The Day I Ran the American Dream

I recently visited Washington D.C. for the first time. I was on a business trip and had an experience while running that has taken days for me to process. I’ve been wanting to write about the changes in my thoughts about the physical act of running since I published an article in 2013 titled When Is It Okay To Call Yourself An Athlete?, an article that was written in the heat of a summer, when I had just come back from a stay in Florida to the nearly insufferable heat and humidity of Ohio at it’s worst in hot weather. But that Summer, like all of them, eventually faltered into a warm Fall that quickly died and became a very nasty Winter in central Ohio. We get them every 11 years or so and because the Winter was an angry man shouting from the grave, I had to move my running into the windowed cave of a swanky gym in the Arena District where I would drive into the city at 5 AM and run a 5K each day and then head into work in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

The White House through the rain took on a hazy, dream-like appearance.

I figured combining two life-enhancing actions—not sitting in almost two hours of traffic each day and exercising with a purpose, would be what you call a prosperous action of self-development, a force multiplier. Some of this was ambition to stay on target with expressing myself through exercise and most of it was not wanting to sit in traffic every day. I was right and I pushed myself to run faster inside my 5K daily goal range and for the most part I kept the schedule through what was a brutal winter here in Ohio.

But then the warmer weather moved into the Central Ohio Midlands, soaking down into the valley towards the Ohio River as it makes it’s way through Kentucky, Indiana and on into Illinois. And with the warm, I got the itch to feel the rubber of my soles pounding the pavement while I paced my effort with my breathing and my stride to continue making small incremental advancements towards my goal of physical exertion. Running is great about that—setting a goal and then measuring and pushing yourself towards higher and higher plateaus on the microscopic level of time that ticks off in milliseconds. And it’s not just the analytics that geek me out—there is something that happens to me spiritually when I hit that running zone that you’re always hearing about and may think is bullshit. I used to think it was. But it’s not. I feel it each time I run, even if only for a few seconds. And that’s enough.

My view at 5:20 AM where I started my run in Washington D.C. 

I had never visited Washington D.C. before and I was going to be in meetings and working a trade show booth without a lot of time for sight seeing. So I took what I could get and it turns out all I could get were the hours between 5 AM and 7 AM on a Thursday morning filled with a pervasive, cold misty rain that was only sufferable because of the muggy undertones that warmed its cool. This was the weather fate had granted me on my first exploration of our nation’s capital and didn’t leave me much time so I put a plan in place. I woke up, threw on my running gear (including sunglasses for some ridiculous reason I can only attribute to sleep deprivation mixed with the two Sapporos I drank the night before) and I caught an Uber down to the Lincoln Memorial from 9th street, a distance of roughly 2.5 miles, the exact number of miles I’ve been trying to put in since I started running outside again. It turns out that 3.1 miles on a treadmill are very tame compared to 3.1 miles on the open road, forcing me to make adjustments to my running plan. My point is that I perceived synchronicity in action because the distances matched perfectly.

The Gettysburg Address is still the greatest American speech ever given.

The Uber driver was a bit of a drag as he didn’t know where the Lincoln Memorial was (really dude—you drive an Uber in D.C.) and I had to google the actual address. Then he had to drive across the Potomac to circle back and drop me off closest to the stairs of the Memorial and I’m sure that trip across the water cost me $.50—a great deal less than it cost General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate troops to try and cross. I climbed out of the car, noting that the rain had picked up in the 10 minutes I had spent in transit, watching the amazing structures on Constitution Avenue pass by me through the rain drops. I adjusted my iPhone in its weather-protective arm band and straightened up the Withings Pulse O2 wrist unit, realizing that I should have put the damn clip on because it’s not weather proof (it did just fine on the run with no issues so far).

And I started climbing the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial. There was one other person who may have been a runner but could also have been a drug dealer or a spy, leaning with his shoulder against the entrance to the shrine. And so I entered the sacred space alone. There was no other soul in there at all once the man sauntered off down the stairs. I was left alone with Abraham Lincoln and I immediately felt my heart being judged against the weight of a feather, a test it passed. There is something humbling about standing at the foot of this magnificent work of art and looking up into Lincoln’s eyes as he looks down and into yours. It allows you to put many things into perspective at once. This man gave up everything in service to the idea that a Republic is an institution built by normal people, a set of tools you use to govern the majority through the lens of the minority and create a better mental race of human being. What Lincoln represents is so much more than the eradication of slavery through legal procedures backed up by the rifles and cannon of the Federal Armed Forces. Lincoln represents just what he told us, “The Better Angel of Our Natures.” When he died is when the true revolution began, set in tragedy and suffering and activated by his martyrdom.

