And that available effort is always, James keeps saying, much more than we suspect. We live far below the energy we have and therefore must learn how to tap these reservoirs of power. For this, he says, we need a "dynamogenic agent," a "moral equivalent of war." Like war, this would provide a theater of heroism, an arena where one could demonstrate courage and fortitude, a setting where one could be the best one would ever be.
For me and others like me, that setting is the marathon. We are all there in the works of William James. He is the psychologist who tells us we can be more than we are. The philosopher who appeals to everyone who values his own experience. The thinker who saw happiness in the struggle and found the meaning of life in the marriage of some unhabitual idea with fidelity, courage and endurance. Which is as good a definition of a marathon as you are likely to find.
I tell you all this, and still you might not understand. What is so special, what is unique about this 26-mile, 385-yard distance? Why this and not some other race?
The answer is the wall, the physiological breaking point that comes at the 20-mile mark. Runners claim that at this point the marathon is only half over, that the last six miles are equivalent to the 20 that went before. It is nearer the truth to say that the 20-mile mark is where the marathon begins—there at the wall.
The miles that have gone before are just the foothills to this Everest. The wall is where the runner begins to come apart. Either in as short a time as it takes to write this sentence or slowly and inexorably, the final miles turn into a caldron of pain.
Any reasonably fit runner can go a 20-mile race. Were I to get up next Sunday and see in The
New York Times
that there was to be a 20-mile race in Central Park that day, I would be likely to pack my gear and go. But if that same morning I discovered there was a marathon in town, I would draw a bye. I would not be prepared to go that extra six miles, to handle the wall.
Exactly what happens there is not known, even to the experts. Is the exhaustion, the seeming impasse, a result of low blood sugar or lactic-acid accumulation? Is it the result, perhaps, of dehydration, or high body temperature? Is it the result of a loss of blood volume or, as many runners suspect, depletion of muscle glycogen?
No one seems quite sure. Whatever the reason, the runner's homeostasis, the equilibrium of his internal milieu, begins to break down. And the final six miles of the marathon must be accomplished in some way unexplained by medical science. From the wall on, the runner goes it alone.
One exercise physiologist, Dr. David Costill, director of the Ball State University Human Performance Laboratory in Muncie, Ind., went out and ran the marathon as an experiment because he did not think the wall existed. When he came to that point, however, there it was. He said, "The sensations of exhaustion were unlike anything I had ever experienced. I could not run, walk or stand, and even found sitting a bit strenuous."
So there it is. It begins with running, then running farther. Until one day you progress to where you want to be challenged by the marathon. And then you meet the wall. No matter how many times you attack it, you always think you can do better, find more energy, more fortitude, more courage, more endurance. You always think this time you will be the hero you were meant to be.