Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On the marathon and American manhood

Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book The Last American Man,
"Briefly, the history of America goes like this: there was a frontier, and then there was no longer a frontier.  It all happened rather quickly.  There were Indians, then explorers, then settlers, then towns, then cities.  Nobody was really paying attention until the moment the wilderness was officially tamed, at which point everyone wanted it back.  Within the general spasm of nostalgia that ensued... there came a very specific cultural panic, rooted in the question What will become of our boys?
The problem was that, while the classic European coming-of-age story generally featured a provincial boy who moved to the city and was transformed into a refined gentleman, the American tradition had evolved into the opposite.  The American boy came of age by leaving civilization and striking out toward the hills.  There, he shed his cosmopolitan manners and became a robust and proficient man.  Not a gentleman mind you, but a man."
It's in our cultural heritage that a man is not truly a man unless he has endured hardship, unless he has experienced something in life and come out on the other side better for it.  In earlier generations of America, this could mean anything from striking out for the frontier to going to war.

But what could that be in today's society?  Examine American culture today and it's easy to conclude how much of it is built around the idea of comfort.  Today, one isn't truly a man until he can show it off in the form of appliances and air conditioning and the perfect car and everything Apple has ever sold; basically anything that takes the hard work out of life.  Hard work of the physical variety is just not sought out any more.  In short, material possessions and the comfort they bring have laid claim to American manhood.

Worse still, American culture lacks a coming-of-age ritual, and young adults are left to find what they can to mark the passing into adulthood.  Left with no alternative, most are simply retreating to the couch to binge watch Netflix, eat take-out and complain and/or brag about life on social media.  Succumbing to the cultural zeitgeist is an antidote to the idea that one should do something with one's life.  Something important and something grand that lays the foundation for a successful future.

Can the marathon be that ritual?  Can the months of hard work, pain, and sacrifice lead one to a higher plane of existence?  If the second running boom of the last decade is anything to go by, it seems many Americans are answering this with a resounding yes.  It seems that the marathon can serve as catharsis and ritual to those of all genders and ages.

Those who have run a marathon will recognize the pain involved, pain so acute and so dramatic for being self-inflicted that it's a miracle anyone ever does two of these things.  The word itself conjures images of both physical and emotional pain, and while hardship of any kind does not exactly equate to pleasure, there is pleasure to be found there all the same.

Pleasure in pain.  Not quite a new concept, but still mind boggling to the non-marathoner. Why does the marathon hold such appeal to me, and so many others?  Why do we insist on making such dire sacrifices, training like Olympians for such minimal gains?  Why do we endure the pain for a space blanket and the same medal 20,000 other people get?  Where exactly does the pleasure come from?

There is something to be said for those who willingly endure hardship.  There is personal glory to be found in taming the wilderness; not so much the literal wilderness fawned over in American literature, but that found within.  It allows everyone to play both the person in need of rescuing and the rescuer, to be the hero in their own journey.  To pull themselves from the depths of their lives and rise to the next level.

This begs the question: am I more of a man since I ran my first marathon at the age of 24?  I'd like to think so, yes.  I'd like to think that the marathon indeed made me more robust and proficient, that it taught me to deal with pain, both physical and emotional, that I now understand the idea of sacrifice and hard work to achieve something difficult.


  1. You will enjoy this book, " Man Made " by Joel Stein. You will laugh and enjoy. Very witty and smart.

    1. I've always enjoyed his column in Time Magazine, so I'll definitely have to look this one up. Thanks for the recommendation!


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