The Mountain Times

°F Wed, April 23, 2014

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"Scripture tells us to run with endurance the race that is set before us," said President Obama when he visited Boston last week. "We will all be with you as you learn to stand and walk and, yes, run again. Of that, I have no doubt: you will run again.

"These days, when tragedy strikes, we hear about it from every conceivable perspective. One group of people who seem to have been particularly touched by the events in Boston is America's running community. It probably would be silly to believe that the terrorists had any symbolic intentions vis-à-vis "running" when they planted their bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon; any large public occasion likely would have served their purposes just as well. Still, a lot of runners appear to regard the attack as, in part, an attack on the institution of running - not literally, but in a hazy literary way where the unpolluted and beautiful ideals associated with long-distance running have come face-to-face with a malevolent counter-ideology over which they must triumph.

"They picked the wrong group," said marathon organizer Scott Dickey in an ESPN article. "We're tough and gritty."
One can see how, given the circumstances of the attack, it might be especially easy to regard the situation as a light-vs.-dark dichotomy: the activity of the day - the race, with its hordes of spectators selflessly cheering on their fellow Bostonians as they completed their journeys of self-improvement through mild, virtuous masochism - was so happy and wholesome that the interruption of a lunatic anti-social act must surely have seemed willfully incongruous, a deliberately representational blow by evil upon goodness... although, again, I suppose it's unlikely that the perpetrators conceived of it in those terms.

There is an essential purity in all sports - especially compared to everything else in the world, which is inevitably more abstract, less bodily, more tangled, less clear-cut in terms of success and failure - but long-distance running is by far the purest of all. It is a basic and necessary human activity that has existed as long as we've existed. Anyone can do it - it is not an invented "game" with an arcane rulebook, dependent on irrelevant, unnatural ball-throwing or -hitting skills. In fact, running is the one sport that righteously eradicates the decadently fun (read: frivolous and complicated) element of "game" from "sport." Running is exercise at its most basic level: the improvement of the human body and, by extension, the human soul.

One of the appealing aspects of the sport is the incredible linearity of progress observable to the runner. Either your times are going up, or they're going down - and usually, the more you run, the more they go down; it's that simple. Compare it to a sport like soccer or basketball, where the team's loss or victory is the only cut-and-dry result of a contest; there are, meanwhile, a hundred different metrics to evaluate the performance of the individual, which in any case can fluctuate wildly. I don't think there's a running equivalent of the inexplicable "can't hit a shot" nights that even the best basketball players occasionally experience.

It would be interesting to examine the demographics of the "running community," but I'm pretty sure no statistics exist on this. My guess is that, compared to soccer players or basketball players, long-distance runners in America are overwhelmingly white and educated - successful people who have been empowered by lives of opportunity and believe in self-betterment. Virtuous, optimistic, some may describe them as "yuppies, basically, who like the ideas of self-control and shaping their own lives via exercise and diet - these are people who expect to live long and prosper.

I'm probably at least half-wrong here, as most generalizers are. But regardless, it's easy, to see how the runners might view this tragedy as the intrusion of a twisted, insane worldview upon their clean, reasonable, life-affirming one. Maybe that's how we all view it: an incomprehensible act perpetrated by people in whose brains something went horribly wrong, creating this horrible situation that really is not typical of "us" as a species. We are sane; we are good - why would anyone want not to be? This should not be happening. Except, of course, that innocent people are, in other places, randomly killed all the time.

I myself used to run for exercise, but I guess I wasn't really virtuous enough for it, ultimately, and I eventually switched to other sports: soccer and basketball especially (which I guess is why I keep using them as counterexamples.) I'm not very good at either of these, but lately I've been enjoying the day-to-day expressiveness of my streaky jump-shot. Sometimes it's wonderful; sometimes it doesn't function at all. In the larger perspective, some unsteady progress has been made, but viewed daily, it seems random, up and down. It's kind of reassuringly unreassuring, suggestive not of good, simple progress but of incomprehensible human complexity. Or maybe I just can't shoot - hard to say.