My Mt. Whitney Memory

My Mt. Whitney Memory
From my scrapbook--running up Mt. Whitney after finishing the Badwater 135, back when I was a young man of 49. The guy with the backpack, Emile-something, was the French 1,000-mile record holder, who wasn't in the race but accompanied me to the peak (along with the guy who had the camera), just for the hell of it. At the top, we started to see lightning, and immediately turned and ran the 11 miles down to the trailhead--right after that 146 miles to the peak! I'm older now, but still crazy after all these years.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Distance Running and . . . National Defense?

     No, I'm not about to talk about the Marines or the Special Forces getting tougher so they can better fight the Taliban in Afghanistan -- though, come to think of it, the American generals  might learn something by studying the story of Lawrence of Arabia.  (In the May, 2009 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell notes that Lawrence led his Bedouins over 600 miles in summer heat while the Turks stayed fixed in their garrison.  He quotes Lawrence: "Our largest available resources were the tribesmen, quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets are movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of country...."  In the end, the tribesmen killed or captured 1,200 Turks while losing only two men of their own.  In this context, Gladwell quotes the 15th-century French general Maurice de Saxe, who famously said that the art of war is about legs, not arms.  And, writes Gladwell, "Lawrence's troops were all legs.")
     But I'm not talking about our troops, I'm talking about you.  And, maybe even more so, about your overweight neighbor or co-worker, and about the 200 million Americans who are paying huge amounts of taxes to support our military, but who aren't taking good care of themselves.  We runners just may have enough experience with physical and mental fitness and self-discipline to help educate our familes, friends, and communities in ways that would not only save many lives but help save the country itself, from its sleepwalk toward the Pied-Piper's cliff.
     The purpose of the Defense Department is to protect us from threats to our "national security".  But what are the greatest threats to our security?  If you look at the federal government's policies and budgets for the past half-century, you'd think Defense was all about the danger of attacks on the homeland -- the threats of Communism in Southeast Asia (Vietnam), the Soviet menace worldwide, and those infamous "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.  And, oh yes, the terrorists and Osama bin Ladin.  Almost forgot about him, what with all the distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  But believe it or not, there are other threats now that are vastly bigger than those.
     I'm not at all opposed to maintaining a strong military defense, even though I grew up in a Quaker family and was a great admirer of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandella, and other advocates of nonviolence.  But the enormity of the U.S. defense budget is hugely out of proportion to its role in a healthy civil society.  A recent Doonsbury cartoon puts this in perspective far better than I can. A reporter is being interviewed by an alien from another planet, who wants to know what we Americans "are like as a people":
     Reporter:  "Well, let's look at two sets of facts.  Nine years ago, we were attacked.  3,000 people died.  In response, we started two long, bloody wars and built a vast Homeland Security apparatus -- all at a cost of trillions!  Now, consider this.  During those same nine years, 270,000 Americans were killed by gunfire at home.  Our response?  We weakened our gun laws."
     Alien From Another PlanetWhrrrr!  Fail.  "Cannot comprehend . . . ."
     I won't give you the last line, because I don't want to steal any thunder from the strip's author, Gary Trudeau, who I think is the greatest cartoonist ever.  But you get the point.
     So, what does this have to do with distance running?  Hold on.
     Around the same week I saw that cartoon, I also saw a TV commercial from a public-interest group, pointing out that cigarette smoking kills more Americans than terrorism and murder, car crashes, drugs, and alcoholism put together.  And to that still-abbreviated list of threats to our homeland, add heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer's, and all those other dread diseases you've entered charity 5ks or walks to help combat.  And, friends, we haven't even brought up the subject of climate change, the future impacts of which (on coastal cities, global food production, fresh water supplies, and the rise of new epidemics) could make Katrina look like just another bad day.  In other words, the greatest threats to our security, by an enormous margin, are not in the deserts of the Middle East or North Africa, but right here in our own back yards.
     What we runners and other endurance athletes (bicyclists, hikers, cross-country skiers, mountain climbers, et al.) have going for us is a knowledge of physical and mental discipline that, if shared with more of our underexercised fellow citizens of the world, can do more for our longevity, health, quality of life and, yes -- security -- than a pumped-up military budget ever could or will. 
     I don't mean that we all need to be endurance athletes to have that kind of security.  But humans, by nature, need regular aerobic exercise.  By nature, we need lean diets, not loaded up with sugar, salt, fat, and chemicals.  And, by nature, we need to have closer connection, from our feet to our lungs, hearts, and brains, to the natural world with which we co-evolved and on which we are entirely dependent for life.
     In the recent political battle over the U.S. budget, both parties have taken cowardly positions -- urging cuts in funding for education, health, the environment, and other life-protecting programs that do more for national security than foreign wars have done since 1945 or, probably, will ever do again.  The pols urge these cuts while pretending to be caught in a terrible dilemma, and seeming  not to notice that the largest part of the U.S. budget is Defense.  Yet, the way to end that political sham-battle is simple:  If the politicians had the guts to be the leaders they pretend to be, they could cut the military by 20 or 30 percent and have enough funds to do everything the country needs to get strong again--rebuild decaying infrastructure, invest in clean energy that doesn't depend on sucking up to Middle Eastern dictators, make sure everyone has access to food, water, health care, and employment, and eliminate both the national debt and the deficit.  And, still have a military as big as those of the next 10-biggest militaries in the world combined!  But of course, the politicians don't want to be accused of being "weak on military defense."  Instead, they evidently don't mind being weak on real defense.
     There's a strong connection between the endurance and patience of individuals (what we learn as long-distance runners) and the long-run sustainability of our society.  For instance, consider the national debt.  We know that if we sprint, without pacing ourselves, we build up oxygen debt and hit the wall in 2 to 3 minutes max.  If we learn the secrets of efficiency, we can run for hours.  Those facts aren't the policies of a government or the rules of a sport.  They are the laws of nature.  After 3 million years of human evolution, we are suddenly in peril, not from terrorism, but from disconnection with what really keeps us alive.  It's late in the day, but maybe there's still time to re-learn what our ancient, far-wandering hunter-gatherer ancestors long understood.
   

