Thursday, February 16, 2017

Video Games and the Myth of Process


This past December, Nintendo released their first video game for Apple’s iPhone. Curiously, it is about running. Mario Run, a zany side-scrolling game in the Super Mario universe, features the eponymous Mario, the famous overall-wearing plumber, on yet another quest to save his girlfriend, Princess Peach, from the evil turtle-king Bowser.


In Mario Run, the heroic Mario runs... and runs... and runs. You, the player, guide Mario as he dashes through numerous levels filled with pipes, chasms, and creatures that block your way. Unlike other versions of the game franchise, in Mario Run you cannot stop Mario’s forward movement. You can only adjust how he sprints, jumps, and flips his way through each level. Mario always tries to run forward. If he gets stuck at an obstacle that requires a jump, he waves his hands in discombobulated confusion. If he slams into an enemy, he wails in despair as he falls off screen.


Mario’s run after Princess Peach is like something from a Samuel Beckett play.  He simply never stops running. Mario cannot pause, even for a moment. While he might momentarily vault backwards off a wall, the plumber immediately turns his head back to the quest, compelled inexorably forward. “Onwards! Onwards!” he seems to say to himself. It’s like watching the agonies at the end cross country race, when every runner’s face is set in a sneer of self-flagellation toward the finish line.

Mario’s movement is constant, a red blur of unstoppable forward momentum. His is an un-arrested flight, like the Internet videos of crazed parkour athletes in post-Soviet nations. Except rather than sliding through the ruins of failed totalitarian economies, Mario flips, vaults, and sprints through a Technicolor dreamscape of mushroom forests, yellow deserts, and spooky caverns. He careens through dungeons and zooms over clouds. He bounces incessantly over Goombas. Indeed, it is Mario that is the aggressor here, hurdling over his opponents and smashing in the heads of creatures that seem to be otherwise minding their own business. No matter.  Mario is, quite simply, unable to stop running.


When I played Mario Run, the experience felt strangely personal. It wasn’t just that I had grown up playing Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo. Indeed, Mario Run is utterly different from its predecessor video games. In the earlier games, the player also guided Mario forward on a quest to save the Princess. But you needed to explore each world, to ponder Mario’s route through a level. Success required ferreting out secrets and discovering secret passages. Sure, there was a count-down timer that forced you to the finish of each level, but the point wasn’t just to win. You were also supposed to have an adventure. It was far removed from the headlong rush of Mario Run.

I realized that the evolution of Mario from red-overalled adventurer, to over-caffeinated super-marathoner, paralleled my own changing relationship with distance running.
When I started running, it was to see what was out there. I ran along neighborhood roads, cutting through the woods of new-growth forests that divided the sprawling suburbs. I was curious what was hiding under and along the trees. I ran out on country lanes. I was not really trying to get anywhere in particular. I ran simply to see were the road went.

Things changed in high school. I became consumed with that deep and laudable goal to become the best possible runner I could possibly be, no matter the cost. It was, like Mario’s run for the elusive princess, my own personal quest.

When you devote yourself to competitive distance running, “process” is important. Indeed, commentary emphasizing “process” over “Big Goals” is everywhere in running coaching and journalism these days. Pay attention to yourself, be mindful of your habits, be aware of your approach to life and your surroundings. Adjust the little things for optimal results. Even good efforts like a PR or strong race, are merely the means to the end of further self-improvement. Only process is important because there is no stopping, not really. There are many finish lines, but a distance runner can always go faster and train better. She can get a bit more sleep and do a bit more core-work. She can push a little bit farther, a little bit harder. Process is the end in itself.

“I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit,” the famous sushi chef, Jiro Ono, once said in describing his life’s vocation to prepare the best possible food. “I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach for the top… but no one knows where the top is.” All of us, like Mario and Jiro, are constantly striving forward to a destination that is everywhere and nowhere. Process is everything. But only because we are on an endless treadmill of self-overcoming.


“How very bleak,” I thought as I powered down my phone after a bout of running Mario through a veritable genocide of Goombas. Had I become a fleshly facsimile of Mario? Was I so relentless focused on my own improvement that I had stopped enjoying the sport?

These thoughts followed me out the door as I went out for a run. Maybe I need to reclaim a bit of the innocent juvenilia of my youth. A light winter snow flurry picked up as contemplated my interest in the sport. Perhaps I might schedule certain runs as moments of exploration, discovery, and play? Hmm. Scheduling adventure seemed the very antithesis of thing itself.

I had jogged myself into a paradox, a dungeon of my own making. I winced away some snow from my eyes, put my head down, and, like Mario, ran onwards.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Running in TrumpLand



The month after I graduated from high school the local textile mill closed down. It was the largest single-day layoff in the history of North Carolina. The mill near my hometown had been an economic institution since the late nineteenth century. Globalization was mostly to blame for the closure: the shift of capital to cheaper labor in South Asia shut down the remaining textile plants in the South, which still had to pay for things like a minimum wage and occupational safety standards.

The writing had been on the wall for some time. Years earlier—the month my family moved to Concord, North Carolina, just outside the mill—Wal-Mart stopped buying the textile plant’s products after the owners refused to move production overseas. After that it was just a matter of time. Wal-Mart started buying their towels and bed linens from south Asian manufacturers. Creaky textile mills in India and Bangladesh, employing folks at slave wages in buildings prone to collapse, ultimately shuttered my town's biggest employer. The immediate region’s economic core was hollowed out, but hey, everyone else in the country got cheaper towels and pillow cases. The town immediately surrounding the mill declined into a series of empty brick buildings and sagging houses with peeling, whitewashed walls.

This was where I grew up.

I was twelve when the mill started to collapse under the pressures of the global economy. Like most twelve-year olds, I really wasn’t paying much attention. My parents, professional imports to the area, were safe from layoffs. It wasn’t until I started running competitively—and began logging in training miles—that I came to know my hometown on foot.

