Found on RunnersWorld.com and written by Jonathan Beverly
It’s a Monday morning and I’m talking with colleagues about what we did over the weekend. After hearing about street fairs and botanical gardens, I mention I ran a 10K.
“Was it fun?” one woman asks.
The question, innocent enough, surprises me. I’m not sure how to answer.
By most measures of fun, my race fell considerably short. “Fun” brings to mind beer-commercial images of beautiful, smiling people, laughing and bantering in a relaxed, comfortable environment. Any athletic pursuits in this scene are low-key and convivial, with mock victory poses and flirtatious body contact.
My race had none of that. A video collage would feature a tense, inward-focused gaze as I warmed up in the already-disturbing heat, grimaces of effort and pain during the two-loop road course, a shuffling, sweat-drenched and salt-encrusted cooldown, and a hamstring cramp on the ride home. Interaction between me and other racers was mostly short and cursory: assessing glances and nods before the race; a respectful brushing of fingers reached out from exhausted, hands-on-knees poses in the chute; and some affirmations of shared suffering while making our way through the finish area.
The answer to my colleague seems simple enough: “No. It was not fun.”
But to say that would sound like I made a mistake, that I had been disappointed and wasted the weekend. And, fun or not, I’m glad I did it.
It’s not like she doesn’t have reason to think that I would have fun at a race. The sport, by and large, presents races as parties. And there were those among the 800 or so participants of this race whose day matched that image, full of hugs and high-fives, smiles and cheerful conversation. In another context—even during much of my running—I would be happy to be part of that scene. But that isn’t why I race.
Interestingly, this question of having fun isn’t generally asked of young runners after a track meet or cross-country race (I checked with a few to make sure this is still true). In the context of youth sports, you are supposed to compete, to dig deep, to do your best—ideally, to win.
One reason for this disparity is that youth are often seen to be competing for an athletic job: to get a college scholarship. As an adult, were I talented enough to make money at my running, my seriousness would be expected and understood. But I’m not. My racing, no matter how important it is in my life, is now, and always has been, almost entirely recreational.
Besides the promise of a lucrative future, youth are encouraged to take sport seriously in order to build character. Competition and struggle reveal something about how they will deal with life’s difficulties.
Later in life, we’re no longer supposed to require this affirmation. Yet some of us seem to never outgrow the need to prove ourselves.
In his poetic memoir, Poverty Creek Journal, Thomas Gardner describes the time a man, out walking his dog, stopped to talk with Gardner during a hill workout. “I’m flushed, self-conscious, as if I’d been caught wanting something too much,” Gardner writes.
What is it we want from this embarrassing effort? Philosophy professor and runner Mark Rowlands suggests that it is knowledge. “This was a game of enduring, of finding out how much would break me,” Rowlands says about running up his favorite hill in Running With the Pack. “I always ran that hill just to see if I could—to see if I could still make myself do it today just as I had done it yesterday. Finding out if the hill would beat me—knowing one way or the other—that was the point.”
John L. Parker Jr. echoes this idea in his novel Once a Runner. “Racing was a rite of death; from it came knowledge,” he writes.
What knowledge comes from a rite of death? I don’t believe it is mystical or masochistic. The best explanation I’ve found is that we’re seeking the knowledge that we are fully human. One characteristic that makes mankind unique, at least according to German philosopher Georg Hegel, is our ability to overcome our desire for self-preservation and fight to the death over nothing more than a symbolic idea. The fact that I will push myself beyond my body’s distress signals for no good reason but ego is the whole point.
The fact that I will push myself beyond my body’s distress signals for no good reason but ego is the whole point.
In a race, I get to prove that I am more than a bundle of instinctual reactions, salivating on cue at the promise of reward. I am not drifting through life, taking the path of least resistance to survive and be comfortable. I am in control, I can choose and act—even when it gets scary or painful.
That knowledge brings great satisfaction. A lot of activities are pleasurable, and I enjoy them in their place, but I’m looking for something else when I line up for a race. In a world where skipping Starbucks is, for some, considered hardship, running is one of the best ways I know to get it. Through this lens I reconsider yesterday’s race. As the early pace sorted the field, I fell in behind a tall, tan, highly toned runner moving with the grace of a natural athlete. I decided my goal would be to stay with this Adonis as long as I could. As the miles passed and the heat grew, I clung to his shoulder, digging deep into debt and desperation, yet hanging on.
And then a quarter mile out, as the buildings grew taller with the center-city finish approaching, I discovered a spark inside that still cared, that wanted to do more than maintain. To my surprise, I felt my stride lifting and quickening. I watched myself fly past the tall runner and drive powerfully through the finish line to the blessed relief beyond.
My effort in the race didn’t result in a record or an award. It didn’t feel good. But it gave me the chance to feel good about myself.
A photo of me crossing the line revealed a mask of distress (a photo I would look at in wonder and awe but never show to anyone else). That moment, however, was one of joy. The effort didn’t result in a record or an award. It didn’t feel good. But it gave me the chance to feel good about myself.
My colleague’s question remains unanswered. She doesn’t need to know about Hegel and my existential angst, about the connections between suffering and joy. She just wants to know if I had a good weekend.
“Yes,” I say. “It was fun.”