Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

In the Greatest Endurance Race, There is No Finish Line!

       Starting today, I'm taking this blog into a life-changing shift of perspective--because I think that's what all of humanity will have to do, on a global scale, if our species is to endure much longer.  Endurance sports need to do a better job of raising consciousness about sustainability--the endurance of civilization as a whole.  Evolutionary biologists have warned that our species is now dangerously vulnerable to Malthusian decline, or extinction.  But there's still hope, at least for those who wake up and shift perspective in time.

     What brings me to this moment personally is something that has happened to me over the past couple of years during which I have been a primary caretaker for my three-year-old grandson, Josh.  (His mother, my daughter, is a full-time college student, divorced from Josh's father, who is no  longer in the picture.)

     When Josh was just two, I discovered that he loved to run.  One day I took him out for a walk, and he spontaneously started to run, and kept it up for two miles with his amazed grandpa running alongside to watch out for cars.  Maybe this is natural for two-year-olds--I really don't know.  But I do know that two-year-olds are generally called "toddlers", and that word didn't fit this boy.  From that day on, we went for runs every couple of days, at his initiative and with him setting the pace.  For me, it was not a jog.  By the time he was three, he could fly down the road with long, springy strides that would be the envy of most competitive teenager or adult runners.

      Inevitably, I began to ponder my grandson's genetics.  Josh is bi-racial, somewhat like Barak Obama: his father is from Kenya, land of the world's most dominant marathoners.  And his grandfather, on the white American side, was once ranked among the top ultrarunners in the U.S. (I won the JFK 50-mile in a field of about 500 runners in 1977, and later won three U.S. age-division championships).  A part of my imagination dared to jump ahead to the day when Josh joins his high-school cross country team.  Or soccer, or basketball, team (he's also very tall for his age).  He's an all-around athlete, of the kind that Little League parents love to have.  A few days ago he was jumping around in the living room, and he said "Grandpa, watch this!"  He jumped up in the air and turned 360 degrees before landing on his feet.

      But as fun as it was, that brief fantasy about what an athlete Josh might become lasted only about ten seconds before fading.  Let me explain, because this might be as important to you (and to your friends and family) as it is to me and mine.  For one thing, I'm no Little League parent, and Josh will never get pushed by me (or, I think, by his mother) to be an athlete at all.  I'll be happy if he runs cross-country, but equally happy if he foregoes that to pursue interests in music, art, or science.

       Here's the thing.  A quarter-century ago, over 1,600 of the world's leading scientists--including over 100 Nobel Prize winners--issued a statement titled the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity.  "Humanity and the natural world are on a collision course," the scientists wrote in a press release.  The mainstream media ignored them, as did the politicians who purport to be our leaders.  That was before the ravages of climate change had begun, before Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, and the thousands of wildfires burning in the American West as I write.  It was also before 9-11, Al Qaeda, and ISIS; and before the massive addictions to technologies of effort-saving convenience, entertainment, comfort, and gratification that have rendered us ever weaker and more tech-dependent.  And that weakening of our species is now happening on a global scale.

       I am doubtless oversimplifying, but I think all these destabilizations--of climate, ecology, and society--are connected.  All are driven, at least in part, by manifestations of extreme competitiveness that are unraveling the fabric of civilization: competition for resources (wars over oil, land, drugs, and water), cut-throat economic competition; and competitive triumphalism as the ultimate measure of "success" in all things.

     Notice how infected our pop culture is by win-at-all-costs competitiveness.  Take, for example, the subject of cooking--an activity that for thousands of years has been at the heart of healthy family and community life.  For centuries, families grew and harvested food, cooked, and ate meals together.  Cooking and eating were times for togetherness.  Now we have the TV shows "Chopped" and "Cutthroat Chef" (and others) in which cooking is a competitive endeavor and all that matters is winning.   And the same thing has happened with singing ("American Idol", "The Voice"), dancing ("So You Think You Can Dance"), and, of course, sport--where the winners of the major competitions get paid hundreds of times as much as most of the best scientists or teachers ever are.

     There was a time when we celebrated competitiveness as a healthy stimulus to the important things in life--earning a living, having great adventures, enjoying companionship.  Now, competitiveness often has the characteristics of a disease--infecting every aspect of popular culture. ("If you're not competitive, you're a loser!")

       When I was a teen, I dreamed of going to the Olympics.  But now, look at the corruption in the Olympics--officials and athletes alike.  The Olympics no longer much interest me.  There was a time when I was a big baseball fan--I can still name the starting lineup of the 1959 Chicago White Sox.  Now, even the seventh game of the World Series doesn't interest me.  And look at the corruption we've seen in the world soccer organization, and the Tour de France.  About the latter--the realization that performance-enhancing drugs have corrupted even a major endurance sport makes me feel sick.