There are few parks in the South; open space is mostly contained to the Appalachians. Instead there are country roads, long streaks of shoulderless pavement curve along low-slung hills. When I run back home, I always feel close to the ground, like a marble rolling low along the features of the terrain. In the Carolina Piedmont, the horizon is short. One cannot see far beyond oneself. Thick, new-growth trees have emerged from sharecropped fields, held back from reaching the asphalt by decaying fences. One’s view is constrained and the sky is a band of blue limited to path of the road. In the winter, the ground along the road is soggy and fecund. In the summer, the air sits heavy on the road like a pressure cooker, dank with heat and humidity. It is warm and stagnant and beautiful.

I ran along roads made obsolete by the interstate system. Some streets were named after families that had settled there: Neisler, Burrage, Peninger. Other roads recalled former work commutes and destinations: Old Concord-Salisbury Road, Gold Hill Road, Mt. Pleasant Road. Still others were memories of cultures and economies that had faded from existence: Flowe's Store Road, Pioneer Mill Road, and Irish Potato Road. This was the tarmac that defined my life for eight years: neighborhoods bounded by unproductive rural spaces, small-town streets lined by homes with fading paint, burgeoning subdivisions alongside freeways.


On summer weeknights, I would run through town. My loop brought me past the methadone clinic, complete with a queue of skinny folks stretching out the door. Some would look up as I jogged past. Most kept their heads down, baseball caps pulled low over their eyes. I would pad over broken, uneven sidewalks that bounded restaurants off the freeway. Several chains rotated through the same buildings over the years: Shoney’s, Chiles, Long John Silvers, Applebees. The few local businesses here—a furniture store, a local hardware shop—eventually closed, and were replaced by gas stations and consignment stores. Others sat empty. The town wasn't blighted. It just wasn't very good either.

For a time, the housing bubble veneered over the economic rot. Contractors would zoom past me on older trucks, laden with construction gear. Sometimes they would give an encouraging honk. Usually they just leered at the shirtless white kid, boiling in the summer humidity. For me, the steady expanse of housing sprawl meant an ever-ready source of portable toilets. I could be anywhere in town and  facilities were nearby if needed. Were I to experience an unexpected quiver of the bowels, it was certain that a portable toilet rested within a quarter-mile. But it was not to last. When I graduated from college, the last big manufacturer in the area, a Philip Morris cigarette factory, was shuttered. With it the large-scale industry ended in Concord. In short order, the fake housing economy popped, and the unsustainable exurban growth outside towns like Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh collapsed. In 2008, the plastic toilets disappeared.

My parents, hoping to downsize from the house I grew up in, moved into the home of a former factory manager at Philip Morris, who was forced to move because of the closure. My folks erroneously assumed they could buy first, and then sell their old place in the ever-hot New South housing market. But they were caught out when the bubble burst weeks after they closed on the new house, stuck with the mortgages for both homes. It took them years to finally sell the home of my childhood. Between 2008 and 2012, I would return home from France, or Colorado, or England, or wherever I was in my slow transition to the “global elite,” and I would see ever more for-sale signs hanging before empty houses. Out running my usual loops, the town was quieter. Roads had less traffic. The sidewalks in Concord’s ever-struggling downtown were even emptier. Even the fast-food joints near the interstate struggled.

It got better. My hometown transitioned into the Obama-era service economy with some success. Several big box stores opened up. These sprawling parking-lot warehouse complexes hawk cheap Chinese-made computer and electronic widgets. Low-scale eateries offer starchy sandwiches. The area's endemic diabetes and cholesterol-induced diseases can be treated at a local hospital, now part of an ever-growing corporate hospital system that employs my father. The post-industrial pivot to the boutique is also happening in Concord, albeit haphazardly. An old mill warehouse is transitioning slowly into a mixed commercial-residential site. The town’s first couple breweries have opened there. A bar with decent beer has actually survived downtown. My brother plays there with his country-music band. And, to my utter shock, a bike lane was painted onto a major thoroughfare…though it ends abruptly and without warning at a clavicle-smashing storm drain. Coming home for visits recently, there is a tangible optimism in my hometown that has developed in the last five or six years. Ask anyone, anywhere and they will say that their hometown is doing great. It's just the country that's in the wrong direction.

Class, however, is not just about money. It is about sensibility—perspectives of relationships to others. It is how one experiences the world as an embodied self, one related in situ to a network of operating forces. Class is a story of people and, from my perspective, people in motion.

Large numbers of my high school friends served overseas in the military, usually the Marines. Many of these people were my teammates on high school track and cross country teams. I ran intervals with these guys, got rides to practices from them, sat beside them on smelly school buses to meets all over North Carolina. We held each other up after races, keeling over in oxygen debt. I recall being on a 1600-meter relay team that won our county championship meet. I was the only person on the relay team that didn't go to Iraq.

2016 revealed how startlingly far apart we had traveled since graduation. Judging by what they post online, many of my old friends hold deeply authoritarian views. They are skeptical of American democracy as set of norms, beliefs, and Enlightenment practices. They are deeply invested in the jingoist cult of violence that has festered since 2001.

Donald Trump speaking in Concord, North Carolina on November 3, 2016.  I got my high school diploma on that stage. Getty Images.

When I went to college, to run at Furman University in South Carolina, I descended deeper into this worldview. To describe upstate South Carolina as "more racist" is not quite correct—though its legacies of white nationalism are well known—rather its peculiar cultural mythos is more intense. The lapel-pin patriotism that developed during the Bush years was acute. Evangelicism was vocal and present, a form of identity one wore like a Gamecocks sweatshirt. This was a culture of militant Americanism—one defined by portly white men, extreme skepticism toward non-Christians, fear of ethnic urbanism, and anger toward smug, white liberals. In the Carolina Piedmont, the horizon is short. One cannot see far beyond oneself.

Elites from the coastal cities cling to Berkeleyish sentiment that the white-working class, despite the flaws in its worldview, consists of fundamentally good people. This has not been my experience. People are not fundamentally good or bad. People are not fundamentally anything. People are fundamentally plastic: shaped by the cultural, communal, and social values out of which they are constructed. And when those values appear threatened, people can be utterly vile.

