One hundred years ago this week, Babe Ruth hit the first of his 714 home runs--a record that stood for a lifetime.
Also about a hundred years ago (in 1911, actually), a guy named Clarence DeMar got the first of his seven Boston Marathon victories. Everyone in America has heard of Babe Ruth. How many, other than we runners and a few very old Bostonians and Hopkintonians, have ever heard of Clarence DeMar?
I bring up this question because I've been doing a lot of cogitating lately about the largely forgotten role of human endurance in our culture of ever-greater speed and ever-quicker gratification in all things. We live now in what I call a "sprint culture." In the physiology of sport, of course, a sprint is an action that can last no more than 1 to 2 minutes. If you run as fast as you can, you can keep it up for maybe 440 yards (most of us not even that far) before having to stop, stooped over with your hands on your knees, gasping. You've gone anaerobic, and until you pay off the oxygen debt and get rid of all the metabolic waste you've accumulated in your system, you're done. Yet, a well-trained long-distance runner, using highly efficient aerobic metabolism, can go 2, 3, 4, or 5 hours nonstop (or in an ultra, 6, 12, or 24 hours or longer with only brief stops) and cross the finish line without gasping for breath.
Our civilization has a comparable choice, based on the same metabolic principles. Our industries burn carbon fuels and breathe out carbon dioxide at a rate that will catapult us into civilizational burnout within decades--or we can shift to sustainable industries and behaviors that will let humanity thrive for many generations to come. But that's another story, which I tell in a book that will be out in October. More about that later.
Back to Babe Ruth and Clarence DeMar, it strikes me that their relative fame (or lack thereof) is reflective of our culture's obsession with quickness and speed. We want faster airplanes, faster computers, faster TV thrills, faster relief from pain, faster returns on investment. For the Babe, who came along in the early years of this developing obsession, it took only a one half-second swing of the bat to bring 60,000 people to their feet. A thrill in an instant.
For a very good marathon runner in those days (when much less was known about training methods, nutrition, etc.), a finishing time of 2 hours and 30 minutes was an effort that took 18,000 times as long as a swing of the baseball bat.
So, quite aside from the time spent training and laboring in now-forgotten competitions, how do the peak achievements of Babe Ruth's 714 home runs compare with Clarence DeMar's 7 Boston Marathon victories just in terms of the number of minutes of iconic athletic performance they gave us? It's a worthy comparison, because both were about equally unequaled by other men.
Discounting the ritual run around the bases after the ball flies over the fence, if we count each home run as a marvelous half-second, the Bambino's actual time hitting home-runs adds up to 357 seconds, or about 6 minutes. DeMar's Boston Marathon wins, averaging somewhere around 2:25 each, add up to more than 1,000 minutes. So, who's the greater athlete?
OK, OK. If you're a rabid baseball fan or spectator-sports junkie in general, you'll have a heap of objections to this. I don't mind, and I'll even acknowledge in advance that in some respects this comparison may be considered absurd. But as many playwrights, novelists, and artists have found, contemplation of the absurd sometimes provokes us to new perspectives on the even greater absurdities of the culture in which we live. I think I need to get out for a run.