Essay: Friends without Benefits

Harry Bauld's On Writing the College Application Essay may have turned 25 this year, but it remains the freshest, best book on the subject of the most dreaded 500 words a high school senior ever pens. Bauld's scathing criticism of the essay he derides as "Pet Death"--"As I watched Buttons's life ebb away, I came to value the important things in the world"--continues to chill my applicants and turn their muse to more palatable subjects. He's even more brutal with a form of essay he calls the "Jock:" "Through blank (piano playing, spider collecting, tough typing) I have learned Noble Value A, High Platitude B, and Great Lesson C." Or as I--more gently, I hope--discourage my students, "Unless it was in the Olympics, no one want to hear about what you did in your bathing suit."

So I was somewhat hesitant about writing the following "What I learned from Running" column. Surely, no one will care about what a herd of middle aged, balding, paunchy men (the women in our group are not only more attractive, but have their own hair) do at six in the morning a few days a week, galumphing down Old Cutler Road, tripping over tree roots in the dark, telling 50 year-old jokes.

Fortunately for me, I'm not applying to college. Unfortunately for you, that means I can reflect on my 30 plus years of running. Now that I'm closer to 80 than I am to 30, here's what I've come to understand:

For us, it's not about getting faster. It's certainly not about winning. It's not even about moving up in the age group. What we're about is getting out there several days during the week and invariably on Saturday. Every Saturday. Rain or shine. And believe me, in the summer in Miami, we're talking serious shine. (We have two seasons here in Miami: Summer and Valentine's Day. I have some stories about sweaty clothing not fit for a family publication.)

If we're not concerned about getting faster or winning or getting better, why the madness? What is going on in the darkness, a dozen old friends from all backgrounds congregating in a bleak parking lot hours before the sun comes up, getting ready to run all the way across town?

Not to put too fine a point on the subject, but I think it's about metaphors for life: A blinding rain storm at 5:30 on a chilly winter morning doesn't stop me. Yes, I'd rather stay snuggled in bed, and no, I wouldn't do this for myself. But my buddies are waiting for me at the appointed place at the designated time. I wouldn't get out of my warm bed to fulfill a commitment to myself, but I am morally obligated to meet my friends. There is no way I'm going to let them show up in the deluge without my good moral support and bad jokes. What's right is right.

And the support I get in return is extraordinary. Struggling at the end of a long run recently, I was ready to quit and walk back to my car. No silly exhortation "You can do this" would have made a difference; I was pasty and pale, my skin dry and salty. As every bad essay on athletics whines, "Every step was pure agony." Truly; I was ready to give up on running and take up an easier sport like football.

Instead, my running buddy--who must also have been miserable after 14 miles of bad jokes--dug deep and came up with a drinking song from the high school from which he was graduated a scant 35 years ago. Every lyric. Extraordinary. To the tune of "As the Caissons go Rolling Along."

Took my mind right off my corroded feet and allowed me to get through a half mile like I was having an out of body experience. The life metaphor is simple: friendship. I'm not sure that sort of devotion and camaraderie are prevalent in board rooms across America.

Mind you, in my encomiums on the benefits of distance running, I am not advocating in favor of pain. My vehemence against drugs does not extend to prescription medications doled out by a medical professional in a hospital setting. But there is something unlikely about our culture which suggests that every discomfort has to be instantly assuaged. Trouble concentrating? Here's a psycho-stimulant. Got turned down for a date? Which SSRI would you like? Boo boo on your finger? Take 20 Oxycontin.

Or as the Dread Pirate Roberts says to Buttercup in "The Princess Bride," "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."

It has been argued that the way many people go about trying to find happiness--specifically by avoiding all negative thoughts, emotions, and situations--is exactly what serves to make them most miserable. (Read Russ Harris's The Happiness Trap for a wonderful explication of why creating a rich and meaningful life is not likely to be found by looking for one.)

Now that idea--that a happy life is more likely to be found the less you look for it--could be one fine college essay.

I welcome your stories about your happiest times. Were they planned for, anticipated, easily predicted, and pain free? Or did some blissful moments sneak up on you, in the dark, in a blinding rain storm, miles from nowhere, surrounded by sweaty people?

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