Growing up, I developed a prejudice against athletes. I saw them as arrogant, cliquey, boneheaded jerks. Not my kind of people. I preferred the kids who knew how to draw, who made bold, original points in class (even as 8th graders) and who had large vocabularies. I never felt as smart as my closest friends, but that just motivated me to be smarter myself. We were as active as any other pre-teen kids — biking, skateboarding, playing random games outside — but our time together was mostly a battle of wits.
This prejudice carried over into high school, where it fermented into a kind of acrid, bitter resentment. I rebelled and went the opposite direction. I began smoking. I finagled a way to get excused from gym class my entire sophomore year, and considered that a real coup. I came to associate athletics with idiocy, or at least mainstream complacency.
College reinforced this prejudice. The philosophy, English, and art majors I spent my time with for those four halcyon years wouldn’t have been caught dead in the field house or going for a run. We were too busy sleeping off our Carlo Rossi hangovers, hand rolling cigarettes, and whiling our days away at the coffee shop downtown, where Chess was the closest thing to a sport anyone ever played. All the jocks studied econ.
Somewhere along the way, I changed my tune. I got sick of feeling 45 when I was only 22. Sick of not being able to breathe deeply enough to yawn. Sick of thinking that being active meant being a dumb jock.
In the Republic, Plato describes the importance of training both the body and the mind. He writes that the two feed one another, and that a young man must be at once physically and mentally sharp in order to be whole. This begs the question: how did athletics become vilified by those who fancy themselves intellectuals?
I realize there are exceptions, and that not all 19-year-olds who read Karl Marx for fun also abuse their bodies and avoid gyms as if they were leper colonies. But in my experience, they were so rare as to be almost non-existent.
Now, almost 14 years since I left college, I have become a competitive distance runner. I average between 50 and 80 miles per week, I run more than a dozen races per year, and I have a shelf full of trophies for winning some of them. And I’m not alone. Many of my college friends have taken up running, or swimming, or yoga, or simply walking. They recognize, finally, that being physically active feels good.
Obviously, they’re not all competitive, but the competitive streak no longer strikes me as contrary to intellect. Instead, it has brought me closer to my humanity. I feel entirely present in myself when I run, and when I race I feel pushed to my limits — not just physically, but mentally. Driving myself to complete a distance without losing pace, even when my entire body feels like it could fall apart at any moment, is an ecstatic experience.
I write this two days after running the Boston Marathon, my 17th effort at the 26.2-mile distance. It was not my best race, but it was just as satisfying, deep down, as any other. And it reinforced my love of sport, of the pain and sense of accomplishment it brings, of knowing that I didn’t give up.
There’s a lesson there you won’t find in a book.