Why So Serious?
On May 5, I will run the Pittsburgh Marathon. I do this not because I am a good runner; quite the opposite in fact. To paraphrase Buffalo Bill, I’m a big fat guy: 6’3” and 240ish pounds. I run slowly and haltingly. I swear and curse while I’m out there. I sweat enough to thoroughly occupy a bucket brigade. The entirety of my goal that day is finishing the race in fewer than five hours*.
I come to running late in life, having made half-hearted attempts in college (Shin Splint City!) and again a few years after graduating (Wheeze Cough City!) and then, finally, a little more than a year and a half ago when I couldn’t get a basketball game at my usual gym. I ran three miles instead. And then I kept running. I’ve since run some races, finishing 5ks and 5-milers and 10ks and half-marathons. The longest I’ve ever gone is 16 miles.
I’ve also started a running club: the Morgantown Bad Runners Club. We run once or twice a week and our guiding principles are being both supportive of one another (“High-fives at the end everybody!” and self-deprecating about our performance. That last part is important to me because within the running community, there are the serious runners, people for whom running is much more than a form of exercise, people for whom running is religion.
And you’ve met religious people, right? They’re not always the most laid back about the things they believe. Serious Runners work the same way. For a primer on the sort of attitude that I’m talking about, enjoy this bit of outright dickheadedness from Men’s Health magazine.
So again: I get it. I get having a thing. I get having a passion. But I balk at the seriousness with which people engage in these activities or at least the mythology surrounding these activities. And before going farther, I want to acknowledge that these same people exist in everything everywhere, whether it is the guy ready to fight at pickup basketball game (“Foul me one MORE time bro!”) or the mom freaking out about breast-feeding (“So you want your kids to be developmentally broken because you don’t feel like loving your child enough?”). I get the screaming heebie-jeebies from all of them. Do your thing, in other words, but calm the f-ck down about it.
One of the side-effects of serious engagement with a thing – running, in this case – is losing all manner of perspective about what it is that is being done. It’s just running. It’s not curing cancer. It’s not saving the world. But that doesn’t stop runners and running organizations from believing that one is like the other.
For instance, would you ever read the following quote from Martin Luther King…
…and think to yourself, “He means the start of marathon training!” You wouldn’t? That’s weird. I mean, I wouldn’t either, but that didn’t stop the Pittsburgh Marathon from being fully convinced that King’s comment was not only meant generally, but meant so broadly as to apply to people voluntarily being ridiculous enough to run 26.2 miles. I responded to that idea of course. The race’s social media director held his/her ground.
Because civil rights and marathons are the same thing. Because they’re equals. Because there’s no difference between blacks functionally being lesser citizens and people running for a long time in tiny shorts. No difference at all.
Maybe that’s not what they were saying though. Maybe it was that they liked the way that Dr. King put the words together. Maybe they saw the combination of words and thought, “That’s a concept applicable to so many things, including running!” Maybe they thought that they were paying tribute to the man by taking his message on the day set aside for his remembrance and re-purposing them as motivational encouragement for the race’s runners.
That seems like a hugely charitable reading of the situation, but perhaps it is worthwhile as a stanch against my own frustration with just how seriously some insist upon taking this activity, seriousness which seems to exclude taking long enough to realize that quotes about social injustice are not necessarily also acceptable as motivational tools. But just to make sure of that, I thought I’d try plugging in other King quotes:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character and their ability to run a marathon.”
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity and wearing inappropriately fitted running shoes for a marathon.”
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable so train hard for your marathon. … Every step toward the goal of justice finishing a marathon requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals will be rewarded by finishing a marathon.”
Obviously, the above isn’t exactly what the Marathon did, but it is a more literal example of what the race’s social media director was trying to do. And it’s absurd.
*The best runners in the world finish these things in just more than hours.