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The Absurdity of What We Do

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There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?" – David Foster Wallace, 2005


My youngest brother graduates from high school this weekend. Among the many things that have been purchased for him as graduation gifts is a David Foster Wallace graduation speech--the text of which is online here--a speech that is especially difficult to read if you are a fan of Wallace, as it seems to serve as a post-suicide note that is both inspiring and profoundly sad. In the speech, Wallace touches on some of life's more trite instances and our tendency to ignore many things that are commonplace in our lives.

As runners our reality is one that revolves around an often-compulsive need to get out and feel the earth beneath our feet and just go. Sometimes doing so brings feelings of catharsis, other times you end up with misery--but the need is very real and often results in us doing things that are patently absurd. As it becomes more common, that absurdity slowly becomes less and less obvious and soon enough you find yourself pondering the intricacies of Bodyglide while you're driving home from the grocery store.

The things that we're driven to do--like rushing to sign up to have an opportunity to run fifty miles--can be quite silly. Objectively, if I want to run fifty miles I could build up to it and do it on my own, with a few strategically-placed water bottles and a friend to keep me company. Rather than do that I've set out 30+ weeks of training, bought a book, and mailed in (!!) an entry form and a $200 check to a race that I may very well not finish. More to the point I did all of these things voluntarily. Nobody is forcing me to do any of this.

At the time, all these things seemed pretty reasonable when I did each one step-by-step. When I discussed the idea with other runners, well, folks like y'all are encouraging and seem to understand the same sorts of things that I think I sort of understand about running. It makes sense, on some level. To nearly all of my friends--most of which are reasonable members of society--I sound legitimately batshit crazy. And really, I probably am; a lot of what we do is ridiculous.

But that's fine, as long as we're aware of it. Conversations with non-runners offer an opportunity to step back and think about why we put so much time and attention into running. They're difficult, but reaffirming.

This weekend, among other things, I'll inevitably end up discussing running with a family member or friend or whoever it is that I'm updating about what I've been up to since I graduated high school ten years ago. I'll have to explain what seems so obvious and so real and so essential to someone else who likely won't have a clue what I'm talking about. Hopefully these conversations will offer perspective and maybe just a little more clarity about why I end up out on the road at 6 am three times a week (hey, I've gone out three times this week, at least).

When I'm done talking, I'll probably have some water.