The Runner and the Arbitrary Line

When we think about running, the thought of the finish line is not far behind. This is because the runner often runs as training, in order to prepare for a race. And in such a race, the route is not self-determined, not set to every runner’s individual preference. Rather, there is a specified starting point and finishing line. And to finish the race, you must cross said line; thus you are running towards a particular destination. This notion of running to meet a specific goal has the potential for utilitarian implications, but that is the subject for a future post. What I’m interested in discussing today is how this idea of the finish line can translate to individual running, to a running that is not goal-oriented.

I have only participated in a couple of races over the course of my life, and none of them recent. There are some things that linger in my mind from these occasions: the mounting tension and excitement before the starting horn, the spirit of camaraderie and the cheering supporters. I have been one of these cheering supporters far more frequently than I have been a runner receiving this support. As a spectator at races in which my father and brother were running, I felt some of the same feelings (though with none of the discomfort or energy expenditure involved in actual running). There were nerves as I waited for a familiar face to appear around the last bend, there was a surge of pride as I watched them cross the finish line. But as I run on my own, often without a watch and not training for anything in particular, is the idea of the race in any way applicable?

Personally, I think the idea can still be a very powerful one, regardless of whether or not it aligns with external circumstances. I started thinking about and reflecting on this recently, during a difficult run. Near the end of my usual route, I felt my chest tightening and then burning, interfering with regularity in my breathing cycle. As my body urged for release from this pain, I set my eyes on my normal stopping point. I was on the sidewalk, parallel to the road, and the pavement stretched out before me like a long and narrow river. From afar it seemed as though this stretch would end sooner, but it did not. Like some optical illusion, the sidewalk kept unfolding, extending, infuriating my weary legs. In the distance, almost at the end of this straightaway, there was a tree, and the tree cast onto the pavement a horizontal strip of shade. Somehow or other, this became my finish line.

Why? I really don’t know. Like I said before, I was not wearing a watch and I had not planned out my route beforehand. As a result, I had no idea if this line of shade marked exactly four kilometres or 3.9 or 4.1 or some other entirely random number. That’s the thing- the line was completely arbitrary. In and of itself it meant nothing, and there was no reason- absolutely none- that I should have to adhere to my proposed running-to-walking threshold. There were no witnesses around to hold me accountable to my decision. There was no one to cheer if I reached it and no one to look down if I did not.

And yet I kept running. Although there were voices that tried to dissuade me from meeting my goal (“You’re tired today”; “You haven’t run in a while”; “It’s hot outside right now”), I ran until I crossed the line of shade, my arbitrary finish line. And if it was meaningless, if it was “all the same,” why did it feel like such a triumph not to stop a few feet early, instead crossing my imaginary self-determined end point?

In those few feet I think there is an ocean of difference. Setting that finish line is not meaningless; it is profoundly important. In doing so, I entered into an agreement with myself. It is our tendency to privilege the external: those things that we see documented and validated by many. Herein lies our desire for the approval of other people, and the subtle lie (often unknowingly accepted) that an act or accomplishment only has value if it is shared with or known by others. While the runner who finishes a race receives a medal and affirmation from a crowd, as well as a few photos snapped at the scene, the solitary runner with his arbitrary line also meets his goal and also “finishes.” This is not meant in any way to diminish or demean the great accomplishment of the racer. However, it is both a caution and an invitation, for the racer, the casual jogger, and also for everyone else.

It is a caution not to lose the intrinsic value or individual motivation of an act. If we focus too much on external pressures and extrinsic motivators, our self may slip entirely out of the equation. Thus we act to be seen and judged as good; we also lose the ability to motivate ourselves. It is an invitation, because we are invited to set goals, to reach them and to celebrate self-progress, not merely because it is quantifiable, documented or earning us something tangible, but because of the joy and the good of the act itself. When I crossed my arbitrary finish line, I really felt as if I had accomplished something. I was proud, I was happy, and I felt my confidence growing, along with an awareness of my own strength and power. These are all good things (despite their invisibility), and because of my solitary state, I was able to enjoy them more purely, detached from expectations, from other people and from thoughts of my image.

The determination of the finish line was within myself, but in another way it was between me and God. Being able to stick to this goal, which was only formulated internally, is a very powerful thing, and can translate to other areas of life. Too often we get caught up in doing things only for instrumental purposes: to get something or to attain a certain end. Taken too far, the ramification of such a mentality is that we will only do things or consider an act worthwhile if it can be seen, appreciated, if other people tell us to do it, or if we will get something quantifiable out of doing it. As a result, the Good and the True are no longer at the centre of our actions and we lose a certain uniqueness and power in our own selfhood, because we do not take the motivation or desire to do something from within or from our own individual principles or ideas.

All this to say, i think it is good to set goals and to stick to them. Of course there is the need for flexibility (as for moderation in all things), but the ability to motivate ourselves and to place this self-motivation and sense of intrinsic value above external motivation and extrinsic value, is one that I think can really affect our lives in a positive way, allowing us to rediscover the dignity and uniqueness of self.