Playing Through

Participating in the Austin Marathon is straight-up crazy, and incredibly admirable

Playing Through
Photo by Thomas Hackett

I'm a runner. I've been running since I first saw the great Steve Prefontaine compete for the University of Oregon. That was 38 years ago. Once, during a long jog around Central Park, I did the math and figured out that if I added up all the miles I'd run in my life, I could have jogged from New York to California and back. And then made a return trip to California.

So I think I get it – why, that is, people willingly subject themselves to the torture of running marathons. But I'm not sure that I really do.

A few weeks ago, I saw an athletic-looking man walking with the gingerly gait of someone who might have just run the 3M Half Marathon & Relay the day before.

"How'd it go?" I asked.

"How'd what go?"

"The half marathon."

"I didn't run in a half marathon."

"Oh. I thought because the way you're walking ..."

"I had a stroke."

Talk about feeling like an asshole! But the guy was cool about it, and my hunch wasn't completely wrong. He was a runner. In fact, he had run marathons. Actually, it was immediately after his last marathon that he'd had his stroke. I didn't ask if he planned on running another, but something tells me it's not out of the question.

Rationally, of course, stroke or no stroke, running a marathon makes absolutely no sense. Objectively considered, it is an exercise in pure waste. A waste of time, a waste of energy. Pointless by definition.

So why do it? Why willingly subject oneself to that kind of misery?

"It shows you what you're made out of," said Andrew Torres, from Houston, one of the 5,173 people to finish the AT&T Austin Marathon last Sunday. "It's like how you build your muscles. You have to tear a muscle to rebuild it. In a marathon, you have to tear yourself up to find out how strong you are."

Before and after the race, that was the best explanation dozens of runners gave me: Only in testing ourselves, they all said, can we know ourselves.

"It's making a statement about the kind of person I am – a finisher," said Jane Taylor, also of Houston. "I'm choosing the person I want to be."

"I run as hard as I want to run, and nobody tells me not to," added George Uribe, who finished in three hours and 12 minutes, qualifying for the Boston Marathon. "That's what it's all about. It's up to me."

This seems the key to unraveling the paradox of play. Nobody makes us do it. To play – i.e., to run a marathon, to climb a mountain, to perform in a nerve-racking recital – is to prove that we have free will.

Which is why I am so admiring of every single one of those runners hobbling around Downtown, their bodies ravaged by the ordeal. That they can run 26.2 miles is not what impressed me. But that they have chosen to run 26.2 miles does.

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Austin Marathon, Steve Prefontaine, Boston Marathon, 3M Half Marathon & Relay

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