By Christopher Cudworth
The Chicago Marathon took place without a hitch on October 12, 2013. There were no reported incidents of terrorist activity. No threats to the crowds lining the start and finish lines. Spectators lined the course six people deep in many places, with crowds cheering wildly. It started with wheelchair racers followed by blind runners sharing the road with guides. Then came elite runners flipping past with featherlite strides. It was beauty in action all around, with helicopters parked above the skyscrapers under crystal clear blue skies. It was perfect weather for a marathon, 53 degrees at the start, and a predicted high in the 60s by the finish.
After watching our favorite runner pass by the 3-mile mark, our small group of fans moved west toward the half-marathon point near Union Station. As we took a shortcut up Adams Street a pair of police officers was putting handcuffs on a tall man with a British accent. We could hear him explaining to the officers that some sort of conflict that had taken place near the racecourse. Apparently someone had disagreed with his presence in a restricted zone, an argument ensued and the man tried to leave the scene. But the police were taking no chances. Anyone exhibiting any sort of suspect behavior was going to be apprehended and questioned at the Chicago Marathon, especially the wake of the terrorist bombings of the Boston Marathon.
Boston Strong and other causes
The echoes of the Boston Marathon tragedy were profound. There were plenty of runners wearing Boston Strong tee shirts, part of the show of solidarity that the spirit of the Boston Marathon would not be diminished even in the wake of the bombings last April 13, 2013.
The Boston Strong tee-shirt clan was far from alone. Today’s marathons play host to thousands of runners publicizing causes. At times the race itself seems an afterthought, for the marathon has come to symbolize the massive efforts to overcome disease, mental disorders and social ills of every kind. There’s almost no such thing as running the race for the sake of a good old accomplishment. But that’s not entirely true. Despite all the good will, it still comes down to putting one foot in front of the other. If you finish, you still get a medal to hang around your neck.
For all its apparent popularity, the marathon remains a tough event. You might not know from looking at the faces and strides of 45,000 people in the Chicago Marathon, but there is not some magic formula to running that far. You must train for months if you don’t want to blow up at 15, 20 or 25 miles into race. For these reasons the marathon is widely regarded as an allegory for perseverance. It is Greek in origin but almost biblical in proportion as to the test it exerts upon each and every soul who embarks on the journey. The marathon is either a humanistic and religious experience (or both) depending on your worldview. And it’s always changing.
The marathon in context
Perhaps what we really need to learn from the marathon we have not yet properly imagined. Not in its full context. Those of us who participate in such races are almost blissfully unaware of all that goes on behind the scenes to make the race happen. We run along slapping hands with the spectators who line the course, and bathe ourselves in their cheers. We welcome the applause and absorb the noise of cowbells and horns as if we were triumphantly entering a city just conquered.
Yet what we learned from the Boston bombings was that the race itself is an artifice. You cannot learn the true meaning of a marathon if you take it literally like some people do with stories from the Bible. Literalism strips all true meaning from the narratives we depend upon to define ourselves.
The real revelation comes from putting the race in context. Chicago (and New York or any other city…) hosts a marathon every year because it expresses the context of a great city. You pass through the city’s ethnic neighborhoods as if they were travels by the great Ulysses. The exoticism of these neighborhoods heightens the moral truth that struggle is universal.
Cosmopolitan flair and personal identity
Today’s marathon participants are cosmopolitan in every sense of the word. We see people dressed as Aztec Warriors with tall feathers protruding from their bonnet and applaud their celebration of personal heritage. Meanwhile spectators hoist flags from Poland, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Canada and Great Britain and runners from those heritages wave and cheer when they see them, and the crowd waves and cheers back
It’s all about personal identity, as all great allegories are. From zen to Christ and all points in between, faithful, agnostic to atheist, the search for meaning and identity is both fulfilling and cataclysmic.
Even the Book of Revelation for all its supposed prophetic symbolism is still a commentary on the very personal Armageddon we all face in the struggle of life and its end. The lives we lead are a persistent and continual test to adhere to the laws of our God or our moral foundations, and that goes for people of every background, culture and religion. There is no religion and no society that does not test our ability to abide by a code of morality. The marathon is a symbol of that, and whether you need a God by your side to complete it is a matter of very personal perspective. Yet we keep a faith just the same. A faith of perseverance. Hope. Good will. Inspiration.
