This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here.
“There can be no fairer spectacle than that of a man who combines the possession of MORAL beauty in his soul, with OUTWARD beauty of body, corresponding and harmonizing with the former, because the same great pattern enters into both.”
That’s Isocrates speaking in Plato’s Republic. Obsession with the human form and lust after its dazzling beauty, especially in displays of strength, are not new. The athlete’s body is and always has been revered, sometimes in its execution of a brilliant physical achievement, sometimes reduced to a mere object in neglect of the athlete’s actual skill and ability.
We’ve accrued well over two mellenia of praise for the athletic form and I won’t be adding to that. I won’t be adding to it because I am a long distance runner. There are few statues, poems, or etchings glorifying the long distance runner, his seemingly malnourished upper-body perched magnificently atop long, sinewy legs. Having run seriously for about two years now, I know that where beauty is concerned, there’s not much to say for the long-distance runner.
When Ancient Athenians first gathered to pay tribute to the gods, there was no marathon.The marathon finds its origins in myth. After the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Pheidippedes runs from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory, instantly collapsing from exhaustion after having done so. There is no evidence of this having actually occured, and there is no such run recounted in Herodotus.
The contrast is perhaps a tad morbid. Where sprinters, javelin throwers, charioteers, and fighters are celebrated for raw power, history’s most famous long-distance runner is etched in our consciousness as succumbing to a more gruesome fate. While the original Olympians are celebrated across every artform, Pheidippedes’ run was not actually written about at all. Modern times have been kinder and he now has a statue along a highway in Greece.
Five of us gathered at Canoe Landing Park on a Saturday morning. The temperature was in and around -20 degrees celsius. I was the first to arrive and spent the time waiting for others running laps around the park and being chased by dogs so that the cold wouldn’t pierce my bones.
Our intention was to run north along Bathurst until Davenport Road. From there, we would cut right to the bottom of Casa Loma, which happens to be on top of a hill. We would climb that hill and turn right again once we hit the top and find ourselves on Spadina Road. After reaching the top of Spadina, which also boasts a gigantic hill, we would then head down Bathurst Street, one street west of Spadina, to find ourselves back at the bottom of the hill, which we would repeat two more times.
The sidewalks as we ran up Bathurst were caked with snow and frequent sheets of ice. Cold air is typically painful to inhale and until our bodies heated up enough from movement, there was no feeling in the extremities. Like previous winter runs, I couldn’t feel my face.
I’ll say nothing of the hill itself. I expected it to hurt and it did just that. I can’t recall a run like this where I was actually yearning for the end. The final fifteen minutes or so, when we made our way down University Avenue, passing the hospital where I was born, felt like a sick joke, like the end point of our planned route was just being pulled further and further away as I ran.
Somewhere along the run, a member of our group who I stuck with throughout said something along the lines of “If you run with someone, you pretty much get to know everything about them.”
It’s true. Obviously, runners become confidantes. You tell stories about how you came to running and friendships will be forged. What you will also come to know is all the things we are accustomed to hiding, both internal and external.
Making our way through the run, there was nothing dazzling about my body, which is not dazzling to begin with. Sweat soaked through the layers that I wore to protect myself from the cold. My lips were chapped and the edges of my mouth dry. Pushing up the hill, I dread to think of the contortions that my face made.
My nose ran like a broken pipeline and if I wanted to finish this run, and I very much did, there was nothing I could do to stop it from running. I wiped it here and there with the sleeve of my jacket in plain sight of passing vehicles, pedestrians, and other runners. In a race, dodging incoming snotbombs from a runner in front of you becomes its own test of agility and quickness.
By the time the run was over and I sat down with the rest of the group for brunch, there was nothing that could be done to mask the ferocious odour. This is what you can’t see in pictures of athletes. They sweat profusely. They sweat faster and in greater volumes than the average person. Their bodies are conditioned to sweat more to keep cool against intense regiments. Most of the time, they smell bad. With the combination of sweat and clothing drenched from the snow, I knew my scent was repulsive.
My hair was dishevelled in a way that showed that it had indeed thinned out significantly over the past few years. I don’t wear makeup and I don’t believe any of my fellow runners do on our outings, but if anyone were to, it would make no difference. Your age and fatigue are on full display.
Even the most private of matters become public when you run. After your intestines have been shaken from the pounding of your feet on the pavement for the past two hours and you’ve survived on energy gels containing caffeine, which has the property of loosening your sphincter – now you know why your morning joe sets you off – you make a beeline to the bathroom. I excused myself twice, at least that I can recall, from the table during brunch. I sat right back down afterward and continued devouring my burrito.
At any organized run, you’ll pass long lines of participants waiting on the portable toilets set up alongside the course. There is no one running who doesn’t understand what they are experiencing. At the dinner table you can “excuse yourself” to use the “powder room,” covering up your intentions with polite phrases. When you’re running, you need to find a toilet real fast because you need to take a shit and you don’t care who knows it.
These are the things we try to hide in our daily lives. We cover them with cologne, makeup, deodorant, and surgery. Sometimes, this is necessary for the sake of maintaining a decent society. There is no need for a restaurant or subway car filled with people who have decided to forego deodorant. Other times, we are just giving in to pure vanity.
Running is different than normal life. It’s an exercise in exposure of all that is unclean about your body. There is no compromise between looking good and pushing yourself to greater speeds, distances, and times. The very idea of a marathon is meant to push your body to its absolute limit and force it to give everything it has.
That’s the ultimate trade-off of the long distance runner. You give up looking good to feel good. It’s easy because your fellow runners are extremely accepting. By the very act of running together, you’ve kindled a sense of solidarity. You’ve exposed yourselves to one another at your most vulnerable. It’s in a sense another avenue of intimacy. When you run with someone, pulling back if necessary to ensure that they don’t quit, taking the time to know them as a person with a story, with failures, triumphs, and demons, you give them your trust and accept their vulnerability.
Running with someone is unconditional love. The long-distance runner is not typically beautiful, but they are very human, having exposed all the faults and quirks of their bodies. There’s no pretending. You are what you are when you run, and humans ought to love one another for what they are.