Say It With Running: what I tell people about when I tell people about running a marathon

The author during the Amsterdam Marathon.

When Calum Young embarked on his first marathon he discovered talking about the marathon is almost as important as training for it.

In the autumn of 2017, I ran a marathon. But I’ve probably already told you that. In the months leading up to the race, I spent a lot of time telling people that I was going to run a marathon. Then, after it was done, I spent a lot of time telling people that I had run a marathon. It was a constant topic of conversation. Friends, colleagues, acquaintances, before long, they all knew.

So much telling went on, that sometimes I think it was the principal point.  Which is to say that I think telling people I had or was about to run a marathon was the main reason why I did run a marathon. The telling was certainly easier than the running. Also, better for the knees. So much so that I now wonder whether I should have just done the telling and saved myself all that trouble with the running. That I should have, in other words, lied.

But it’s much too late for that now. I actually did it. The marathon, I mean. Not the telling. Though I certainly did that too, even if it was, perhaps, less of a feat. In any case, I think the telling is much more interesting because whilst over a million people annually run 26.2 consecutive miles in sanctioned events, I don’t think there’s anyone who told people about running a marathon in quite the same way that I did. I lived that unique experience.

For starters, I did the telling in lots of different ways. There were the obvious types of telling. Like the countless times when I rerouted a conversation with friends in the pub so I could talk about how punishing my training schedule was. Or the way I plastered social media and dating profiles with pictures of me running the race. Or how I mentioned my marathon bid whenever anyone I was with chirped up on the subject of their exercise plans. That was all definitely telling. It counted.

There were also more subtle ways of telling people about running a marathon. Ways that I could let people know what I was up to without them hating me immediately afterwards.

Like sometimes in conversation I’d mention that lately I’d been doing a lot of distance running, await the inevitable question about whether I’d done a marathon, and then fire-away. Other times I’d strategically position my running shoes in quasi-public places so that people got the hint. There were even a few occasions, I’m ashamed to say, when I’d check my emails at the office whilst wearing my running clothes to show that I’d run into work. As far as I’m concerned, that was all telling too. We should also stick that on the tab.

Once a friend asked me why I was spending so much of my time telling people about running a marathon. Why was I so keen to share this bit of my identity?

I thought it derived from a particular conception of marathon running which could be traced into the qualities of the sport’s participants. And because I was, however briefly, one of those participants, I was in turn conferring those qualities on myself. It was an oblique bit of virtue signalling.

Having got that far though, I found it incredibly difficult to articulate precisely what I was looking to signal. Unpacking my telling, and putting my figure on the qualities which I was trying to evince when I told people about running a marathon naturally started to take up a lot my time. Not more than the actual telling itself though. Or, come to that, the running. But still, rather a lot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my first thought was about the time commitment involved. I ran three times a week during each of the five months before race day. The spreadsheet which I built to log my progress over the course of the training, tells me that the average time I spent out on each occasion was a little over one and a half hours. So the training took up a lot of time.

It followed, in my own mind at least, that being a person who runs a marathon meant being a person who was organised and self-disciplined and driven. Doubtless these were some of the characteristics which I was attempting to project when I told people about running a marathon.

But what really distinguished running a marathon from other goals accomplished like, say, GCSE French, was that I’d elected to do it. There was no legal or economic or social compulsion to run the distance. My survival certainly did not depend on doing it. Most of the time it seemed like my survival depended on me not doing it. But still, I opted in.

I found this element of the enterprise striking. From it sprang an insight: that the most important thing to me about running a marathon was that I had chosen to do it. My apparent ability and willingness to create and attempt goals, not the act of accomplishing them, was the principal trait which I was looking to show-off when I told others what I was doing. It was the decision to do something, not the doing it which I was most proud of.

That is not to say that the act of creating goals is entirely detachable from the substance of the goal which is being set. If I had spent the best part of 6 months advertising my plan to walk up the small hill which neighbours my flat, I wouldn’t have expected it to glean the same level of social kudos that I hoped the marathon to extract. But, even so, the virtue in training for and accomplishing the goal and the virtue in the decision to set it were distinct – and I think it was the latter which I was most interested in telling people about.

