I recently ran a half marathon, which is 13.1 miles. This is the longest distance that I have ever run. I ran cross country and track all throughout high school, and workouts would foray into the ten mile range once in a while, but, as would soon be reinforced, that extra 3.1 is far from negligible. More to the point, the most I had run at once as a collegiate was only a tad over six, and this was nine days before the half marathon. What I am getting at is the following: this half marathon was a significant undertaking for which I was resoundingly underprepared.
I signed up for the event through Team U, an officially registered non-profit charity, but my main goal was to force myself to start running more. It had been a big part of my life for a long time, yet had become considerably less so since my senior year of high school. I missed it, and I wanted it to be part of my life again. (The health and fitness side effects, of course, are a more than welcome benefit.) In this sense, my signing up was neither a complete failure nor a success—I ran more than last year, but not nearly as much as I had wanted to.
As the race approached, however, it stopped being simply a means to an end. I realized I was going to actually have to run this thing.
I also was forced to examine my relationship (or lack thereof) with Team U. I had signed up through Team U because I had some friends in Team U who ran it last year and liked it, and also because being part of the team got me a discount on the entry fee and free transportation to Rutgers (where the race was held). But Team U isn’t just about running. The organization’s main goal is to fundraise for and spread awareness of Shoe4Africa, an organization that is building a public children’s hospital in Kenya.
This, for obvious reasons, is important. Of the 450 million children in sub-Saharan Africa, one in seven die before the age of five. The most common causes of death are diseases that would be treatable in developed countries. Yet the entire region has only one public children’s hospital, and it is in South Africa. Most sub-Saharan Africans are left without access to quality health care, and the whole continent suffers as a result. So Shoe4Africa (initially a small footwear-based charity) took on the project of building a hospital. According to their website, 100% of every donation goes directly towards construction and maintenance costs for the hospital itself.
For whatever reason, I didn’t really think about this when I signed up. I pride myself on responsible global citizenship, and I have always given to charity with fair regularity (even more so since taking Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics freshman fall). Yet I didn’t even bother doing research into Shoe4Africa until the week before the marathon. Maybe I felt like I had too many extracurriculars going on and didn’t want to mire myself in Team U as well. Maybe I thought Team U was for people who weren’t helping out in other ways (although the idea that I was already “doing enough” to fight global poverty is patently absurd). I set up a fundraising page when they told me to, and planned to get around to publicizing it later, but if anything I considered it a mild inconvenience. I had signed up to run.
It was the week before the half marathon when I finally got around to attending a Team U meeting. Team U’s leaders spent most of the time discussing race logistics (when the bus would leave, what to eat before and after, how much to sleep, etc.), which I found rather exciting. Then, at the end, organization founder Joe Benun gave a spiel on the importance of fundraising. He didn’t say much, just reinforced that this wasn’t about how fast we could run, but what that run could accomplish. There was an earnest passion in his voice that moved something in me (and made me ashamed of my past indifference). Chastened but inspired, I returned home to find out more about Shoe4Africa, and what I found confirmed that it deserves my money (and, while we’re on the subject, yours). I personally donated and then posted the fundraising page to my Facebook and Twitter, accompanied by long-winded but heartfelt explanations of the cause. I sat back and waited for the money to flow in.
While the flow wasn’t exactly a deluge, I was a reasonably successful fundraiser, thanks to generous family members and a handful of particularly large-hearted friends. Overall, Team U was successful as well—on the last day we finally surpassed our original $5000 goal, and in addition were awarded two large novelty checks (with accompanying regular-sized checks) by the half marathon’s sponsors totaling $1500 for our size and speed. I feel good about what we were able to accomplish.
Although the rhetoric of charity has grown clichéd (change the world, make a difference, every little bit helps, etc.), I continue to be amazed by the fact that—due to the efforts of Team U—there will be a hospital in Kenya sooner than there would be otherwise. Seriously, how cool is that? I have no delusions about having singlehandedly solved global health, but whatever miniscule effect I may have had is empowering. As the seventy or so Team U members in our matching shirts lined up amongst the thousands of others, I felt like I was a part of something special.
As it turns out, so did the other thousands. A significant portion of the runners were wearing Boston-related regalia, and in fact Team U gave us ribbons to pin to our shirts in solidarity with those affected in that marathon. I was more than okay with all of this; what happened in Boston is sad, and to a runner the act of running can be a near-spiritual experience, so an attack on that experience is scary and unsettling. But then the race organizers started dispersing thousands of American flags, which got me rankled. Everyone was happily embracing what to me was a disturbing notion: the idea that what happened in Boston deserves more attention because it happened to Americans (and, specifically upper-middle class Americans—marathoning is not predominantly a hobby for the poor. For further evidence, observe that gun violence only reaches the national spotlight when it spills into the world of affluent whites, despite the fact that it has plagued inner cities for decades. But I digress).