       Although America is obsessed with the sports of power and speed, my own interest has always been more in the sports of endurance.  When I started out as a high-school cross country runner, I was just doing what I enjoyed.  The enjoyment of running was as instinctive for me, then, as it is for Josh now.  And yes, I liked competing, and I kept on competing for the next half-century.  Not until about 20 years after I started running did I first learn that there is a biological connection between endurance sports and human evolution.  In the 1980s, that connection was the subject of a pathbreaking cover story in the scientific journal Nature, summarizing the research of evolutionary biologists at the University of Utah and Harvard.  What that research tells us about our increasingly rushed, stressed-out, and destabilized world is that for 99 percent of our evolution as humans, speed and power were never our defining strengthsEndurance, patience, and long-range vision were.

       Now, when I think of my grandson's future, I hope that if he turns out to be blessed with extraordinary endurance, as I think he may be, he might use that capability not just to try to beat other runners in epic foot races, but to help build on what we're learning about our languishing capability for an enduring society--and to help our species make the hard journey we'll need to make, in the coming decades, to engender a new kind of future for life on Earth.  Go, Josh!




Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Endurance Matters, Not Just in Sport!

As the title of this blog says, I'm very interested in the connections between our endurance as individual humans and the long-run sustainability of the civilization we live in.  Those two things are rarely connected in our media or public policy.  For example (and I apologize if this seems rude), if the people of a populous eastern state elect a very fat man to be their governor, it apparently did not occur to them that their chosen leader may have a very weak sense of what constitutes a healthy society, since he evidently doesn't pursue it in his own life.
       In my younger years, I didn't pay much attention to those connections either.  When I became an avid long-distance runner as a teenager, it wasn't because I had the slightest interest in whether America would survive the 21st century. In those days, although I found the writing of dystopian visionaries like George Orwell quite fascinating, those visions seemed more imaginary than real (the year 1984 was far in the future), and those of us who grew up in the heady 1950s didn't worry about the future.  We basked in the promise of the American Dream.  My big goal in those days was to run the Boston Marathon--which I did several times in the 1960s.  I finished 26th the first time, and it was one of the great thrills of my life.
       As I grew older, though, I began to notice interesting connections between the capabilities I needed to practice a competitive runner, and those I needed in order to make a living, raise a family, and deal with the stresses of life in a fast-changing society.  When I started Running Times magazine in the 1970s with fellow runners Phil Stewart, Rick Platt, and my younger brother Glenn (who later changed his name to Alex), I soon found that getting each issue of the magazine out took enormous physical and mental endurance.  To meet our printer's deadline each month, we typically had to work 30 straight hours or more through the last two days and nights, sustained by bad coffee (long before Starbucks existed) and our experience in pushing past "the wall."  We didn't have computers and digital tech to ease the workload (every typo had to be fixed by retyping the bad line on a word-processing machine, running the print-out through a waxing machine, and cutting out the corrected line with a razor blade by hand). Check out those 1977-79 issues, and you'll find an occasional crooked line, where the waxed correction got jiggled somewhere in transit to the printer, or perhaps where my overcaffeinated hand did the jiggling.)  We also didn't have Shark Tank or crowd-funding to help pay the costs.  It was "sweat equity," and the end of every month felt like running a 2:20 marathon against the wind, in sleet, on no sleep.  And no, we weren't Kenyans.
       It was years later, when I moved on from Running Times to edit the work of environmental scientists, that I first heard the term "sustainability" and learned that many of the world's leading scientists were finding evidence that modern civilization cannot continue current rates of population growth, pollution, climate disruption, and destruction of the planet's biodiversity (on which all human life depends totally), much longer.  The long-run capacity of our civilization was beginning to fail.  In 1992, more than a thousand of the world's top scientists issued a warning that "Humanity and the natural world are on a collision course." This wasn't a group of whackos-for-hire, like the handful of shameless PhDs who were being paid by oil and coal companies to claim that climate change isn't being caused by burning fossil fuels (or, as the Oklahoma Senator Inhofe claimed, that "global warming is a liberal hoax").  The men and women who issued the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity included every living Nobel Prize winner in the sciences (more than 100 of them).  And since then, their numbers have grown to tens of thousands.  But the general media largely ignored that warning (the New York Times, which depends heavily on the advertising of the fossil-fueled consumer economy, commented later that the Scientists' Warning wasn't "newsworthy"!)
       In the quarter-century since that Warning, all of the trends those scientists warned about have worsened.  There are now at least five major scenarios of how civilization may come to an end within the next century or sooner--like an unfit runner collapsing mid-race--and none of those five is highly improbable. You have to wonder what the collective probability is.  I discuss these five scenarios in a forthcoming book, which I'll tell you more about in a later post.  In the meantime, though, there's a sixth scenario, the probability of which scientists can't really can't quantify at all, because it's too overwhelmingly complex.  But you may well be familiar with it:  It's the growing extent to which the corruptions or failures of large institutions (governments, religious organizaations, and large corporations) are overwhelming us, distracting us from the things we really need to be paying attention to if we want our grandchildren--and theirs--to have life.
       For just a few examples of such institutional faltering, recall the hacker attacks at Target, Home Depot, and a growing list of other companies, stealing data from nearly half of America's credit cards.  Think of the mortgage-fraud crimes of companies like Bank of America and half of Wall Street;  the sex-crime scandals of the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts; the air-bag failures and recalls of millions of cars; and on and on,  In  my last post, I described a life-sapping struggle I've had with the predatory company Quicken Loans.  [Oh yes, in a followup to that, the Request for Correction I sent to the Court brought me a one-word reply: "Rejected."]  Sometimes, now, it seems to me that if I hadn't been a competitive runner for the past half-century, and learned to endure a whole range of stresses--from injury and fatigue to dehydration, heat exhaustion, mental bonking, and staggering discouragement (like the time I went off course and got lost at around the 45-mile mark of a 50-miler in the Arizona desert)--if I hadn't trained well for those things I'd probably be in an insane asylum by now, or worse.   I can't run as fast now as I once did, but I'm glad I have learned to endure. 

