Following the crowd of unique people

When I picked up the Spiegel on my way back from Berlin, the title story was about the increasing popularity of “extreme sports“. Apparently, mountain biking, climbing, surfing and base jumping all come into this category; although personally I’d put base jumping into the “unusual suicides” category. The article was about the way that people want to differentiate themselves by going through increasingly grueling physical challenges, like the ludicrous Marathon des Sables – a 251 kilometre, 6-day race across the Sahara. The people I know who have done it seem to view it as a source of virtue, as if it makes them more valuable.

Of course, the reason I was on my way back from Berlin this weekend was because I had done the marathon, like nearly everyone else on the plane. It was very painful at the end, but nowhere near as bad as I had been led to expect. I’m also not sure why it’s an achievement, particularly. I downloaded a training plan and followed it; getting up in the morning and run to work, running home from work, running 20 miles at the weekends, and with wrist weights for the extra effort. It’s a simple equation of making an effort and being rewarded with a result.

Perhaps the reason people attach so much of themselves to these physical challenges is precisely because other spheres of life do not have the same linear relationship between effort and achievement. You can be the most brilliant person in your company, but if you’re an awkward character, or dislike office politics, or make the wrong person jealous, you are unlikely to be promoted. Marathons and other epic physical endeavours are all about predictability.

It still felt silly to me though. I was running around a city along with 40,000 other people, most of whom would have done a very similar training programme to me. How could it possibly be a unique achievement, if it ever was? A woman in her 60s was running it for the 21st time. There were lots of marching bands, singers, drum bands, as well as random residents who seemed to have set up their own drum kit outside and were enjoying the instant audience. Running up to the Brandenburg gate in the bright sunshine, and looking at this monument that forms the backdrop of  so many tragic events in the history of a country I love but can never be proud of, was quite emotional, and removed the struggle of the hideous final 6 miles, the lead legs and the scorching pain and the shortness of breath all crowding in my head, like big warning beacons telling me that I didn’t want to keep running. It’s vaguely nice that I had the willpower to carry on, but I wouldn’t have run it if I thought I thought I was likely to fail.

So all I took away from the whole event is that it’s a shame modern society doesn’t attach the same value to much more nuanced achievements that are much more long term, and aren’t really goal oriented, but are of much more benefit. Bringing up children to be generous, being a good teacher, doing a good job in whatever you do, persevering in relationships, even maintaining a garden, are all very beneficial to society, but there is a distinct lack of medals at the end of it all.

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