Alabama has seen almost nothing of winter this year. The thermometer can’t have dipped below freezing more than a half-dozen times. If freezing is the demarcation line between cold and simply cool, Alabama winters are generally just cool. Even during the coldest winters, nothing stays frozen for long. But this winter, nothing has frozen to begin with. Or at least hadn’t, until this past weekend, which was inconveniently enough, also the weekend of the Mercedes Marathon and Half-Marathon. I had decided in late January that I’d run the half marathon. The coldest air of the season arrived the day before the race. Just two weeks prior, I had been sweating out my last long run in shorts and short-sleeve shirt, fighting a high temp that day of 71 degrees. It had been a long time since I’d run in weather as cold as the weatherman promised for the race. The temp at the gun was expected to barely breach the 20 degree mark, with a stiff North wind to make sure the chill achieved maximal circulation over all exposed surfaces.
Before my son got sick, I had a string of eight straight Mercedes races (one of which was a whole marathon), starting in 2003. No, I never won any of them, nor even came close. I tried, like the makeshift sign held up at the first one said to, “Run like a Kenyan”, but never succeeded. (I wonder, is it racist to acknowledge a particular nationality is exceptionally good at something? Would it be racist to hold up a sign at one of my kids’ math tournaments that said, “Compute like an Asian”?) February 2009 is the last year I’d run before this one. My son’s relapsed leukemia was diagnosed in September of that year, and in February of 2010, as the annual race kicked off, I was at the hospital tending to him. He had been readmitted with a bladder that was bleeding about one unit of packed red cells per day. Blood clots had formed, which required a cystoscopy, then a catheter, thus the admission.
It hardly even occurred to me in February of 2010 that I was missing the race, until someone posted on my son’s caringbridge site that they were running the race to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in his honor. I thanked them in a comment after posting an update of his condition (caringbridge is something of a blog devoted to updating the health conditions of people battling serious illness or disease), but got in a slight dig at the nonsense that someone runs a race for someone else, by explaining that the eight races I had previously run had all been for me. I’ve been accused of being blunt and operating without a filter, which is not true. Had I not had a filter, I would have pointed out that no one ever does anything for anyone else. “Altruism” describes something that does not exist in the human animal, or really, in any animal, as I have explained before. The true purpose behind the person’s comment that she was running to raise money for charity in honor of my son was revealed by her telling to the world that she was running to raise money for charity in honor of him—it made her appear to be altruistic, which is one of the more prevalent strategies for enhancing one’s social status, and thereby survivability, which is the selfish, non-altruistic impulse behind each and every gene of which we are made.
Though my son has battled leukemia twice, I’m not even sure what the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society does, except sponsor people in marathons and the like, helping motivate them to inflict pain upon themselves by providing them a (contrived) higher purpose and cause for doing so. They have certainly never done anything for us directly. I can only guess that maybe we have benefited in a general way by their funding of research, though it’s hard to imagine that research into new treatments and drugs for leukemia and lymphoma would cease without the Society.
I’ve always known that the infliction of pain such as running or exercising represents has no more point than simply that a body needs pain just like it needs water and food, and when life is so easy there is hardly ever any pain, such as things are and generally have been in America for quite some time, survival comes to depend on the pain being self-inflicted. As I looked out over the crowd of what appeared to be mainly upper-middle class whites waiting on the starting gun Sunday morning, it occurred to me that running marathons is something only people who are otherwise mostly comfortable would contemplate.
Since my college days, running has provided the aerobic exercise I’ve needed to stay fit. Running in marathons and half-marathons, something I didn’t take up until my early forties, makes the pain of exercise seem justified by something more than just the goal of staying reasonably fit. But really, that’s all it is—trying to stave off the physical decay and decrepitude that comes with age. Running a race demands adherence to some sort of training schedule and the self-discipline to do that which does not, at least at first, seem natural—to make life hard when it is otherwise easy. But there is a paradox here. Pain is the more or less natural state of being for humanity, and presumably, all of life. Contriving activities, like running long distances, that inflict pain through labored movement, actually yield an existence that is closer to that for which we are designed. Our big fat brains have created a mostly pain-free world that is so far removed from that in which we evolved that we need our big fat brains to devise mechanisms for returning us to that world if we are to continue to flourish in our newly created one. I wonder sometimes, wouldn’t it have been just as well had we simply remained hunters and gatherers? Is all this really better?
There is a visceral element to running long distances for me. I can’t say that I’ve ever really experienced a “runner’s high”—that feeling of euphoria one gets at around the five or ten-mile mark, when everything seems to be working so well until the running feels more like gliding. I do mainly feel better after about five miles, which usually lasts a couple of miles, when I start feeling worse. So maybe I have felt it, but just don’t recognize it. (I wonder, are there women that are similarly confused about orgasms?) What I do feel, though, is something entirely mental. At some point in a long run, presumably after I’ve burnt up all the short-term energy stores and I’m dipping into the reserves, but before my legs turn to noodles thereby focusing my mind on their pain, there is a period of exceptional clarity. It’s as if my brain, no doubt a bit deprived of oxygen, decides it is too heavily tasked to keep up the patina of rationalizations and compromises my reasoning mind has created for getting along in civilized society, and inadvertently allows me to clearly see things as they are, both internally and externally. I’ve learned from the experience that at its base, my mind is coldly, almost radically, objective and rational. I suspect I’m not alone. The rationalizations we contrive to support our emotional impulses are often superficially irrational, but the instincts from which they arise, when stripped of their emotions and the rationale supporting them, are never irrational. At the core of life is a calculating logic concerned only with preserving and extending life, to eternity if it could, but understands it can’t, so seeks other means of securing posterity (accolades and reproduction). The logical operations at the core are rarely revealed to our conscious minds. Taxing the body through tests of stamina can allow a glimpse of what is going on underneath the veil of consciousness.
