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Couldn't that "escape, that wordless religion," be enough? Why get into 26-mile runs with the certainty of bone-weary fatigue and the possibility of the ignominy of walking to the finish line? Wasn't the marathon equivalent to Alden's Puritan Ethic, from which he escaped only when rowing on the Charles or galloping his horse on a brisk New England day? Another mindless duty, another needless challenge, another unwanted privilege? All demanding success and achievement?
Downstairs, on the tube, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was not looking to escape. He was engaged in hand-to-hand combat and was revealing what Fordham Forward Charlie Yelverton once said was the principle of being an athlete—"the principle that makes you dig your guts out no matter what kind of game you're in."
I still don't know. "You can very well afford to dangle about enjoying the fresh air and admiring the sunset," the captain of the Harvard crew had told Alden, "but we've got to train. We're not in the crew to have a good time, but to win the Yale race."
But perhaps you could have both. Perhaps what I needed was more marathons, not fewer. Needed the pain, the torture, the indescribable fatigue of a marathon in February and another in March. The Boston in April would then be a breeze, another of those daily afternoon runs when you know who you are and where you are going. And I would come to the finish as I would come to my back door, warm and relaxed, still strong and full from running, enjoying the fresh air and admiring the sunset.
Now, where was that entry blank?
I am a runner. Years ago that statement would have meant little more to me than an accidental choice of sport, a leisure-time activity selected for reasons as superficial as the activity itself.
Now I know better. The runner does not run because he is too slight for football or hasn't the ability to put a ball through a hoop or can't hit a curve ball. He runs because he has to. Because in being a runner, in moving through pain and fatigue and suffering, in imposing stress upon stress, in eliminating all but the necessities of life, he is fulfilling himself and becoming the person he is.
I have given up many things in this becoming process. None was a sacrifice. When something clearly became nonessential, there was no problem in doing without. And when something clearly became essential, there was no problem accepting it and whatever went with it.
From the outside, this runner's world looks unnatural. The body punished, the appetites denied, the satisfactions delayed, the motivations that drive most men ignored. The truth is that the runner is not made for the things and people and institutions that surround him. To use Aldous Huxley's expression, his small guts and feeble muscles do not permit him to eat or fight his way through the ordinary rough-and-tumble.
That he is not made for the workaday world, that his essential nature and the law of his being are different from the ordinary and usual is difficult for everyone, including the runner, to comprehend. But once it is understood, the runner can surrender his self to this law, and become, in the Puritan sense, the "free man," the man who is attached only to the good.