News that Eddie Izzard has run 43 marathons in 52 days will have been greeted in many quarters by bafflement. This is a man who tells jokes in women's clothing. When did he become a superman? But there is also something baffling about the feat itself. Would it really have mattered if he had run only 40 marathons – or four? Wasn't it a little arbitrary?
Pushing yourself to random, self-inflicted extremes is a remarkably popular pastime. Barely a month goes by without another unnecessary exploit being brought to our attention. One person rows the Atlantic, another cycles round the world, a third climbs Everest with obsolete equipment. They're all super-difficult – and super-gratuitous.
I know a man who once ran up and down 214 mountains in a single week, and someone else who ran seven marathons in seven continents in seven days (despite being blind). I admire both hugely. But there is something puzzling about their achievements. Previous generations endured pain because it was unavoidable. We are brave, not because we have to be, but because we choose to be.
Why do so many people torture themselves in pursuit of such goals? The obvious answer is: to raise money. (Izzard raised huge sums.) But I doubt that charity is often the whole answer. There are other, more efficient ways of raising money. Flogging ourselves to our limits is an end as much as a means.
I once devoted years of my life to the arbitrary goal of running up and down 42 mountains in 24 hours. I raised a decent amount of money, but that had little to do with it. What consumed me was my desperation to achieve the goal.
I don't mean to belittle Izzard's achievement, any more than I would belittle that of Phil Packer, the wounded Iraq veteran who spent 13 days completing this year's London marathon. There is heroism in such triumphs. But they are driven, I believe, by personal motives as much as public ones.
There is huge satisfaction in accomplishing something that you had thought far beyond you. But there is also comfort, in a chaotic and bewildering world, in having a goal that is essentially achievable. It isn't easy to run a marathon, let alone 43 marathons; but nor is it complicated. If you can just keep forcing yourself to put one foot in front of another, you will get there. Huge willpower is required – but not a great deal else.
You can't say the same about hanging on to your job, or bringing up your family right, or finding the right response to looming environmental catastrophe. The real world is too complicated to be susceptible to mere determination.
Perhaps such escapist motivation is a bit pathetic. I used to feel slightly ashamed of it in my days of fell-running obsession. Examples like Izzard's – and Packer's – soften my judgement. Men and women have been forcing themselves to put one foot in front of another since the first hunter-gatherers wore down their prey through persistence-hunting, and it is entirely natural that we should feel good – even in the face of pain – about doing so today. Like much that makes us human, it is simultaneously rather silly and, sometimes, rather noble.
Richard Askwith is the author of 'Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-running and Obsession' (Aurum, £8.99)