There is a joke about amateur runners who are training for a marathon, it goes something like this: “How do you know if a friend of yours is doing a marathon?” The answer: “Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”
It is as if the mere act of signing up for such an event is worthy of being broadcast to all and sundry. It is as if, the mere intention of doing the marathon, is some kind of achievement which will inspire a showering of congratulations and perhaps a ticker-tape parade down one’s nearby main street.
I know I’m guilty of talking too much about my running to those who don’t necessarily ask for all of the gory details.
I can remember most of my runs from the past couple of years: who they were run with and what the specific personal traits of each running partner are. There are many people I enjoy running with even though we don’t have much in common outside of running. And sometimes I don’t feel compatible training with friends, even though they are runners too.
Running opens up a space for friendship and also marginalises moments for debate and argument about politics and matters such as lockdowns or fluctuating controversies such as Novak Djokovic’s visa to Australia. (hahahaha)
The marathon has some kind of mystique and grandeur. Perhaps it is the mythology of the marathon that is to blame. The story from ancient Greece suggests that doing such a distance is the feat of human endurance.
And of course, this has been put to bed. 42.195km is nothing. Ultra-marathon runners prove this day in, day out. And a simple ultra-marathon isn’t enough either. These can now be done in the desert (marathon des sables) and in mountain ranges with punishing elevation. It is as if humans have some kind of desire to exhaust themselves; to deplete their stock; to test their capacity for enduring difficult physical moments.
Fran Lebowitz, in her popular documentary, Pretend It’s a City, makes fun of this will to ‘challenge’ oneself in this manner. People say, she narrates, ‘I’m doing it because it is a challenge.’ It is like, these folks invent tasks or goals for themselves to see what they’re capable of. She detects a degree of pretension and artificiality to it. I agree – to a degree. But, if I were to follow through with this thought, I would have to think that long-distance running, marathon running, is somehow something that is not essential. Or, at least, essential to myself. And for the moment, or at least for the last eight years, I can’t separate myself from who I think I am and that of being a long-distance runner.
I use ‘runner’ as a kind of softer term to ‘athlete’; which I feel is reserved to those who have achieved a certain level of mastery. I am also arrogant enough to believe that on a good day, I become or embody the practice of being an ‘athlete’. These are fleeting moments; perhaps described as ‘being in the zone’. Sometimes I feel I get into this space; where running briefly becomes ‘easy’ or ‘natural’ and that I don’t need to concentrate so much. Even during these moments I know I’m going to suffer. But I suffer at the right moments.
‘Marathon’ has come to mean doing anything for a long time; to do something without seeing the immediate goals. ‘To marathon’ is to pass through numerous stages and feel a great sense of completion at the end of an arduous task. I hear non-runners say, ‘it’s like a marathon’. So, perhaps there is something general to what the idea of the marathon encompasses even to non-runners. Indeed, running a marathon hardly has exclusive rights to the idea of long-term, arduous projects. Sailing around the world; climbing a tall mountain; cycling the Tour de France, or similar event. But, perhaps it is this: a marathon is relatable; it is both easy enough and difficult enough to do. Simply witness the disparity in levels of proficiency of athletes who participate in mass-city-based marathon events. The winner’s time may be less than 2 hours and 5 minutes (or at least under 2hours 10minutes), while the last placed finished might take some five hours, depending on the generosity of the race organisers.
Rank and file, self-regarding athletes, compete in events with the world’s great runners. The event’s form allows for this peculiarly egalitarian nature to marathon events. I can proudly tell my daughter that ‘I have run in the same race as Eliud Kipchoge’. Indeed, for a very brief moment, I was probably less than a minute behind him (probably within the first 500meters hehehe.). I only finished about one hour behind him.
While, long-distance running feels egalitarian for this reason, it also feels extremely stratified and hierarchical – on a daily basis. Every runner has her or his pace for gentle runs and for speed sessions. I heard a piece of running wisdom which says, ‘running is like water: everyone finds his or her level’. For some runners, improvement appears to come ‘naturally’. For others, every degree of improvement seems to require endless amounts of training and effort. I am happy to exist roughly in the middle of this spectrum.
Our times, for some, are marked by the ‘attention economy’. We are endlessly distracted by all sorts of things. Apparently, social media is one of the enablers of this will to distraction. The previously ‘fast’ 24hours news cycle has been replaced with endless scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp feeds. News is endless. The Covid-19 Pandemic perhaps has created its own kind of ‘news’: ubiquitous live-coverage on websites such as The Guardian and the huge popularity of all sorts of websites which provide graphic details of case numbers, deaths, hospitalisations, recoveries, vaccinations.
The numbering or accounting of the Covid-19 Pandemic is familiar to runners who see their running efforts endlessly enumerated. Strava not only allows for detailed records, but also facilitates a kind of complicit and mutual surveillance. The use of GPS-tracking devices may imperil the safety of some; as one’s home becomes trackable to others who follow their accounts. Our data is stored in the cloud.
So, going back to joke at the beginning: is marathon running, or long-distance running, the ultimate sport for the narcissistic, self-indulgent, self-obsessed amateur sportsperson? Or, does running, long-distance running in particular, offer a particular way of thinking about our times and the places which we occupy? I feel running is a useful thinking-tool. Something to think with, as well as to practice.