I sincerely apologize for the timing of this topic, which has actually been percolating in my brain for a while. I first considered it after finding myself annoyed by a commercial running on television of late, comparing various artists who completed major works after their 55th birthdays with a similarly aged woman who recently ran a marathon. Then, yesterday, in the wake of the terrorist attack on my home town, I read multiple Facebook posts from otherwise intelligent people expressing profound sadness for all the marathoners who trained so hard for Boston and were not able to finish. That did it.
I believe we can stipulate, can we not, that any marathoner who returned home whole after watching fellow competitors having their arms and legs blown off and complained that the race was terminated before he could finish would immediately be eligible for the Jerk Hall of Fame. If horror, grief and empathy for the victims, concern for the nation, and gratitude for the pure luck of being spared doesn’t wash such selfish thoughts right out of a runner’s mind, then that person needs to keep on running until he has left civilization. Meanwhile, the increasingly accepted cultural attitude that running a marathon or an iron man competition is especially admirable shows something is out of whack in our value system.
I didn’t feel like confronting my Facebook friends yesterday, but please tell me how being prevented from running in a race one has trained for is any more of a tragedy than a thousand other minor disappointments we all face every day, and far less worthy of sympathy than thousands of others. A while back I was blocked from giving a seminar in Tennessee that I had prepared for, because of a storm that grounded all usable flights. That cost my company $5,000. It meant that a lot of Tennessee lawyers had to hustle to find other ways to get their ethics credit, and the ways they found were going to be a lot more boring than I am. Those are real consequences, tangible and significant. What is the result of not being able to finish the Boston Marathon? Who is significantly harmed? Nobody. The marathoner is disappointed and inconvenienced, that’s all. There are other races. He or she is in shape, They did the best they could. The Marathon will be held next year. The terrorist attack is a tragedy. The fact that racers couldn’t cross the finish line is trivial. It just doesn’t matter very much, or shouldn’t.
I’m not condemning runners, any more than I condemn people who spend their spare cash on jewelry, summer houses and vacations instead of saving the whales: it’s their lives and and their priorities, not mine, and they can do what they choose. At the same time, the aura of virtue surrounding extreme runners and the popular myth that running a marathon is more ennobling than commonplace altruistic and practical uses of an individual’s time is bizarre. That commercial I mentioned speaks of being productive in latter years. Running a marathon doesn’t produce anything more than playing a videogame does. Picasso, whose late career artwork is mentioned in the spot, created something beautiful that will be enjoyed for centuries: now that’s productive, and also worthy of admiration and praise. Whose life is enriched by the completion of a marathon, other than the runner’s? It isn’t a communal act, a generous act, a productive, charitable, creative or selfless act. It is a completely self-absorbed and self-focused act, requiring many hours that could just as easily be used communally, generously, productively, charitably, creatively and selflessly. Again, it’s the runner’s life, and if he or she wants to use their brief time on earth to complete manufactured and artificial challenges that accomplish nothing tangible and leave the world no better than it was before, that’s an individual choice; running a marathon doesn’t harm anyone, either, unless it interferes with being a good and attentive father, spouse, and friend. Extolling this kind of activity, however, just distorts societal values, and bestows heroic status on the wrong people, for the wrong things.