Annoying and Ill-Timed Tangential Issue Dept.: There’s Nothing Especially Virtuous About Running A Marathon

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.

22 thoughts on “Annoying and Ill-Timed Tangential Issue Dept.: There’s Nothing Especially Virtuous About Running A Marathon

  1. Can really tell that some people are happy not being challenged with physical activities, by the way they criticize others who are physically active in their vocation or avocation. Running a marathon is a great accomplishment that everyone should strive for, as it demonstrates a will to overcome pain through preparation and a positive attitude.

    And challenging physical exercise has been advocated by many doctors to fight the affects of aging (dementia, bone loss, testosterone depletion) more so than playing video games, canasta, shooting a pistol or some board game.

    Lamenting someone not finishing a marathon because of a terrorist attack is terribly self absorbed if that is all that person wrote.
    Without the full text of their entire thought, can’t really say if they are being unethical or senseless.

    • Can you, now? Balderdash…

      1. Marathon running has not been shown to be more healthy than more moderate regimens, and in fact has been pretty decisively shown to damage joints and knees.
      2. I did NOT criticize the activity. I accurately described it, and criticized those who claim it is something it is not.
      3. That everyone should strive for? Give me a break. Why? That’s like saying everyone should swim the Channel or climb the Matterhorn. I don’t see why anyone SHOULD do it at all. Question: if nobody did these things, would the world, humanity or civilization be any different in any way?
      4. It is an “accomplishment’ the way anything is an accomplishment, from gathering a giant ball of string to eating a car. There is nothing virtuous about it, other than the diligence to accomplish it. It still leaves nothing, contributes nothing, and advances nothing. That’s not criticism. That’s just the way it is.
      5. Running a marathon is an accomplishment for people who have either run out of ideas or ability. If that’s the best you can do to manufacture self-esteem, be my guest. I’m more impressed with genuinely productive and less-self-directed activities.
      6. Here is one of the full quotes…“Nothing is more sad than the loss of life and injuries sustained in today’s bombings…but maybe because I’m related to marathon runners and I know how hard they work and the hours of training they endure for their sport, I can’t help but be really sad for all of the runners who didn’t get to finish today.”

      • In his later life, Glenn Seaborg served on Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education and he criticized the report for being much to lax about the current crisis. He also criticized the state of California’s science curriculum for having too little hard science and too much social theory. He headed a committee to suggest changes to the curriculum (in his 70’s). In the mid 90’s he wrote articles on science history such as the history of the transuranium elements and G.N. Lewis. Poor Glenn. He should have been running marathons instead. Everyone knows sports are more important than education.

      • I had to make sure this was Ethics Alarms, since this post seemed out of character. I guess it is true that there is nothing inherently virtuous about running a marathon, but neither can you use Picasso’s art as an example – it didn’t feed or clothe anyone. Who gets to decide what is and what isn’t a productive use of an individual’s time? And as for it enriching no one’s lives – who were all those people who showed up at the Boston Marathon yesterday? They clearly felt enriched by it enough to take time out of their day. And as far as societal values go, would it be so bad if fitness were valued higher in our society?

        • 1. “… but neither can you use Picasso’s art as an example – it didn’t feed or clothe anyone.” Are you seriously suggesting that art, music and literature don’t benefit humanity? That’s pretty base definition of benefit you’re using—entertainment, enlightenment, peace, wisdom, reflection, joy—giving these to others is a great gift, and they are essential to living life beyond a grim Hobbesian existence.

          2. Who gets to decide? We have brains, we can reach consensus on many things, though if you are such a Philistine regrading the arts perhaps you are the exception. In any event, running, as a solitary, confined activity that leaves nothing and conveys nothing to anyone but the runner, isn’t an area where any detailed analysis or debate is necessary. It produces nothing and benefits only the runner.

          3. Weak argument. The Boston Marathon is partially an athletic event and a historic Boston “happening” as part of a larger celebration. So the public shows up on a holiday to watch a mob of people—that hardly makes the mob altruistic. They’d show up to watch the Klan march too.

          3. Fitness is valued too much in this society already; people value abs over brains, and physical beauty over virtue.

          • Clearly there is a benefit to humanity from arts and entertainment. I am not asserting otherwise, just pointing out that your dismissal of the marathon runners is similar. Running is unimportant and has no benefit to society, you say, therefore they shouldn’t be disappointed. All that training and hard work? Big deal, you’re still in shape.
            You’ve created some sort of imaginary villain here who is saying, “screw the victims, I didn’t get to finish my race!” I live outside of Boston and I can tell you that literally NO ONE is making this argument. The runners are disappointed, because they put in a lot of hard work, and terrorists ruined that, but it doesn’t mean they have no perspective. They are just as bothered as everyone else by the bombing, but additionally so by all that hard work gone to waste. Who are you to tell them what the object of their disappointment should be?

            • Who said they shouldn’t be disappointed? I didn’t write that, and you have an obligation to quote me correctly in your commentary. I wrote that not being able to complete a marathon was no “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.” And that is true.

