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The Loveliness of the Long Distance Runner

The Greeks would not have liked me. I am not an athlete. For though 1 run, I do not run to win. And worst of all, I go too far. In the Hellenic view of life, sport and culture were synonymous, but nonetheless they had no admiration for the distance man. He did not fire them to song, ln fact, of all the odes of Pindar, only one is dedicated to a winner in the dolichos, their longest race (about three miles). The sprinters and the horses got the lyrics.

What is more, they laughed at us. The distance runner was the butt of countless jokes. Take for instance the old chesnut—it was ancient even then — about the runner who was seventh in a field of six (Palatine Anthology XI. 82). There was no honor whatsoever in the marathon, primarily because they never had one. This 26 mile rite is strictly modern (its Jerusalem, of course, is Boston). Old Pheidippides, the quasilegendary chap who footed it from Marathon to Athens with the news of victory against the Persians was no "athlete" to the Greeks. He had the social stature of a telegram. He was no better than the other members of his lowly class, hemerodromoi (literally, "all-day runners"), messengers who merely brought the news. Paperboys before the age of paper.

This may seem paradoxical to some. Why should the grunting wrestler merit high esteem, while distance runners languish in the shadows of renown? Alas, the answer is skin deep. Greed culture was so physical, they worshipped muscles over everything. Sprinters made good statues; scrawny distance men could only model for a toothpick, Greeks revered the outer man The "sovereign poet" Homer didn't even have a word for soul.

But time jogs on. And values change. Today, especially the age in which we live, it is the perseverent runner who commands respect. Absolutely everybody does it. Several million years from now when archeologists unearth our footprints, they will find the fossilized impressions of a trackshoe. Ad astra per Adidas, Current magazines abound in paeans to pedestrians. To an athlete trying . . . middle-aged."

And, of course, the doctors hallelujah all the theraputic—

Never mind the doctors!

We should ignore their Hippocratical remarks. They tell us running is the best way not to die (too soon). And hence our parks now teem with converts chasing immorality.

No. Running isn't merely prophylaxis any more than music is an aural tranquilizer, though it also soothes the savage breast- Running is to therapy what Mozart is to Muzak. We do not run to live. We live to run.

Let me expatiate.

Man in a state of nature is a runner. Look at children: they are always running. Their first halting steps are but a transient stage towards culmination in a sprint. We smile to watch them scamper. But if we ever asked outselves precisely why, we would discover that our smile betrays a deep-felt envy. For a child is free. We grownups must be "civilized." Oh Freud, the most pernicious of our Discontents, (dasschlechteste Unbehagen. Sig) is that society has arbitrarily set down that adults walk, not run. What tyrant forged this brutal legislation, tearing the Achilles tendon of the Id?

A child who runs along Fifth Avenue is charming. But an adult sprinting in his streetclothes is a lunatic, a lover, or a thief.

The Bible says King David "danced and leaped" before the Ark. I always thought these lines meant that he was joyous. But a recent medical interpretation argues he was doing calesthenics, with longevity in view.

Horace in his Ars Poetica dichotomized the world into the dulce and the utile. And strict dogmatic Roman that he was, he recognized no art in anything that had no usefulness The modern "classicists" who have inherited this puritan mentality are those prosaic souls who only harp upon the utile of running.

Well, yes. A grain of truth. It is a scientific fact that running is. by chance, salubrious as well. But so is sex. Yet has a man in passion ever cried, "I only do it for my health"? Nay, love transcends the logical. Le coeur a ses raisons...

It has been said that great ideas afflate themselves to people as they run. Perhaps. Once upon a 20 miler, I was struck (or stricken) with the following profundity: is it mere linguistic hazard that the English word for soul is voiced exactly like the word betokening the bottom of a trackshoe? And is it but coincidence that "sole" is also like the "sole" in solitary? Surely there is meaning in all this. For when a runner hears the sound of sol. it klangs in him a triad of associations which, religiously appropriate, become a unity. (Run 20 miles and see.)

The distance runner finds his soul in solitude. He is not, pace Alan Sillitoe, a lonely man, for every time one sole alights upon the earth, the other is aloft. He is at one with nature. And he flies. (The winged foot is everywhere in iconology.)

We know that, fellow runners, don't we? When we run, we fly. It is sublimity that few except the mystic poets can express- And it is sensual Read Roger Bannister (The first Four Minutes), Not the part about his fainting when he breaks the record, but where he describes the ecstasy of running through the woods. He candidly admits there is a touch of eros in it. Who could gainsay Bannister? The man's a doctor too.

We know that running is both metaphysical and metaphorical. And we recall what Marvell tells his mistress:

… though we catinot make our sun Stand slill, ui't we can make him run.

Or, as the philosopher remarked just after running 20 miles: la course a ses raisons.