And the better angels of our nature filled that monument’s open doored tomb because something stirred in me that hasn’t moved since my first trip to Williamsburg, Virginia in the year 2000, before the country was ripped apart by small white men in three piece suits with one less chamber in their cold hearts. This could not be the country that Abraham Lincoln hoped to leave us all when he passed from power to influence to corporal disengagement and then on into history.

As I entertained thoughts of leaving, still looking into the marble eyes of a long dead fool of fate, I looked around and saw the Gettysburg Address. I read the words and imagined Lincoln in the train on his way to the newly conscripted Gettysburg National Monument, him scribbling these thoughts onto a piece of paper he kept inside the hat band of that head cover apparatus that looks wholly ridiculous to our modern eyes. If Thomas Jefferson wrote the greatest sentence ever penned in human language when he wrote

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

then Lincoln wrote the greatest paragraph when he scribbled out The Gettysburg Address. It pierces all time and space and captures everything about the struggle of the human race which began on some apocalyptic plane when all the large dinosaurs and land beasts had been killed by environmental disaster. Those little mammals crawled out of the sludge and eventually evolved to become upright walking apes, many of whom honestly believe their personal security depends on the ability to fire small metal missiles at each other with high velocities. The only security in life is the one we create in our minds and which serves as the foundation of our relationships with one another. I am talking about the backbone of society, what is literally the last, best hope for humanity—our ability to “Keep Talking,” as the Pink Floyd song says.

And then I turned around and saw this.

A photo near the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream Speech"

I was standing very near to the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. repeated the words, I have a dream…over and over again. And off in the distance, splitting the sky like the sleeping erection of a Game of Thrones White Walker, was the Washington Monument. And it was all here in this one spot, probably the most spiritual real estate in the United States of America and this view was the money shot, ground zero for citizenship. You see where we started with the Washington Monument, a half assed General who fumbled his way into greatness by understanding his enemy and thinking differently than they were capable of thinking. He could have been an Emperor and in any other age would have been—if it hadn’t been for Cincinnatus, the old Roman statesman who gave up his power and went back to his farm. The best Americans have always had a magnetic pull to getting back to their farms. The worst live in suits and hang around 95% longer than they should.

In between the Lincoln Memorial's temple of sacrifice and possibility and that white obelisk never too far in the distance to see even through the rain, is the dream of the disenfranchised to secure an equal opportunity to build a better world with the rest of us, human beings working together irrespective of our trivial differences which are always rooted in temporal causality and never infect the spiritual bond that unites us all through our mortality.

I stood there for several seconds under the weight of this epiphany and started feeling the urge to move so with a look over my shoulder back to Lincoln, and a nod to myself, I exited the hall and stepped into the rain, now lighter than when I entered under Lincoln’s judging marble eyes. I had a goal I had to achieve now—get back to the hotel using my own two feet as locomotion.

I struggled with the stairs at first but eventually caught a cadence, running down to the reflecting pool. I saw other runners on the path nearby but I wanted to run the left hand path of the water that gazes back into you. I wanted to see the coins through the water, to know that so many of those were tied to patriots and citizens who still believe in the dream. I admit, I lost faith in the dream over the last decade. It was hard not to when bringing war to the world was the primary economic value of exchange Americans had to offer the rest of our species. It’s shameful. But it wasn’t always so and in fact, as that thought occurred to me, I came upon the circle of reverence and sublime respect that is the World War II Memorial.

I walked out under the Atlantic Theater and I assumed the Pacific Theater was on the other side. World War II is another period in history that I consider a sacred duty of every educated human being to understand deeply, along with the US Civil War and the US Revolutionary War. These three periods mark the price of individual freedom secured by a Republic of them, by them and for them.

