I’LL BEGIN BY SAYING that I am politically to the hard left of centre, and that from the first I read of him, I recognized that Paul Ryan represented the opposite of most, if not all, of the values I hold dear. Regardless of that, it has no bearing at all on the level of my contempt for the man on learning he lied about running a sub-three-hour marathon.
We need to get the political angle out of the way, because this isn’t about politics. If Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Ralph Nader had lied about a marathon time, I’d feel the same disgust: the loathing of one distance runner for another who doesn’t get that a road race is run against one’s self.
Like most runners, I’m not competitive—in the traditional sense—in a road race. If I compete at all, it’s only with the hope of beating my previous time for that distance. So far I’ve run two official half-marathons (not counting distances run on my own time), along with a few 10ks; my times have always been in the bottom quarter of finishers. That’s perfectly fine by me: if you’re an elite you might run for the possibility of winning, but the other 10,000 of us run road races for the experience of taking to the streets as part of a mass of humanity, cheered on by those who know what we’re going through or can’t imagine it, to test ourselves against ourselves. You run, obviously, in the hope of hitting your PR, or you run to prove to yourself that you’ve healed from an injury, or best the challenge of the distance, or to feel good. You don’t run because it’s a competition against the people around you—if you did, how would you feel about coming in with the top 10%, knowing there’s still 1,000 people faster than you?
My friend Eric is the fastest runner I know: he qualified for Boston with a 3:10 marathon, and leading up to that time he trained every day for months, frequently running more than 20k daily for many consecutive days. He’d take the bus to the edge of town and run back; on the coldest days of winter he’d appear at my door, a long way from his house, with ice in his eyebrows and the fabled “third sock” in his running pants, to ask me for a glass of water or chocolate milk at his halfway point before he headed home. In training to qualify for Boston, Eric worked as hard as I’ve seen anyone work, running in all weather and always loving it, full of a passion as pure has his determination to do his best. When I trained for my half-marathons, I worked hard as well, keeping an eye on my pace and my distance, readying myself for the challenge of 21k even as I knew that the full-meal deal was precisely twice as long, and knowing that the reward for doing even the half-marathon would be the experience itself.
That, there, is what I don’t get about Paul Ryan and his contrived sub-three-hour marathon. The man actually ran something over four hours, which puts him closer to my pace than it does to Eric’s. Faster than I’d most likely run it, actually. And there’s no problem with that kind of time: finishing a marathon at all is a respectable task, one that many extremely fit runners find is all they can hope for when they hit the wall (as Eric did in Boston after he drove himself too hard up the infamous Newton Hills). My father reminds me when we talk about distance running that the guy the race memorialises dropped dead immediately thereafter, so aspiring to that kind of distance is already a fairly superhuman feat. Anyone I know who’s run a marathon maintains it as a point of pride in a discussion that takes place entirely with themselves, about what they’re capable of and how far they’re willing to go to prove privately their ability to excel.
Runners tend to attract one another. At parties, we corner ourselves off and talk about pace and gear, the barefoot question, stretching or not, and upcoming races. When we talk pace, we do so knowing that what’s good for me may be too slow for you, but even within the range of possibility for each of us, each pace has its plusses and minuses. Nine years ago, when I began running, I used to go out sometimes with my friend Nic; today, Nic runs over a minute per kilometre faster than me, but I’d never rate my half-marathon time against his. The only worry I’d have is that if we ran together, he’d feel I was holding him back, or I’d feel that I was. We each understand that the point is to run one’s own race.
But Paul Ryan thinks a marathon is mainly a race against other people, and he lied about how well he did in it—reminding me of no one more than Kim Jong Il, who used to report hitting multiple holes-in-one in golf games. It’s not just the dishonesty that pisses me off: it’s that he misses the point of running entirely. The race is against yourself, guy. Go out there and run your own damned race. Run it knowing the human body was designed by evolution to run long distances, and that in running we are engaged in one of the most fundamentally human activities we can manage. Run in such a way as to accelerate the extent to which you feel yourself existing: run until you recognize the machination of the body like an engine beneath you, until you’re floating, the endorphins scrambling your thoughts and your sense of motion totally reduced to being unable to stop until you’ve crossed the finish, had your chip cut, and got your medal and bagel. Run because it feels damned good. If you’ve trained hard then maybe you’ll PR, even if you don’t, you’ve still earned the after-race poutine or onion rings (or both).
But only assholes—regardless of their position on the political spectrum—run because they imagine someone’s watching them and paying attention to their pace and gun-time. They’re the type of people who, in spite of training diligently to achieve their own goals, instead want credit for the hard work and discipline of someone like Eric. Ryan was an athlete growing up: he ran track in high school. In his life, he seems to have run only one marathon. I don’t at all believe that he forgot what his time was and imagined he’d come in 50% faster than he had: I think he was making it up, and that provokes nothing other than contempt in me. If that’s how the man imagines distance running is supposed to work, on how many other things has he missed the point entirely?