Back in November I pledged to you that I would take on a couple of new challenges, after my maiden marathon run in Montreal last September. I also promised not to bore you with the details of the process, but to let you know when successes could be chalked up. Yesterday I ran the Berlin Half Marathon, on an unexpectedly hot day, in 1:40:08. This was within 8 seconds of my target time, which I can live with given how crowded the run was (25,500 registered), and about four minutes faster than I’ve covered that distance previously. Given the difficulties of winter training, and an ill-timed ear infection at the peak of the training schedule, I’m really rather pleased with it. I’m inclined to say that I still don’t much like running, but I do respond well to concrete, if self-set, challenges. If one is stubborn minded enough, hating running seems to be more help than hindrance: one wants it to end as quickly as possible. If giving up isn’t an option, running fast is all you’ve got. The next part of the challenge is to run a five-minute mile by November. I have no idea if this is possible, but the endeavour should be interesting.
One has to put these things into perspective. How do these achievements fit into a life? What do they mean? Aside from the fringe benefits of being fit, being able to eat whatever I please, and being on the whole a bit more even tempered, why bother? Some would say, perhaps, that these things are enough, and indeed they might be for some. But it doesn’t quite cut it for me. The real importance has to do with the value one attaches to a life. We are too given to reduce achievement to possession, to salary, to sealing deals that nobody will remember. In short, we are defined by ‘work’ in the narrowest sense of that term. If we are not careful, life will pass us by in the pursuit of green, and when we collapse with heart disease just after our hard-earned retirements, people will gather and say ‘what a waste’.
Making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; to call them hobbies would make a mockery of them… [T]here is no hard and fast opposition between my work itself and what I do apart from it. (Theodore Adorno, Free Time).
I am a firm advocate of work, but I prefer to interpret the term much more broadly. Victorian gentlemen understood that work was necessary, even if money was no object. A vocation is required of a citizen, for to be a drone is to be a drain. These men went about their work with a zeal rarely seen among today’s workforce. But they also went about their recreation with a similar zeal. In essence, there was no difference in spirit between ‘work’ and ‘play’, in the best traditions of the amateur. It was all done with serious intent. Whereas we are wont to have a ‘hobby’, a word that tends to connote frivolousness and idle pleasure, they held their pursuits to be an important reflection of their character and, writ large, of the state of society. Ultimately then, play is also a form of work, and our attitude towards it tells us, and the world around us, something about ourselves.