In all my years of running, then cycling, then swimming/cycling/running, I've never had a good answer for this oh-so-simple question. The best that I've been able to come up with is that it's just what I do. As I wrote a couple of years ago: "At this point in my life, being an athlete is such a deeply ingrained part of my self-concept that I really have no other choice. I have experimented with being someone else--an intellect, for example, during the two times in my life when I was burying myself in pursuit of advanced degrees--but I have always felt that my life was out of balance. It was; endurance athletics are a pillar on which I am built. I've spent two-thirds of my life in search of fast times--in search of the most pleasant exhaustion. It's who I am."
All of that is true, but it doesn't really answer the question.
Last week, I started reading Again to Carthage, John L. Parker's sequel to Once a Runner. I read Once a Runner when I was a rising senior in high school, just as I was starting to devote myself entirely to running. As it did for many other people, Once a Runner heavily influenced my thinking about running and racing. I subsequently read it twice more over the years, and from time to time, I would re-read certain passages. Thus, I was wary of picking up the sequel, concerned that it would be a letdown. It was only when a friend suggested that I take a look at it that I finally decided to give it a shot.
When Again to Carthage picks up, Quenton Cassidy, the miler from Once a Runner, has completed a successful career as a professional runner and has moved on with his life. He practices law in Florida and does a great deal of fishing. Ultimately, though, he feels pulled to resume training, this time with the goal of making the Olympic team in the marathon. Does he make it? I'm not sure; I haven't finished the book yet. My wife tells me that I'm really bad at giving things away, even if I don't intend to, so I figured that I had better post this blog before I finished the book, lest I give it all away.
In one chapter, Quenton writes a long letter to his college girlfriend Andrea about what has compelled him to start training again. (Fans will recognize this as a nod to the chapter in Once a Runner when Andrea writes to her sister.) And in this letter, Quenton gives as good an explanation as I've ever read as to why we do this stuff:
"After I graduated I still had lots of friends and still played on lots of teams, so although it wasn't the same thing, it also wasn't something I thought much about or ever really missed that much.
But there was one thing I did miss, and when I realized what it was and thought about it, it became something of an obsession. It's something I've never talked to you about, nor anyone else for that matter. It's strictly a runner thing, I think, so I never mentioned it to Winkler, or to any of the other guys I hung out with down there, none of whom had been distance runners.
What is was was this: when you're a competitive runner in training you are constantly in a process of ascending.
I's a simple idea, but the more I thought about it, the more profound it became to me.
It's not something most human beings would give a moment of consideration to, that it is actually possible to be living for years in a state of constant betterment. To consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or a year ago, and that you will be better still tomorrow or next week or at tournament time your senior year. That if you're doing it right you are an organism constantly evolving toward some agreed-upon approximation of excellence. Wouldn't that be at least one definition of a spiritual state? . . .
This way of living that we once took for granted isn't necessarily a 'natural' process at all. It's not like water flowing down to the sea, not like aging. It takes effort, determination, conviction. But mostly, it takes will. It takes a conscious decision to follow one difficult uphill path, and then the will to stay with it and not waver, to not give up. . . .
I'm not saying that we ourselves did not have setbacks, doldrums, bad luck, and reversals of all kinds. We got sick and we got hurt, certainly, often because of our quest. We got waylaid and distracted by fads, false idols, wars, and rumors of wars. I'm not saying we weren't human in every way you can be human. I'm just saying that all things being equal, by and large each and every day we were getting better at the one singularly difficult task and goal we had set for ourselves.
And I'm saying that win, lose, or draw, just being involved in such an undertaking was itself ennobling. It was an uplifting enterprise that we all intuitively understood to be such, and I know that almost incidentally the spiritual force of our effort created a slipstream that drew all else in our lives along with it and made us better in other ways as well. Better, happier, more complete human beings than we would have been otherwise."
There. That's why.