Next post: How specific physiological effects of endurance training can prepare us for the non-sporting stresses of a failing civilization.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Real Nature of Endurance

     I've been caught up in something that has given me a whole new perspective on the nature of human endurance.  Although I have run 50-mile and 100-mile races with some success, what I've encountered now is a thing that has tested my endurance as nothing before.  The challenge here has not been a physical one (though there's been plenty of adrenaline and fatigue), but mainly a mental and psychological one.  And suddenly, I realize that with this, I have far more company than I have ever had in long distance running.  There are at most a few hundred thousand Americans who have completed events like the Ironman Triathlon, or Western States 100, or Tour de California.  There may be tens of millions who've been beaten down by incompetent bureaucracies or corrupt corporations.  And for many of the victims, there's no finish line.  If you ever get pulled into a nightmare of the kind I'm about to describe, it can be life-saving to have spent years building your endurance on mountains or trails.
     My current struggle is with Quicken Loans, a mortgage company I approached for a refinance of my home as innocently as a fish swimming into the mouth of an alligator. When the mouth closed, my wife and I discovered our entire net life savings had been wiped out--and our mortgage debt had been suddenly increased by $28,000 more than the refinance contract had specified.  I should note, since it's critical, that my wife and I are in our 70s, living on a very small fixed income (we can't afford to go out to movies, or even have lunch at Chipotle), and what Quicken did to us has caused us over a year (so far) of stress that is wearing me down in a way I never experienced in 100-mile races or even in the 135-mile Badwater race across Death Valley (photo above).  And my wife is now so traumatized that I'm afraid she may not survive this.
     But please understand, I'm not writing this to solicit sympathy.  I know other people are in far worse straits than we are--millions of others who've been snared by predatory organizations.  And the disturbing thing is, these are not what we'd normally call "criminal" organizations, like organized crime syndicates, or drug cartels, or the shadow groups that steal IDs and empty out bank accounts.  The outfit my wife and I are dealing with just happens to be Quicken Loans.  We could quite as easily have been screwed by Bank of America, or Enron, or Duke Energy.  Hundreds of American corporations have been convicted of crimes in recent years, and few have been prosecuted.  As for corruption in government, don't even ask.
     In Quicken's case, was the means by which it has taken our money a crime?  My first thought was that it was a bait-and-switch.  But I may never know, because I have no way of untangling the web of obfuscation and intimidation it has put up to block me.  More recently, I've concluded that it may not have been actual bait-and-switch, but simply a case of such amazing negligence or incompetence that it would be a huge embarrassment to Quicken if it became widely known.  Either way, it looks very much like a crime,, as I'll explain. 
     When my wife and I originally purchased our property, it consisted of six adjoining lots--one big enough for a house, but landlocked in a forest adjoining the Pacific Crest Trail (where I could go for fantastic runs), and five very small ones to provide road access to the house.  In order to get a building permit, we were required by our county to have the lots legally joined as a single indivisible parcel.  Once that was done, we got a construction loan from Wells Fargo Bank, and when the house was built the construction loan was converted to a mortgage.  A few years later, with interest rates falling, we got a refinance from--yes--Quicken Loans. Later, the loan was acquired by Chase Bank.  None of these giant banks had any problem with our mortgage.  In the case of Quicken, which handled it smoothly, I later found myself reminded of the fundamental technique of a con-game: to first gain the mark's confidence.
     So, a few years later when I went for a second refinance, I had confidence in Quicken.  They had already financed this same property once before. What could go wrong?  And indeed, all seemed to go well.  The contract looked flawless.
     Eight months later, my wife and I received two letters from Quicken informing us that the refinanced mortgage was for only one of the six lots that form our property.  There had been a mistake, they told us, and now they'd be increasing our tax escrow by an amount that would add about $28,000 to our debt over the term of the loan.  When I objected, a man in their Legal department told me curtly, "You signed the Compliance Agreement!"  We had indeed, and it wasn't until nearly a year later that we realized what a sleight-of-hand comment that had been.  He'd said it with such self-righteous assurance that I assumed it looked bad for us.  I knew it said something about the lender having a right to collect money that had inadvertently not been collected at closing.  But I regarded that Agreement as a technicality, far outweighed by the fact that the mortgage they'd refinanced wasn't even the one we'd brought to them.  How could a mortgage company that advertises its competence make such a stupid blunder on what should have been a very simple transaction?  How could it have divided up a parcel that was by law indivisible?  (The "mistake" appeared only in the Deed of Trust, on a page that was missing from the closing documents, so we  never saw it.  On all the other documents signed at closing, our property was simply identified by the correct street address, which has never changed and for which the 6-lot legal description had never changed.)
     Having suddenly seen our life savings wiped out, we asked Quicken for a make-good.  In a letter, we said we were aware that elderly people who dare to challenge the wrongdoing of large corporations often end up in protracted litigation that is never resolved in their lifetimes.  We didn't want that kind of stress, and suggested that in exchange for having a quick resolution and peace of mind for our remaining years, we would accept a reimbursement of one-third of the amount they had added to our mortgage debt with their little "mistake."  Boy, was I suckered.  Not only did they refuse, but when I sued for the one-third in Small Claims court, they counter-sued us.  By California court rules, they had to give us a five-day advance notice, but instead they waited until 4:30 p.m. the afternoon before our case was to be heard, and the next morning the judge said he'd have to send the combined cases to Civil Court, where we'd have to have a lawyer.  Quicken had evidently deduced from our letter that our wish not to get entangled in litigation was our weakness, and that by immediately taking us into litigation, they could scare us into backing off. 
     Maybe this was where my lifetime of endurance training helped. Instead of backing off, I wrote a letter to the Civil Court judge who had been assigned to the escalated case, saying that the Quicken suit was a sham (my wife and I had already met its demands that we sign off on a corrected Deed of Trust), and the judge apparently agreed.  He dismissed Quicken's case and sent our case against them back to Small Claims.
     In preparing for the Small Claims trial, which by now had been kicked down the road eight more months, I suddenly discovered the sleight-of-hand that the Quicken lawyer had suckered me with, in his righteous "You signed the Compliance Agreement!"  Now, looking at that agreement once again, I saw that while it does allow the lender to collect money that was due but inadvertently not collected at closing, it also states:

          Lender agrees that any request for such money will not.change the previously agreed
          upon points, closing costs, or escrow payments [except due to changes in insurance or
          tax assessments] that you were approved for as set forth in the Loan Pricing Disclosure,
          Good Faith Estimate . . . and/or mortgage.

But what Quicken was claiming in additional escrow (and not just "requesting" it but taking it from our bank account) changed the terms of all those documents hugely.  In short, the Agreement was that if a mistake at closing resulted in their not getting money that if paid then would have resulted in the correct bottom line indicated by the Good Faith Estimate and Mortgage, it could be collect later.  But not if it changed the bottom-line terms of the contract!
     At this point, I figured I had a slam-dunk.  I say "slam dunk" with ironic awareness that the owner of Quicken Loans, a guy named Dan Gilbert, is also the majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball franchise, employer of the NBA slam-dunk king LeBron James.
     At the Small Claims trial, the judge heard several cases before mine, and I noticed that he seemed repeatedly impatient and condescending to the litigants.  When my turn came, he allowed me three minutes to make my case.  When he heard that Quicken had made a mistake, he said scornfully, "It's just a mistake!"  A moment later, when I got to the key argument about the Compliance Agreement, he glanced at the part that said a lender can collect for money inadvertently not collected at closing, and apparently without reading further, said loudly, "Rule for Defendant!"
     I was devastated, but I'm not a guy who quits a 100-mile race at mile 90 (well, except once at the Vermont 100 when I foolishly ran with bronchitis).  I filed a Request for Correction or Cancellation."  I do not know why the judge suddenly ruled against me just as I was about to make the slam-dunk argument.  I admit that I went home that afternoon wondering, Was he paid off?  Or did he just have to pee so badly that he couldn't let the trial go on one more minute?  Or was he one of those millions of boob-tube watchers who (evidently) think a company big enough to advertise on national TV can't possibly be that bad?
    Court rules allowed Quicken to make its own response to my Request for Correction, and the response was a doozy: 400 words of obfuscation and assertion that "Mr. Ayres is just rehashing arguments already properly ruled on."  And then, in the next-to-last paragraph of the second page, a quotation of the very text I'd been about to bring to the judge's attention--an audacious repeat of the same sleight-of-hand, this time addressed to the Court. (He signed the Compliance Agreement!  He owes!)  It was clearly a calculated bet (Dan Gilbert also owns a casino) that the Court would be duly persuaded by the con long before reading that paragraph and would react just as the impatient judge had.
     As I said, one of the hardest things about "real-life" tests of endurance, as distinguished from athletic events, is that you may never get the relief of having crossed a finish line.  This story has not yet ended, and I don't know whether it will be in my lifetime.  But I can look back at what I've done in the past (top-ten finishes in the New York Marathon, JFK 50-mile, and Badwater 135, among others), and I can tell myself with confidence, I'm too far down this road to quit now.  If Dan Gilbert can pay a guy $20.6 million to throw a ball through a hoop, he can damn well pay one 20th of 1-percent of that amount to make good on a wrong his company has done to an elderly couple.  We may have a country where flash and glitz and big money rule for now, but in the long run it is perseverance that will prevail.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Endurance Matters: The Human Brain is Getting Smaller

