Tales from A Runner, Shy of Virtue

Tales from A Runner, Shy of Virtue November 30, 2015

According to one strain of conventional runners’ wisdom, whoever can run a half marathon can run a full one. Maybe there’s some truth in it. Yesterday, less than a month after running my first 13.1-mile race, I covered all 26.2 miles of the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon course. I ran it alone, as the actual event won’t be held for another seven weeks.

Aristotle wrote that men become builders by building, lyre players by playing the lyre – and just or unjust, cowardly or brave, by practicing these virtues or vices in concrete situations. For me, all of this emphasis on the practical seemed very theoretical until yesterday, when I became a marathon runner by running a marathon.

Comparing a half-marathon to a marathon is a little like comparing a basset hound to a pit bull: in between the obvious structural similarities is an awful lot of detail. A half marathon is just a very long run. You can do it without taking on fluids. Unless you’re out of shape or very unlucky, you probably won’t start expecting your ligaments to go snap! or boing! and leave you sprawling, helpless, on the pavement. Dull pains in your feet won’t cause you to wonder: What’s that? A stress fracture? Only one way to find out, ha-ha.

The last three or four miles of a half-marathon may find you a bit piqued, but chances are your legs will have enough life left that you won’t have to propel yourself onward by pumping your arms like a sprinter. Your delts, consequently, won’t ache for the rest of the day as though you’ve swam the butterfly round Cape Horn in a gale.

By putting myself through the whole megillah, however slowly or clumsily, I am, as they say, getting a feel for it – acquainting both body and mind with the range of possibilities involved. Part of this involves the acquisition of muscle memory, whereby the muscles encode certain procedures through repetition, to the point where they can perform them without any conscious effort. Though he probably didn’t know it, the Spencer Tracy character in Northwest Passage had this in mind when he recounted the tale of a flintlock that had gone on loading and firing itself – killing eight Abenaki – after he’d frozen in terror.

But there’s a cognitive and emotional dimension, too. Experience serves as a buffer against uncertainty and surprise, and their cousins, panic and despair. Running the course well before the race teaches me where every rise in the road flattens or dips. Only by feeling the stresses in my own body can I learn to read them accurately. A pinching sensation in either temple is a signal to take on more Gatorade. A slight pain in the knee can be effectively run off over the course of a few dozen steps. I’ll spare you the results of my field research on complex carbs and digestion, but take my word – they could fill an entire issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Together, the muscles’ acquired memories and the mind’s processed familiarity create what people like to call routine, second nature, or a new normal. All of these include a serene sense of competence and confidence. Even now, running the 13-mile round trip from my house to Jackrabbit and Hayden and back requires effort, but it no longer feels, strictly speaking, like work. Knowing the course with a lover’s intimacy, I might as well be plodding, at three miles per hour, to the Circle K on the corner to refill my Thirstbuster cup.

We’ll see, between now and mid-January, whether running a marathon a week will normalize this once-imponderable feat. If so, there will be a new world to conquer, in the form of the Iron Man.

The bad news is that the analogy between training for a race and cultivating virtue is a rough one, at best. Virtue isn’t simply a matter of doing certain things or abstaining from certain other things. Rather, it consists in hitting the trifecta of doing the right things for the sake of the right ends, and acting out of the right feelings toward the right objects. I am tackling the marathon now because I want it on my CV, and because, as I approach my 44th birthday, I am aware that my testosterone level will soon drop like real estate values did back in ’07. As Apollo counseled Rocky while training him for his rematch against Clubber Lang, there is no tomorrow.

The moral equivalent might be a new determination to cultivate patience in the awareness that I’ll soon start looking like someone people can get away with punching. Though it might well spare me a beating or two, it wouldn’t count as virtue unless I also learned to enjoy being patient. (Under those circumstances, I probably won’t, though who can say what effect diminished testosterone might have?)

Worse by far is that the cultivation of virtue, properly understood, doesn’t allow for down time. Having completed the marathon course yesterday, I am taking it easy today. (Tomorrow, I might do some interval training on the treadmill but nothing heavier.) Nobody gets to say, “Okay, I’ve been temperate for two weeks straight – time to be a glutton.” No, you just have to go on being temperate until temperance itself comes to seem more delightful than a visit to the Jade Scorpion Buffet on duck night.

In First Corinthians, St. Paul wrote:

Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

Because the crown lasts forever, the training lasts a lifetime. There’s symmetry in that, but it doesn’t make the regimen seem any less of a grind. It’s also a shame that St. Paul, for all his facility with sports metaphors, never urged his correspondents to “carb up on the bread of life.”

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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