“War is hell” is a cliche as old as conflict itself. Yet counter-intuitive as it may seem to those who only view it from a distance, many a veteran yearns for that hell once they have returned to the heaven they thought they left back home. Not because they reveled in the danger and adrenaline of the battlefield, or discovered glory in the killing of the enemy. Rather, it was the camaraderie, the brother/sisterhood, the all-in-it-together, none-to-tease-out quality of their service they missed.
Athletics lends itself to that quality of bonding, too. You can see it in the nervous shaking out of muscles as athletes settle into their starting blocks, in the deep anxious breaths before they are called to the set position, and then in the post-race touching of hands as competitors acknowledge the realm from which they have just returned, the inner sanctum of purposeful effort.
Racing, like war, imagines life as purely purposeful. It is where preparation and intent come into accord, where pressure builds in the heat of competition as energy stores are drawn down and the outer world is reduced to little more than a notion. Ask racers what they thought during the course of a serious effort, and they generally will struggle for an adequate answer. People always complain about the quality of immediate post-race interviews. But this is neither the fault of the interviewer nor of the one being interviewed. Instead, it is a measure of how a race reduces the world to a singular truth of distance against time, a truth which concedes no bright certainties only asks a series of endless, searing questions.
Yet deep in this extreme world of effort is where life is at its most present, too, where what I am and what I am doing is fused into a singularity by a forge fueled by bellowing lungs and fashioned with a hammering heart.
We can understand the hold that this athletic foundry has on us when we see the 2016 trials performances of such past Olympic champions as Sandra Richards-Ross, Jeremy Wariner, and Dee Dee Trotter.
One might rightly ask, ‘why even start if you’re going to be that far out if it?’ But when runners get injured (or just old), or when soldiers complete their deployment, they miss the feeling of oneness of purpose, of wholehearted allegiance to a cause. To such men and women, the banality of everyday life is like a drag chute holding them back from the fullest expression of their truest selves. So while Dee Dee and Sandra seem to grasp that their time is at an end, Jeremy promises to soldier on.
As Wariner, Richards-Ross, and Trotter show, preparing for such racing exacts a toll, not just physically, but emotionally, as well. That is why some athletes seek release from the taxing requirements of the sport.
We hear it in the words of the injured Olympic sprint king Usain Bolt who, even as he struggles to overcome a grade 1 hamstring tear to show fitness for the Rio Games, is anxious to be relieved of the burdens of daily training.
But while Usain may wish for the weight of training to be lifted, he might remember that even as they hated their time in battle, soldiers returning home often felt alienated with the lack of intention when back in civilian life, felt unmoored. Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad were comrades in arms who would die for one another. Hard to replicate that bond down at the local Jiffy Lube.
The sense of belonging, deeply, to sharing and commiserating and defending, fully, is mostly illusory in modern society. We pay others to do the things we either don’t know how to do (e.g. plumbing and electrical work) or the things we no longer want to do, from gardening to police work to actual warring.
The ultimate luxury then is also found to be the ultimate curse. Freedom from the extreme is also a loosening of our connection to a purpose until there’s only the self that remains. And we haven’t reached the evolutionary stage yet where that level of solipsism is satisfying enough to sustain – though today’s presidential politics might offer an opposing view.
And so, the search continues for something that can once again bring life into clear focus, something that offers an unalloyed allegiance to a greater cause. For many an ex-athlete, coaching fulfills that need. Without some semblance of it, however, senses dull and memories replace the moment as one-time warriors try to hold back time, forgetting that, like the crest of an emotional wave, they can never fully control it, only ride it while it’s wild and free, even as the line between heaven and hell is constantly being reimagined as the battle rages.