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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Again to Carthage

Have you ever been reading a book that provides instant clarity to your life situation (actually...considering my readership, my preliminary question should be, "Have you ever read a book?")?  Well, that happened to me yesterday.  And since I think it's a quote that would be helpful to several of you, I thought I would share it.

One of my favorite novels of all time is "Once a Runner" by John Parker.  For those who aren't familiar with the book, it chronicles the story of an NCAA track athlete through his quest to break the 4:00-minute mile mark.  Many consider it one of the best running novels ever written.  If you haven't read it, you definitely should.  Not only is it an entertaining story, but there is lots of running inspiration to be found. 

Right now I'm reading the sequel to that book, "Again to Carthage".  This story follows up with that same runner several years after his college running career and deals with his journey to make the Olympic team in the marathon distance. 

I really identify with the character in the book because his life parallels mine in a lot of ways.  He was a cross-country and track athlete that went on to law school and eventually became a criminal lawyer (although on the defense side).  Before deciding to train for the Olympic trials, he maintained a high level of fitness like I try to do.  And he too struggles with his purpose in life; especially the relationship between his running and other pursuits.

I came across this quote in the novel yesterday, and I thought I would share it with all of you.  I don't think it just illuminates my life, but probably a lot of yours also.  This quote comes from a letter the main character writes to a friend to explain to her why he decided to train for the Olympic trials.  Bear with me...it's a long quote.  But I think it needs to be read in it's entirety.

"[W]hen you're a competitive runner in training you are constantly in a process of ascending.  It's a simple idea, but the more I though about it, the more profound it became to me.

It's not something most human beings would give a moment of consideration to, that it is actually possible to be living for years in a state of constant betterment.  To consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or a year ago, and that you will be better still tomorrow or next week or at tournament time your senior year.  That if you're doing it right you are an organism constantly evolving toward some agreed-upon approximation of excellence.  Wouldn't that be at least one definition of a spiritual state?

When I was a runner it was something we lived every second of our lives.  It was such a part of us that if we had ever given it any thought, it would have been a mental lapse, a sign of weakness.  Of course I am getting better every day, I would have said, what the hell am I training for otherwise?  As if there were only one alternative, as if the arrow of improvement necessarily parallels the arrow of time, and in only one direction.

You might say that we're just talking about an artifact of youth.  That when you're young it is only natural to grow larger and stronger, to learn things, to master more and more of the skills and techniques of life, to get better, to improve. 

If that's true then how do we end up with so many monsters, trolls, dickheads, and pyschopaths?  So many Pol Pots, Joe McCarthys, Ted Bundys, and Lee Harvey Oswalds?  Or Nixons for that matter?  They were all young once and relatively harmless, and in a better universe they would have stayed that way.

Or consider the religious aesthete whose piety and serenity and good works increase and multiply as the years go by, into middle age, into old ago, onto the deathbed.  She's working on it too, and what keeps her going is the absolute conviction that every day she's getting better, saving more souls, that she's getting closer to God.

My point is that this way of living that we once took for granted isn't necessarily a "natural" process at all.  It's not like water flowing down to the sea, not like aging.  It takes effort, determination, conviction.  But mostly it takes will.  It takes a conscious decision to follow one difficult uphill path, and then the will to stay with it and not waver, to not give up.

Our fellow students at Southeastern back then, all twenty-five thousand of them, were getting better some days and worse some days, and they were doing so at different things and at different times.  There were athletes in other sports who had better sophomore years than they had junior years.  There were athletes who were better in high school than they would ever be in college.  There were some who were good or at least average students when they arrived and then discovered beer or the opposite sex or both and were never good at anything else in their lives.  Generally speaking, most of them probably knew more when they left than when they arrived, but then again what they ended up knowing might have been wrong.  

I'm not saying that we ourselves did not have setbacks, doldrums, bad luck, and reversals of all kinds.  We got sick and we got hurt, certainly, often because of our quest.  We got waylaid and distracted by fads, false idols, wars, and rumors of wars.  I'm not saying we weren't human in every way you can be human.  I'm just saying that all things being equal, by and large each and every day we were getting better at that one singularly difficult task and goal we had set for ourselves.

And I'm also saying that win, lose, or draw, just being involved in such an undertaking was itself ennobling.  It was an uplifting enterprise that we all intuitively understood to be such, and I now know that almost incidentally the spiritual force of our effort created a slipstream that drew all else in our lives along with it and made us better in other ways as well.  Better, happier, more complete human beings than we would have been otherwise.

And Andrea, I missed all that.  The arrow of my life was going one direction one day, another direction another day.  I had people who thought I was wonderful when I won their appeal, or secured custody of their child, and I had legatees who hated me because they didn't end up quite as rich as they thought they would.  Some of it is satisfying, some interesting, but precious little is in the least bit ennobling.

This is not ennui, not nostalgia.  I am not numb or jaded.  I've had revelations in deep waters and gone all light and airy inside listening to good music made by friends.  I appreciate things, I really do.  I can be made happy on a cloudy day by as little a thing as a stray sunbeam on a branch of elkhorn coral.  All of that.  I've been blessed and blessed and blessed and only a scoundrel and ingrate would complain about any of it and I'm certainly not doing that.

But still, I miss the spiritual certainty in the direction of that arrow.  And when recently I looked around and saw people in my life dying of natural and unnatural causes it occurred to me that I myself would not live forever and that I had long ago given up the certainty of that arrow before I had to.  It also occurred to me that I had a little bit of time left to reclaim it.  To be a runner again, to know precisely what it is I'm trying to accomplish every day.  It won't be the same, I know.  It can't be.  But it can be something.  

That's what it's all about."

For me this quote is all about why I love running so much.  My job is exactly like that of the main character's.  It runs the gambit of my emotions and levels of engagement, but it never makes sense and provides the sense of accomplishment as the slow and steady climb toward a training goal.  Especially after my dad died last October, it's hard to make sense of much of anything in my life except running.  Training towards a goal is so simple, and at the same time so powerful that it provides purpose where there might otherwise be chaos. 

I'm by no means as fast of a runner as I was in high school, but I am still motivated by the things I can do.  I am a more strong-willed and focused runner than I was back then.  Regardless of my talents, I still enjoy the  complete satisfaction of giving it my all during a race.  I hope I always will. 

This quote validates why I make running such a big part of my life, and I hope it does for you also.  Cheers folks!


  1. Thanks for sharing. I love how he talks about the arrow of improvement. Funny how all my life I've been a runner, although there were short times I would never consider myself one. The thing is, when I was younger and racing track and cross-country in junior high and high school I was most certainly a faster runner. Now I would say I'm a much better runner because I'm a smarter runner. I may be slow as hell now but with age and knowledge I too have been "ascending" all along.

  2. Love the quote. The idea of constant improvement is one I spend a lot of time on, being both a teacher and an amateur triathlete. I'm constantly talking to my students about life-long learning and how the classroom is only one place they can improve themselves. And I try to approach my workouts the same way, each day is another step up. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I just ordered both of these books and now I am excited to read them! Thanks for the quote, I just started running a little over a year ago and am in constant awe of the improvements my body makes on a daily basis. This is why I also enjoy training for races- it gives focus and motivation to my running. Love your blog!

  4. Dude, I needed that today. Thank you.

  5. Glad you all enjoyed the post. Thanks for reading,



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