakers so that he could join the group Castle had rounded up for early-morning runs.