Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ultrarunning and Life, the Game of Inches

It's well past my bedtime, but I'm awake and I can't stop thinking about running. I keep playing out Badwater in my head: what it must be like to run the race. If I close my eyes, I can see Death Valley. I am running and I can see the road ahead narrowing off into - where? What lies beyond the road except more road? And I can hear the patter of my own feet as they come down on the blacktop. Feel the heat radiating against my legs, and not just my legs, but everywhere really. The inescapable grasp of some awesome power. My God. The One I pray to before every run. The One to whom I offer up my daily sweat.

And after these visions comes the pain of the yearning, because, inevitably, the feelings turn physical and all I can do, as always, is go for a run.

Now, I've just finished watching a clip on YouTube. It is from the football movie, "Any Given Sunday." Al Pacino plays the coach of an NFL team, and towards the end of the movie, he and his team find themselves in an impossible situation: they are down and have little chance of coming back to win. During a locker room break (the locker room break, the typical sports movie Big Speech Moment), Pacino gathers his players and coaching staff around to deliver one last speech.

It's is one of the most stirring, powerfully affecting speeches I've ever heard in a sports movie partly because it avoids most of the sentimental traps typical for the genre (it still remains recognizably a Big Speech Moment) and partly because Pacino is still capable of delivering a tough, fine performance.

He talks about football being a game of inches, how when you find yourself in the depths of hell, when you are down and out, all you can do is fight to claw your way out, inch by inch. You have to be willing, he says, to fight and die for each inch.
Anyone who has suffered hard to get to where they want (need) to be knows, instinctively, what he means. It's not just about football. His words get under your skin and even deeper - they get down to the bone - because he is talking about life. He is talking about you and me and the game we all play.

I've come to realize how trivial and unimportant Badwater must seem to many (most) people. But surely there is something in your life that burns you up, consumes you. Surely you've wanted something so badly that you were willing to do anything to make it real. I think the desire to achieve - and eventually, the striving for that achievement - is what largely defines our characters. What we do defines who we are. What's your goal?

The goal should be something worth striving for. Something that gives us great satisfaction. Something more substantial and enriching than money, fame, or sex. Maybe the goal is to help others: that must be extremely satisfying. Maybe it's to climb a mountain or cross a desert. Maybe it's to be a good father or mother, a devoted wife or husband. Whatever the goal is, and there can and should be several in our lives, we should desire it passionately, and then strive for it inch by inch. Live for it and love it. And maybe one day we can look back and say, "I've done it. I've accomplished something worthwhile."

That must make for a good life.

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