Again to Carthage

November 25, 2012

Several years ago — well before my own recent two-year sabbatical from serious running — I read Again to Carthage, John L. Parker Jr.’s sequel to Once a Runner.

It’s a bigger book than Once a Runner, and less focused on running. There’s a lot of stuff about Vietnam, for example. But amidst the multilayered richness of the story, I found myself caring mostly about one issue: why did protagonist Quenton Cassidy, whose athletic retirement seemed so permanent in Once a Runner, return to elite competition?

The answer comes in a letter written by Cassidy to his old flame, Andrea.

There was one thing I did miss… It’s strictly a runner thing, I think…

What it was was this: when you’re a competitive runner in training you are constantly in a process of ascending.

That’s it.

It’s a simple idea, but the more I thought about it, the more profound it became to me.

It’s not something most human beings would give a moment of consideration to, that it is actually possible to be living for years in a state of constant betterment. To consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or a year ago, and that you will be better still tomorrow or next week or at tournament time your senior year. That if you’re doing it right you are an organism constantly evolving toward an agreed-upon approximation of excellence. Wouldn’t that be at least one definition of a spiritual state?

In rereading this passage now, I find it close to the truth, but not quite right.

Striving for continuous improvement is indeed “ennobling,” as Cassidy writes a bit later in the letter. But the striving per se isn’t as unique to running as the character and perhaps the author believe.

Running is special because you can test yourself whenever you want, and you can quantify your performance with exceptional convenience, clarity, and accuracy.

Yes, there are variables that can complicate the analysis somewhat: weather, terrain, competition, etc. But we can account for these variables much more easily than we can account for, say, the impact of the other members of one’s soccer team or sales team. And we can quantify overall performance directly, rather than using partial indicators like “goals scored” or “number of new customers.”

The ability to make frequent, meaningful measurements is important to me as I start working my way back into shape. I haven’t run this slowly since 2003 (the last time I was returning from an Achilles injury), but I can chart my progress easily and convincingly, and be encouraged by it.

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