              Your entire comment is based on either not reading what I wrote or intentionally distorting it.

              • If you really feel that they have every right to be disappointed, why the blog post? What’s the ethics issue? Why is it so bad for anyone to sympathize with those who couldn’t finish?
                You want to be quoted? Here:
                “Running a marathon is an accomplishment for people who have either run out of ideas or ability. If that’s the best you can do to manufacture self-esteem, be my guest. I’m more impressed with genuinely productive and less-self-directed activities.”
                What happened, did a marathoner break your heart years ago? Aren’t nearly all leisure activities not that productive or altruistic? You may think that marathons are “manufactured and artificial challenges that accomplish nothing tangible and leave the world no better than it was before”, but one could just as easily say the same about a theater production, something I know you enjoy.
                Again, I think you are attacking an imaginary villain as a stand-in for some value, like hero-worship of athletes, that irritates you.

                • The ethics issue, if I have to spell it out for you, is made clear in the discussion of the ad: ethics involves helping others, not indulging yourself. Thus there is nothing especially praiseworthy, from an ethical point of view, in taking hours and hours out of your life in a solitary endeavor to bolster one’s own self esteem, and the ad’s comparison of running a marathon, which benefits exactly one person, with a work of great art, which enriches an entire culture, shows serious values confusion and mixed up priorities. Nor do I think any special pity is due teh marathoner who has to wait a little while for his or her next artificial self-esteem boost.

                  Saying that a marathon is an artificial achievement is not the same as saying that one can’t be disappointed not to succeed at achieving it. I’m disappointed when I can’t correctly name Reggie Smith’s lifetime batting average. I’m disappointed when I lose a game of Scrabble. That doesn’t make it a genuine achievement to do otherwise—it’s just something that matters to me.

                  A theater production is, in fact, a shared collaborative and artistic endeavor with educational, financial, and entertainment value to whole communities. Plays are literature, and convey ideas and wisdom while firing the imagination. As ethical endeavors, its no contest. And I do not object to hero worship of athletes, if the athletes properly behave as the cultural role models.

                  • I think you’re confusing what you like for what is good. Your previous statements describe marathon runners as self-absorbed people needing a self-esteem boost. You are portraying it in the worst light possible to prove some point about it being trivial. I could go on about how running a race provides inspiration, entertainment, and charitable donations for an entire community.
                    And c’mon, runners surely cannot be more self-absorbed than actors.
                    That’s it from me. I’m going for a nice long run.

                    • If the race is being run for charity, that makes it an act of charity. Not discussed. If someone is being highlighted in their run for some reason, such as overcoming a misfortune or handicap, that is also a separate issue, as I have already discussed in the thread. And a marathon is hardly a spectator sport: nobody can track the progress of the race. For most competitors it is a personal effort alone, and they couldn’t care less about the spectators.

                      I did not say anything was wrong with marathoning, only that there is nothing especially admirable or virtuous about it, that comparing running a marathon to productive pursuits was a mistake and giving the activity a status it doesn’t deserve, and that no special sympathy is due to those whose plans regarding running a marathon are disrupted, especially by something like the Boston tragedy. Your bleats of protest over my simply stating a fact would lead me to speculate on a similar variety of underlying motives like those you’ve been attempting to attribute to me, if I cared, which I don’t. Running a marathon is exactly as noble and praiseworthy as entering a Pac Man competition. That’s all. Those who would elevate it to more when it is essentially a selfish activity with no social value whatsoever are wrong.

  2. With the lead in title, I admit I hesitated the read; however this was excellent (no surprise) perspective. Your post should challenge the reader to honest reflection without offense. Thank you for your candor.

  3. Well, if you are running that 140 miles to Sparta for aid, or a forced march of 25 after a battle, those are accomplishments, because there is a needed purpose. But even using a marathon to raise money for charity, can be done with any number of other activities, like dancing or using a rocker.

    There is no particular virtue in a long run, unless they give up their run to help someone else. Too many have lost sight of what virtues are. Prudence, justice, and charity are virtues, not the act of running..

    • We just discussed an example of a virtuous marathon, in the father who pushes his disabled son i9n races. Runners with disabilities or who have overcome other physical problems inspire others with similar issues, and that is indeed productive and constructive.

  4. My family and I normally watch the Boston Marathon from about the halfway point, at around mile 14. It’s kind of a “people’s marathon.” It brings out communities and there is always an air of celebration surrounding the event. We particularly enjoy cheering on the non-elite runners. They seem to have a different stake in the race. Thousands of them run for charity — Dana Farber and Children’s Hospital are always well-represented, as are numerous other worthy causes. Many runners are on the course to honor the memory of someone they’ve lost or about whom they care deeply. And the participation of these runners matters a lot to the institutions that benefit from their support.