So I’ve learned through the years that running has benefits beyond just the physical workouts. Running long distances can reveal a great deal about the soul, and about the things it considers to be problems. Issues festering just outside of consciousness come into clear view. Feelings and impulses that are otherwise suppressed by consciousness make it past civilization’s barricades. Running even has religious connotations. Jesus admonished his followers to love their neighbor as themselves, failing to explain that loving others requires loving one’s self. Love starts with knowledge. Loving one’s self requires knowing one’s self. Running long distances is a good place to start in finding out who, exactly, is inhabiting the flesh that is meant to love.
I don’t get the clarity and insight during actual races. There’s too much noise, too many people, to ever sink inside myself. It’s the long training runs leading up to the races where I enjoy the revelations that fatigue and oxygen deprivation provide. But it’s doubtful I would ever have bothered with long training runs without the goal of running a race, so though there are few insights gained on race day, there perhaps would be none without the need for preparation.
There have been other things that have similarly provided epiphanies. Emotional pain can yield insights just as readily as physical pain. The two bone marrow transplants my son endured were packed with profundity and insight. During his first transplant, clarity only came much later, after the storm had passed, because I was so utterly immersed in the American rat race that I didn’t even realize how many lies I had swallowed in order to think that nothing mattered except relentless acquisition. The second time, I knew better. There was still plenty of pain, but I didn’t feel, like I did the first time, that I couldn’t even place its origin. Pain the second time provided clarity on the utterly dismal state of treatment at the transplant center, something I had suspected before, but was too befuddled to understand. The second time, because I had learned (partly through the revelations provided by long runs) that materialism, the ultimate expression of which is worshipping the continuation of one’s earthly presence above all else, is a wretched philosophy of existence, and had rejected it, I no longer feared my son’s death and was able and willing to demand his doctors did their jobs. Once the fear of death is conquered, doctors lose the halo of godliness, and become just ordinary characters, with all the same foibles and failures as any human, including always taking the route of least resistance to ensure their paycheck keeps arriving. I’d like to imagine that by my efforts, my son suffered a bit less than he otherwise would have.
Sports are often said to be a metaphor for life. Phil Jackson, the retired NBA coach, famously once said that basketball was so important that it wasn’t a metaphor for life; life was a metaphor for basketball. Nonsense. Life doesn’t have four quarters and a half-time. There is no victory at the end, only death. Team sports are mainly contrived melodramas. In the South, college football recalls antebellum days, and the quasi-feudal hierarchical society that was washed away with industrialization. The coach is the general, preaching the virtues of self-sacrifice and discipline such that the society’s army (the team) might vanquish the foes threatening it. You almost expect one day to see the football equivalent of a Pickett’s charge, whatever that might look like. Southerners still believe that when their favorite team triumphs over a hated rival, it was the team’s emotional fealty to the cause that prompted the victory, paying no heed to the reality that most often the reason a team wins or loses is the innate talent level of its players and coaches relative to the competition.
The sport of long distance running isn’t a metaphor for life either, but it comes the closest of all those I know. It is an individual endeavor, and life in a modern capitalist democracy is an individual challenge. Survival today does not depend on fealty to a clan or tribe, and the modern-day equivalent of clans and tribes can’t be counted on for support. Ours is a dog eat dog world that depends on individual talent and effort. All one can do is their best with what they have, and let the chips fall where they may; running a race is much the same–an individual endeavor dependent upon beating back the demons tormenting one’s soul such that the best performance can obtain. But races only last a few hours, and the preparatory training, a few months at most. Life never ends, until the end.
Birmingham’s is a hilly course, and the hills might operate as metaphors for life’s troubles and tribulations, but real life trials and tribulations can arise from any quarter, at any time, and sometimes there is no downhill stretch on the other side. Sometimes there is no other side. Life can be all uphill.
But mainly the reason long distance running fails as a metaphor is that life is not linear. Life is a never-ceasing cycle that any one life or time can only rarely glimpse in totality, if at all. Linearity is an illusion created by the mind to make things appear to be immediately purposeful and useful, so that we might willingly put one foot in front of the other on our march to the grave. Long distance running mimics the illusion created by our minds, which explains why it works best as a metaphor, and also why it fails.
I think I run for the insights now as much as for the general benefits to physical health. I skipped the previous two years of the local run because I already had pain enough to provide clarity as to my personal situation. It was good to need the physical pain again. With luck, I’ll need it again next year as well.
(If you want to see how I did, visit Mercedes Marathon Results site, click on the half-marathon general results, find age 45-49 men, and scroll down to number 100. That’s me. I finished in a bit under two hours, which was far and away my slowest time ever—a function of age and laziness and all that psychic pain replacing my need for physical pain the last couple of years, I suppose—my best time was about 1:42 in 2005, if I correctly recall.)