I understand why Boston receives such attention, and I do not want to take away from the tragedy of the event. So I held my tongue when, on the night of the bombings, dozens were killed in an earthquake at the Pakistan-Iran border and no one sent prayers via Twitter. I did not bristle at the lack of notice given to election-related violence in Iraq and Venezuela that week. More to the point, I refused to be resentful that the response to the Boston-related statuses of my peers dwarfed the response to my plea for donations to Shoe4Africa by a margin comparable to that by which the number of deaths in Africa each and every day dwarfs the number of deaths in a thousand Boston bombings.
I know it was Patriot’s Day, and I know the event had important cultural implications. Yes, Boston was a big deal. But there are so many other big deals every day; is it insensitive to focus exclusively on the one that affected mainly people the most similar to you? Or maybe I am the one being insensitive. After all, if one reacted proportionately to all tragedies one would live in a state of constant depression. It would be impractical and impossible to respond equally to every tragedy, as they are always happening. So perhaps I should just be happy that people are reacting to something; perhaps I should be moved by this triumphant reminder that yes, humans can be empathetic, caring creatures. Is my own lack of a strong reaction to Boston a sign that I’ve been deadened, desensitized to tragedy; has the world made a cynic out of me already? The three most publicized tragedies of the last year—Aurora, Sandy Hook, and now this—took place in the three closest things I have to a sacred place: a movie theater, a school, and a footrace. Shouldn’t these be able to affect me?
But when I saw people waving those American flags I couldn’t stop my mind from drifting to Pakistan, a country which, like us, has seen its civilians terrorized by explosions, except some of these explosions are US government-ordered drone strikes, and how can we live with our hypocrisy? I don’t know the answers to these questions—in writing this I am not trying to make a statement about drone policy, sensationalism in the news, human nature, proper response to tragedy, or anything of the sort. I certainly have thoughts on these, but I do not know if I am right or wrong. I am simply trying to convey that I was, and am, confused. The moments before the race were not the first time that I had had such thoughts—they come upon me every couple months, and often I am overwhelmed: I cannot think, I cannot focus, because hundreds of thousands of people will die that day, many more are sick, many more are hungry, many more are fighting in pointless wars, and I cannot stop it and nobody seems to care. I pull at my hair and I stress and I buy malaria nets on impulse because someone has to goddammit and I grow frustrated and angry. I am not sure this is healthy, and I was worried that this race would be spent in such a distressed frame of mind.
But then, and this is going to sound cheesy but it is the truth, I looked down at my shirt, my Team U shirt, which is bright blue and has big bubbly letters and a cartoon drawing of Earth. It also had the Boston ribbon pinned to it. And my stomach unknotted itself. My breathing steadied. My head cleared. I was running for Boston. I was also running for the hundreds who died in a Chinese earthquake the day before the race. I was running for Venezuela and Iraq and Iran and Pakistan and Sandy Hook and Aurora and victims of gang violence and yes, I was especially running for sub-Saharan Africa and that region was foremost in my thoughts, but really I was running for this whole freaking planet. I felt like Tom goddamn Joad.
I realized that yeah, there are a lot of awful things in this world, and the human brain is literally incapable of processing all of them. So we all react in different ways, none of which can be justified rationally but that doesn’t make them less valid. Personally, what keeps me sane is the beautiful reality that I am not powerless to make some tiny portion of those things slightly less awful. The run itself was a formality—the money had already been raised, it would go to the same place whether or not I finished, and nobody would know exactly what I was running for (unless I explicitly laid it out in an article several days later). But it meant something to me, and I almost felt bad for those who were “only” running for Boston, as worthy a cause as that might be. They had a whole city pushing them along, a strong, vibrant city to be sure, but I stood tall on the shoulders of an entire world. There was an Earth on my chest, and I wore it proudly.
And then something even more magical happened: the race began, and everything melted away. It was a full four minutes before I even crossed the starting line—I had started near the back of the five-thousand-person pack—and I spent the first mile or two at a relatively slow jog just trying to weave my way around the milling masses. I normally don’t respond well to being enveloped in a large crowd, but I found this strangely exhilarating. By the third mile I had fallen into the pace that I hoped to maintain throughout the whole race, but I kept on passing people.
At the four-mile mark I noticed I had continued to speed up. By mile six—which, if you’ll recall, tied the longest distance I had run in nearly two years—I had reached a groove that was at a considerably faster clip than I had planned. It felt incredible.
