At school, many years ago, we used to have long distance runs. There were a number of them, usually during the winter months. And the last one was the longest. The whole school had to run about 5 miles.
I regarded these long distance, cross country runs as a terrible ordeal. I’d always develop a stitch in my side after running a couple of hundred yards. And the rest of the run became something a waking nightmare of pounding feet and pounding heart. And when I staggered over the finish line, I’d be dead on my feet, and it would take me the rest of the day to recover.
I suppose the idea was to keep us boys fit. But we also had Physical Exercise classes, and afternoon games. We even had a swimming pool. Wasn’t that enough? Why add these nightmare marathon runs on top? Or, since the long distance runs took place every few weeks, why not replace one five mile run every two weeks with ten half mile runs every day?
Some people are better runners than others. Just like some people are better swimmers than others. I wasn’t one of the best runners, or swimmers. Some people could barely run at all. The guy who used to win all the long distance runs by a country mile was someone who ran like an antelope, bounding along with long, easy, natural strides. I think he actually loved running. I don’t remember him being much good at anything else. And the guy who used to win all the swimming races was the one of the most fluid and natural and effortless swimmers I’d ever seen. He barely raised a splash as he moved through the water. Everybody else sprayed water everywhere. Everyone walks and runs and swims differently, just like everyone swings a golf club or cricket bat differently too. And everyone writes differently. And everyone speaks differently. We’re all different.
And I was thinking this morning that life is a bit like a long distance run. Except you keep on running until you drop dead. And I’ve been running now for nearly 70 years, non-stop. And somehow or other I regard 70 as the finish line of this particular long distance run. It’s the biblical three score years and ten. And I’ve almost made it to the finish line. There’s only a few more yards to go. And I’m wondering, just like I used to wonder during the school long distance runs, whether I’ll make it. For, just like all those years ago, I started out quick on my feet, and now I’m getting slower and slower.
The healthist zealots in power these days have moved the goal posts. There’s no longer any finish line. It’s a bit like if we’d been told, midway through one of those cross country runs, that we just had to keep on running until we couldn’t run any further. And the winner of the race would not be the one who completed the course the quickest, but the one who kept on running for the longest, or who ran the furthest.
And by that measure, the real winner of those school long distance runs wasn’t Antelope Boy who always crossed the finish line first, but the slow coaches at the back who came in last, and took longest to complete the course. After all, if Antelope Boy ran the five miles in, say, 20 minutes, then the last man to cross the finish line probably took a whole 2 hours or more. Wasn’t he the real winner? Shouldn’t they have handed out prizes to the last three guys as well as the first three guys?
And who are life’s winners? Are they the people who complete the course in the shortest possible time, or the longest possible time? Some people live fast and furious lives, and die (i.e. complete the course) in just a few years. Others live more sedate lives, and end up living far longer. Which should we celebrate: the Jim Morrisons and Jimi Hendrixes who burned out age 27, or the old codgers like Queen Elizabeth II, who is currently 91 years old? Is she going to get a medal for being the longest lived sovereign in British history?
The ones that we remember are always those who lived fast, dazzling, flamboyant, and brief lives, are they not? They’re the heroes who die in battle. Or the mountain climbers who die on Everest. Or the inventors who blow themselves up. Or the poets who die of consumption or drowning.
Would anyone remember JFK now, if he’d dodged the bullets in Dallas in 1963? Would there ever have been a Martin Luther King day if the man hadn’t been gunned down in 1968? Would John Lennon have a statue in Liverpool (and an airport named after him) if he hadn’t been shot dead in 1980? Would Marilyn Monroe have endured as a screen goddess if she hadn’t died suddenly and rather mysteriously in 1962, at the height of her fame?
Perhaps it’s that they remain forever young in memory. We never got to see them in their old age. They will always remain exactly as they were on the day they died. And in that manner become immortal, because forever young.
If you want fame, young man, live fast and die young. Take risks. Be daring.
And if you want obscurity, live slow and die old. Take no risks.
And don’t even dare to smoke a single cigarette in your entire life.