Running along Carolina roads between 2000 and 2010 was an experience of sustained hostility, punctuated by moments of real violence. While out running in rural Carolina I have been spit on, had lit cigarettes and bottles of beer thrown at me by passing cars. Both men and women have called me a “faggot” more times I can count. (Being the target of homophobia is an inherent risk if you wander outdoors in running shorts.) I have gotten into scuffles with white men of all ages. Running with my college team in Greenville, an old man in his seventies once pulled off the road to curse us out because we forced him to swerve around us. How do you argue with a 70-year-old about whether you have a right to run down a road? This kind of harassment was constant. Almost weekly, a car would swerve toward us at high speed, forcing us to scramble off the shoulder. When we traveled to northern California for the Stanford Invite, my team was utterly baffled when cars actually stopped to let us run through a pedestrian crossing. “Can you believe it?” my teammate asked, astonished. “They would have simply run us over in South Carolina, before calling the police to report us for jaywalking.” It was a nice reprieve. Two weeks later, back in the South, a carload of high school kids nailed me with a Solo cup filled with beer. The year after I graduated, two guys came up from behind me with their car and knocked me over with their door. They gave me the bird as they drove off. I used to joke with friends that, while I couldn’t be certain of the exact details of my death, I knew it would involve an angry white guy and a pre-owned Chevy Cavalier.

Trump Rally, Concord, NC, November 3, 2016. Getty Images.
We might explain this hostility as the result of broken economies and broken spirits. This is the explanation trending now as metropolitan elites struggle to process the presidential election of a bigoted, misogynist incompetent. I certainly saw the communal breakdown that enabled Trump out along the streets and roads of the South. Once out running through rural Kentucky, I made the mistake of cutting through a trailer park. Old furniture and appliances in various states of decay were strewn across lawns. Eyes stared out from darkened windows. Eventually, a pack of skinny dogs set after me and chased me half a mile beyond the park’s boundaries. A few years later, wandering through the Appalachian foothills near Caesar’s Head, I stumbled upon a meth lab set up in an RV. Another time, running strides on my high school’s soccer field, I stepped on a set of used syringes. Thankfully, the needles did not break through my shoe. Once eating a post-run brunch at Cracker Barrel, our waitress went into insulin shock because she hadn’t had time to eat during her shift. After sipping on some orange juice, she was back waiting tables before we left. In 2010 I took a detour on a run through a new subdivision outside Charlotte, one built two years earlier on the eve of the Bush recession. For two uninterrupted miles I ran past empty, bank-owned houses. Here was the American dream, indefinitely deferred. Trump’s America was in plain sight if you were moving through it on foot.

The Left is now overcompensating—as it usually does—scrambling to find new empathy for the white working class. But if the Trump voter deserves empathy, she does not deserve lionization. It's easy for me to fall quickly into scorn. I think of a college teammate, who once told me on a run he would never vote Democrat because “they only help niggers who don’t want to work.” But for all his valorization of white labor, I never once saw him studying in the library. I also think of the guys in high school, who told me every semester they were going to join the track team, but ended up not having the grades because they skipped trigonometry to huff chemicals in the boy’s bathroom. I recall conversations on runs with Republican chickenhawks, who put yellow ribbons on their cars in support of the troops, but bristled at the idea of raising more taxes to pay for their body armor.

Finally I recall Matt, one of my first training partners from high school. Matt talked a big game about his running goals, how he was going to get super fit the next season. But whenever I would call to ask him about joining for a training run or some interval work, he would opt out, citing a party, or tendonitis, or some girl. A few years ago I was home for the holidays, running around town on a long run. Matt happened to drive by in his car. He noticed me and called out hello. I waved in response. The car drove past, then Matt strangely slammed on his brakes and pulled the car over in front me. To my surprise, he stormed out, screaming, “What the fuck was that man? What the fuck? Are you wanting to get messed up today?”  It was, yet again, a moment where a white southerner had me utterly flummoxed. “Oh, I thought you gave me the middle finger,” Matt eventually confessed, after I explained I had no idea what he was talking about. I hadn’t seen the guy in years, but a perceived slight led him to nearly take my head off.

This is the honor culture that has infected America through Appalachian migration, motorsports, and Benghazi memes. My brother, who went to Clemson and now lives in Salisbury, North Carolina, (which went for Trump by 37 points) knows the culture better than I do. He once told me, “People call southerners, ‘rednecks’. But they should know that the rednecks aren’t just in the South. They are everywhere... And they are really pissed off.”  He was right. A couple years ago, I was up in rural New Hampshire for the US mountain running championships. After the race I jogged through a tough looking neighborhood in the hosting ski town. I came up on a group of kids, all of them no older than nine or ten. They sat on bikes and eyed me with suspicion as I ran past. “Go on back to Boston, you fairy,” they called out after me. I figured explaining that I actually live near San Francisco wouldn’t help matters, so I ignored them.

This was my experience running through Trump’s America. Even in my hometown, where I spent fifteen years of my life, if I leave the house in running shorts I become a foreign import. My jogging body is another example of the cosmic forces besieging local lives: NAFTA, hipsters, Mexicans, headscarves, Obamacare, liberal professors. Coastal elites discovered this year how deep the resentment runs. Run through rural America and you’ll quickly find a zero-sum worldview, one in which leftist-populist ideas of social democracy, tolerance, and fair trade hold little appeal. These will be tough sells.

More worrying is the evisceration of the values that, until last November, defined America. For me, running is hopeful audacity made manifest. Competitive running is a sport in which the fastest person wins. It doesn’t matter if you are black or brown or purple, if you worship Christ or God or snakes, if you are gay or straight or celibate, if you like burritos or meatloaf. Being the best, the fastest, the smartest, that is what truly matters in running. Everything else is just background.  But after this year, being the best doesn’t matter as much. Anyone can be president. Anyone. Being a decent person matters less, holding onto moral decency matters less. Being the fastest, being the smartest, being the strongest, these things are less important after 2016. Cruelty, bigotry, blind zeal, and double-think are the order of the day. We are now in the wilderness. Thankfully, I have spent a great deal of time there already.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

My Sub-Elite Life with an Elite Girlfriend: LA Marathon, 2015


This is the first in a series of entries on my life as a sub-elite runner with an elite girlfriend. My partner is a talented, respected distance runner on the elite marathon and ultra-marathon scene. I am not. Here are some stories of life chasing after her coattails.

