Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why I Race

With one of my target races for the year coming up this Sunday (coinciding with the beginning of the semester, which sounded like a good idea at the time), I thought I'd post an edited version of this slightly long musing I came up with last year. Because it really is a musing, I've not taken the obvious next step of annotating with references to the economic literature on search costs or cognitive psychology literature on decision-making.

This has been a big racing year for me. My wife Patricia once asked (perhaps hiding her exasperation) what I get from running races. I lined up to start the Austin marathon in 2009 and thought it over. What was I hoping for when the starting gun sounded?

I get from a race singleness of mind and purpose. For the time I am running, I have no purpose in life, no goal, no raison d’etre, but to finish the race. When the gun sounds, I have ahead of me more than three hours of none of the complications or worries of life.

It only works in a marathon, or, I suppose, something longer. I think the task has to be daunting enough that no brain space is left for anything else. Running shorter isn’t easier, but it requires less mental effort, or at least mental effort exerted for a lesser period of time. There is room for worries to slip in. There’s the rub, too. If I do it too much, will the marathon cease to be a substantial enough event?

I found myself discussing the military with another. He said he could see the attraction of joining up. That was a startling revelation. S_____ is quite free-willed. I think I would struggle under the constrictions of military life. He would be a disaster. I told him so. He was serious, though. The military offered something attractive. What was it? Maybe the same thing: singleness of mind and purpose. In the military, like the three-plus hours after the starting gun in a race, there is nothing to do but the task at hand. Never do you have to decide, for yourself, where you will go, how you will eat, where you will sleep, or who you will follow. Complications of life are shut out. (I haven’t talked about going to prison, but I suppose that fits, too.)

If the military serves this purpose, why should the luxury be limited to those in uniform? Does it not apply to the populace at large? What if we did not need to run marathons to remove complications from our lives? What if the government did that for us? Of course, I am describing a totalitarian regime. I am discussing the Soviet Eastern Bloc or the fundamentalist Muslim world. There is empirical support for the idea of totalitarianism as utopia. When capitalism entered Eastern markets in the 1990s, consumers were overwhelmed by choice. Some believed it was not a good thing. Why should they decide what cereal to buy – wasn’t that an unnecessary complication? If choice were removed for us, a necessary corollary is that bad choices would go away. (Knowing I am starting to sound like a certain law professor-cum-regulator, I’ll wrap things up.) Lack of choice doesn’t mean circumstances are optimal, it just means the energy spent worrying about it is placed elsewhere.

I have now come a long way from running marathons, I realize. I don’t think extinguishing choice is a solution. But I voluntarily do that to myself with regularity. I enter the place where the only way to go is forward, and the only thing to do is to run. These were my thoughts, that day in Austin. My thoughts on the run.

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