My first mountain 100-mile race was unforgettable. I was a junior in college. The race had a night start, so, earlier in the day, I drove down to the race with the group of boys I was training with at the time. They served as my crew, which was very generous.
They filled my pockets with Spiderman fruit snacks all day, and one of them paced me for the final marathon. I got lost in the woods just once and experienced a full night racing under the stars in the Shenandoah Mountains in the eastern United States.
That day, I made many mistakes. I ran too quickly in the beginning. Later in the race, I was too cautious on the descents when I should have let gravity carry me unabated, and my headlamp broke as the sun was setting. That was a dark time — literally and metaphorically. Still, the whole experience felt like a triumph.
When I crossed the finish line of the longest, most difficult event of my life, I was greeted with hugs from my crew, a high-five from the race director, and a smattering of claps from a few others who were present at the finish.
On the way back to school, my crew accidentally (briefly) left me behind at a gas station where we stopped to buy tacos. (I am quiet, so they did not immediately detect my absence.)
It struck me as funny back then — and as an asset of the sport now — that our greatest adventures often conclude in this way, with a few friends in the middle of a forest. We are met with space for introspection that accomplishing a feat of this sort requires.
Fanfare would almost misrepresent the kind of thing an ultramarathon race is — a comfortless journey, across difficult terrain, over an extended period of time, with a lot of room to self-examine. The only ending more poetic would be to participate in an archery contest to scare away suitors, as happens at the conclusion of Odysseus’s journey in Homer’s Odyssey.
In 1714, philosopher Bernard Mandeville published a book entitled The Fable of the Bees, containing a poem called “The Grumbling Hive.” The poem describes a successful community of bees, with each bee individually motivated by greed. When the bees start to develop virtues, forsaking their self-seeking tendencies, the hive collapses. As it turns out, the hive was sustained by vices, without which, it ceased to function.
“The Grumbling Hive” is satire. Mandeville’s target was moralists who desired the goods of consumerism while being unwilling to admit that certain vices sustain those goods. He was not personally endorsing vice but exposing a kind of hypocrisy of the time period.
He intended to “expose the unreasonableness and folly of those who, wanting to be a flourishing people and wonderfully greedy for all the benefits they can receive as such, are always exclaiming against the vices and inconveniences that have … been inseparable from all kingdoms and states that ever were famed for strength, riches, and politeness at the same time (1).”
The idea is, there are certain visions of the good life that conflict with private virtue. A similar idea is echoed in the famous Gordon Gekko “Greed is good” speech from the 1987 film, “Wall Street.” Greed is “good” insofar as it serves the end in question — making a profit.
The Hive: For Runners
Our sport is changing quickly. There is more media attention than in the past, and there is a growing conversation about transforming trail running and ultrarunning to be more like other sports — sports that are profitable and generate fans. In many ways, these changes are welcome.
It is surely a good thing that more people participate in trail running. This means more people can enjoy natural spaces instead of staring at screens, and they can be edified by the daily disciplines of training.
Additionally, if there is more media attention paid to ultrarunning, then participation will grow. And more competitive fields will follow from increased participation.
It also seems welcome that ultrarunning is becoming more profitable for athletes who wish to pursue the sport as a career, full-time, without requiring supplemental income from additional jobs. In these ways, maturing ultrarunning so that it resembles other sports seems like a good thing.
However, these changes also restructure our hive in substantial ways, and I wonder whether a growing focus on generating media attention and increasing profit will change the internal character of its participants, in order to sustain these ends.
For example, the vice of vainglory — “the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others (2)” — is a trait entwined in, and reinforced by, social media. It would be unfortunate if the image of the athlete became prized over the athlete’s feats, or if an athlete’s primary motivation to run far were to garner approval, rather than to challenge oneself.
Another worry is greed — an excessive love of wealth (3). This vice was mostly irrelevant in ultrarunning a few years ago. I wonder whether increased economic opportunities will generate the wrong incentives for joining the sport and result in the prioritization of income over trail stewardship, which is something ultrarunners have historically valued. I have no idea what will happen, but, like Mandeville, I suspect that success — defined in certain terms — is sustained by vice.
Why We Should Care
I am not naïve enough to think that ultrarunning is never going to change. I do not think its current restructuring is all bad either. Still, it is important to ask how these changes will impact the character of its participants.
Our participation in sports is formative, and this is often a big reason why we run — to change our habits, to be edified by our efforts, and to be formed in discipline. But the ways in which sports form us are not uniformly constructive. Sometimes sports reinforce bad qualities (vices). These vices may be conducive to success in the sport, but they are also qualities we would not want in a neighbor or a friend.
They are not the kinds of qualities that support a full, happy life. As we work to restructure the sport (our hive), we should examine the vision we have for what we are creating and ask which qualities of character are reinforced in achieving that vision.
Call for Comments
- Where do you think our little (not so little anymore) beehives of trail running and ultrarunning communities are going?
- What can we do as individuals and as a collective to promote the success of our sports and its people in ways that aren’t contingent on vices? Is this even possible?
- B. Mandeville. (1732). The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Public Benefits. Early Modern Texts. Jonathan Bennett. Web: https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/mandeville1732_1.pdf, pp. 1-2.
- R.K. DeYoung. (2009) Glittering Vices. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 60.
- R.K. DeYoung. (2009) Glittering Vices, 100.