What if we are like pencils?
Several years ago, a prominent runner in the sport, who was seemingly at the peak of her career, withdrew from a high-profile race. To the press, she remarked that she did not know how many 100 milers she could run in her life. She wanted to pick and choose which races mattered the most to her.
I had heard these comments before: We are not limitless. We cannot race at a high level indefinitely. We are human beings who fatigue, grow old, and — physical constraints aside — have competing responsibilities that conflict with high-level performance. But this athlete’s comments struck me in a way the previous comments had not.
First, they came from someone who was within the sport, not from without. Often, critiques are leveled at runners from those who do not run. But these remarks came from an insider. I could not reason that this athlete failed to understand what being invested in the sport requires. She certainly understood.
Second, it came from someone at the peak of her powers, rather than someone conceding to a narrative of decline upon confronting it herself. It startled me that she was able to see out from the presentism of peak performance — the tendency to maximize “here, now,” irrespective of considerations of a good life long-term. This athlete’s remarks challenged me to do the same — to calculate the costs — physically, socially, professionally, and otherwise — of accruing mileage year after year. They spurred me to apply foresight into my racing schedule, rather than racing anything and everything that passed my way.
Human Nature and Running
After hearing these remarks, I began to wonder whether my body was like weeds on an Appalachian roadside — regenerating seemingly instantly and infinitely, heedless of any damages incurred. Or, was my body more like a pencil — able to be sharpened through my training, but not indefinitely? You can only sharpen a pencil so many times until it is all used up.
These are questions about human nature and its limits. I do not like asking these questions because then I am accountable to the answers. But they are questions we should probably take seriously in distance running.
Humanism in Sneakers
There is an essay by political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain entitled, “Leadership and the Humanities.” Elshtain examines situations of oppression and misery — situations that make humans feel small, unseen, isolated, and unable to aspire. She asks what it might look like for leadership to take humanity seriously — to operate with a high level of trust, to support excellence and encourage sociality, and to involve “the dignity of the human person” on display (1).
Elshtain invites us to consider what humanistic leadership might involve — leadership that “embod[ies] a deep and abiding recognition that … one is dealing with human beings, with all of their flaws and their possibilities (2).” She asks whether this kind of leadership is possible.
I want to raise the same questions here, in the world of athletics:
- What does it mean to take seriously “human beings, with all of their flaws and possibilities” in the realm of sport?
- What would it look like to have “the dignity of persons” on display?
- What needs to change to make these things happen?
I have a few ideas. Here is a start.
1. Honoring Limits
Yesterday, I ran 400-meter repetitions on a gravel track. As I crossed the line of my final repetition, I took a moment to catch my breath, with my hands on my knees, before beginning my cooldown. Instead of being grateful for the work my body performed, I felt annoyed that I needed that moment of recovery. Rest felt like an imposition — negative space between constructive work, rather than my body’s active reckoning and restructuring in the wake of my efforts.
I often begrudge my rest. I am annoyed between repetitions on the track, wondering why I need the time to recover. I am vexed at the end of the day when I need to go to sleep without having completed all of my objectives. And I am impatient during off-season, bothered by the necessity of training periodization and my body’s need to recover before building for another race.
But rest is not a weakness or a personal failure. It is part of the rhythm of an embodied, human life. We can either be annoyed by this fact — that we are embodied beings who need to step away from hard work to refuel, sleep, and recover — or we can make peace with our physical restraints as part of the rhythm of training.
This is the first way to take our humanity seriously — to embrace our limits, rather than to neglect or override them. When we do so, we position ourselves to flourish as humans, but we are also likely to advance our training because rest is required to improve (3).
I am not yet sure whether human beings are like pencils — with a limited number of hard efforts to expend. But we are certainly not roadside weeds, capable of seemingly infinite regeneration either. Our bodies have limits.
2. Celebrating the Athlete’s Life Span
Often, when we praise the aging runner, we use the parameters of youth: “You are competing well with people half your age!” “You look young!” “You have barely slowed down.”
