Tales of Woe and Toenails

Posted by @ 3:00 pm on June 7th, 2011

Yes, I am well aware that the first marathon runner dropped dead for his efforts. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t go 26.2 miles; we’d go some other outrageous distance that killed its first runner.

Every year a few people die running marathons. Of course, every day ridiculous numbers of people die doing absolutely nothing. I choose to run marathons, and I don’t have a death wish, though I will admit I’m drawn to the drama of distance running. You could die. You could fracture bones, tear muscles, lose toenails. You will definitely suffer, a lot. Cool.

That said, it’s odd to talk about the drama of running because here’s another thing I’ll admit: running is boring. A fellow running buddy of mine once joked that no one has ever sat through the entirety of Chariots of Fire and remained conscious. And this is coming from someone who loves running more than he loves his wife and kids. I’ve never seen Chariots of Fire—in fact, I haven’t seen any movies about runners, and I don’t feel any particular compulsion to do so, despite the fact that my colleagues keep shouting “Prefontaine!” and “Run, Fatboy, Run!” when they see me at work. (People love it when they think they have you figured out; because I run marathons, they’ve decided that every aspect of my life no doubt revolves around running. It could be worse; there was that one year everyone thought I was into cows. Let’s just say I had a very Holstein Christmas.)

I don’t know what it says about me that two of the things I love most, running and writing, are, at least on the surface, excruciatingly dull. I recall a critic who noted of Shakespeare in Love that movies about writers tend to cover every aspect of their lives other than writing—the reason being, of course, that writing is one of the least cinematographic acts in existence, even worse in this regard than running. The critic pointed out the one scene in which The Bard is sitting at his desk going through writer’s block, when suddenly he thinks of the woman of his dreams and presto! instant inspiration! He scribbles madly away, and next thing you know, badabing, badaboom, Romeo and Juliet are living their short, star-crossed, gorgeously tragic lives onstage.

Sure. That’s exactly how it is.

At the university where I work, I recently taught a Shakespeare class for non-majors in which we finished with Romeo and Juliet, since I figured all of them would know it, most of them would like it, and it would be a pleasant, easy way to end a tough semester in which Lear and Prospero ran roughshod over them. That said, I wanted to take a slightly risky approach, debunking their sentimental, sparkly-vampire-loving misconceptions of this being a play about how terrible it is that the two feuding families kept these young lovers from being together. “Is that really what this play is about?” I asked, meaning, No, that’s not what the play is about; get that asinine notion out of your brains and listen up—you might actually learn something.

When I pointed out to my students that almost nobody in the play is aware that Romeo and Juliet even know each other much less love each other with a passion that transcends death, their eyes went wide, and they did listen up. Why then, I went on, is the Bard’s most popular play so grossly misread? Why do we assume that it’s a story about young love doomed by society?

Well, Romeo and Juliet are doomed, make no mistake about that. In fact, the play itself tells us they are doomed; the Chorus leaks a spoiler to us in line 6 before we have time to clamp our hands over our ears and go “la la la la.” They never had a chance, not because their families keep them apart, but because they want to be doomed. This isn’t a play about bad timing and coincidence. Even if they hadn’t missed seeing each other alive by a matter of seconds, they’d have found some epic way to end it all. They rush into love and death equally because in their environment—and ours—those two things are always extremes but never opposites.

What’s more, we want them to be doomed. If they’d escaped, Romeo and Juliet would have been about as popular as one of the seldom-performed historical plays named after some English king. It isn’t just that we like to romanticize young love and tragic death; we romanticize hardship, obstacles, struggle, regardless of the outcome of that struggle. Romeo and Juliet largely make their own problems in this play, though with a great deal of help from their friends; it could be argued (which I did, in class) that the only people who do know of their love—those well-meaning souls who try to aid the pair—actually make things worse, and that they, too, are swept up in the desire for a fight, for a struggle. The nurse takes altogether too much pleasure in her role as messenger, and then actually suggests that Juliet go ahead and marry Paris anyway, even though she’s already married to Romeo (and would be committing, let’s not forget given the time and place, a very serious sin in doing so). Meanwhile Friar Lawrence—oh come on, Brother Larry, a sleeping potion? That’s the best you could do? You couldn’t, like, talk to Papa Capulet first? No, it probably wouldn’t have helped, but it couldn’t be any worse than making Juliet fake death and awaken in a tomb filled with putrid, maggoty bodies, her dead lover about to become one of these. With friends like these, who needs a bloody family feud?

Yet somehow over the centuries we have come to see this play as one about two innocent young lovers desperate to be together but thwarted at every turn. We, the audience, have become part of the drama. And that brings me meanderingly back to the drama of running.

When someone dies running a marathon, a lot of people shake their heads and talk about how dangerous running can be. Most folks aren’t so crass as to say such runners get what they deserve, but I doubt anyone would go so far in the other direction to call them innocent victims. Distance runners create their own drama. We certainly don’t have to do what we do—we could get fit running a fraction of those miles and be at far less risk of injury, fatality, and black toenails—but there is, I know, a certain romance to it. It’s a romance that doesn’t exist until you create it for yourself, and then it’s the most intense, world-shaking, life-altering experience ever. And guess what: it isn’t only runners who do this, create our own tales of woe just to feel a little more alive. Like Romeo and Juliet, we may make our lives a lot more difficult, and needlessly so, but we’re like that, we lunatics, lovers, poets, and runners, we woeful yet merry band of humans.