Last weekend I ran an ultramarathon in which my goal was to complete at least 50 miles. This weekend I attended a party for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. The symmetry is just too perfect: fifty miles, fifty years, both endeavors beginning with hope, both inevitably entailing hard work, frustration, pain, and doubt, moments where you want to give up, where you wonder why you ever thought this was a good idea, yet ultimately—surely—rewarded in the end.
That all sounds lovely, but of course nothing is ever so clear-cut. A good analogy should provide insights into both sides of the comparison without oversimplifying either. Let’s see how far we can take this one.
I thought I was adequately prepared for my 50-miler. I’d trained well and felt no ominous twinges that might signal impending injury. But of course you’re seldom as ready as you think you are for any given endeavor, and with running I’ve found the more prepared you think you are, the less prepared you’ll actually be when the first unexpected obstacle appears. Everything from the comical (forgetting my shoes at home) to the health-hazardous (100-degree heat index that rendered me too nauseous to eat or drink) got thrown at me during my 50, and it ended up not exactly being a model for how to run a great race.
I don’t know how prepared my parents thought they were for their marriage, but I suspect that like most couples of their generation, they didn’t “prepare” at all. Marriage was just something you did, everyone did, got married and had kids. Divorce wasn’t something you did, so I imagine they didn’t prepare so much as resign themselves. That sounds terrible, I know, but my mother will tell you if you ask (and nobody asked her for a long time, so my sister and I didn’t know until we were well into adulthood) that the reason she married my father was to get her Green Card. My father will tell you he adored my mother, but he might also tell you that he had a very hard time getting her to talk about herself when he courted her, which makes you wonder just what it was he “adored” about her—some image he had in mind of the perfect wife, perhaps. As a result, it wasn’t a great match, to put it mildly.
You can only prepare so much.
Whenever I tell people I run ultramarathons (and once I’ve defined what an ultramarathon is) people drop their jaws in amazement, of course, but I can also sense them edging away from me just a little. Ultra running may be getting more mainstream by the minute, but there’s still a freakishness about it. It’s crazy enough to run 26.2 on a regular basis, but more than that? That’s just not right. I try to tell these people that it’s actually a lot less bizarre than they think—more a matter of stubbornness than athleticism. I wanted to quit so many times during my 50, but I kept going I think in part because when you spend most of the day locked in a quasi-epic internal battle between quitting and continuing, the battle pretty much becomes your entire world—a sweaty, smelly, achy painy misery-laden world that nonetheless is all you know. I want to stop. Why am I not stopping? What could I possibly have to gain by continuing to do this stupid thing? This will be my last lap, count on it. This next one will be. The one after this one, that’s it, I’m quitting. I can’t go on. I can’t go on. I can’t go on. And so you go on.
Whenever I tell people about my parents’ 50th, they inevitably do a little sentimental head tilt and go “awwwww.” And whenever that happens, I want to tell them to keep their heads level and their sentimentality minimal. This is not a marriage anyone would want to emulate, in my view, despite its longevity. My parents came within inches of divorcing several times in their lives together, and in the end, as near as I can figure out, they stayed together simply because at their age it’s more practical and sensible to have a roommate than live alone. At this point the end of their marriage is, to be blunt, going to be the end of their lives. They’re both in their 80s; they almost certainly won’t remarry after one of them goes, so this is it. They are old. Their bodies are breaking down. It’s scary to think of going through that alone; better, perhaps, to be aggravated by a familiar irritant than terrified by the unknown that lies ahead.
You keep going because you don’t know what else to do.
When it comes to any difficult endeavor, we think the question is “how much can I take?” But the answer to that is simple: anything. History tells us there is no limit to what human beings can endure. The tougher question is “how much do I want to take?” It’s tough because it requires thinking about consequences, always a big downer, and it necessitates balancing costs and benefits, which means being an accountant instead of an adventurer. And here’s where the analogy falters a bit, because there are some pretty substantial differences between running for 50 and marrying for 50.
I’d guess most people today would admit it’s better to get out of a bad marriage than to “tough it out”—the reason being that you don’t really tough out a marriage the way you do an ultramarathon. If your goal is to run 50 miles, the equation is simple: endure the suffering and achieve your goal. That’s what I did, and while it wasn’t pretty, it’s done. But while people go into marriage with the general goal of staying together forever, at some point that becomes a far less important goal than being able to enjoy everyday living. What does it matter if you stay together 50 years if the years are mostly unhappy ones? What do you get if you endure 50 years of a less-than-ideal marriage? A party with finger food from Trader Joe’s. An anniversary party, no matter how far you’ve gone, is pretty much just an aid station along the way, not the finish line.
That said, not a week after my 50 and I’m already thinking, OK, I did it, but I didn’t do it well. What if I had better conditions in which to run? What if I tried for a fast 50 instead of just any 50? When’s my next race?
Even when it ends, it doesn’t end, because the experience changes you forever.
Part 2: The Party (stay tuned)