I spent roughly the first 15 miles of Phoenix’s PF Chang’s Rock and Roll Marathon eavesdropping on – you should excuse the pun – a running monologue. A young woman was recounting her life story for her companion, a young man whose acquaintance she’d apparently made not long after the starting gun had gone off. And what a life story it was! Deciding out of the blue to take up running, she’d quickly mastered the discipline. Next, she’d taught herself to swim.
At that moment, uncertain whether to compete in an Iron Man or enter a 50-mile ultramarathon, Alexandra the Great found herself at a crossroads. It was a dilemma on which she had more than enough wind to expound, at length, while running at a pace guaranteed to carry her across the finish line in less than four hours. Pounding away just behind her in a grim, strained silence, I found it impossible not to feel demoralized.
Anyone entering a marathon in order to claim some distinction for him- or herself is bound to be disappointed. One of the first things you notice as you approach the starting line is just how many people will end up sharing your laurels. Some will indeed sport the sleek and rippling limbs of an Ajax or Athena on an ancient wine jug, but many others will be serenely lumpy – beer-gutted or bow-legged – and they’ll still finish ahead of you. For every ounce of self-respect you earn, you’ll end up swallowing a gallon of pride.
Hierarchy is the hot topic these days. Whether it’s pickup artists assigning a Sexual Market Value (caps theirs) to every member of the species or critical theory devotees ferreting out the insidious effects of privilege, everyone is breaking their heads on the fact that some people are going to get far more of life’s goodies than others. It’s not that many people object in principle, so long as distribution follows a fair contest. Instead, the question bringing everyone practically to blows is who, exactly, is laboring under a handicap. The answer is always me, or rather, my demographic group: my race, my sex, my gender.
I won’t pretend to have tracked it very closely, but this new concern with sociology looks like a reaction against atomized individuality. In fact, quite a bit of tension seems to exist between the two. On one hand, it’s common for critics to label young people, particularly students, as “special snowflakes,” i.e. people who believe they should be exempt from judgment according to objective standards. On the other, as Cathy Young observes in the Observer, today’s campuses sometimes resemble “a reverse caste system in which a person’s status and worth depends entirely on their perceived oppression and disadvantage.”
But whatever route they choose, it’s clear that nobody wants to yield, much less lose, to anyone else. This refusal to be subordinated is bound to preclude the any real sense of community. Just yesterday in Aleteia, Laura Yeager wondered aloud: “What If Everyone at Mass Is Judging Everyone Else?” In a society where nobody can agree who is preeminent over whom, much less how superiors and inferiors should relate, I think it inevitable many people do spend a lot of time judging others – anxiously, to pin down where these others stand in comparison to themselves.
Running 26.2 miles in a crowd topping 2,000 is both a communal and a competitive event. Pacers – experienced runners carrying signs marked with projected finish times – effectively divide the mob into cohesive sub-groups. The four-hour group, to which I attached myself early on, seemed infused with a positive sense of corporate identity. Though far from being superstars, we were even further from being scrubs. Approaching the point where the route bent back on itself, our pacer remarked, “Once you make the turn, it’s fun to go past all the stragglers coming the other way.”
Maybe it was the endorphins, but as long as our group hung together, I basked in the warm glow of mystical communion. Without feeling taxed beyond their natural capacity, my legs kept pace with all the others’ legs, and I remembered how my father, who’d hated almost every other minute of his army hitch, had enjoyed marching in parades, passing with banners dipped before the reviewing stand. The festive colors in everyone’s trainers and knee socks gave the effect of snapping guidons, and the crowds we passed did oblige us by cheering (though they didn’t go so far as to salute). I am honored, I thought, simply to be in this company.
But around the 12th mile, I noticed the voice of our pacer growing louder. Whereas earlier she’d been a good 50 yards behind me, now she was practically at my heels. I realized I couldn’t, after all, match her pace indefinitely. After another three miles, she passed me. With that, I was cut off from the pack – déclassé – and the race morphed from a celebration of solidarity into a struggle for survival. With me tottering on as one runner after another passed me by, the final 11 miles formed a horrible living allegory to every American’s worst nightmare.
Further back, I was able to perceive no esprit de corps, as who would care to base his identity on a sense of shared mediocrity? Like the hanging judges at Mass, I scanned those ahead of me for signs of weakness. Whenever one or another of them fell out, I rejoiced.
I kept my mind occupied concocting a narrative of failure. It boiled down to a lively game of “If”: If an inflamed ligament hadn’t laid me up all the week before last, if pre-race jitters hadn’t kept me awake the entire previous night, if I had known about Ucan energy drinks – then surely I’d still be running with the four-hour crowd, where I belonged.
The race ended in an anticlimax. I crossed the finish line after four hours, 19 minutes, and accepted the congratulatory medal and warm-up jacket like Valentines from a grandmother. The next day, an e-mail from the race organizers informed me I’d finished 843rd out of 2,338 runners and 539th out of 1,309 men. The ranking itself wasn’t great – though it was better than I’d expected – but seeing it in black and white calmed me down. It spared me from having to interpret the outcome; to spin it, through the power of imagination, as one thing or another. There is something to be said for knowing, to a hair, exactly what you are and where you stand on the Great Chain of Being.
Learning to adjust your self-conception to fit that place is another matter altogether. That’s why the real climax of the race came earlier. As I first felt myself slipping out of formation, the autobiographical yammerings of the infant prodigy sounded more than ever like mockery of my own efforts. Rolling my eyes to the heavens, I made a flapping hand-puppet gesture with my right hand, and silently mouthed the plea: “WILL YOU KINDLY SHUT THE ____ UP?”
The tireless speaker was ahead of me, so she couldn’t see me. Communication was, in any case, beside the point. I was expressing ressentiment, Kierkegaard’s term for envy of one’s legitimate superiors – a posture impotent to do anything but infest and corrupt. Nothing is more common or more boring, so the moment I exhaled it, into the fresh air, I pretty much lost.