I am standing on the start line of a race. It is my second year at the event, and it is pouring rain. Many of my competitors and I are dressed in trash bags — the big black ones, with holes cut out for our arms and heads. We are dressed this way, not for stylistic reasons but because, while it is cold, it is not cold enough to run in raincoats.
Trash bags are light and fast, and we can crumple them up and stash them in our pockets if the rain stops. Plus, trash bags are one size fits all and effective at keeping a runner dry, legs and all. So, we runners stand there in our trash bags, lined up, side by side, like it’s trash pickup day in the suburbs, waiting for the starting gun to signal the beginning of the race.
The gun sounds, followed by a sustained, massive swish! of our trash bags as we advance off the line together and into the darkness. The race is on.
The start line is where I rehearse my goals before the race. It is where I stand with poise and elegance in my trash bag and remind myself about my intentions. This race, I have three goals:
- a time goal (under 15 hours for 100 miles),
- a virtue goal (run with greater courage than I have in the past), and
- a completion goal (to the extent that it is within my control to do so, I will finish the race).
Knowing the difficulty of the task before me, the most important goal is always the third one — completion. There is dignity in completion. And finishing is not something that can ever be taken for granted over the course of a 100-mile run. Reasons to quit always present themselves throughout the day, and these reasons grow, if not more logically compelling, certainly louder when we are tired.
Being able to resist these reasons and finish the race is important for the sake of my integrity as an athlete. It also offers practice in being the kind of person I want to be outside of sport — someone who holds fast to the commitments in my life that really matter, even when doing so is challenging. This capacity, to act in terms of one’s commitments, is a big part of what it means to be a free person.
Free Will (Not to Be Confused With Free Willy, a Movie About a Whale)
It is natural to think about external impediments to freedom, or the things that stand in the way of our doing what we want. In popular discourse, “free” is often regarded as synonymous with unimpeded or uncoerced. For example, if a friend asks whether you are “free” to run on the weekend, but you have a big work deadline approaching, you may need to answer no. There is a barrier to your free action.
In contemporary political discourse, freedom from external impediments is often how we frame discussions. Civil liberties — like religious freedom and the right to privacy — are examples of freedoms from external constraints. Another example is having the right to peacefully assemble. There are no legal barriers to doing so.
However, there is a second kind of constraint on free action, which is often neglected in our current conversations about freedom. These are internal impediments. Internal impediments are features of the agent that constrain free action. They restrict our ability to self-govern effectively.
Examples of internal constraints on free action for runners can include runaway and outsized emotions. They can include laziness, intemperance, distractibility, and irresolution. These are defects of character that prevent us from becoming what we ought to become, or from achieving what we aim to achieve (1). They also prevent us from seeing our commitments through to completion.
If I am free from external impediments, then this means that nothing outside of myself constrains my actions. But if I am free from internal impediments, this means I won’t get in my own way.
I can choose well and remain in my commitments, without succumbing to fickle emotions, impulses, or roving appetites, wherever they lead me. I can start a paper and finish it, without being distracted or turned aside by other things. I can commit to a career goal and put in the work that it takes to achieve it. I can sign up for a race and then discipline myself well enough in the process of training such that I am well-prepared to complete it.
Being a free person means more than having choices. It means having the ability to choose well and to stay in place. This kind of freedom is developed through practice.
Exercising Freedom (Get It? Exercise)
The rain subsides, and the sun comes up. We tuck our trash bags and headlamps into our hydration packs and run along the forest paths. It is going to be a great day, but it will be a long and challenging day, too. As the race progresses, my fatigue will grow.
I will manage myself physically by fueling and hydrating regularly and adjusting my paces to suit various kinds of terrain. I will also manage myself internally, talking myself through rough patches and reminding myself of my objectives.
Distance running is a special sport in that it provides the opportunity to develop freedom from internal impediments, or to practice remaining in our commitments. Doing so is a real challenge. Even in my best races, there are moments when I would rather flit off, distract myself, or do anything (anything!) else rather than remain in the race.
The ability to “stay in place” or to see my race through to completion is a challenge that requires continuous recommitment throughout, and this practice has served me well outside of the sport. It demonstrates to me that, however difficult my current situation is, I know I can persevere through it. I can have integrity toward the goods to which I am committed.
This is an important part of what it means to be a free person because although no one is making me do anything, can I make myself do something? If not, I am not a free person.
While freedom from external impediments is secured by eliminating obstacles, freedom from internal impediments is formed through internal work, like education or training, growing in virtue, and committing ourselves to good ends. Thankfully, distance running offers us ample opportunity to do this kind of internal work.
Call for Comments
- What is a time in your life or running where you were able to “stay in place,” committed to what you were doing and free of internal and external impediments?
- And what about a time in life or running where your inner self impeded your way forward?
- See Plato’s Republic, Book IX, in the passage surrounding line 579e. Socrates describes the tyrannical man as one who is ostensibly free, in political terms, since he is unconstrained from doing what he would like. However, he is “enslaved” by his own desires.