LA Marathon, 2015.


Caitlin and I arrived at LAX the afternoon before the race. We sit in traffic for ninety minutes, crawling through the Friday commute. Our driver, sent by the race organizers, is friendly. Caitlin is part of the elite field for LA, which provides certain amenities for its invited athletes. If I did not date Caitlin, I would currently be in a cab, paying a nickel a minute for this awful drive through Inglewood. Instead, the driver offers me a bottle of water: “I have Powerade too, if you need some electrolytes.” Let me be very clear, I have exploited my elite girlfriend. I have milked the perks. I have cooled down with Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor. I have filched coffee from hospitality suites. I have played the voyeur at the Olympic Trials. I have sat behind Kara Goucher and Dathan Ritzenhein at pre-race meetings, silently freaking my shit out. I am an imposter—a phony, hiding behind a skinny mien and over-sized quadriceps.

As I mentioned, Caitlin is part of the elite field for the race, which is serving as the marathon championships for the USATF. I am not part of the elite field. But I have been training like a madman, hoping to crack 2:25 for the first time. I am fit. I am ready. I have 1,500 recently minted miles in my legs, aerobic currency I hope to cash in this weekend. My sinews are steel springs. I am ready to scald dogs and race Satan himself through Brentwood. But first I need to find my bib race number.

Caitlin’s race number is in the race hotel in downtown, where we are staying. The hotel is dated; it was once a grand building that hosted the celebrities of the last century. Now the molding is cracking around the edges and in the corners; eggshell paint is lifting off the walls; chandeliers twinkle bluntly in memory of the excesses of a bygone age. We find Caitlin’s bib easily enough at the hospitality suite, which takes up an entire floor of the hotel. But this is distance running, so the floor feels empty and weirdly like a music video set from the 1990s. I help her fill up her water bottles that will be arranged conveniently on the course. Several semi-famous professional runners are also in the suite, filling up their bottles. I will not have pre-filled water bottles. I will drink from those waxy cups offered on course. This is fine. I have come to accept these little inequalities. Running is one of the last meritocratic institutions in American society, and my previous marathon efforts do not measure up for a national championship. So it goes.

But, I do need to find my bib race number. I am told non-elite bibs are at the Staples Center, nearly two miles from the hotel. “You’ll have to wrestle with the masses and all the other normals,” a race official says cheerfully. I laugh and thank the man, secretly praying he passes a kidney stone tonight. A heat wave has settled over Los Angeles and it is over ninety degrees outside. I spring for a cab. Arriving at the Staples Center, I try to figure out a way to cut through the race expo. I do not want to try on shoes, or eat free samples of Cliffbars. I do not want to take selfies in front of the marathon “selfie-wall.” I want my bib, which I find without too much duress.

The marathon expo, sponsored by an infomercial blender company.

I struggle to get a cab for the return trip since I’m competing with hundreds of others at the expo. I walk a few blocks away from the Staples Center and manage to snag a taxi in the thinning crowd. I get back. Caitlin and I eat dinner, and we go to bed early for the race morning.

The morning of the race, as we snap on our various polyester garments, we look over our travel plans. As an elite athlete, Caitlin will be shuttled from the hotel over to the start line with the other invited runners. The printed marathon program for the masses, myself included, mentions buses that will pick up runners from a few spots around downtown. Our friend Linn shared a room with us last night. She is also racing and, like me, she does not warrant an elite shuttle ride to the start at Dodger’s Stadium. She and I walk the several blocks to the bus pickup.

Dozens of LA Metro buses have been commandeered to ferry runners up to the stadium. Lynn and I line up at the stop, behind other runners waiting. It is 5:30am, but ungodly warm. The night has done little to cool off the air. We are loaded up onto a bus. The driver shouts, “We need to fill to capacity! Every seat! Up until standing room only!” Linn and I enter the bus as the seats fill up. Some sort of high school training group take all the seats. (What insane PE teacher has suggested high school kids run a marathon?), Linn and I are forced to stand. The bus is literally 4000 feet away from the starting line, but the driver makes the mistake of getting on the freeway. We sit in traffic. Lynn and I make idle chatter in the hot stagnant bus air, but it’s hard to hear because the school kids are loud and excited.

After fifteen minutes, I decide I should try to get off my feet and sit down in the bus’s exit stairwell. I immediately regret the decision. I have sat in something wet and greasy. I shift positions and try to wipe the damp off my butt. Oh, gross. I hazard a sniff. Thankfully it is probably just a mix of soda and dirt, but I pick up slight scents of urine. Someone peed on this bus once.

My phone starts buzzing in my jacket pocket. Caitlin is calling. 
“Hi,” I say, over the screams of the high school students.
“Woah,” Caitlin responds to the din. “Where are you?”
“I’m still on the metro bus with Linn. Where are you?”
“Oh, ok,” she says. “I’m in the Ketel One Lounge.”  Christ. Here I am, sitting on the floor of a public bus, surrounded by giddy fifteen-year-olds, my hands covered in God-knows-what, and my girlfriend is in a stadium VIP room sponsored by a vodka company.

Well. So it goes.

Caitlin wants to know if I am interested in warming up with her; but at this point the bus lurches into movement, sparking off another round of chattering by the high school group. I lose cell signal. We finally roll into the stadium parking lot. We unload off the bus. I never connect with Caitlin before the start, and I lose Linn after we queue up for separate bathrooms. I take in my surroundings.

LA is a hellish place in the best of times. But this morning seems particularly apocalyptic. There is an acid taste in the air. Santa Ana winds are supplementing the LA basin’s usual quota of monoxide by blowing a dry dust across southern California. It is 80 degrees at 7am. Herds of people are being corralled via fencing and blow horn instructions into various holding areas. It is like a disaster film, but with a lot more Lycra. “So, this is how the world ends,” I think as I take off on my warm-up.

