Running for it

The top American-born runner at the New York City marathon this year was Dathan Ritzenhein. Ritzenhein’s time of 2:12:33 was respectable, though not as competitive as he has been at other distances – such as the 5K, in which he held the American record until a few months ago.

Results in professional running are relative, of course. The USATF remarks that the 5K performance “[made] him the second-fastest non-African in history.” This meant 42 runners had gone faster at that distance, 41 of whom were Africans.

The success of American mid- and long-distance runners has long had a special intrigue for me. In 2000 and 2001, Ritzenhein was part of a fantastic high school class of runners that included Alan Webb, who ran the first sub-4 minute high school mile in 36 years, and Ryan Hall, who has now become the first American to break one hour in the half-marathon.

For myself and the other distance runners at my school, these guys were kings. Ritzenhein, who had seemed like the most natural long-distance athlete, was my personal favorite. I could not sprint to save my life, but I logged miles like a Honda. Running was already out of the mainstream in the adolescent search for sports heroes, and those of us who preferred the “loneliness of the long distance runner,” less popular still. So we had our own close-knit subculture, as is the wont of our ilk. This was a kind of sick camaraderie of pain – we were junkies, as much of exhaustion as endorphins.

My coach would often say the thing that made runners so close-knit was that the fastest and slowest athletes still had to finish the same task; they still registered the same race in their experience. That common individual experience was the source of our non-running culture.

The subculture of distinctive experience is pretty close to the communal ideal. It has a cohesiveness, a language, a common discipline. Plato embodied the vision for unitary society, and virtually all political theory tried to theorize it until the 19th century. The subculture has an advantage, though – it is not the highfalutin (and eschatological) pursuit to contain all humanity in a single vision, but the actual attraction of individuals to common ground. It is the meeting of individual experience with group identity. It both reacts against the prevailing culture, and draws all of that culture’s advantages to its own.

The subculture, in itself, can be closed, dysfunctional, even tribal. It never hopes to change the world. But there is possibility, too, inherent in it. The common identity that Philip Rieff eulogized still exists. While the clique of long-distance runners may be “topical” – its glue is in a specific activity – it is nevertheless a welcome relief to realize that the adhesives of common life exist in actual activities, with an actually possible coincidence of individual accomplishment with group identity. Only one runner wins the race, but all complete the course.

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