The Solitude of a Virtual Marathon

Published on October 14, 2021

“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an inner scorecard or an outer scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an inner scorecard.”

— Warren Buffett

People who rely primarily on external feedback to stay motivated face significant handicaps in life. No one can reach their full potential by being a slave to the transitory opinions of others. At the same time, most human beings are highly social creatures who strive for the acceptance and belonging that comes with approval of a peer group. Acceptance and support from a peer group can be very motivating when harnessed in healthy ways.

Since March 2020, all sorts of human interactions have been upended and replaced with “virtual” substitutes that are not really substitutes at all. The disastrous experiment of remote learning for young children has resulted in a lost year of education, at least for children who do not have wealthy parents who can afford extensive tutoring. Remote work has been more successful, although it appears that people are finally returning to offices in greater numbers. There was no “virtual” substitute at all for blue collar workers. And no, we were not “all in this together”. 

The sudden shift from interacting with other humans to working or learning alone has been difficult for most people but particularly hits those who thrive on external validation — which is what Warren Buffett has referred to as an “outer scorecard”. Those of us with “inner scorecards” have been somewhat better equipped to cope with the pandemic.

An inner scorecard is beneficial, but only up to a point. We cannot completely deny the importance of operating within a society or ignore the benefits that come from social interaction, including the feedback of others. 

I had plenty of opportunities to reflect on the importance of external validation when I recently ran a very solitary “virtual marathon”. Long distance runners probably have a greater sense of an inner scorecard compared to the average person due to the months of training required to prepare for a race. Although I occasionally run with a group, well over 90% of my training runs are solitary. Going for long runs in the pre-dawn hours to beat the summer heat and staying motivated inherently requires a strong inner scorecard.

However, in normal times, most runners training for a race can at least mentally picture the race day environment and successfully crossing the finish line in front of cheering spectators. This is true whether you are trying to actually win a race or just competing for a personal record far from the front of the pack. 

The race day environment is anything but solitary. From the moment you arrive at the starting area of a race, you are joined by hundreds or thousands of other runners who would be strangers to you in normal day-to-day life but are suddenly transformed into people who know exactly what you have been training for and what you are experiencing. The common purpose and excitement at the starting line is contagious and propels the runners forward when the starting gun goes off. 

An old joke in running circles is that the half-way point in a marathon is not 13.1 miles but 20 miles. Your goal is to get through the first twenty miles in reasonable enough shape to put in a good effort for the final 10K. And it is in those final miles where the social cohesion of the field is very important, along with crowd support. No matter how strong your internal motivation might be, this support helps you keep going to the finish. All of this is external, supplied by people you do not know but are nevertheless cheering for you to succeed. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, when you take away all of these elements, what you are left with is entirely internal — the inner scorecard. When I started my “virtual marathon”, it was just an ordinary Friday morning, and no one had any idea what I was doing. I started my timer and was on my way. For the first twenty miles or so, this was perfectly fine because it replicated the many long training runs I had completed over the summer. 

But in the final stretch, there is no doubt that I missed the camaraderie of other runners and the cheering spectators. I ended up slowing down, not because I had hit the dreaded “wall” and run out of energy but because there was something missing – an external scorecard. Without crowd support and other runners, it simply was not the same as running in a real race. 

I arranged my virtual run to end at the Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, since this is the traditional finish line of the Marine Corps Marathon. When I crossed the virtual finish line, there were a few people milling around the memorial, but no one had any idea that I had just finished a marathon, no one was there to present me with a finisher’s medal, no band was playing, and there was no beer garden. It was my eighth marathon but didn’t feel like a real marathon at all because it was “virtual”. 

Running a virtual marathon in isolation is a relatively trivial example compared to the massive changes we have seen over the past eighteen months. But I think that the lessons apply more broadly. In the case of education, students benefit from the guidance of in person instruction and interactions with peers. This is especially true for younger children. Office workers benefit from the serendipity that only comes from interaction in person and can never be replicated in a Zoom call. 

Replacing the real world with a virtual world will never serve as a true substitute. The limitation does not come from shortcomings in technology. It is due to human nature.

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The Solitude of a Virtual Marathon
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