The air tasted like Bladerunner.
The race has hired an event management squad for the specific purpose of preventing people from peeing in the bushes around the stadium. One threatens to take my race number if I hazard a piss in a collection of shrubs. Lacking time to wait again in the port-a-jon line, I pee in a bottle and then empty it into a potted plant near the starting line. My hands are now most certainly covered in urine. I hope, with no small amount of envy, that Caitlin enjoys the Ketel One Lounge and its flushing toilets. I see her as the female elites are ushered to the starting line. The elite women are sent off fifteen minutes before the rest of us. It’s one of those staggered affairs like in Boston. Eventually, I find myself in the third row back from the start line. I am already thirsty and wondering at which mile the first aid station is located. The gun goes off.

I run terribly. Most people do, given the temperature and toxic air quality. I run conservatively, realizing early on that 2:25 is most certainly not in the cards today. But by the sixteen-mile mark, despite a pace that felt pedestrian two weeks ago, the wheels are most certainly falling off. I suffer through. Otherwise I have no idea how else I’ll get back to our hotel.

What a tough day. But as I approach the finish line, I am struck by the sudden thought that I should try to pass a set of runners a dozen yards ahead of me. I doubt I am anywhere near the money payout; but won’t I feel like an ass-hat if it turns out I missed out on a bit of cash because I was lazy in the last 250 meters? So, I lean into the last little stretch and out-kick the group. Victory! Yet, as I cross the line, I look over at my opponents. I realize the group contained Sarah Hall, who is suffering quite badly from heat stroke. She has collapsed on the asphalt, legs seizing in cramps. Damn it. Now I feel like the ass-hat that kicked down a nice lady suffering from heat exhaustion.

What. A. Bastard.

I hang out in the finish corral as other finishers arrive in ones and twos. I passed Caitlin (who had started earlier with the elite women) in Beverly Hills, and she arrives at the finish in short order. She has suffered in the heat as well. It is a bad day for both of us. After a quick recap of our morning-thus-far, we are again separated. Caitlin is loaded onto the elite charter bus. I hear someone offering beer and lattes in the elite/VIP mix zone around the bus. I am left in the finish corral, pondering how to get myself back to downtown LA from Santa Monica.

There are rumors of a shuttle bus that will ferry finishers back to the start. But none of the volunteers seem to know where those buses meet. I wander around, asking anyone who seems to be affiliated with the race. Does the shuttle even exist? Moneyless, succumbing to despair, and wondering whether Uber drivers accept payment in sexual favors, I happen upon a policeman. “Oh yeah,” he says, scratching his beard. “I think I saw a whole bunch of school buses lined up behind the mall.” Victory.

Off I go, dehydrated, quads shot from running on desiccated muscles. I cut through the mall, cutting quite the figure as I limp through Nordstrom’s in my sweat-soaked singlet and racing shorts. I take off my race number, content with being just a weirdo, as opposed to the particular kind of weirdo who shops for menswear immediately after a marathon. “Have you seen any school buses?” I ask a vendor selling Dippin' Dots near the mall’s exit. He doesn’t know about any shuttles, but gives me a free sample.
"Dippin' Dots! Because who needs food when you can eat a high school chemistry experiment?"
Eventually, I find my way to the Santa Monica City Hall, where there is a line of school buses, nearly a mile from the finish line (or four department stores depending on how you reckon the distance). “At last! I’m saved!” I drag my dehydrated body onto the school bus; the driver graciously unwinds the door with a smile. I drop myself onto the beautifully fake leather of the plastic seats—the first moment off my feet since the grimy Metrobus stairwell. Again, I take solace in another small victory. Then we sit. And sit. And sit. 

You see, I am well ahead of the bell-curve of the race’s participants, and this bus is not going to move until it is filled to capacity. After twenty minutes, a second runner finally enters the bus. Holy pancakes. I am going to die.

I am incredibly hungry. I eat the half of a banana I picked up in the finish corral. I have already eaten the free wooden spoonful of Dip-n-Dots. Some time later, we reach a critical mass of bodies that the driver deems suitable for departure. Someone, also suffering from dehydration, throws up in the back of the bus.

I am thirsty. I am tired. I am sad. I will, for some reason, irrationally do something like this again. The bus cranks loudly into life. We lurch forward, up onto the 10. So we beat on against the traffic, our butts against the pleather seats, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 



Saturday, March 26, 2016

Heritage in Light of Atrocity

John Underhill, "The figure of the Indian's fort or Palizado", from Nevves from America; or, A new and experimentall discoverie of New England, London: 1638.

My grandfather once told me that my personal heritage did not make me better than anyone else; but that it was mine to use and draw strength from. Part of this, I think, requires not glossing over the grotesque moments that are part of everyone's past, myself included. I thought of this as I came across a passage from William Bradford, part of the separatist Scrooby congregation led by my forebear, John Robinson, and governor of the Plymouth “Pilgrims” Colony in Massachusetts.

During the Pequot War, the first of several genocidal conflicts in seventeenth-century New England, the English colonies fought the Pequots, a tribe of indigenous people in a vicious series of battles during the 1630s. Bradford, a thoughtful and community-oriented man, rejoiced while watching the destruction of a Pequot village in 1637:

It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire [of their burned village] and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice and [the English] gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy. – Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Boston, 1898 edition, 425-426.

 It is easy to condemn Bradford
even with the smell of burning human flesh in his nostrils, Bradford believed the massacre was pleasing to God. But his were the motivations of another time, a period when divine providence gave justification to violence. If I had been forced to inhabit the anxieties of the moment, I probably would have felt similar to Bradford. Indeed, my family would settle in the eastern lands of Connecticut, territory cleared out by the immolation of the Pequot tribe. Part of my heritage is the holocaust of native peoples.

This history is unpleasant to think about, but it is important for manifold reasons. No one—not Bradford, nor me, nor you—wakes up in the morning wanting to be evil. But we cannot understand the horror of the world until we realize our deep implication in it. We cannot begin to rebuild society until we realize that visceral rage does little to address our complex complicity in the innumerable injustices of humanity. 

