by Dante Zappala

I’ve become resolute in my belief that this scenario never works out. I’ve heard the line countless times. This is the M.O. for the entire city of Los Angeles, where I lived for five years. Whenever I buy in, the results are never what were intended, and I’m usually left worse off than when I started.

Still, I held out a little hope that this strategy would get me into the New York City Marathon. My training partner, Marielle, knew someone who knew someone. Perhaps I could use that connection to deliver my pitch: I’ll be 40 this fall and I think I can compete for a top 10 spot in the Master’s division.

I became focused on running a fall marathon in the last few weeks. The mileage has been high and steady and I’ve gotten in the right head space to prepare for and run a marathon again.

I had been talking through my plan with Marielle, and she offered to help. We had been half-joking about bartering favors. I’d been pacing her through tempo runs. She offered shoes in return. I countered with suggesting she could babysit my boys. But if she could pull this off and get me into the marathon, I would be paying her back well into the future.

What I love about running is that the advantages one gains are, by-and-large, the direct result of effort. The luck of knowing someone or being granted favors exists in the periphery. If it’s New York or Harrisburg, I can run a marathon this fall.

The sport is based on a personal sacrifice that offers the reward of ownership. It’s the conservative viewpoint, the bootstraps approach.

But the reason I put a premium on it in running is that the theorem holds true there. In the real world, it’s a sham. Generational poverty, violence and racism are driven by institutional factors that are far beyond an individual. To tell someone that they can overcome these things if they just work hard is both naïve and dangerous. Yes, it can happen for one person. But it can’t happen on a large scale precisely because the system is designed for it not to happen.

In a recent exchange with Julius Jones, a Black Lives Matter activist, Hillary Clinton concluded that it would take people advocating for themselves to enact change. If the movement was waiting for white people to care, they’d already failed. She was ringing the bell of personal responsibility and accountability.

This missed the point entirely. At its core, the Black Lives Matter movement is saying that the problems are not of their making or of their solving. The solution starts with the oppressors recognizing and stopping the oppression. And that requires absorbing the fact that black lives do indeed matter.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, “Between the World and Me,” is even more succinct in making this argument. He points out that blackness is as much a creation as whiteness. The labels are the inventions of a hierarchy. But the end result of that hierarchy is a racist society that is inherently supported through the destruction of black lives.

In her letter of support to get me into the marathon, Marielle pointed to my running with her as a key to her success. I had helped her achieve her goals, she said. I think the opposite. Everything she’s done – an NCAA championship, runner-up at U.S. Nationals and now a chance to shine at the World Championships – has been a direct result of her commitment and determination. And seeing that inspires me to get out there to offer some help where I can.

Her appeal worked. I got in to the race. Still, it remains that in the world of running, the individual controls the mechanisms of success. Gaining entrance to the NYC Marathon is an opportunity, but it’s up to me to run the time I keep saying I can.

Occasionally, we get the chance to help each other and runners are among the most willing I’ve seen in that regard. The sense of community persists and, indeed, flourishes within the most individualized of sports.

But it’s not a lesson or even an alternative for the world. Out here, we are not judged by time, where the fastest person wins and everyone else is happy with their effort. In this game, the winners get to live. As Coates’ might argue, they have ownership over their bodies. The losers have a different plight. They were never even invited to the starting line.

We are far from pure and it’s the responsibility of the winners to change that.