SALT LAKE CITY — When Sister Elaine S. Dalton started going to marathons, she was there to cheer on her husband and oldest son, who ran his first marathon at 12 years old.
"I was always at the finish line cheering them on," said Sister Dalton, the Young Women general president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who authored the recently released book "A Return to Virtue."
When her son Matt went on a mission, she decided it was time to train for and run her first marathon. "It was time to do something hard," she said, as her son was also doing something that wasn't easy — physically or spiritually. In training, she ran with a group of women who agreed that they would discuss ideas — and not people — during their run. They also would discuss their reading of "Jesus the Christ" and the scriptures.
Since that first marathon, the mother of five boys and a daughter and grandmother of 16 has run more than a dozen of the 26.2-mile races, including two Boston Marathons and other shorter races.
When she crossed the finish line for the first marathon, the thought that went through her mind was, "I can do hard things."
In "A Return to Virtue" (Deseret Book, 132 pages), she uses the different stages and participants in running a marathon, from training and staying on course to coaches and cheering others on, as an analogy for staying virtuous and being morally clean.
"Some (young men and young women) don't realize that they can change the world," Sister Dalton said. It's been since she was sustained as the Young Women general president that virtue was added as the eighth Young Women value, and she has spoken often of an increased need for virtue in the world. "A virtuous life is such a happy life, such an uncomplicated life. And I believe one virtuous man or woman, led by the Spirit, can change the world!"
Both running a race and staying virtuous start with setting a goal, developing a plan and being disciplined. It's not always easy getting up to run when it's cold or raining.
"You make those decisions way ahead of time," Sister Dalton said. "So when Monday morning comes and when it's hailing outside, you're still going to put in the miles."
It takes work and sometimes it can be a bit lonely, whether it's an early morning run or standing up for beliefs. Pushing to run more and more each day helps to build endurance for long distances just as the little daily habits and decisions in life help to boost spiritual strength.
"After a certain amount of miles, running becomes pleasant," Sister Dalton said.
But at times it's easy to lose perspective.
During the Boston Marathon, when she was running through the city with its high-rise buildings, it wasn't always easy to see exactly where the course was headed.
"It's my job, working with parents and leaders, to remind young women of where and who they are," Sister Dalton said.
"Many young women don't realize that when they make mistakes, they can turn around and make a change through repentance and the power of the Atonement. They end up carrying a heavy burden and going further and further away from the physically marked path to the finish line, or spiritually speaking, away from the guidance of the Spirit and away from worthiness to enter the temple."
And at times, too, the plan a runner has may change as expected events, like marriage and a family, don't quite happen on the anticipated time frame.
"That's when we just keep training and moving, knowing that we can trust in the Lord," she added.
And it's not just the runners who need virtue in their lives.
"We're all participants in the marathon of life, and we are all coaching each other," she said, whether it's leaders cheering young women on, or parents, or other young men, we all can encourage each other.
At a marathon in St. George, young men and young women were manning the water and aid stations. "They cheered me on," Sister Dalton said. "I couldn't have done it without them."
And there were times when she would run with family members and her oldest son would finish the race and then come back and run the end of the race with her or her other sons would run the last miles with her.
"Young women need role models and they need heroines," whether it's a parent, grandparent, leaders or others, she added.
"I see women who may have lost confidence in their ability to change lives," Sister Dalton said. A 75-year-old woman once asked Sister Dalton what she could offer the young women in her ward because of the age difference.
But age doesn't matter. Young women need the virtuous examples of lives lived according to the standards the Lord has set for happiness, Sister Dalton said.
"In the world today, everything looks good," Sister Dalton said. "We must be virtuous and pure in order to access the power of the Holy Ghost and have the guidance to discern what course to take in order to make it to the finish line — to get to the temple and be worthy to return once again back into the Father's presence — proven, pure and sealed in an eternal family."