Just a thought, written as the forces of violence and moral absolutes continue their steady march to oblivion, feeding upon the fears of otherwise good people.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Five Things I Wish I'd Known When I Started Running

Sixteen years ago I started running competitively. Here are five things I know about running now that I wish I had known then.

1.  Cadence

Pamela Jelimo, London, 2008. Photograph: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images
Check out the lower half of every professional runner (and cyclist for that matter) during a race. They have a high cadence of steps-per-minute. As late as college, I took lumbering, heel-striking steps. I think it had something to do with high school coaches encouraging a "longer stride." But an overly long, extended stride does you few favors in terms of efficiency and will lead to knee, hip, and glute injuries. Some people swear by minimalism, others believe in forefoot striking. I believe in cadence. Running ~180 steps-per-minute has saved my post-collegiate running career. Evolution Running is a nice, non-gimmicky place to learn about cadence and running form.


2.  Shoes

Runners Roost, Denver, CO
There are only two points of contact in distance running. So it is worth investing in your feet. I wore footwear that was hard on my legs and hips for nearly eight years. These shoes were of good quality, but they were overly stiff for my neutral arch and mid-foot strike pattern. They were designed for feet different than mine. By the end of my collegiate career I had so many muscle-strains and so much scar tissue around my hips, I had to lay on my bed to put my pants on. Awkward. It turns out I had been training in overly supportive shoes. Everyone should go to a local running store and get fitted. One piece of expert advice is worth a thousand opinions.


3.  Be Patient, Think Big

Calm down there, kid.  Photograph: Mark Robinson.
This is the hardest thing for beginners, from 14-year-olds starting cross-country, to 44-year-olds flush in the excitement of their first 10K. You should not think of improvement in terms of days, or weeks, or months, or perhaps even years. Running (like most things) requires a time horizon that goes well beyond the limits of a calendar year. If you want the most from your self, you need to think beyond individual workouts or four-week cycles of training. If you are preparing for your first 50k this summer, you don’t necessarily need to run a winter 50-mile as the next logical step. Be patient. Play the long game.

I wish I had been less eager at the end of high school and the beginning of college. I logged big miles: 90-110 in singles every week. I thought I needed to be working my hardest every single day. I ran through illness, including a summer of 100 mile-weeks with mononucleolus. I ran through tendinitis, muscle strains, and rolled ankles. I nearly died one summer evening during a post-dinner track workout, which led to exercise-induced anaphylaxis. A couple years later, I collapsed after a workout with heat stroke one awful Carolina afternoon. My senior year, I ended up in the emergency room with gastritis after taking ibuprofen before an intense track session.

I wish I could go back and tell 19-year-old Sam to chill out. Now, every morning, I struggle with a bit of weariness that feels premature. At the age of 31, my legs feel better than when I was 21. But mentally, some days I feel like I'm 60. There are only so many matches, make sure you burn them when they count.  


4.  Balance Rigor with Fun

Bay Area Track Club morning miles. Photograph: Magda Lewy-Boulet.

After eight years of seasonally focusing on track, summer base mileage, and fall cross-country meets, I've learned to not take myself too seriously. I have a tendency to bounce between disciplines: road half-marathons and marathons, punchy 25k trail runs, mountain races, and the occasional return to short cross-country courses. The sport is supposed to be fun, and being overly rigorous in one’s approach to what is (for most of us) a hobby can lead to burnout. 

But…

5.  Be Committed

David Torrence, 2015 USA 5K Road Champion. Photograph: kevmofoto.
There is also something to be said for specialization, devoting yourself to a single craft and honing your abilities and technique for years and years to achieve excellence. When I think of developing a technical skill-set, what the ancient Greeks called tékne, I think of David Torrence, a professional runner for Hoka One One with collegiate roots in the East Bay.

One damp Berkeley morning, I arrived at Cal’s track at 6:30 in the morning for a long tempo-paced effort. It was going to be a long slog of a workout. But as I parked my car, I saw that Torrence had already jogged his warm up. When I finished my own warm-up, he was doing activation exercises. As I ran my first segment of six miles up-tempo, Torrence began an intensive set of drills that lasted well over half an hour. As I went into a recovery session, Torrence finally began his “real” workout varying between 600s and 1K intervals. During my second block of up-tempo, Torrence spiked up and began speed work of 150-200 meter strides. We cooled down together. Afterwards, I headed up to the rec locker-room to take a shower. Torrence headed to the weight room for another 90 minutes of weights and stretching. All told, I think he spent nearly six hours working out. Oh, and then he did a shakeout run that evening.

Torrence and the loneliness of the distance runner. Photograph: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle.
Torrence is a professional runner with support from sponsors. But his is a grueling life—one of disciplining muscle fiber for the singular goal of moving David Torrence as fast as possible around an oval track. I might enjoy scenic vistas on my runs, but I will never beat Torrence in a footrace.   Just something to keep in mind. Sometimes the pursuit of excellence should supersede the frivolity of inspiration.



"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" 
 

Friday, January 22, 2016

My Favorite Fiction from 2015

Is it too late to do a year-in-review three weeks into 2016?  Eh, whatever. Sorry, I had some thoughts about summer reading that I wrote over the fall and I wanted to share. Here is the memorable fiction (and one work of non-fiction) that I read over the past year. Arranged thematically.

I. Dystopia

Margarate Atwood, Oryx and Crake

These first three books fit under the realm of dystopian speculative fiction. George Orwell's 1984 was the first book of "real literature" I ever read, so dystopian books have a special place in my icy, post-apocalyptic-loving heart. Atwood's novel (she recently finished the story-arc's trilogy) about the end of the modern world creates an interesting setting in which our collapsing neo-liberal world reaches its endpoint of economic inequality and environmental collapse. Basically tech and bio-tech companies rule the world from isolated compounds (think the Googleplex with gated housing) as urban centers continue to erode. It reminds me of Edan Lepucki's first novel, California, which has a similar West Coast libertarian endgame. Ultimately, Atwood's story never really grabbed me and I found the protagonists a bit too self-pitying. It was a far cry from the strength shown in the internal monologues of The Handmaid's Tale.