You have probably heard the term “runner’s high,” and it is possible you have experienced it. I occasionally would in my younger years—a run where I felt I could go on forever, filled to the core with warmth and excitement. I am not sure if I have ever felt it to the extent that I did between miles five and ten, however. I was in complete control. My body was entirely the slave of my mind, my legs would do whatever I wanted, and what I wanted was to feel the wind in my face, to blow by the people in front of me, to move, move, move. I was completely in tune with myself, and my being connected with the road at my feet, with the racers around me, with the grass, with the birds, the squirrels, the sky.
Everything in existence was working in concert so that I might know how it feels to fly. A grin plastered itself across my face that I could not wipe off. It occurred to me that I might never have been so happy, and as I reflected on the greater mission of Team U, I decided I had never felt so proud. In retrospect I don’t know if this is true, but I believed it in that moment, and the thought nearly brought me to tears of pure joy as I ran. There are times when I have run considerably faster than I did on that day, but this sensation was more intense than any of those. I do not hesitate to call the first ten miles of that race among the greatest eighty-five minutes of my life.
And then, as is the case with most highs, came the crash. I felt it coming throughout the tenth mile but I thought I could push through. Just 3.1 more, I was almost there. Yeah, right. My legs, which I had betrayed unforgivably by thrusting this two-hour beating upon them out of nowhere, promptly mutinied, deciding they had given all they could ever give. They screamed at me with each step, in each long, excruciating moment of those last three miles. I thought maybe adrenaline would carry me through as the finish approached, but no dice. The pain coursing through my muscles brought me even closer to tears than my bliss had, and I hesitate even less to call the last 3.1 miles of that race among the worst thirty-four minutes of my life. (You mathematically-minded folk out there might notice a drastic change in pace between the two segments—this is not an exaggeration.) It seemed that, of the literally thousands who I had passed up to that point, nearly all of them passed me back.
The misery did not end with the finish. As I dazedly entered a line for food, my muscles cooled down and I became painfully conscious of the fact that it was cold and windy and my shirt was soaked through with sweat and my dry outer layers were stored in a truck and I’d have to wait in a goddamn line to retrieve them and oh wait, when I got my pasta salad there was chicken in it even though there’s a lot of people who run half marathons who don’t eat meat and no, that yogurt you’re offering is not a viable alternative because I’m a vegan and oh god my legs oh god it’s cold oh god I’m hungry and did I really run the last two miles that slowly?
Yet somewhere in that muddled cacophony of complaints was one more thought: I cannot wait to do another one. This is the part that makes non-runners look at me like I’m certifiably insane, but it’s true—the high was worth the low. At the pre-race meeting Joe Benun had warned us to prepare to be addicted to half marathons, and I had written this off as silly; little did I know how apt the language of drug use would be to describe my experience. Assuming I have a better training strategy (read: any training strategy at all), I may actually be able to avoid the crash, which would be wonderful. More importantly, now that I know what I am doing, now that I am committed, I will have the time and energy to put more effort into fundraising.
I do not think that what I did was exceptional. A lot of people run half marathons. A lot of people raise money. But I think part of Team U’s appeal is the conflation of improving global health with improving one’s own personal health, through exercise. We are able to better the lives of others not at a cost to ourselves, nor even at a net neutrality, but at a benefit. There is no better feeling.
Running might have an even deeper connection to charity, though. As I described, running can be an almost out-of-body experience that leaves the runner connected to and immersed in his or her environment. This sense of connection and power evokes that which I felt looking at the cartoon Earth on my shirt.
At all times I exist within a certain framework—I am one member of a species of seven billion in a gigantic universe that probably doesn’t care about any of us, which is kind of a lot to think about. But the half marathon allowed me to shrink that framework into something I could comprehend. The joy I felt in passing people did not derive from competitiveness, but from the notion that, in the living system of the race, I played a dynamic role. The race didn’t just happen to me; I was happening to it. Altruistic actions are my way of extending this dynamism to my place in the universe at large. This claim is perhaps presumptuous—or at least blithely naïve—and a part of me fears that my selfless desire to help others is being co-opted by the selfish desire to wield influence.
These concerns, however, are mainly the result of countless hours of over-analyzing, only a small portion of which is reproduced above. At the end of the day, I did something good and I felt good doing it, so I should probably just shut up and let it keep happening. My runner’s high was a magnificent, scintillating reassurance that what I do has consequence, that, although I am just a small, insignificant part in a much larger system, once in a while everything comes together and, even just for a few miles, I can take control.