Winging my way home after the 126th Boston Marathon, I found an old column that reminded me of what Monday’s marvelous marathon represents, and why such events are important in our current age well beyond the athletic achievements on display.
In this time of the novel coronavirus, we are all being asked to endure in ways we never imagined in a free, open, robust society. From a severely restricted way of life to a potentially cratered economy, we have all been tasked so that the virus might pass through the population at a slower, more manageable rate than if left to its own contagious appetites.
But in our relativistic, ADHD society where instant gratification and pliant judgements have been the long-standing norm, rigor and endurance of any kind have become something of an anathema. Yet for runners, endurance is the very soul of their striving.
It is both what they train for, and the goal they seek, standing in the far expanse as a challenge that they know will require their best even as it may, in the process, reveal their limits.
The task then is to first withstand the fire and then to confront the fatigue, to remain resolute and not yield, and perhaps even to embrace the growing darkness.
As Milton wrote of the blind Samson taunting Harapha, the strong man of the Philistines, “my heels are fetter’d, but my fists are free,” where, in this case, our fists are the wits and resolve each runner carries in measures beyond their knowing until summoned from the deep wells of need and want.
A runner dealing with depletion must impose a self-discipline despite the expanding ruin. He/she must muster what forces that remain and array them in a refusal to capitulate, finding what may suffice when nothing truly can as the entire length of distance is reduced to no more than that which one’s fragile resources can still manage, be it one more mile, kilometer, block, or even single stride.
That is the heroism of endurance, and we can find it from first to last at speeds both fast and slow alike.
Each runner, then, becomes a rebel in an insurgency against the limitations imposed by what he/she once was and what they once thought they could be. The inner battle is engaged with the body speaking openly against its master, where even prayer sounds hollow and want is a cruel cudgel used to bludgeon the ebbing strength of whatever hope remains.
It is, nonetheless, the conflict we all signed up for, knowing that wherever I go, there shall I be, choosing to explore, not just the clement paths of easy transport but, more tellingly, the dark desperate corridors within, left to weigh my all too abundant flaws against the malice of Satan’s gravitational urgings.
Upon the course, we stride amidst the unrestrained desire of every other runner, knowing that each is a reflection of the other, whether for good or ill.
Knowing, too, that every race is a reliquary of all previous races, each a fuller measure of its accumulated precursors, and soon to live on as an influence upon races yet to be run.
And through it all, we discover something new about ourselves, though it never fully tilts to a perfect solipsism. For a racer only discovers his/her most profound self through the interaction with other racers in a crucible that has the potential to visit glory as well as to realize loss and cruel disappointment.
And yet, even within a growing darkness, we continue to seek what remains of the light, because even in suffering, we have been conditioned to find strength. That is the communal graveyard that must be whistled past if ever salvation is to be achieved. And that has nothing to do with one’s place or time, which are but temporal indicators that never fully define the experience.
There is, in its length, a great yearning in an endurance race. So much has been invested in preparation, so much has been placed on the line and now been run out to this forefront position until we are faced with that one never-ending question: what now?
Therein lies the measure of that which must be endured. Therein lies the measure of all who join in the runner’s explication of self. Therein, ultimately, lies the measure of me.
Run on. Recover well. Stay safe.