Cormac McCarthy, The Road


Cormac McCarthy’s The Road kept reminding me of a striking moment, featuring Heath Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight. Ledger’s rendition of the Joker in Dark Knight was so very disturbing because his performance made the Joker into more than a character: he transformed Batman’s traditional opponent into an almost natural force, a malignancy endemic to humanity. The Joker was not just a villain, he was the Hobbesian tendency of man—the social entropy of self-interest and the desperate violence of survival. “You’ll see,” the Joker says smugly to Batman, “when the chips are down, these civilized people... they will eat each other.”

And in The Road they do. Cannibalism is the horrifying endgame of social breakdown in McCarthy’s novel. It is the fulfillment of an Ayn-Randian logic, where any sort of social cohesion has collapsed and individuals (or bands of human-eating individuals) move across the dying landscape of the world. As the last bits of life slowly hemorrhage from the earth, a father and son, themselves physically deteriorating, move through the void. Both son and father have no illusions. They know the world is over. Humanity, with all its values, is winking out. There is no redemption in the story, only the particularity of hope amidst the inevitability of the collapsing cosmic.  



Michel Houellebecq, Submission

This is such a strange book, but one that has motivated some interesting conversations. Houellebecq imagines a plausible scenario in which a moderate Islamist government is elected into office. Is the book xenophobic? Or actually about some sort of deep apathy of the soul that confronts we hapless post-moderns? My sense is both. There is also some fantastic sexual imagery in the book, noted with a sort of glee in this Atlantic article.



 II. Hopeful Reads

Marilynne, Robinson, Gilead


Oh my. This is a slow burn of a read. The book is a meditation of sorts–a dying father’s thoughts and recollections of his faith. This book takes effort, especially, if like me, you tend to read fiction right before you go to bed. At times, I felt as if I was doing more primary source research on western spirituality. Perhaps worth borrowing a copy–especially if you’re interested in religion, theology, or curious about ideas of transcendence in the modern world.



Catie Diabato, The Ghost Network
 
A neat, compelling, weird little book. Disabato, a new author, was recommended to me by my brilliant friend, Katie Harper. This is worth checking out if you are into celebrity pop-culture, and/or if you majored in philosophy or critical theory. Yeah, it is an interesting combination. Check out more thoughts in my Amazon review. Worth buying a copy. (Support a young author.)



Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

I enjoyed reading about this book about the East Bay and, given Caitlin’s side job as a doula, gaining some perspective on the cottage industry of midwifery. While I did not find the story that compelling, I did enjoy Chabon’s meandering tour of Oakland and Berkeley. Actually it made me a bit resentful I didn't do my Ph.D. here in the 1990s. My sense is that the Bay Area sucks a bit more with every decade. But maybe that sense of resentment is what defines NorCal culture across all periods. 



Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife

Since I have been incorporating John Milton’s views on materiality and the cosmos into my dissertation, I’ve really enjoyed reading Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. Indeed, “Dark Materials” is the working title for a chapter draft I’m reworking. The fictional series is Pullman’s riff on Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is worth checking out if you have any interest in English literature, culture, or fantasy. So... Harry Potter fans?



III. The Bad

Christopher McDougall, Natural Born Heroes


Ok this is not fiction, but I had some thoughts on the book. McDougall, hoping for an interesting follow-up to Born to Run, flops pretty miserably here. The postscriptural matter nails down the issue: McDougall actually had two projects floating aroundone on the physiology of "natural movement,"(paleo-diet!) and the other on Cretan resistance to the German Occupation. He tries to combine the two into a single narrative through an exploration of the physiological and physical realities of Greek mythology. He fails. And it is oh so Discovery-Channel, reality-TV-terrible.
  
McDougall has the best of intentions. He is part of the same constellation of naturalist anxieties that have arisen in reaction to modernity’s real human costs (obesity, climate change, the meaninglessness of our lives), and he wants to provide solutions to deeply embedded social views of the human body, cultural approaches that are obviously failing. Such an effort is commendable. But what mars McDougall’s view of the body is his erroneous methodology. He is, as the title of his book implies, searching for an occult knowledge. These are “secret” or “hidden” techniques that if we would only find them in the hidden corners of human history or society we will find them undamaged by the expansive, insidious march of the Modern. "The Secret" will unlock incredible health, amazing physiological performance, athletic prowess, thin bodies, better careers, etc. ad absurdum. This is the same question posed in Born to Run. What is the Secret? The secret to ultramarathons?  (run barefoot) To incredible, seemingly random, acts of heroism? (parkour) To kidnapping a Nazi general and ferreting him across the harsh scab-land of a Mediterranean island? (read Greek mythology) Not once in his frantic narrative does McDougall ever stop and consideras anyone who actually tries to run a marathon quickly realizes–that there are no secrets—at least, not legal ones. At best, this is intellectual laziness; at worst, hucksterism.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Quick Thoughts: What is Lance on? He's on the trails.

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“What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”


Lance ran a 35k race this weekend at the Woodside Ramble, organized by Inside Trail Racing. Here are a few quick thoughts provoked by Lance’s run and the ensuing internet chatter (see here, here, and here). As you can see below I started thinking about doping and then started hunting bigger game: why is our sport so broken?  Full disclosure: I am on Inside Trail Racing’s 2016 team of racing ambassadors.  I received an informal invitation to run the race but declined.  