     About three years ago, when I finished writing a book on the adventure of running America's largest ultramarathon, I titled the manuscript Running Wild.  Before going to press, the publisher changed the title to The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance.  I thought it sounded awfully textbooky, but in the publishing biz the title is usually the publisher's call.  Later, I wished I'd held out for Running Wild.
     The thing is, for 99 percent of our evolution as bipedal hunter-gatherers, we humans were wild.  For all those hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors had to have enormous endurance and savvy just to survive.  A Paleolithic human was to a modern human what a wildcat is to a house cat, or a wolf to a dog, or an aurochs to a cow.  Now, we've been thoroughly domesticated.  We're cowed!
     The domestication of humans began with the advent of civilization, and with our growing dependence on technology to do what we'd previously depended almost entirely on our bodies and brains to do.  Today, we reflexively associate tech advancement with becoming smarter, and assume that while we may be physically weaker than our nomadic ancestors were, we're mentally far stronger.  But anthropological research says that may not be true.  Here's an excerpt from my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Racing to the End of the World:

   Between the beginning of civilization and today, it seems, the overall size of the human brain has apparently diminished by 15 to 20 percent.  In the last 500 years (the most recent 0.01 percent of our evolution), and especially in the past 50 years (the most recent 0.001 percent), equipped with our computers, Internet, and rockets, we have conquered the earth and are eyeing other planets—and meanwhile have lost a substantial part of the organ that enabled us to achieve that conquest.  Now, the conquerors are being conquered.  The size of the human brain peaked at about 1,500 cubic centimeters during the time of Early Modern Humans, or so-called Cro Magnon man, 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.  Now look what’s happened:

                              Cro Magnon Brain

(after 99.6 percent of our evolution:   1,500 cc


Modern Human Brain

(after just the subsequent 0.4 percent:  1,300 cc

  The most convincing confirmation of this came in 2010, when anthropologist Antoine Balzeau of the French Museum of Natural History examined the skull of a 28,000-year-old Cro Magnon skeleton that had been found in a cave in Dordogne, France.  Using advanced imaging technology, Balzeau made an endocast showing that the brain this skull once contained had been 15 to 20 percent larger than the modern human brain.  Other studies, cited by University of Wisconsin anthropologist John Hawks, indicate that the shrinkage since Cro-Magnon man has been about 10 percent, or 150 cubic centimeters—an amount of brain about the size of a Macintosh apple—the original kind, with a lower-case “a”.

   When I was a kid first learning about evolution, I heard science-fiction-inspired jokes about humans eventually becoming giant heads with tiny vestigial appendages.  But now, instead, the brain getting smaller?  Doesn’t that totally contradict what we know of human progress? And how could I not have heard of this?  It’s not that the evidence of a significant shrink is much questioned.  And I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I can only infer that for some reason this shrinking of our brains is a thing that the media most of us depend on for news or stimulation have very little incentive to cover.  The U.S. economy—and increasingly the world’s—is heavily invested in consumer technology sales.   It is only lightly invested in serious education, environmental protection, human health, adaptation to the far-reaching ravages of global warming, preparation for the coming destruction of coastal cities, replacement of deteriorating roads, bridges, pipelines, water mains, and other costly infrastructure, and a long list of other urgent needs of the kind it will take hard use of our brains to meet.

