Most runners pick their running clothes based on a few critical factors: comfort, sweat-wicking ability, perhaps color and style.
But when lacing up her running shoes, Sister Mary Agnus Dei never has to make a decision on what else she’ll wear. Agnus Dei, a nun, always runs in her habit (a long-sleeved, gray, dress-like garment), her vest, and her veil. Peeking out from the hem are Nike Free shoes and, above each ankle, a flower tattoo.
Agnus Dei, whose birth name is Kelli Lopez, has become accustomed to the double takes as she cruises the streets on one of her runs. But she doesn’t consider the habit a detriment.
“I think my form would probably change if I ran in something other than a habit,” she told Runner’s World. “It’s humbling that I get to wear this. Some people [see me running and] say, ‘Oh how cute,’ or ‘for real?’ But you just go with it. I don’t see it as a limitation by any means.”
Agnus Dei, 33, took her vows with the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), a religious community founded nearly 60 years ago in New Mexico. After missions in New Mexico and Belize, she moved to Seattle, where she had lived prior, and began exploring the city on foot, gradually upping her mileage to five to seven miles, five to six days a week.
She eventually set her sights on the Seattle Half Marathon, her first race, in 2016. Once she obtained permission to participate from her superior, her older brother, Jason Ruybal, himself an avid runner, decided to make the trip from his home in Wyoming to run it with her. They both finished in 2:12.58.
“It did wonders for our relationship,” said Agnus Dei. “We went from being where we didn’t see each other or speak that often, and running became this bond that we had. Whenever I’m out there running, I know that he’s out there running. Distance separates us, but running brings us together.”
These days, Agnus Dei is doing most of her runs on a treadmill. In August, she was assigned to a parish in southwest Detroit, and she’s been so busy working as an assistant teacher and helping her fellow sisters renovating a former house into their convent that she hasn’t had much time yet to explore her new city on foot. So she’s been hitting the treadmill in the evenings, logging about four-and-a-half to five miles, six times a week.
“I call it my hamster time,” she said. “It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing, praise the Lord. And it’s just so necessary to get that running and praying time in after a busy day.”
Running has brought Agnus Dei closer to her communities, too. While she runs, she says prayers for those she encounters along the way.
“That’s the beauty about running and traveling the city on your feet: You encounter people and you can pray for them,” she said. “You can see that somebody has distress on their face, and say, ‘Lord help them, whatever they are going through.’”
Agnus Dei grew up as one of three siblings in La Jara, a tiny town in Colorado near the New Mexico border. Active in several sports, she was baptized Catholic, but her family wasn’t overly devout.
"We were your Easter and Christmas churchgoers,” she said.
She attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, earning a degree in biochemistry in 2007 before securing a job as a climate scientist, which allowed her to travel the world.
But after the passing of her paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, who had provided her with spiritual guidance while she was growing up, Agnus Dei found herself “trying to listen to God’s calling for me, wondering what am I doing with my life?” She eventually connected with SOLT, which she was familiar with from its work in her parents’ parish. One of her earlier missions was in the small town of Holman, New Mexico, where she lived in a convent with several other nuns in training.
There, she started running, sometimes solo, sometimes with other sisters, to a nearby mountain in the Sangre de Cristo range.
“Somehow those hills just seem to draw them out,” said Sister Megan Mary Thibodeau, who is based in SOLT’s headquarters in Corpus Christi, Texas. “They’d run up there like deer—so fast, so fast.”
For Agnus Dei, making it to the summit became a personal challenge.
“It was this mysterious mountain, and you could see it from our convent and through the windows of our chapel,” she said. “I had this challenge for myself to run it—10 miles out and back. Running soon developed into this great time for prayer, this great time for health benefits. But I didn’t do it regularly.”
While she is keeping up her training now, she’s not sure whether a longer distance race, perhaps a marathon, is in her future. “Serving is my priority,” she said. “I don’t know if realistically I would be able to dedicate that much time to training. If the opportunity came, I would probably just gut through it.”
For now, she’s focusing on her new assignment in Detroit, in the Most Holy Redeemer parish. She’s looking forward to the challenge—and what running routes she can explore in her new city.
“I’m going to miss Seattle dearly, but I think good things await me,” she said.
This article first appeared on Runner's World.