About six years ago, a runner by the name of Zach Bitter set the American record for fastest 100 miles, at 11:40:55. Well, this week he just clinched the World Record at the Six Days Under the Dome event in Wisconsin, completing the 100 miler in 11:19:13. He actually pulled a negative split in his second 50 miles, which I can’t even begin to contemplate. He ran at about 6:48 pace, which I can do for maybe ONE mile, on a good day. I’m astounded at this amazing feat and in awe at the amount of running and constant training that goes into an achievement like this. It’s a stunning and singular individual achievement. But the question I’ve been asking myself is: Why do we care so much?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t ask that question in a pejorative sense. I ask it because it’s impossible for me to not tear up when I see the clips of Zach Bitter running past the 100 mile mark. It tugs at the heart strings to see someone’s years of training and effort pay off in such a bewildering way. I feel the same way when I watch amazing football plays, or when I watch clips of Simone Biles treating gravity like a switch she can turn off at will. I feel an emotional connection towards these people, despite not being acquainted with them or having met them in any sense of the word. What is it about these events of human achievement that stir a sense of connection in us?
(I’m starting to suspect those arms are actually wings).
As one of the main centers of athletic achievements, I think the Olympics, specifically the ceremony around them, gives a hint at why great feats of sport mean so much. Each country dresses up their performers in the colors of the country. People wave flags and cheer, and sing their anthems. Each athlete is a representative of their respective country. But more importantly, when we send someone to the Olympics, we are essentially saying, “These are the best sportspeople in our nation. This is what we have to contribute to the physical achievements of the human species.” But if we cared only about our own country’s gymnasts, swimmers, and hockey players, we’d never send them to an international competition like the Olympics. We watch eagerly, and take pride in, not only the feats of our local team, or our state’s best runners, or even our nation’s highest-performing gymnasts, but also in all those that demonstrate the highest athletic accomplishments of our whole species. Taking pride in their medals and records is us acknowledging and celebrating our common humanity and is a reaffirmation of the human project to strive for ever higher accomplishments.
(However, as an act of recognition of our common humanity, can we also all agree that this is the worst Olympic logo ever created?)
So why do I care that Simone Biles can practically fly? Why do I care that the 1972 Miami Dolphins are still the only NFL team to have a perfect regular AND (Sorry Pam!) perfect post season? Because as a fellow human being, I can share the joy of their feats and take pride in their deeds. I hope that this recognition of our common humanity will one day extend beyond the realm of sports, and I’ll do what I can to make that happen, but even still, I’ll sob like a baby when I watch clips of Zach Bitter crossing that 100 mile mark.
Thanks for reading,