And at dawn on a rainy May morning in the nation’s capital, I found myself standing in front of a wall of bronze stars with a large banner written in stone that proclaims, HERE WE MARK THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. It was another in a short series of overwhelming moments for me. Each one of those stars represented how many men? How many men who were fathers like I am, who were in the prime of their youth with choices that had nothing to do with dropping one’s life to become a weapon in a larger arsenal aimed at a noble goal? Totalitarianism is only dealt with by a united citizenry, a band of brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and more distant relatives and acquantainces and in the end the group is composed of not-so-complete strangers. After all, we Americans all live in the same ideological house, or at least we’re supposed to—it’s the house of the only country in the history of the human race that was built from an idea, shaped by the civil disagreement of geniuses beyond measure, pushing the structures of civilization forward past the bonds of temporal history and through the moral impediments that prevent all human beings from equally expressing joy in their lives. Why should that experience only be reserved for the privileged few?

Yes the crimes along the way were many and bloody. But the entire time the idea remained. It would not be crushed. The idea is still here with us today, the idea that we can create a better world together in spite of our differences, both great and small. In the mid-7th season Mad Men finale Don Draper gives Ted Chough the following advice, “You don’t have to work for us but you do have to work.” Every human being is born with a seed of possibility for work and every human being has the thing they were meant to work for, to dedicate their life to, and any action taken towards that dedicated goal should align with what’s best for the individual, for their family and friends, for the people they meet and ultimately for society at large. This assumes, of course, that the goal is a noble one, focused on bringing something great into the world, something that supports our planet and all the species that live upon it. Anything under this category should be considered morally legal. Anything that is a detriment to these purposes of protecting the rights of the individual to pursue happiness independent of other individuals or securing and shepherding the ecological resources that support all life, should be considered morally illegal. These are my beliefs and I’ve been accused of being too simple in my thoughts before. So without apologies, I believe that individual freedom and the price it exacts on responsible moral people throughout the generations should be a simple concept to understand and act from.

One of the most humbling parts of my journey

And time marched on for that morning run. I quickly walked around the circle of the state pillars, noting each state I had visited and lamenting there were far too many I hadn’t, thinking of the people I knew in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee and finally to Ohio. The pillar of Ohio had a taped grainy black and white photo on it of two young men standing proud in uniform next to one another in another time and place, another world altogether. It had been placed on the monument with a strong adhesive tape. There were also flowers but the last night’s rain storm had shredded them and half were blowing around the walkway, the white ribbon flapping in the mild swamp winds of Washington D.C. I thought of my wife’s grandfather who had sent me dozens of these types of photos when he and I worked together on his World War II biography. I miss that old man. I miss all the old men who fall away from us both too late and too soon.

The Ohio pillar of the World War II Memorial. Note the taped photograph at the bottom right of the pillar.

Off in the distance, the obelisk of the Washington Monument commanded my attention. I had seen it hundreds of times on television and in films but nothing quite prepares you for the unnatural, almost offensive way it pierces the skyline and I assume that’s the point. There is nothing natural about what America is. Natural is the will to power—Nietzsche was right about that. It may be natural for there to always be human beings enslaved to other human beings but that doesn’t mean it’s morally right and Americans are not a natural people. We have made things particularly difficult on ourselves to try and get things done. We set up our government with friction in mind, a balance of power that was shaken and remade during the last terrible decade of war and economic disaster. Yet we still stand, having elected the first President of color in our nation’s history and starting to ask ourselves these deeper questions about our national identify and our identity as freedom loving individuals who are concerned about the future of our planet and our ability to continue to live on it without blowing ourselves up or poisoning the wells and killing the crops. This is not a problem for experts and crusaders. This is a problem for the freedom loving individual and it will not be solved by firearms, except as an agonizing slow final solution, exacted after our species has long since slunk back to the trees as regressed apes from the cities and farms that human beings built.

Like running, we measure in small increments the movement towards freedom for the individual to pursue happiness unfettered by other people or by governments but happily giving back to both as a duty of cosmopolitan citizenship. We are, each of us, citizens of the Cosmos, made of stronger stuff than the hearts of stars that make up our bones, muscles and brains. We are the hope of liberty in the waking moment and we measure our progress towards our goals on the microscopic level of how many human beings are smiling and laughing at the same time around the world.

When we stop running towards something, we quickly find ourselves running away from everything. We each have a responsibility to pick up an oar and steer this ship of state back to right. Now let’s get our asses in gear and make it happen.