I’ve been running, and blogging about it, for long enough that I feel emboldened to make the following observation with complete confidence: Running has not made me a better person.
It hasn’t made me a worse person, mind you. I haven’t gone on crime sprees to pay reg fees for races. Yet all those qualities that obsessive runners ascribe to one another – tough, strong, determined, badass – I wouldn’t say I now have in any more abundance than before I became a runner or than anyone I know who doesn’t run. That I have the fortitude to keep moving for many hours in a row has not, I fully recognize, transcended to other aspects of my life. I am not any more likely now to rescue orphans from burning buildings than I was 20 years ago, unless those orphans are 50 miles away and no one else could get to them and their building was made from some extremely slow-burning material such that I could make it there in time (while taking brief but regular stops to hydrate and fuel).
Daily I see social media posts assuring their readers that we are stronger than we think, that failure is not an option, that we are enough and that we can do anything we want if we just try our best. I know those who post them mean well, and I know some people find comfort and inspiration in them. I don’t reject them out of dark-hearted perversity but rather from personal experience. A 54-year-old woman cannot do anything she wants; no one can, and to say otherwise is a slap in the face to anyone who has ever wanted something desperately and didn’t get it. I’m not always strong, not always enough, and as for failure, well, if anything, I’ve experienced even more of that as a runner than ever before. I’ve DNF’d. I’ve DNS’d. I’ve bawled and cursed and thrown tantrums because a race didn’t go the way I wanted, and that has happened more times than I’ve soared triumphant across finish lines radiating victory from every sweaty pore.
And let me tell you, that’s one of the best things about it.
In between long runs, I teach at a high school whose official name includes the word “laboratory” (though no one ever uses that name) because a big part of the school’s mission is experimentation. Teachers are encouraged to try new, innovative methods of teaching; students are encouraged to be more than just test-takers but also risk-takers; the hallways are a raucous jumble of noise and color rather than the beige-and-right-angles of a staid institution. Of course, mission statements are lovely but rarely borne out on an everyday basis; every challenge to time-honored pedagogy is guaranteed to meet with resistance, and while it’s pleasing to imagine one’s self a risk-taker, there’s no grade for that on one’s report card and would the Ivies really pick a 2.0 risk-taker over a 4.0 with a perfect SAT?
That’s what’s so insidious about experimentation: you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. And it’s one thing to experiment with a new hair color or a cuisine you’ve never tried before; it’s another to pour one unknown after another into the Erlenmeyer flask of the soul and hope you don’t explode. That, however, is precisely why I’ve come to see running as an experiment rather than a proof. I don’t “prove” anything in running, not to anyone else and not even to myself. Good scientists know that if you go into an experiment aiming to prove something, you probably will, because bad science can support anything you want. A true experiment doesn’t rationalize the outcome. What’s more, an experiment takes place in a controlled environment, so its consequences are limited. If I fail at running, no one is affected but me, and I’ll get over it. Whether I’m a bad person or a weak person or a thoroughly mediocre person is irrelevant. I tried something to see what it would be like. Since I keep trying it, what it must be like at least some of the time is enjoyable. What it is the rest of the time is nothing less than feeling very much alive.
My wish for my students of the class of 2023 is that they can find some way to live their lives as an experiment – that they do something with the ultimate goal of caring less about the ultimate goal than the experience along the way. Don’t envision what you’re going to say about it on social media. Maybe don’t even post about it at all. (Trust me, it does still happen.) And don’t make your self-worth hinge on it one way or another. Are you an amazing person because you did the thing, or a worthless loser because you didn’t? Who cares – what do you want to try next?