CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Our two-person political science department has completed, collectively, 19 marathons, and, like every other marathoner we know, we each remember our personal best times to the second. We were impressed by Paul Ryan's claim that he ran a sub-three-hour marathon, but were later disappointed to learn that he, in fact, ran only one marathon and his actual time was more than an hour slower than his original assertion.
We were at first astounded that someone running for vice president would tell such a specific, ridiculous and pointless lie on national radio. A four-hour marathon is a perfectly respectable time, and it makes far more sense to be proud of an actual accomplishment than a fiction. Many people will readily accept that Mr. Ryan just made a mistake. That he simply misremembered his time. It was, after all, over 20 years ago.
In our experience, however, marathoners are obsessive about accuracy when discussing their race times, always quick to distinguish between gun time and chip time, to acknowledge good weather or bad, hilly courses or flats. A kind of reflexive respect for those who are faster guards against anything that might smack of exaggeration. We know we're not Meb Kflezighi, and that what we do is only vaguely related to what he does, and that knowledge is humbling, rather than deflating.
In retrospect, however, the trivial lie about the marathon time is similar to the momentous misleading fiction that Mr. Ryan has been peddling about returning our country to fiscal balance. We think it is useful to examine the two tales together because they both substitute bluster for reality.
Completing a marathon in under three hours is a remarkable achievement, attained by less than 2 percent of the half-million Americans who complete a marathon in any given year. People who run such times are remarkably fit; that is, they look like Paul Ryan.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of us, including many people who are as lean as Paul Ryan, simply cannot reasonably aspire to times of less than three hours (which requires running 26 consecutive miles in less than seven minutes each). We are limited by the facts of our lives: our frame, age, our ability to train, our aerobic efficiency, our tolerance for pain. Even if we could accomplish the feat once, it does not mean that we can accomplish it now. We adults know that even our ambitious goals must be realistic.
The more egregious fiction Mr. Ryan told in late August was not about marathons but rather about our collective ability to constrain federal spending to 20 percent of GDP and balance the budget, while still keeping our promises to our older citizens and keeping the American dream alive for future generations.