Enlightenment versus Romanticism and Marathon Training

Is marathon training a product of the Enlightenment, the age of reason, or is it more a result of romanticism, seeking nature and intuitive feeling?  In the era of the Enlightenment, men, well almost only men due to the circumstances of the time, were not likely to be out running for sport or athleticism.  Descartes did not write, “curro, ergo sum”, or “I run, therefore I am.”  He did write “Cogito, ergo sum”, or “I think, therefore I am.”  Who were the famous people of the Enlightenment?  Sir Isaac Newton stands out.  His laws of motion laid the basis for centuries of physics study and they may say something about running.  A body in motion tends to stay in motion, while a body at rest tends to stay at rest.  A lot can be read into that statement, beyond the mere physics.  One pictures a runner who needs to get out daily and run or his or her day is not complete, versus the person lying on the divan waiting for divine intervention to get moving.  The second law states that the force exerted on an object is equal to its mass times acceleration.  Another way to look at that is the acceleration equals the force divided by the mass, meaning the lower the mass, the greater the acceleration.  So, when you lose weight, and get into running trim, less force is needed to get up to speed.  His third law about equal and opposite actions may be more applicable to ice hockey than running.  Other famous individuals include Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant and John Locke.  They wrote about individual liberties, blending logic, reason and empirical knowledge, and religious freedom.  They represented those who felt selling indulgences was not the way to heaven, which began with Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  I read this as one cannot buy himself into anything that takes dedication, work and time, never mind the implications to organized religion.  Our own Ben Franklin was a great thinker, inventor, writer, politician and leader.  He was not a runner, as far as I can tell.  He was part of the Enlightenment, and his words and works had great impact in his time and forward.  A reading of famous quotes from Poor Richard’s Almanac provides the curious with plenty of sayings to thinku about while running solo on a 20 miler.  Here’s a taste:  “The noblest question in the world is:  What good can I do in it?”  We’ll return to that thought.

How do romanticism and running relate?  Romanticism followed the age of reason, as a reaction to the scientific and industrial advances which seemed to obliterate the beautiful, natural and emotional.  To a scientist, Maxwell’s equations were beautiful, but to Lord Byron, beauty was found in nature, love, turmoil, adventure, and pleasure.  George Gordon Byron, called “Lord” because at age 10 he inherited the lordship of Byron, was born of a profligate father named Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, a rogue and scoundrel who apparently had anger problems.  Lord Byron, a most famous figure of the romantic era, who wrote “She walks in beauty”, and a wealth of other poems, long poems, satires and tales, was an athlete and warrior.  This was in addition to being a lover, adventurer, cad, and debtor.  He was known for boxing and equestrian skills, and played cricket.  Many other authors, poets, musicians, and artists, including Jane Austen, Delacroix, Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley, who penned “Frankenstein”, defined this era.  Romanticism meant defying order, industrial progress, rigid attachment to religion and social norms, and seeking the whole of natural and human experience.  Does this sound like a marathon runner?  In many ways, I think it fits.  We train under all sorts of adverse conditions, from the sweltering heat of summer to the icy roads of winter.  We train in the dark, and in the rain.  We gather at the local pub to swap running stories while downing pints of beer.  Our goals may be ephemeral, enjoying the training as much as the racing.  We are smitten by the beauty of our co-runners, their form and grace.

When training for a marathon, we are drawn in by plans which prescribe the length, the pace and the frequency of our runs.  There are competing programs, and some swear by one while others will follow a different program.  Some, like scientists in a lab, will try different programs and measure success by the outcome of their latest race.  We use the latest technology of the day, GPS, Garmins, heart rate monitors, and smartphone apps.

Counter to this is the marathoner who just wants to finish the race and is not so concerned about a Boston Qualifier.  This is the runner who gets in the zone, and is focussed on the Zen of the run.  He or she is still facing the great challenge of 26.2 miles, a long run, but who eschews technology and goes for the feel.

Regardless of one’s perspective, what good can we do?  Does running a marathon help mankind or is it a personal indulgence so inwardly focussed to be useless to society?   This question could be fodder for pages of argument, but not here.  I would say it is both a personal indulgence and a way to enhance life experiences for many.  It keeps us fit.  It engages us socially, away from the desk and computer.  With the enormous growth in popularity of marathon running, it has become an economic boon for many cities.  I’ve been impressed and amazed by the support given by the crowds lining the course.  I think marathon runners set a great example of dedication to the supporters, who in turn provide us with encouraging cheers and clever signs to make it across the finish line.  My readers can let me know whether Enlightenment or Romanticism best represents the marathon runner, but ultimately, it is a noble effort.

Note 1:  Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, was an example of Enlightenment wrapped in Romanticism, designing the first type of algorithm used in an early type of computing machine.

Note 2:  the header photo shows Lord Byron’s scrawled name in a pillar in the dungeon of the Chateau de Chillon, where he was inspired to write “The Prisoner of Chillon”, photo by the author.

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