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Marathon? Sprint? Politics? Life?
Of all the hackneyed phrases you hear in politics (and life), “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” might be one of the most simplistically useless.
It’s often employed by those prone to pompously stating the obvious. You mean some efforts take a long time? You can’t get discouraged? You have to pace yourself? You don’t say. Thanks for the wisdom, Socrates.
But here’s what makes this phrase particularly problematic. We know exactly how long a marathon is: 26 miles and 385 yards. You might have heard about its origins in the legend of Philippides, the Greek soldier who ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens (around 25 miles) to let the Greeks know they had defeated the Persians (and promptly died from exhaustion). We will save the sorting of origin myth from fact to others. But it was in honor of this ancient tale that the marathon became part of the modern Olympic Games. The exact length that is run today was formalized about a century ago.
Around the world, there are hundreds of marathons every year. People train for them. They set their goals. They have a pace they’ve worked out long before the starting gun fires. And they can do all of this because they know that at the end of a set distance, there will be a finish line.
Wouldn’t it be great if life worked more like that?
When Donald Trump ran for president the first time, you heard people caution that it would take a marathon, not a sprint, to defeat him. Those voices intensified when he was elected. And when he ran for reelection. We’re still here. There’s no finish line in sight. How can you pace yourself when you have no idea how long you are going to have to run? And when you are already exhausted.
Any hopes that Trump’s defeat in 2020, the Republicans underperforming in 2022, the multiple indictments, a jury finding Trump liable for sexual assault, or any of the other outrages that should have stopped a rerun for president would derail this race have long since been dashed. The dynamics can change, but for now it seems like we’re on a treadmill that keeps churning, and churning, and churning.
And just as marathons are international events, their limitations as analogies are also visible on the global stage. Where is the finish line for those fighting for a free Ukraine? Or wars in places like Sudan? Or the saber rattling in Asia? Or those devastated by climate change? Or those fighting for racial justice? And on and on.
So what can we do about it? Let’s start by recognizing that life and political movements don’t really conform to road-race analogies (road-rage analogies might be more apt). Sometimes we need to rest. Sometimes we need to let others take the lead. Sometimes we have to push through the exhaustion. And sometimes we need to rethink everything. We can take a lesson from the fact that there was a time when the conventional wisdom (among men) was that women couldn’t handle running a marathon. Sort of like running a country?
We are more than a year away from the next presidential election. It will likely be another fight for the very future of our democracy. It will take sustained engagement, and the planning starts now. But it will also take a sprint at the end. So try to find a way to stay involved, but also conserve energy. Recognize where you can make a difference — with volunteering, activism, donations, and other forms of support. But also recognize that there will be more to do. Sometimes it’s okay to be a spectator while you rest up for the next leg of the relay (we’re shamelessly embracing the metaphor).
But the biggest lesson is that there are always challenges, always battles to fight. And as long as we are throwing out trite phrases, sometimes you can lose the battle but win the war. We have written many times about the power of the Steady community, and really what a community does is provide support. It is a way of recognizing that sometimes you are best at cheering on others. And sometimes it is you who needs to feel the crowd carry you forward.
Running is mostly seen as a solitary endeavor, but politics is a team sport. And just as a great track team has athletes competing in many different events, with different skills, strengths, and body types, the forces that will defeat autocracy will require a diversity of participants. It won’t end with any one election. We will have to find ways to lead and also be ready to pass the baton.
It’s a marathon, but it’s also a sprint — and sometimes even a steeplechase.
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