To some extent, these remarks are valuable as a means of giving runners a vision of what is athletically feasible when we are advanced in years. I know of many runners, much older than I am, who continue to excel. This helps me to adjust my expectations.
But these comments also communicate the superiority of youth over old age — that youth has higher status in athletics. And while peak performance inevitably declines as we age, other aspects of a person may progress — wisdom, for example, and the kind of perspective that comes from having a wealth of experiences.
Taking humanity seriously in sport should involve the celebration of these excellences, rather than using exclusively youth-oriented performance metrics to weigh the value and contributions of aging runners. And maybe we can aim to meet our own aging with grace, expectation, and gratitude — focusing on what is gained in a long life, rather than fearing performance declines.
It also seems that older runners should be represented more in athletic marketing — in recognition of their presence in the community and the value they bring. All humans age. It is strange to need to say this. Aging is part of being human and part of being an athlete. It is not something to explain away or minimize from view.
3. Seeking Excellence
Often when I talk about physical limits and rest, people think I have in mind a junior-varsity version of elite athletics, compromising performance for longevity. I don’t.
Virtue is arête, which means excellence. Part of taking humanity seriously is seeing what we are capable of. This is what it means to wonder about a human’s “possibilities,” in Elshtain’s phrasing.
Interestingly, athletics makes a unique contribution to discussions of human nature. It provides a means of learning about the outer limits of human ability. Every time Courtney Dauwalter and Kilian Jornet run races that blow our minds, we learn — in a more fine-grained way — what humans are capable of.
4. Tell Different Stories
It is odd to grow up in a sport.
I started ultrarunning in college when I had a lot of free time. Training was one of my highest commitments. Now I have a family and a job. I still train to compete well, but my training is a subsidiary concern after making sure my children and students are attended to and cared for.
Naturally, sometimes these commitments impede my ability to run with the kind of sharpness I had previously. But I want to believe that this does not mean I am less of a runner. I am as much of a runner when I am pushing a stroller, as when I am all alone. I am as much of a runner when I train after a night of minimal sleep from baby wake-ups or writing projects, as when I run after nine full hours of sleep. And I am as much of a runner when I compete infrequently to stay home on weekends because babies don’t keep.
There are many ways to be an excellent runner — to have integrity in our craft, within our personal limitations, whatever those limitations are. I am most familiar with parenting constraints because these are my current reality. But there are people in our sport who are differently abled, are from different athletic or cultural backgrounds, or who have various careers and other commitments on balance with athletic objectives. There are many ways to have a good life, and there are many ways to occupy the sport with integrity.
Part of taking humanity seriously in sport is to recognize the many excellent ways to be a runner. Not all of them are about peak performance. Let’s tell these stories, too.
To take humanity seriously in running is to recognize and honor the dignity of persons in our sport — such as by making the sport hospitable to our flourishing in ways that include performance excellence, but not only performance excellence. There are many ways we can do this, some of which I have addressed, such as honoring bodily limits and embracing the entire human life span.
There are other ways we can take humanity seriously — such as by investing in community (we are social beings; we need each other.) Another example is being thoughtful about technologies, which mediate performance inputs and outcomes in ways that can distort our perception of natural limits.
At its best, athletic training can be a great way to learn about human nature and to refine our capabilities. But we still have work to do in taking humanity seriously.
Call for Comments
- What are your thoughts on the human limitations we face as runners?
- Do you pick your battles when it comes to races, following the idea that we can only sustain so many hard efforts?
- Jean Bethke Elshtain (2009). Leadership and the Humanities, As found in “Leadership and the Liberal Arts,” edited by J.T. Wren, R.E. Riggio, & M.A. Genovese, pp. 117-125. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Jean Bethke Elshtain (2009). “Leadership and the Humanities,” p. 120.
- For more on human limits, see Limitless (2021). iRunFar.com. Web <https://www.irunfar.com/limitless>