    I also know people who run because the challenge focuses them on overcoming something — alcohol addiction, injury or a lost sense of self, to name the ones I most commonly hear about. As such, the run is about about recovering a part of themselves, and establishing a new normal. That may be self-indulgent, but the support they clearly receive from families and friends suggests that the accomplishment is often a shared one, bigger than the individual. Many of the people who were injured yesterday appear to have been at the finish line to support a family member in what should have been a celebration.

    Many, many clearly run for fun. There was someone yesterday on stilits, another runner dressed as a cheesbrger, and several women in tutus. As I said, it’s a people’s marathon, once you get past the relatively small hard core group.

    Most people I know who were in the race or anywhere near Copley Square are glad to be alive, period. I am aware of runners who are disappointed that they did not accomplish their goal yesterday. I am not aware of anyone who thinks that that doesn’t pale in comparison to the tragedy at the finish line. Many runners did not have cell service and didn’t find out until hours later what happened. It took them time to process what happened, maybe even several hours after they returned home safely.

    What people are experiencing today is not what they were experiencing yesterday. We’ve had employees in our offices who were fine when they got to work and suddenly – to their astonishment — broke down crying or confessed to being extremely depressed. And all of our attitudes are changing as we coolectively learn more about the extent of the carnage. Perhaps it is not too much to cut everyone a little slack this new reality starts to take shape around us.

    Your post this morning took issue with an attitude — not necessarily held by all Boston Marathon runners — that there is inherent virtue in extreme sports. I get that. But you were right to note up front that your timing was probably not good. It seems that most of the runners in Boston weren’t really the ones you were writing about. Perhaps this post might have been hung on a different hook.

  5. How about the Facebook post saying :

    TWO ACTS OF VIOLENCE
    Afghanistan April 6th : 17 civilians (including 12 children) killed in a US airstrike
    Boston 15th April 2 killed and many injured in bomb blasts during Boston Marathon
    (I’ll spare you the all caps in the finish-crella)
    Why is only one given saturation media coverage?
    Why is only one called Terrorism?
    Why won’t the media tell the truth about war?

    Sigh. What a piece of crap to wake up to…

  6. Jack,

    I think your post is horrible.

    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.

    Why are you singling out marathoners instead of athletes generally. Doesn’t this apply equally to all athletes, including baseball players?

    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.

    Who said it was? It’s just very visible. We know what everyone running the marathon was trying to do, so it’s a shared disappointment. It’s also something that pretty much everyone can understand. Unless you’re suggesting it would be wrong for someone to post that they’re sad you couldn’t make make your seminar, I don’t see your complaint here.

    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.

    Trivial compared to the terrorist attack. Not trivial on its own.

    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.

    This isn’t a good comparison. You compared spending time on a particular activity to spending money. It should have been activity to activity. People who spend their time on video games, playing with their dogs, reading twilight fanfic, and following the Red Sox would have been appropriate.

    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.

    Who thinks this? Running a marathon is a great personal achievement and feat, but who thinks it’s ennobling?

    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.

    Picasso didn’t paint for others. He painted for himself. That we find his work beautiful doesn’t say much about the act itself.

    The commercial is about keeping doing what you want to do. Screw boundaries Heck, age is more of a boundary for distance running that it is for creative pursuits. I don’t really see the problem. For athletes and runners (who the add is targetting at), it seems to hit the right point.

    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.

    What it is is an impressive act. I don’t think anyone is saying it’s anything more than that. Really, I see your post as tilting at windmills.

    • I sometimes lay odds on your reactions to posts, and I had this one nailed.

      Time is money, time is opportunity. Art is tangible, and others enjoy it, whether the artist paints for himself or not.. A marathon is recreation, like sports, but unlike a team sport, it gives pleasure to nobody other than the single person doing it, which makes it essentially non-social.

      But you are certainly right that this is a windmill. Never mind: I’ve felt this way about obsessive solo activities for a long time, and I decided to get it down.

      By the way, following the Red Sox is an excellent comparison. I could have written 20 books in that time. But somehow I don’t think an insurance company would use following the Red Sox as an example of late life “productivity,” nor should they.

      • Time is money, time is opportunity.

        I nailed that this would be your response. I don’t think it applies here though. The switch from activity to money made it seem like people who do marathons instead of beneficial things are lazy. It’s as easy as spending money. It’s more damaging, and inappropriate.

        Maybe running a marathon should be compared to writing a book and publishing it through vanity press. It’s an impressive accomplishment, you’re happy when your friends do it and sad when they try and fail, you’ll support them all the way, but it’s not going to affect anybody’s life. Heck, you’re not even going to read it. If 6000 people with 85% complete vanity books were in the same place writing, and all their computers (with backups) were corrupted, I’d feel for them. Sure, they still have the research, but they have to go through the actual process again. That’s what this is.

        Following the Red Sox is an excellent comparison for running. For completing a marathon though, we need something like attending every Sox road game one season, or finding a picture of every player…in civvies (no team photos allowed). It’s accomplishing something difficult with the following.

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