Yesterday I ran the Paris Half Marathon, and while I huffed and puffed and dragged myself through 21.1 kilometres of beautiful city roads, I occupied myself with primarily two thoughts. The first was the realization that running a race through the streets of Paris is a special kind of torture, because everywhere you look, there are people sitting at outdoor cafes who are waving at you with a wine glass in hand, and everywhere you turn, the smell of freshly baked bread weakens your will to continue in favour of pulling over to devour some baguettes and croissants. It was because of all this that I mostly focused on my second thought: Why is it that humans seem determined to take everything to the extreme?
This train of thought started when it occurred to me that by the time I was crossing the starting line of the race, the winner had finished his race half an hour ago. Seriously. This happened because I am not, nor will I likely ever be, a fast runner, and therefore yesterday morning, I found myself in the last starting group of the race. With over 35,000 people registered to run, being in the last group meant that I wasn’t even required to show up in my starting area until an hour after the race had begun. The runner who ultimately won the race finished with a time of one hour and 12 seconds, meaning that by the time I had managed to navigate the chaos created by 35,000 other runners trying to get to their starting gates, someone was already collecting his finisher’s medal. By the time I finished with my time of 2 hours, 46 minutes, and 49 seconds, he was probably long gone, having already collected his winner’s trophy, and in all likelihood, was probably sitting at one of those Parisian cafes enjoying a drink.
I thought about this when I finally crossed the starting line and began my race, and as the afternoon wore on and my strides became ever slower, I contemplated what exactly it would take to condition your body to run 21.1 kilometres in an hour, and more importantly, why anyone would put their bodies through such extreme levels of stress and exhaustion. It’s an amazing accomplishment, no arguments here, but where does that drive come from? The need to push yourself ever farther and faster?
As the miles ticked away, I distracted myself from the increasing muscle pain by thinking about this uniquely human attribute of pushing ourselves to the extreme, and how any activity, no matter how mundane, can be taken to the far end of any scale. For example, there are those people who aren’t content to simply hike up mountains, but instead have to jump off of them wearing something called a wingsuit. There are those who decide to make life as a grocery store bagger more exciting and compete in the Best Bagger Championship every year, and apparently stacking cups is now a worldwide sport. I know I’ll never forget the day I discovered that people don’t just ride snowmobiles, but actually compete to see who can flip them in the most spectacular manner. And don’t even get me started on the Guinness Book of World Records, which is full of people taking nearly every action available to one extreme or the other.
I thought about all of this during my run, and at around the 17 km mark I had a thought. Do we do this out of some deep seated drive to pursue excellence at all costs? Or are humans just plain crazy? I never did come to a conclusion on the matter, but the debate kept me going through the last couple of miles, during which the difficulty of running in the fierce afternoon heat certainly had me leaning towards the latter. The only thing I can say for certain is that I’m happy that there are people who are willing to try and be the best at something, no matter what that something is, and that kind of drive and determination should always be celebrated. On the other hand, after yesterday’s gruelling run I’m still planning on attempting a full marathon next month, so maybe we really are just crazy.