Fifteen years ago, when I ran my first Boston Marathon, the race was little more than a club outing. We were 225 strong, but many of us were present only because of a dare or as a joke. Some were overweight and out of shape, attired in gym suits and tennis clothes. Others wore sneakers instead of running shoes. And, I recall, either that year or the next, a runner who led me all the way to Framing-ham wore a derby.
That first year at Boston, I finished 96th in three hours and 10 minutes and because of this considered myself one of the top 100 marathoners in the country. Now, with nearly the same time, I am not even in the top 5,000. Back then, there were about seven marathons a year; now there are more than 200. The Boston field has swelled to 4,000 and is kept manageable only by limiting entrants to those who have run a marathon under three hours the previous year. Women and men over 40 are required to do 3:30 or better.
Where have all these people come from, and why do they do it? How did this mania arise, and what keeps it multiplying?
I can only answer for myself, and even my answer changes from day to day. For today, for this day, I will tell you what I discovered in running. Then why I eventually came to run marathons. And finally, what the continuing fascination of the marathon is for us who run. Runners, you see, do not run one marathon. They run them again and again. They are much like surfers seeking the perfect wave.
Why I began running is no longer important. It is enough that it generated a further desire to run. Then the running itself took over. Running became a self-renewing compulsion. The more I ran, the more I wanted to run.
One reason was the energy. "Become first a good animal," Emerson said. I did. I came to know my body and to enjoy it. Things that previously exhausted me were no longer an effort. Where once I fell asleep in front of the TV set, I was up roaming the house looking for things to do. I was living on a different level of performance.
Then I discovered, or rediscovered, play. Running, I found, was fun. Running became an hour of play and enjoyment away from my daily routine. And in that hour of play I discovered, or rediscovered, myself. Finally, after 45 years, I accepted the person I was.
It would seem that this should be enough—the fitness, the play, the self-acceptance. But it wasn't and never will be. I wanted to be challenged, wanted to be tested, wanted to find my limits and then surpass them. Merely running and enjoying and creating were not enough.
From here on, I think more of the answers will be found in the philosophy of William James than anywhere else. However I phrase it, it comes down to one of the Jamesian expressions: "The nobler thing tastes better. The strenuous life is the one we seek."
James is not a writer for those who would simply cope, for those who would groove through life. He believes in effort. He thinks the decisive thing about us is not intelligence, strength or wealth. Those are things we carry, he says. The real question he poses is what effort are we willing to make.