I'm visiting my father this week, six months after his initial cancer diagnosis and a series of surgeries. The last time I was here, Dad and I chatted about my run training; where I ran each morning, how my tendons, lungs and heart reacted to the change in altitude, stuff like that. He was honest to the point of envy about the fact he missed his daily walk, and yes, living vicariously through my exertions (and until recently an avid reader of this space).
We always talk about the fact there are no guarantees in this life; the frailty of our human existence, and how we continually need to live in the moment. There exists a gentle balance between genuine joy and excessive frivolity, and yes, between seriousness and crankiness. Running biographer Chris Lear boiled down the inner workings of coach Mark Wetmore for every running geek to a note reportedly on composer Gustav Mahler's music stand: "Res Severa Verum Gaudia."
"To be serious is the greatest joy."
I like to think of myself as a "serious runner." My family identifies me, as well as Suzanne, as serious runners. We both believe a serious runner is a person who harbors great respect for the sport's individual disciplines, marvels at the exploits of the athletes and coaches who operate at the highest level, and understands that the act of running is a privilege. That's correct. Running is a privilege.
Runners, and their act, are privileged to be the tool of discipline for other sports. How many "My Sport Is Your Sport's Punishment" t-shirts have we seen worn by scholastic cross-country and track enthusiasts? We are privileged to have seasons which never end, but merely transform from cross-country to indoor track to outdoor track to toad racing to marathon (and yes, to triathlon, which I consider part of "the family") and back again. We are privileged by the broad scope of competition, of distance, and of intensity; a four-minute mile and a twelve-minute mile is still a mile. A four-minute miler and a twelve-minute miler are still a runner. A four-mile run and a twelve-mile run is a run.
We are privileged by our egalitarian nature. A pair of shoes, a place to run, we're good to go. Keeping the act simple and pure, without excess frills, I believe are the hallmark of a culture which has it's collective act together. I've wondered why persons would take an act which was meant to be done with as little restraining influences as possible (...while I take umbrage with many of the first-century teacher Paul of Tarsus' doctrinal thoughts, his analogies between religious faith and distance running are pretty good) and add unnecessary hindrances...backpacks, compression tights, and worst of all, costumes. A fast runner who takes their run performance down a notch by, say, dressing up like one of the "Blues Brothers" or Elvis Presley, and still whips most everybody's behind makes a statement that says, "hey, I'm having fun here." But packs of people in tutus and prom gowns (especially guys) at the back-of-the-pack of a race (regardless of the distance) I think kind of missed the joke. That's not joy, folks. That's an exhibitionist "look at me" thing.
That's the kind of "I" that ideally is not in in team, and I wish was not in running. I'm not necessarily saying that we should completely blend in with the crowd. There's a place for funny hats and feather boas, but if you're going to turn a road race into a Mummer's parade, think about the persons who may look and see running as little more than frivolity...and we know there's so much more than that. I don't want to make someone think they need a "special outfit" to earn the privilege to run. I don't want people to equate what I love as a form of punishment, or as something that only military people do when they are forced to.
Running is a sliver of sanity we have in a world gone mad. For some it's perhaps the only thing we do well, sometimes the greatest revenge against slights, insults, insinuations and innuendo. When it comes to the privilege I have my father to thank. He let me run track when my family physician said I couldn't because of asthma. He reminded me about my running posture which was wrong for baseball, but nearly perfect for distance running. As he becomes more frail, I become more serious about the things that matter. And hopefully more joyful with the same.