1) “It can’t happen here.” 
If I had been in the position of the Inside Trail organizers, I would not have let Lance run in my race. I understand their perspective: “He’s another entrant, there was no money on the line, etc.” So I am not terribly offended by ITR’s decision to let Lance run. But I am troubled by it. There is, currently, no way to stop doping from happening in trail running. For all you know, I myself have cheated to every single one of my victories at a trail races over the last 6 years (it is a lot). I have never been tested, I have never been questioned about doping since my days in the NCAA. This includes 6 top-ten placements at USATF trail championships, one as recent as this October. I am certain there are people in the world, probably folks enjoying the semi-celebrity of trail running success, who are currently cheating. Systematic testing, itself no real panacea to a larger cultural problem, appears currently unfeasible in trail races because of the cost. My worry is that if we create an atmosphere that is tolerant or lenient toward dopers, it will become easier to rationalize cheating. The absence of prize money as a justification seems nebulous to me.  I understand that ITR is not UTMB or Western, but we should try to create clear lines of acceptable behavior within an admittedly blurry ethical context. People will certainly cheat for more than just money; reference Christian Hesch. This being the case, I generally agree with Ian Sharman's thoughts on iRunFar, which I came across while I was proofing this.  In Lance's case, I could certainly be wrong in my thinking. I think this is an open debate. I certainly look forward to chatting with ITR race organizers over beer about this. What are your thoughts?
Christian Hesch, a cautionary tale


2) Lance highlights the real tension within trail running as a “sport.”
Competitive running is mostly moribund as a sport, having devolved into a mass-market pay-for-entry affair. In the world of running, a race entry can cost into the hundreds of dollars,  causing the subjective experience of a running event to be more important than the race itself. For ITR, one bad Yelp review is infinitely worse than the race for the win lacking any sort of drama. I understand (and accept) the fiscal incentives behind this: my money to run 6 minute pace in the hills is no better than the money of someone who runs 12 minute pace in the hills. So, why the hell shouldn't Lance be able to pay to do a supported run in the tony hills of Woodside?  However, we are trying to have our cake and eat it too: trail running is both a mass participation "festival" event and an actual sporting event. Both events usually (and weirdly) share the same starting line and lead to difficult questions that an organization like the PAUSATF would never even consider. If we think that it is ok to let in a man who cheated his way to victory seven times at the greatest endurance race on the planet because his money is the same as anyone else’s, well okay, I guess. But then the legitimacy of trail running as a sport is certainly up for continued debate.

3) The issues of competitive running’s devolution into pay-per-run festival is especially true in trail running.
Trail running came into its own in the last 6-7 years within an increasingly privatized race environment. There are few organic races in trail running (Dipsea, Western) and those are now nigh impossible to get into in any given year. (But, if you are in the East Bay check out the Triple Crown challenge next summer.)
3a) Additionally, there are few non-market incentives toward developing “trail running” talent. There is no natural feeder from the NCAA—though the iRunFar coverage and Nike sponsorship of the US MTN champs was a great step in the right direction. I think that the current trail running "competitive turn" has less to do with a pull towards the sport, as it is a push away from road marathoning with the raising of the Olympic marathon trials standards. Up until last week, the time requirements excluded all but the truly rarefied running talent.
3b) Worse still, there is little likelihood of doping anxieties being mitigated by a movement toward organizational governance, given American skepticism toward any governing body at the moment. There is surely a correlation between the skepticism toward organizing sport bodies like USATF and the cynicism toward government more generally in the wake of Washington’s takeover by militant Republican ideologues.  Additionally, generalized skepticism toward organizational reform—still the best solution to doping in endurance running—is likely exacerbated by trail running’s gravitational and institutional proximity to the plutocratic libertarianism of Silicon Valley.

4) The sport of running should be about people… people racing.
Eric Eagon suggests, “our sport is about relationships. It’s about people.” True, but me hanging out with some bros playing Halo over beer is not sport. I’m all for community, and work each week to encourage folks in the East Bay to attend local runs, but I would also love to turn on my TV every Sunday and watch a cross country race instead of the NFL. Community is a necessary part of sport, but it is not sport in and of itself. So we should work to build communities that also facilitate the creation of excellence.
The beautiful carnage of Dipsea

5) We need to rebuild the spectacle of running.
Running is dead. Can you name who finished 2nd at this year's Women’s NCAA Cross Championships? No? Me neither; I had to check Letsrun to refresh my memory and I watched the damn race live. Last Saturday I stood with hundreds of people watching Club Cross Country Nationals in Golden Gate Park. It was awesome. But nearly all of us had friends in the race, and I would guess the number of disinterested spectators to be in the dozens, if not fewer. Moving forward we need to rebuild the sport back into something that draws non-runner eyeballs. But how to do so?
5a) Some idealistic off-the-cuff ideas: i. We need to work with sponsors and race groups like ITR and Brazen Racing in their efforts to develop organic races. ii. There should be at least one or two USATF MUT running championship near major urban centers like San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, or LA. (I'm selfishly interested in an “up year” mountain championship on Mt. Diablo, which has featured Tour of California summit finishes.) iii. There should be team scoring at major marathons and ultra-marathons. iv. Big races should feature in-race premiums to create more drama in the race for the casual viewer.  v. We should stop using drones to kill people in Syria, and start using them to film trail races. vi. Why the hell is there not an Ekiden in the US? vii. More races should try to emulate the local idiosyncrasies of the Dipsea, using local terrain and roads to create non-traditional race courses. viii. People love beer; Lewis Kent was on Ellen. Beer meshes (sort of) well with running, so why fight it? ix. In general we need to create agglomerations out of niche markets (trail, road, ultra, track). Bring more eyeballs and you bring more money. Bring more money and you start to have revenue streams outside of race entries.   

6) Finally, we need to support the professional journalists who keep the sport honest.
History has shown that organizing sport governments, sponsors, and athletes will bend and break the rules unless free and disinterested journalists are willing to investigate and hold feet to the fire. The BBC/Propublica expose on the Salazar group and the steady journalistic pressure that led to the IAAF ban on Russia are topical examples. As journalists’ income continues to switch toward a contract labor model (goodbye, Running Times; hello, Medium), we can at least signal our continual interest in the sport by supporting local running journalists. Need a place to start? Sign up for Mario Fraioli’s Morning Shakeout for good (and quick) takes on the world of running.

7) Lance provides an opportunity for a conversation. 
 How do we police cheating? Is it a cultural problem? An organizational issue? Funding issue? Do we even care? We should stay civil, even in disagreement, even on the Internet. If Lance would like to run the MUT stuff, I would love to ask him (or hear him be asked) hard questions about doping at a forum at SFRC or Sports Basement or Transports or on UltraRunnerPodcast.

Anyway. Just some quick thoughts. Lance reveals big problems that require sustained and laborious effort… but I also need to finish my dissertation.  Cheers and see you on the trails.