On July 4, I participated in a five-mile race. Like most ultrarunners, I am partial to races that begin before sunrise and end after sunset, but I like short ones, too. I enjoy race-day registration, being able to compete without snacks in my pockets, and finishing without twigs in my hair. I like lingering on the possibility of lying down on the pavement mid-race, rather than persisting in an acute state of difficulty. And I like how, immediately after crossing the finish line, the pain stops, and I think, Surely, I could have gone faster. I need to race again.
This race was held at the Yorktown Battlefields of Virginia, a location significant in American independence. There were colonial reenactors with drums, and we paused for the national anthem before the start. Looking around at the hundreds of people at the start line, most of us wore red, white, and blue. It was a decidedly American event. The only things missing were hot dogs and a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence.
While I don’t often pause to consider what it means to be an American, I did that morning, in between ragged breaths and hasty strides. And I thought about how running participates in, and shapes, my tasks as an American citizen.
Running and Citizenship
The idea that running shapes who I am as a citizen is not a new one.
Like many good ideas, it came from Greece (1). The ancient Greeks had a notion called paideia, or education. Paideia included both early caretaking and formal learning, and its objective was to form young men to be good citizens — citizens who could speak well, contribute meaningfully to the polis, and had good characters. To form citizens in virtue, rather than to impart any specific technical abilities, was the primary objective.
Unsurprisingly, athletic training (called gymnastics) featured in paideia. Young Athenians ran, wrestled, and jumped (2). These tasks taught them discipline, made them tough (3), and played a part in their early socialization (4). Gymnastics also helped the Athenians to aspire to excellence. In their athletic training, they understood themselves to be emulating great heroes, like Hercules and Achilles, and growing in strength themselves (5).
But what about us — trail runners in 2023? How does our training shape us in preparation for citizenship? I think there are at least three ways (6).
1. Running Helps Us to Prioritize Community
Every day, I park my car next to a sedan in the faculty lot that has marathon stickers on it, hoping to meet the person who also runs far. Maybe we will become friends. We have at least one big thing in common, insanity… oops, I mean marathoning.
Many of my closest friends are runners. Some of the most hospitable groups I have ever been a part of were running clubs. There is a kinship forged when you take on difficult challenges alongside others doing the same. Running together provides an opportunity to bond, to empathize, and to share experiences, unmediated by screens and technologies. Community is one of the best parts of endurance sports.
Citizenship is more than voting a couple of times per year. It also involves being a good neighbor and investing in the people around us. Running sets us up really well to do that.
2. Running Provides Practice in Pursuing Arduous Goods
During my race on July 4, I wanted to lie down on the pavement at mile two … then 2.5, then three … At mile four, I thought, Surely, I can run hard for one more mile. So, I did.
One of the best lessons running imparts is how to “stay in place” in pursuit of arduous goods. It offers practice in enduring so that we can (figuratively) not lie down on the pavement when things are hard. We can remain in difficult conversations, rather than running away. We can fix our attention on finish lines that seem far off, advancing toward them one step at a time. These are invaluable skills for citizenship.
Sometimes citizenship can feel like a series of difficult conversations with people we disagree with about divisive topics — injustices, broken systems and structures, reckoning with bad actions, and realizing we have conflicting visions of what a “good life” even means. We can give up on each other, polarize, and only talk to people we agree with. Or, we can remain in hard conversations, work together, and build a better shared future, even when the finish line seems far off.
3. Running Can Help Us Care about the Land
If I did not run, I would spend a lot more time indoors (an embarrassing amount of time). Second to trails, my favorite place is the library.
Running takes us outside. We become aware of local problems, like litter and poor air quality. We also grow acquainted with special features of our hometowns — like massive trees, creeks, and hills. By running outside, we can’t help but become invested in our hometowns. Moreover, cultural norms of the ultramarathon world, like mandatory trail work and plogging parties (picking up garbage while running,) reinforce these investments.
Caring about the land positions us to act responsibly on its behalf, and this is also part of what it means to be a good citizen.
The ancients wrote about education as a kind of preparation for citizenship. Athletics played a big part in that. Running can help us to grow in discipline, prioritize community, to care about the outdoors, and to remain in hard things. It plays a significant role in how we show up as citizens.
Call for Comments
Did you race on July 4? What did the day mean to you?
- Marathons are another good idea that came from Greece. Olives are an outstanding idea from Greece.
- Plato “Laws” 793e
- Plato “Republic” 410d
- Heather L. Reid (2020). Plato’s Gymnastic Dialogues, in “Athletics, Gymnastics, and Agon in Plato,” edited by H.L. Reid, M. Ralkowski, & C.P. Zoller, pp. 15-30. Parnassos Press, 17.
- Heather L. Reid (2020). Plato’s Gymnastic Dialogues, 15-16.
- Thank you to the Civil Rights & Civic Virtues Scholars for encouraging me to think about citizenship, character, and athletics this summer.