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being for the occasional musings on running by the author of the books


The pleasure of watching sports is rarely about the outcome and almost always about preparing yourself to appreciate moments of poignancy when they occur as they will without warning.

I was reminded of this and of track’s abiding virtue at a recent dual meet at the local high school. The winning runner in the girls 1,500m had crossed the line in about 5:40. I had clapped encouragingly alongside my wife and son and most of the fans in the sparsely populated bleachers. Some of the runner’s friends and classmates had called out her name as they cheered. Good for her. But as the second and third runners finished the stadium had returned to murmuring conversation punctuated by a regular and respectful applause for the trailing runners as they came across over the next minute or two.

It could have gone on winding down this way until the next race began, except that for anyone paying attention to the whole field there was still one runner with a full lap to go. She was so far behind it was as if she were in a different race. And, really, she might have been for all the chance she had to move up to even second from the back.

The real competition in track, you will sometimes hear, isn’t the field but the clock. But as pure as that claim may sound it’s still one step removed from the truth. You don’t need a clock. Your competition in track is yourself. Not your abstract self or your best-ever self but your actual self on a given day. The test of a race is whether you can rise to the challenge of performing the best possible version of yourself in that moment. Your effort must be your best—but best is always relative.

There was no pity in my tears for the last-place runner as she rounded the final curve. Because I have rounded a hundred final curves myself, because among the days when I have not done my best there have also been days when I have, because I was watching the race closely so that I might have some luck explaining it to my son, because the rest of the crowd had not entirely forgotten her, because moments of true appreciation are profound, because the gods sometimes bless us, I watched with pride as the last runner came down the homestretch.

After the race, I leaned over and told my son that what makes track special is that the runner who finishes last is doing the exact same thing as the runner who finishes first. It doesn’t get any better than that.

I turned forty and showed up for my physical ready to be surprised. But the prostate exam was nothing like these words out of my doctor’s mouth: “You should be taking your Albuterol before every run, especially this time of year.”

It’s not totally crazy. I have some breathing trouble. I have a prescription for a drug that relieves my breathing trouble. The logic nearly does itself: take the damn medicine.

But do I need it? Like, really need it? And if I don’t need it, how can I justify taking it? And so I fall once again into the bottomless pit of self-analysis.

Do I need Albuterol?

Clearly not. I’ve been running for almost twenty years since I was first prescribed Albuterol after being rushed to the hospital with a severe asthma attack. Except for in the aftermath of that event, when I was recovering, I haven’t taken the drug. I’m still running. I’m still alive. Therefore, I don’t need the drug.

But should I be taking it anyway?

Not dying is fine and well, but can I rightly stake a claim to something better for myself? What am I trying to prove to whom by not taking a drug that would make my life better? I take Tylenol and caffeine to make my life better, why not, too, Albuterol? What’s the difference?

Who am I?

I am a person who sometimes gets headaches. So: Tylenol. I am a person who enjoys enhancing my mental clarity. So: caffeine. I could go on in the direction of drugging to alter consciousness, but the point wouldn’t change: I do it because I like it.

Do I also like breathing easily?

I do. So, again, what’s the problem? While I don’t mind thinking of myself as a person who sometimes gets headaches, I do mind thinking of myself as asthmatic. I was in my twenties when I had the incident that resulted in my diagnosis of allergy-induced asthma. Because of that late age, I never internalized the diagnosis. I have always considered the whole episode to be more a fluke than something that refers to me in a meaningful way. In the same way I don’t think of myself as someone with vision trouble, even though I’ve been wearing glasses for fifteen years, I don’t think of myself as having asthma. Inside, I’m still young, breathing well, seeing 20/20.

The evidence suggests otherwise.

I know, I know.

So take the drug.

I want to.

What’s the problem?

I want to take it so that I will run faster.

You’ll run faster because your airways won’t be constricted anymore.

Maybe. Or maybe whatever state my airways would otherwise be in, Albuterol will open them. My performance will be improved relative to my previous performance, but it could also be that my performance would be improved relative to whatever “normal functioning airways” is supposed to refer to. My breathing is part of my running in the same way that someone else’s genetics are part of theirs. There is no clear distinction in my mind between taking a drug to treat a medical condition and taking a drug to enhance performance. Nor do I think any such distinction could ever be made any way but arbitrarily.

Don’t be such a philosopher. Your doctor wants you to take a drug so you won’t be wheezing after every run. Your wife worries when she hears the sounds your chest makes. Shut up and take the damn medicine.

I don’t think I’m being a philosopher here. I think I’m trying to say that it feels like cheating.

You literally have a doctor’s note.

It’s not that I don’t think my drug use would be medically warranted. It’s that, nevertheless, I would suspect myself of gaining an advantage that I could have declined to gain. And that feels to me like something a virtuous person would not do.

Did you really just say “virtuous person”?

I did. But I wouldn’t defend this sense of virtue on philosophical grounds. Quite the opposite. If I were being a philosopher here I’d first try to trouble the concept of natural as ambiguous to the point of meaninglessness. I’d point in the directions of individual difference, of uncertainty, of multiple causes and confounding variables, I’d point insistently in the direction of luck, I’d point to all those things. And in the end I’d still feel like I was cheating.

What do you attribute that to?

I should be a better philosopher. One with the courage of my convictions. But when I look deep within what I might call my soul I see this remnant of a long-dead religion: the conviction that to suffer voluntarily—to martyr myself—is to earn moral credit.

You really are sick.

Pass the Albuterol.

We don’t tell beginners

But the first mile

Is what every subsequent mile will be

One foot in front of the other

Like time itself

Marked by the entropy

Of your days

First your shoes

Then your knees or hips

Or back

When you began

Trusting that it would get easier

The faith of the long-distance runner

Rewarded by hours and miles


With the same tired doubts

You harbored in your youth

Saturating your flickering consciousness

Until necessity subsumes

The fibers of—

It’s okay, call it


What you are


Like the secret no one

Needed to tell

Your muscles

Exhale foot strike foot strike foot strike inhale

Foot strike foot strike exhale

It does get easier

—and harder

This running

For the joy of running

A million miles from here

If you’re lucky

You’ll be right where you are now

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