      Consumer technology (including all the devices used to deliver passive entertainment, chatter, and distraction) generates the lion’s share of revenue that, through advertising and promotion, pays for and controls the major news media.  Just watch how much of the advertising is for cars, fast food, and drugs, along with a fair amount of “hey, we’re good guys” PR to appease those of us who have gotten too suspicious--like the BP ads in the wake of the Gulf oil rig disaster assuring us that BP is invested in America and is our friend.  As the Romans found, before their collapse, there are benefits to be gained by keeping the populace satisfied with “bread and circus.”  Their formulation was later updated by Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake,” before her brain-severing demise, and more recently by the hugely profitable but debilitating American penchant for quelling anxiety with Twinkies, doughnuts, and fries.  There’s no political or commercial profit in pointing out that people may be getting dumber.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bodies Before Brains: How We Got So Smart

Running with my 2-year-old grandson, Josh, has been a great revelation.  It has confirmed, for me, how we humans, out of all the millions of species on this planet, came to be the world-dominating animals we are.  And what it has confirmed is the very opposite of what most of us were taught in school—the idea that humans became what we are because of our big brains.

I’ve had a personal tutorial, these last few months, on how our development as the amazing creatures we are began with our bodies. Not that we didn’t have brains—so did apes, whales, and elephants.  But it’s what our unique physical challenges compelled us to do, in order to survive over hundreds of thousands of years before civilization began, that made the brain develop as it did.


            [Note to myself: write the next post, after this, on why the human brain is now shrinking, at an alarming rate in evolutionary time: the data, the documentation, etc.]


            I knew this, about the body developing first, long before Josh was born.  I became familiar with the work of the evolutionary biologists David Carrier and Dennis Bramble at the University of Utah, and Daniel Lieberman at Harvard, a quarter-century ago when they published their path-breaking article “How Running Made Us Human”—a cover story in the journal Nature.  The gist of their explanation was that prehistoric humans, lacking the physical power, speed, and built-in weapons (claws, sharp teeth, horns) of other big animals, eventually learned to survive by developing endurance rather than speed, to become successful “persistence hunters.” 

Years later, I elaborated on this revolutionary understanding of our origins in my book The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance.  But now, knowing this has become personal in a whole new way, because suddenly I’m seeing that the development of an individual person in some striking ways parallels what we now know was the development of our whole species.

I got a first inkling of this when my daughter, Elizabeth would bring Josh into our living room, when he was still in his first year, and he’d start running back-and-forth between the easy chair and the couch—wow, ten feet without a fall!  Soon, he’d run the ten feet and hurl himself onto the couch like a twelve-year-old doing a belly flop into a pool, laughing with glee.  Then, after a few weeks, he was running laps around the living room.  One day he ran 50 laps nonstop before I stopped counting, smiling and clapping and having the time of his life.

            I should clarify that Josh is in no way slow in his development of language.  He loves to talk, and surprises us every day (he’s now 2) with the new words and phrases he’s learned.  But all the joy and delight that we (and he) experience as he develops his linguistic and mental faculties were clearly preceded by the joy and delight of learning to stand up, walk, run, do flying belly flops onto couches, and then go for long runs with “Gampa” (that’s me) on the trails and roads in our neck of the woods.  Significantly Josh did a lot of running before he learned the word “run.”

            It’s also significant that Josh’s running is very different from that of an adult who has taken up running for the first time at age 30 or 40.  It’s not so mechanical or purposeful.  I don’t think he starts out with the thought “Let’s run a mile.”  For one thing, I’m sure he has no idea what a “mile” is.  His running experience is far more varied, complex, and non-goal-oriented than that.  He obviously feels the action in a way a lot of adults don’t quite: for him it’s as much like the pleasure of dancing to the sound of a great song as it is a matter of going somewhere.  He’ll run with little skips, or leaps, sometimes waving his arms over his head like a World Cup player who’s just kicked a goal.  Or he’ll suddenly speed up and yell “Go fast!” but with no suggestion that he’s racing, just that this is fun!

            But here’s the really interesting thing: as he runs, he’s also watching, observing, with an acuity that often amazes me.  One bright clear day, around mid-morning he stopped, pointed at the sky, and said “moon!”  I glanced up, laughed, and said “No, Josh, the moon comes at night, when it’s dark.”  But he insisted, “moon!”  I looked up again, narrowed my eyes, and then yes, there it was—a tiny, faint white sliver in the blue-white sky.  I have good vision (still don’t wear glasses), but found myself wondering, how did he see that?

Now, if he sees the moon, I know better than to question him.  He’ll do the same thing with all kinds of other observations, too.  Plane! Up dere!  Or “spider web, get a stick!” (The first time we found a spider web on an outdoor chair, I had shown him how to brush it off with a stick.)  I’d look where he was pointing, look really hard, and then—sure enough—a few feet off the trail in a tangle of brush was a barely visible web.  How did he see that? 

And then it hit me: Josh was instinctively doing what humans before civilization had to do to survive: He was watching, observing, using his eyes and ears with an acuity we modern grownups have largely abandoned. The “persistence hunting” theory wasn’t just about humans learning to outrun antelope or horses over long distances, but about all the tracking and observing they had to do before and during the chase, which might take hours.

