The Spiritual Life of Long-Distance Runners

In a recent New Yorker article, Adam Alter explores the psychological and spiritual motivations of ultra-marathon runners, that is, people who run distances longer than the conventional marathon (26.2 miles) in races that sometimes last hundreds and even thousands of miles.  Alter, who is associate professor of marketing at the Leonard Stern School of Business, where he also has an affiliated appointment in the psychology department, asks the “obvious question,”  why would someone choose to do this?

But the really interesting question is, why would professor Alter want to know?

After all, the questions we ask reveal a lot about who we are and what we seek.

In his search for the answer, “why,” Alter turns to fellow psychologists, who provide some thoughts on motivation and happiness (although as scientists, their answers help little with questions of spirituality).  He talks about Sri Chinmoy, the spiritual leader who founded a modern self-transcendence movement and organized ultramarathons of up to 3,100 miles.  And he interviews a handful of experienced ultra-runners.

But the crux of the article comes when he acknowledges that the question itself is likely unanswerable:

I’ve yet to meet an ultrarunner who doesn’t find the experience to be, in some sense, spiritual. Still, billions of people have spiritual feelings without courting great physical hardship—and there are ways of understanding ultrarunning that don’t depend on spirituality.

— Adam Alter, “The Spiritual Life of The Long-Distance Runner”

In other words, the spiritual life of a long-distance runner might not be different from that of a non-runner.  Or, alternatively, the spiritual life of one ultra-runner might be totally different from that of another ultra-runner.  If there’s not a distinctive correlation between ultra-running and spirituality, then Alter’s question “why” becomes pointless:  it’d be like trying to draw a regression line through a cloud of random data.

As an analyst, I’m left wondering why ask a question that can’t be answered?

This doesn’t mean Alter’s article isn’t interesting.  My favorite part is when he turns to his own experience.  He’s preparing for the NYC marathon with a 22-mile training run, when after two hours, he’s surprised to find himself “running strong,” and not only that, but also feeling “suddenly elated.”

For the first time that day, I stopped paying attention to my ragged breathing; instead, I enjoyed the view of distant blue peaks across deep, green ravines… I’m not a religious person, but that was, without doubt, a spiritual moment in my running career. It’s the only time I can remember feeling guided by something larger than myself.

— Adam Alter, “The Spiritual Life of The Long-Distance Runner”

Alter goes on to quote a few more psychologists, but by the end of the essay, he’s moved away from the question of spirituality, and is now asking about the “search for meaning” (although, this is just rephrasing the original question with a different set of words).

I’m still curious:  what is he looking for?

Finally,  he answers my question:

In the developed world, many of us spend the vast majority of our lives in a comfortable equilibrium.  That comfort allows us to focus on issues that might seem trivial to people who struggle to survive. We wonder when to upgrade our smartphones, contemplate a second helping of dessert, and ask ourselves if we should run four or five miles tomorrow morning.  Faced with a string of these superficial decisions, many people become introspective. They begin to question whether their lives are meaningful.

— Adam Alter, “The Spiritual Life of The Long-Distance Runner”

The “comfortable equilibrium” is the basis for our modern industrial-technological society, and it’s a great trade-off if the freedom from discomfort allows you to focus on really important goals.  But it’s not a good thing if it leaves you physically and morally weak, afraid of pain, and unable to mount a major effort in pursuit of your dreams.  That condition is what existentialist philosophers refer to as a state of “alienation.” It’s when you discover that you’ve spent your life plugged into The Matrix, being secretly manipulated while resting in a comfortable state of ignorance.

Philosophers have been warning about the perils of comfort since the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans of Ancient Greece.  These warnings were repeated by 19th-century American Transcendentalists, like Henry David Thoreau and his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who worried that modern people have lost their “aboriginal strength”:

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” 1841

Now that I understand where professor Alter is coming from, I’ve got a question of my own:  why are certain people so curious about the spirituality of ultra-runners?  Could it be that these people have too much comfort in their lives and not enough meaning?

Because when we ask a question about other people, we’re really searching for something within ourselves.

Having made this point, however, now I have to anticipate that professor Alter will have a question for me:  why am I curious about people who are curious about ultra-runners?

The answer is, I need to make sure that every mile I run is truly meaningful.

The Spiritual Life of Long-Distance Runners

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