Steve Prefontaine ran to see who had the most guts. Jesse Owens ran to experience independence. Johnny Gray ran to win. And George Sheehan told us to run so that we can find and be or true selves, our whole selves, a good animal. Millions of others run for many other reasons, including physical and psychological health, to face and overcome a challenge and for the sheer enjoyment running can provide. What many Olympians and average runners have in common is that for them, running is a crucial part of the good life. Running helps make them happy.
All of our endeavors aim at some point that serves as their purpose. The study of medicine is health; sex is procreation; and business is wealth. But in human life properly lived, there is a chief good, a final goal at which all of our endeavors ultimately aim. A clergyman will tell you the chief good that we all should strive for is to serve a god; a hedonist, pleasure; and Aristotle, happiness. That is a true happiness as something deeper than merely getting what we want or feeling good about our circumstances. Happiness refers to well-being, proper and fully human functioning, fulfillment, and inner peace.
Aristotle puts it, happiness is "activity of soul in accordance with virtue." Happiness is not merely feeling good. It isn't mere emotion, but something deeper. If I am happy, for Aristotle this means that I am flourishing as a human being. A happy person is doing well, and is deeply fulfilled because of who she is and how she lives. We must be virtuous in order to be truly happy. We need to be courageous, honest, friendly, just, and good critical thinkers, among other things, in order to be happy. We know that running can lead to health for the body. Possessing and practicing the virtues leads to and constitutes health of the soul.
I believe in order to be virtuous, we need friendships in our lives. But not just any type of friendship will do. We need to belong to a particular type of friendship, friendship that is based on virtue. And the friendships of endurance athletes often illustrate this highest form of friendship - one of virtue.
Training with friends is an excellent way to help you improve your race performance, enhance the quality of your training, and simply enjoy athletics more. Triathlon books and magazines often advise runners to incorporate group training and training with friends into their schedules for their utility - that is, it makes you faster - or their pleasure, inasmuch as you enjoy their company. But another reason to exercise with friends is that training provides a context well suited for developing perfect friendships.
Developing a friendship based on virtue requires "time, familiarity, trust, mutual good will, and mutual sacrifice." Triathlon provides an excellent setting to meet these requirements. Training with the same person or a few people gives you the chance to spend time with them - and in the case of Ironman training - a lot of time together. Of course, merely spending time with someone doesn't necessarily lead a virtuous friendship. But training together, bedcause it involves meeting challenges together, and being with your training partner away from computers, cell phones,and television frees you up to develop a deeper friendship. Biking six hours with someone on Saturday and running two hours with them on Sunday regularly gives ample time for familiarity, trust, mutual good will, and mutual sacrifice to develop.
In the May 2005 issue of Runner's World, John Bingham, a.k.a. "the Penguin," reflects on the nature of the friendships of runners. Bingham quotes the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, who said that "Exhaustion is the shortest way to equality and fraternity." Bingham observes that the type of friendships you develop with your running buddies enable you to "go past age, gender, ethnicity, social status, and all of the initial criteria we normally use to judge people." He makes a good point. On the road, your socio-economic status won't help you be a faster runner. Older runners are able to challenge younger ones and women often outrun the men. But it's not all about speed, especially for me. One reason some runners run slower is they want the social interaction of running in a group with other runners. They would rather not run eight miles gasping for breath the whole way, when they could run slower and use that time to connect with another person.
We must have and use the necessary equipment to achieve true, purposeful, virtuous happiness. Physical health is one aspect of this - but only one part - insofar as physical fitness contributes to our overall well-being. Aristotle would remind us, however, that the soul must also be healthy if we are to be happy. We must possess and consistently exercise the virtues if we want to successfully reach the goal of happiness over the course of our lives. To be a good athlete, you must practice. And to be a good person, you must practice virtues. We need friendships based on virtue, in which we pursue together.
Go for a swim, or ride your bike, or go for a run, if it is something you love to do. And while you're at it, take a good friend with you.