It struck me that maybe one of the reasons a lot of modern endurance athletes have moved from the roads to the trails is that trail-running (or hiking, or mountain biking or climbing) both requires and invites more active engagement with the environment—watching the ground for rocks and roots, or pitfalls or cliffs, or adapting to the sun or wind or ice as we go, and getting closer to the miracle of the living world we evolved in,

            If you’re still learning (as we all are, but especially if you’re only 2 years old), your perceptions are exceeded only by your curiosity.  As we run, Josh will often stop to examine something: an exotic beetle I would not have noticed, or an ant lugging a twig five times the size of its body, or a crack in the pavement, or a lizard.  And he’ll turn to me and say “What dat?”  Or he’ll cock his head, gaze in a particular direction, and ask “What dat sound?”  Sometime it will take a few seconds to know what he’s hearing, because I have subconsciously screened it out.  A few days ago, nearing the end of summer, he said “What dat sound?” and it took me a minute to realize: Crickets!  Had I gone the whole summer without consciously hearing (and appreciating) them?

            There are 70 years of life experience separating Josh and me, but running with Josh is teaching me, as nothing else ever has, some important things about how we developed both as individuals and as a species.  That development began (and begins) with our physical experience—what we see and hear on the trail, or what we feel as we trip on a rock and lose balance.  Without that formative experience, there’d be no later on. There’d be no big-brain competence.

Commentators might talk about the virtues of a politician who seeks “balance” in his policies, between forceful action and prudent caution.  But understanding the meaning of balance had to begin with learning not to fall on your face!  Today we extol the concepts of “standing up to terrorists,” “walking the walk,” “running for office,” “tripping up an adversary,” “stumbling in a new business adventure.” We speak of the “pursuit of happiness,” and a “nation that shall endure,” and on and on.  Those are metaphors now, but they began with literal, physical, experience. 

            It’s intriguing to me that although I’m one of the most experienced endurance runners on the planet, I can learn so much and so profoundly from a little guy who’s just starting out—but who clearly delights in what he’s learning.  Josh is reminding me of what it is to be young and fully alive.  He makes my heart leap.

            I’m suddenly reminded of a poem William Wordsworth wrote a couple of centuries ago, which I last read when I was in college, and just now looked up again:


                        My heart leaps up when I behold

                        A rainbow in the sky:

                        So was it when my life began;

                        So is it now I am a man . . .

                        The child is father of the Man . . . .


What on Earth could that mean?  The past learns from the future?  If that is so, it suggests that we can only survive by having enough imagination and acuity to envision the future—to be alert enough to see what lies ahead on the trail of life.



Thursday, September 4, 2014

No Longer the 'Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner'

Remember the famous story (and later the movie) of that title—Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner?  As a kid, I was always able to relate to it.  I was introverted and drawn to solitary pursuits, such as going off into the woods by myself to look for turtles or salamanders.  As an adult, I’d always run alone—alone on wooded residential streets on a winter’s night, passing the warm lights of windows in which I caught glimpses of families eating dinner or watching TV; alone on forest trails hearing only the wind in the trees; alone on a highway shoulder braving the roar of long-haul trucks passing—but rarely with another runner.

            In recent years, distance running has become a much more social activity, and I have the impression that there are now millions of people who have never run alone—and who also have a very amicable life with training partners, club members, and Sunday long-run groups.  But after high-school and college cross country, I never really got into that.  The day I graduated from college, after seven years of running with teams, I remember standing in the amphitheater where our commencement ceremony was about to begin and feeling a sudden, nostalgic sadness that there’d be no cross-country for me that fall, and my running days must be over.

            Running for adults, as we know it now, was still so rare that on that day that I didn’t even know it existed.  I’d heard of the Boston Marathon, but thought of that as an event for Olympians.  Other than that, I assumed running was for people between the ages of 15 and 21.  So, if you had asked me in those days what the average age of a serious runner was, I’d probably have said around 18. 

Today, it would be a different story.  If you said “suppose you see two people running along a bike path or trail together, and they’re an “average” pair, and you add their ages, what would the total be,” my answer now would probably be around 74.  A typical pair might include a 36-year old and a 38-year-oold, or a 34 and a 40, or a 28 and a 46—all very common ages in today’s running population. In fact, there may be more 37s than 18s now, judging by how many kids no longer even go outdoors when there’s an Xbox or ipod to play with instead.

            If 74 would be a reasonable composite age for a pair of typical running companions today, then I guess my new situation is right in step.  I’m 72, and my new running companion—my grandson, Josh—is 2.  Together, we’re 74.

            Josh doesn’t yet know that he’s “only” two, or that running a long distance is in any way unusual.  For me, though, this new partnership has been a huge revelation.  As long as I can recall, I’ve heard of kids that age being called “toddlers,” and have just assumed that when they go anywhere under their own power, they “toddle.”  Not so!

