Saturday, December 11, 2010

Different Sorts of Seriousness

"...it's inevitable that we look at our worthiest goals and hopes with a seriousness which is difficult to maintain, [but] ... Another ideal runs before us, a peculiar, seductive, dangerous ideal to which we wouldn't want to persuade anyone: ... the ideal of a spirit that plays naively, i.e. not deliberately but from overflowing abundance and power, with everything that was hitherto called holy, good, untouchable, divine, ... it is only with this spirit that the great seriousness really emerges."                                                --Nietzsche, The Gay Science

My buddy Mike wrote a nice piece on how he started running, and I've been meaning to link to it for a couple weeks now. His experience was much like mine. I think it pairs nicely with this Runner's World piece on the tenth anniversary of the 2000 Footlocker, when Ritz, Webb, and Hall--three of the greatest runners of my generation--duked it out for the first time as high schoolers.

These pieces got me thinking about what it means to take your running seriously. Since those high school days, Ritz, Webb, and Hall have become professional runners, which means that in a certain sense they have become very serious about their running. This seriousness manifests itself in different ways.

Ritz's running is serious enough to have his form recently profiled in the New Yorker. From this piece we learn that Ritz's approach to running is detail oriented and work-oriented. His seriousness manifests itself in his exemplary work ethic, his constant striving to improve and increase his training. The New Yorker profile is a look not only at Ritz, but at a certain take on what it means to train seriously. To train is to employ science rigorously, knowledgeably, and with great effort to aim at maximizing performance.

Webb is a different sort of animal. He is a picture of pure talent. He ran 3:53 for the full mile in high school, a record that will not likely soon fall. His racing is erratic, and he has been known to be a junk food aficionado. He falls out of shape often, only to hammer himself back into shape with mind-numbing workouts. When he races, it is with an acid intensity, nostrils blaring, screaming as he crosses the line. When he is off, his is miserable. When he is on, he can't be beaten. Webb's seriousness is not the steady, methodical, relentless seriousness of a Ritz. His seriousness is the white-hot passion of a born racer. It is best represented visually.



Then there is Hall. Ryan Hall is deeply religious, and his seriousness about running gets filtered through God. Recently, after a season of subpar training, he announced that he would no longer have a coach and that he would be depend on prayer for training guidance, along with his experience as an elite runner.  Hall has explicitly thematized God as a motivator for his running, and he sees the value of his racing in terms of a larger life purpose to glorify God. If Ritz runs to reach his human potential and Webb runs out of an unharnessed and erratic competitiveness, Hall runs for spiritual enlightenment. That's some serious stuff right there.

Chances are that each of these runners has been caricatured by their time in the spotlight. Like the rest of us, Ritz, Hall, and Webb probably run for a variety of reasons, and the way in which we view their motivations probably says more about the culture of running than it does the reality of their situations. I know that I find a little bit of each of these characters within myself . The obsessive tinkerer, the intense competitor, the seeker of spiritual ecstasies. Our own temperaments as runners, most likely, have varying doses of each of these personae.

All of this is interesting enough, as far as it goes. But what Mike's piece and the Footlocker piece got me thinking about was that adolescent high school seriousness, which is a different sort of seriousness entirely from the adult, professional serious seriousness that I've been talking about. I was serious in high school, no doubt. Every race seemed like the end of the world. I would have died out there on the course if that's what it took to help the team. We were perhaps in some ways more serious than even these professional runners.

Andy, my brother Philip, me, and John

The reason, though, that we could be so serious was because that seriousness was motivated and driven by the enormously good time we were having. The thing about adult seriousness is that, well, it gets to be a drag. So heavy, sometimes, chasing these PRs, training just right, racing as hard as you can. Too often, the seriousness comes first in adult life. In adolescence, the seriousness was secondary. We were serious because we loved it. We loved our friends. We loved to compete. We loved the feeling of being strong, of running hard. It was a seriousness born out of play--the most genuine sort of seriousness because it was a natural consequence of the sheer joy of being on a team, competing, doing your best, or just running.

In the retrospective on Footlocker, Ritz describes the seriousness like this:
I was hurting so bad the last two miles. I kept going by telling myself, You only have to hurt another 10 minutes. If you don't keep pushing, you'll regret it the rest of your life. It was my last high-school cross-country race. My last Foot Locker. It was so important. It seemed like the biggest thing in the world. 
This is not the seriousness of the obsessive compulsive, the out of control intensity of the racer, or the spiritual bliss of the running sage. It is the seriousness that we find when we leave all those other seriousnesses behind, when we compete because we are strong, because we can, because this is life. A seriousness that is not a reason for but a consequence of the simple joy of being a runner.

5 comments:

  1. how much do you think the seriousness of high school running was borne of being on a team, committed to a team, owing a good performance to your teammates in order to hold up your end of that implicit bargain that is teamwork? team meant so much in high school. i know with soccer, team still means so much to me. i will push harder to play well for my mates than i think i could push on my own. how do folks reach that place when they're not on a team? you have to find something in yourself to replace the team. but, what can replace the team?

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  2. i meant to tie the teamwork thing into the joy of work thing. maybe you can make that connection. thanks.

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  3. Definitely, ace. The team aspect is the thing I miss most about running as an adult. For me, it is so much easier to "reach that place" when I am running for a team. So, I think that has a whole lot to do with it.

    Reflecting back on the runners we used to be is such a fraught thing because our memories preserve the best and let the other moments go on. I think this is another reason why our childhoods or teen years seem so intense and vibrant and serious in a really cool way--these are the moments that memory preserves, sometimes at the cost of the present.

    I haven't really answered your question, but you raise an essential point--the pleasures and meanings we extract from running always depend on other people as well. Probably different people have different ways and extents to which they involve other folks, but for me this is always really important, even if those other people sometimes exist on the internet!

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  4. I remember the heat and humidity in that Alabama air when we were learning the Vulcan course the day before the race. I was surprised how well we adapted/accepted or forgot about the heat on race day.

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  5. Hey Phil,
    That's true! I think we just forgot about it. Definitely an intense and vibrant and serious day that was made possible in no small part by being part of a team of pretty amazing folks.

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