Yet we sometimes mistake the moral marathon of our lives with the literal battle of good and evil and how that is supposed to bring about the end of the world. But truly, in the lack of such a great ending, what happens to the rest of us in the meantime? We run the race of our lives the best we can. The following bible verse from Hebrews 12:1 somewhat directly describes the experience of running a marathon:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…
Beginning of the End
In the end we meet our maker or the lack of one with a very personal admission that we have or have not lived our lives to the best of our abilities.
That is why incorporating some good into the reason for running a marathon seems so common these days. It is not considered good form to just run the marathon for yourself any more. That is why whole teams of individuals now sport tee shirts promoting one good cause or another.
We seem to almost automatically accept this premise as part of a new fabric or social foundation that keeps our selfish, narcissistic instincts at bay. You can now devote months of intensive personal training to a marathon and not feel selfish because along with the good feelings we generate by running for a charity we also supposedly acquire life skills that can be transferred to the workplace or politics or faith.
When a bomb goes off at a marathon, all those positively selfish aims get put aside for a moment because such a tragic event makes us realize the frailty of our own endeavors and perceptions. A glimpse of Armageddon has come calling. You don’t have to be religious to comprehend what it all means. Our individual lives are all we will ever have in this material existence. The singular nature of this prophecy is outlined in the Prologue of Revelation, Chapter 1:3: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”
The time is near. The time is always near. Never do we know that more clearly than when tragedy strikes that which is near and dearest to us. That tragedy might be cancer in someone we love. So we sport a tee shirt that says “Cancer Sucks” and run 26.2 very public miles to prove that we understand that lesson. We run for a cure. Or so we tell ourselves.
Yet some of us run 26.2 miles dribbling a pair of basketballs in an absurd act that patently illustrates a potentially absurd event. Both are symbols of a sort. But if we dismiss the symbolism entirely by taking everything we see too literally, what do we have left? Really, the world become patently meaningless without creativity, symbolism and an appreciation for both the expressive relief and the vitality of the absurd. Be aware but also accept that not everything in life means something. Sometimes dribbling a basketball 26.2 miles is just that. A commentary that means nothing.
We have choices to make. We can interpret our own acts literally and lose their meaning, and we can do the same with the prophecies of books like Revelation and use them to predictively condemn the world in order to appear righteous enough that we can suppose we know the will of God.
Or, we can focus on the significance of prophecy as a message for each of our individual souls and how to live our lives fully while we’re here.
No turning back?
Apocalyptic obsession is a religious psychopathy concerned more with the End Times than with making the most of our real time. It is also vindictive in its hopes for a payback against anyone judged to be against its authority.
Facing our limitations
So what does this all have to do with the marathon? To bring it full circle, we can consider the merits of personal revelation and how a marathon helps us understand both the unlimited potential of our being and the humanistic limitations of our material lives.
That seems like a contradiction until we get shocked into reality by events like the Boston Marathon bombings or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We see our fellow human beings placed in circumstances far beyond imagination of the potential horrors that face us every day.
The marathon helps us comprehend the concept that our time is always near. We put ourselves out there to feel alive and also to see how long we can last until we feel like we’re dying, literally and figuratively. That is the tarsnake of the marathon.
It is all an illusion of sorts, but an important illusion. I was reminded of that fact while commuting back out to the suburbs after a day of spectating at the Chicago marathon. While driving west on I-88 our vehicle pulled up next to a white truck emblazoned with the words EXPLOSIVE DETECTION K-9 TEAM.
The protectors of society know how great the illusion really is. We talk about heightened security at the Chicago Marathon and barely know the meaning of the planning that goes into it. Yet we don’t want to live in a “police state,” as they say. So we try to have it both ways. “Protect us,” we like to say. “But don’t show us that we need protection.”
The supposed revelations of gun nuts
The gun nuts want to arm everyone and their mother to ward off evil. Ironically, they also seem to hang with the type of people who believe in a literal Armageddon where Christ himself comes back to kick ass and take names. We confuse our legends too easily with our practical truths. Should we give guns to everyone in the marathon in case people in the crowd start shooting? You can see the illogic in their supposed logic.
The truth about safety and security is somewhere in between. We are not all naïve joggers, nor are we the Cat in the Hat who likes chaos and fails to appreciate the logistics of the marathon or its significance as a symbol of social cooperation and merits as an expression of the vitality of a city, its people and the visitors who come to run its streets.
We are one great community, yes. But we are also singularly alone as we run our respective races, for the time is near. The time is always near. We just don’t know when it will come, or how long it might take.
But we keep on running and we keep on cheering for those who do. That is otherwise known as keeping the faith, wherever it leads.