            Josh did indeed toddle for a few weeks when he was one, but even his toddle was a primordial run; he’d wobble across the living room slightly out of control and throw himself into the couch.  Soon, he was running all the way around the perimeter of the room, then tackling the couch like a linebacker.  And before long, running laps around the living room—smiling, laughing, waving his arms in the air like a striker who’s just scored a goal.  His favorite activity was going outside for a walk, and .he didn’t discriminate between a “walk” and a “run”—when he wanted to go outside, he’d just plead “go walk?”  And then, as soon as we got out to the road (a rural road where cars are rarely seen) he’d break into an exuberant run.  His legs were very short (he was only about two-feet six), but the tempo was almost the same as an adult’s—about 180 strides per minute.  He flew!

            Now, at age 2 ½ , Josh still has no knowledge that his grandfather is a runner, or indeed that there’s even any such a category of person as a runner, any more than there’s such a category of person as a “breather.”  By now, he and I have several times run a good distance together, but never with any particular encouragement from me.  If Josh wants to stop suddenly and play in the dirt for a few minutes pretending his hand is a bulldozer (he learned to say “bulldozer” before he learned “run”), that’s cool with me.  I intend never to be a Little League grandfather.  Josh might have the genes to be a good distance runner, but whether he pursues that or not will be entirely up to him.  I’ll be just as happy if he decides to play soccer or violin.

            What I love is that I now have a wonderful running companion, and every time we head out the door it’s an adventure.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Running Streak for the Ages

Long-distance runners are a dogged breed, probably tracing to our genetic heritage as persistence hunters.  For some, that doggedness is manifested by the gritty way we run races (e.g., pushing through the glycogen-deprivation “wall” of a marathon, or late-hour delirium of an ultra), and for others it’s manifested by the obsessive way we get out for a run every day no matter what.

Among the latter, there’s that small population of runners who call themselves “streakers,” not because they run naked in public (though, who knows, maybe some have done that too), but because they have run every day undaunted by illness, injury, hail, or or anything else, and have counted how many consecutive days they’ve done this so far.  There’s even an organization, the United States Running Streak Association, Inc., which lists the names of runners who have exceptionally long streaks.

The official definition of a running streak, as adopted by the USRSA, is “to run at least one consecutive mile within each calendar day under one’s own power….”  And to be officially listed as a streaker on the USRSA Web site, you have to have kept your streak going for at least a year.  Some people have done it for 10, 20, or even 30 years, which makes my head hurt to even imagine.  Last summer, I read with fascination about a guy who happens to live in the next town from me, Mark Covert, who had just ended his streak at a record 45 years.

What motivates a streaker?  The Web site of USRSA recently published an article by Herb Fred, who had run about 120,000 miles until one day in 1987 he collided with a car that had run a red light, and smashed its windshield with his head.  When he was released from the hospital 11 days later, he decided to resume his running on a treadmill, where neither rain nor hail nor errant automobiles could stop him.  Since then, as of January, 2014, Fred—now 84 years old—had never missed a day. 

I could never do what Fred has done—nor would I even dream of trying.  Fred notes that in his outdoor days, there was more risk of injuries, and that he’d had “just about all of them, from blisters to tendonitis to muscle tears to bloody urine, as well as numerous basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas of the skin.” And, he wrote, “I’ve also suffered from penile frostbite that resulted from a long run against a strong wind in sub-breezing temperature.”

I will consider myself very fortunate if I can still be running (or even alive!) at Herb Fred’s current age (I’m still a youthful 72), but there’s no way I’d give up the pleasures of mountain trails, fresh breezes off the Pacific, or a warm September sun on my bare skin, in order to achieve that.  And as far as streaks go, by the USRSA definition, I could never be listed at all, since I’m sure I have never gone a year without a few days off—whether due to injury, family emergency, travel (although I have done a few runs back and forth through airports, as an alternative to vegetating on a plastic chair), or just plain fatigue. 

I have, however, achieved another sort of streak—instead of running one or more miles every day, competing in one or more long-distance races every year.  In November, 2012, I completed the JFK 50 Mile (America’s largest ultra), bringing my streak of consecutive years of racing to 56.  After a few days off, I began training for #57, but as fate would have it, several circumstances prevented me from entering another race in 2013.  I suppose I could have limped through a 5K, but my streak was never an objective.

And so, after a year of personal travail, perhaps a new streak will now begin.  I’m slower now, but still hoping to run another ultra in the coming year.  The legs and lungs aren’t what they used to be, but the mountains and ocean breezes are still calling—as they have been since my prehistoric ancestors (and yours) began running a thousand centuries ago.  As individuals, we come and go.  But the way our species has continued to run, across the millennia—whether to hunt, carry messages, run races, beat Mark Covert’s record, or just feel the exhilaration of quick feet on a mountain trail—has been truly a streak for the ages.