Back before the online world existed, the only outlet people had for anonymous fury was the automobile. Road rage is still popular, of course, but now there is additionally a veritable cornucopia of possibilities for the average citizen to don the cyber-cloak of anonymity and scream obscenity-laced invectives at the world. You remember Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? Well, the cloak of anonymity is far more powerful. Harry Potter’s garment, after all, only allowed those huddled beneath it to observe, not to interact. While it sates the voyeur, it confers no real power by itself. Ah, but if you can be invisible yet also yell abusive things at people, well, you still have no real power but you at least get a certain snarky, small-minded satisfaction.Catharsis is a useful thing; the problem is sometimes it isn’t just a release. As you already well know if you’ve spent any time online, anonymity brings out the stupidest, ugliest, most hateful sides of humanity. The best way to ruin your day is to read the reader comments of nearly anything online. You’ll wish you had an invisibility cloak big enough to hide the entire stupid, ugly, hateful world.
But there is a positive side to anonymity, and believe it or not, I’m just the person to tell you about it.
At yesterday’s marathon, I happened to be wearing a shirt I got from one of my ultramarathons. I did this for the reason you expect a marathon runner to wear an ultramarathon shirt: so that everyone would assume that 26.2 was a piddly, trifling distance to me (which is not true at all) and that I use marathons as training runs for my “real” races (which actually is true but doesn’t speak well of my sanity). After about a mile and a half, a pleasant, grey-haired lady ran up beside me and commented on my shirt. Seems she’d done the same ultra. We got to chatting and found that we both preferred trails to roads and ultras to any other distance. We had a pleasant chat through sixteen miles, at which point she told me to go on ahead; she wanted to walk a bit.
This kind of thing has happened to me before in races, and it’s always a positive experience getting to know a like-minded lunatic. This time there was something else, though. My new running buddy had been an avid ultrarunner, doing 100-milers and 24-hourers and all sorts of other races in all kinds of terrain. But recently she’d had to cut back rather a lot. Two years ago she’d undergone surgery for a brain tumor, and she was just getting back to distance running form now. She told me funny stories about her time in the hospital, about how her surgeon, who knew she was an amazing runner, would take walks with her around the hospital corridors while she was in recovery and tried to walk just a little bit ahead of her. “This is the only time I’ll ever be faster than you!” he joked.I laughed, a genuine laugh, not the sort of faint “huh” I’ll give to someone who says something meant to be funny while I’m running but because I’m trying to concentrate on running (and breathing) I don’t want to encourage them too much. I really liked her stories. I was impressed with her running, both past and present, as well as future—because, she assured me, there would be future running. The miles passed pleasantly until we parted and I went off on my own. I wish I’d gotten her name.
Anonymity means without name. It doesn’t mean you have no personality or characteristics, and it certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t alive. In this marathon, as in others, you had to wear a bib that had your number and your name on it, but the thing is you have to pin the bib on the front of your shirt or shorts, not on the back, so you can’t see anyone’s name; all you see around you are runners, and as a result running becomes a weird sort of anonymity.Sometimes it can be the very best sort of anonymity.
We are without name, without all the things we usually rely on to define ourselves. We are all one thing: runners. In the absence of any other name or identification, we are free to do and be surprising things. We can be kind. We can be strong. We can be inspirational. And, perhaps most amazing of all for someone like me who once believed nothing would ever make me see the world as anything but stupid and ugly and hateful, we can be inspired.