I reckon that’s because when we set goals and vigorously pursue them we create our own meaning. Though the goals which we set may be arbitrary, as running 26.2 miles undoubtedly is, the significance which we invest in them is not and the meaning which we extract from honing ourselves to make them a reality matters.

I find the power of that striking. The quality of being able to decide what matters to us and to accordingly allocate our attention is remarkable. It is an extraordinary capacity to enact and an even better one to tell other people that we have. I guess that’s why I spent so much of my time telling people about it.

Another of the qualities which I tried to appropriate when I told people about running a marathon was progress. Or rather, the quality of being capable of or engaged in progress.

On each practice-run, I got a bit faster and a bit fitter and a bit better. I could quantify this progress with times and distances. I documented it relentlessly. I loved the fact that there was an area of my life where improvement was demonstrable and fell within my grasp through the application of effort.  It led me to hope that in other areas of my existence which were more important, but less easily subject to quantification, the same progression was occurring – even if I couldn’t prove that it was. I found this reassuring. Maybe up-lifting.

It lent life additional meaning if the curve I was on sloped upwards. Meant it was worth sticking around to see just how much better things could get. Just how happy and impressive would the narrative’s ending be. That’s something I was also telling people about when I told them about running. That my own self was only getting better.

I suspect this quality explains the present popularity of marathon running with metropolitan elites. People who seek out and enjoy jobs where they are expected to relentlessly optimise their performance are probably attracted to hobbies and interests which require them to do the same. Marathon running offers this. It may even serve as a type of qualification for certain sorts of jobs. It displays motivation and sustained effort to attain a fixed goal. Employers love that. As do the people looking to please them.

When I re-read what I’ve written above about telling people about running a marathon, I worry that it gives the impression that it was an empty and pointless practice. That it was just showing off, that it didn’t contribute anything meaningful to what I was doing. That it, in fact, just served to bore my friends and alienate colleagues. I can see how it might come across like that. It is a partly accurate view.

Self-aggrandisement is rightly loathed. Telling someone that we’re going to do something obviously isn’t the same as doing it. Our culture esteems those who are reticent about their exploits and successes. They are called modest or self-effacing or self-deprecating. They sit at the opposite end of the scale to those who brag shamelessly about the feats that they have or, worse still haven’t, accomplished.

In part, this assumes that the telling doesn’t work. That if you tell someone that you’re going to do or have done a marathon, the effect is to diminish your standing in the eyes of others or to leave the position unaltered. Maybe that assumption is correct.

But even if it is, there is another way to look at the act of telling. That it achieves something even if it doesn’t result in social kudos or raise the self in the eyes of others.

This is so because telling someone we’re going to do something (a marathon) or that we are something (the list of qualities which I thought marathon runners have) helps us do and become those things. We bargain for our identities: they’re partially self-creation. They are the things we do, the things we say about ourselves, the things we believe about ourselves, and the things which those around us believe about us. So that the telling sort of is the being and sort of is the doing. The characteristics which I believe myself to be mirror those which I project and the things which I do align with those qualities which I believe myself to be.

I ran a marathon in the autumn of 2017 because I had spent so much time telling others that I was going to do it and that I was the sort of person who would do it. I’d written and reinforced my own narrative, then read the story for the 4 hours and 12 minutes it took me to run 26.2 miles one Sunday afternoon. I put the pictures up online after I had finished. Told those around me what I had done. It didn’t change anything exactly. In the way that when you re-watch a film the events in the plot don’t come as a shock or change your views of the characters. What happens conforms so perfectly with a pre-existing narrative, it’s as though it had already happened. Not doing it would have been the surprise.

When I look back at what went into my completed marathon, I count the training runs. The early morning starts. The late night stretches. And the constant stream of telling – without that all-important element, I’m not sure I’d have done it.

Calum Young joined the Serpentine running club in the spring of 2018. He’s keen on swimming, cycling and running.