Saturday, February 19, 2011

My Running Buddy, the Pro Football Player

     OK, he isn't exactly my running buddy.  But he is a very good friend, and boy could he once run.  And boy, has this guy given me some incredible insights about the role of sports in our society.
     It's not often that you'll find a long-distance runner hanging out with an NFL linebacker and having stuff to talk about.  There's kind of a culture gap.  We distance runners are slow-twitch and skinny; those guys are fast-twitch and explosive.  We are usually light-to-medium weight; they are anywhere from big to gigantic.  We spend a lot of time alone on wilderness trails; they spend a lot of time in ear-splitting stadiums.  Ever since high school cross-country, half a century ago, I thought football players were a different breed altogether--until I met David Meggyesy.
     It happened after David married my cousin Carolyn, who had graduated with honors from Yale, and right away I thought that must be a very odd couple!  I was a bit apprehensive about meeting him, but they lived in the San Francisco Bay area and I was going up there to visit my friend Ken Lee and run a 50k, so we all arranged to get together.  When we did, it wasn't just polite handshakes; we hit it off right away.  And on the morning of the race, even though I had to get up ultra-early and drive to Marin County while it was still dark, there at the start was David, to give me an enthusiastic cheer.  Later, my wife Sharon and I went to David and Carolyn's house in Berkeley, and met some of their friends.  One of them, to my great surprise, was a guy named Don Paul, who had been one of the top American ultrarunners of all time: he had once run 50 miles in a mind-blowing 5:10.  That's miles, not kilometers!
     Before meeting David, I heard he had written a book, Out of Their League, that had raised a huge ruckus in the football world.  I read it, and found it to be a very entertaining but disturbing expose of the apparently rampant corruption, exploitation of young athletes, and spectacle of violence that big-time college and pro football had become.  David had played at Syracuse (I think he was a freshman the year they won the national championship), and later played linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL, where he reputedly became notorious for his leg-breaking tackles.  And then, at the peak of his career, he had quit and published his book, which became a huge best-seller.  Since then, he has devoted his life to studying the role of sports in society, and that's where he and I discovered that our interests coincided.
     Contrary to what a reader or reviewer of his book might have thought, David Meggyesy is not a disgruntled ex-player.  In fact, for many years until his recent retirement, he was one of the leaders of the NFL Players Association.  But he has also been pursuing some questions that go far beyond pensions and medical plans (and, lately, what to do about head-butt concussions and brain-damage).  What is wrong with an American population that is sports-crazy but grossly overweight and unfit?  Why is it that while an enthusiastic minority of the population runs 10ks or marathons or works out at the gym, a much larger share is looking more and more like Rush Limbaugh?  And most important, when you think about that ancient mantra of "mind, body, and spirit," which is so easily and often invoked, how exactly are those parts of our nature connected?  Is it even possible to badly neglect one of them and not be dangerously eroding the others?  (Does your brain get the oxygen it needs for optimal cognitive functioning if you don't exercise your body?  Can your spirit grow if your mind and body are dormant?)
     A few days ago, I launched my new website, willhumansendure.com. I sent an invitation to friends, and one of the quickest to respond (he was always one of the quickest to get to the ball carrier) was David.  He sent me a piece he'd written, and among other insights it contained a comment that goes to the heart of what I want to explore.  The gist of it is that as everyone knows, if an athlete wants to be good he has to practice, but what an awful lot of people don't seem to recognize is that it also takes practice to become mentally or spiritually fit.  The mind and soul need exercise just as much as the legs and lungs do.  Yet, millions of us are content to stop reading books, or studying complex issues, or asking hard questions and searching for answers, after about the age of 21.  I know people who have been sitting on the couch eating fritos for decades.  And, too many of them vote for politicians who themselves have never read a book or done serious soul-searching--who are not only physically soft but have done nothing to keep their minds fit.  And these are the people who are going to make our policies and laws?  Just the thought of it makes me want to go out for a run. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

After 54 years, My 1st Week!

Hi, Friends, Runners, and Fellow Adventurers!

This is my FIRST WEEK here, so please be patient while I figure this out!   As a long-time ultrarunner, I have come to think patience is one of humankind's greatest potential strengths, but it is terribly neglected in this era of ever-greater speed and rushing in all things.

For the moment, let me just say I have been a competitive long-distance runner for 54 consecutive years and counting, and I love it as much now as I did in my first year of high-school cross-country back in 1956. 

I have also come to believe that for early humans, thousands of years ago, long-distance running (as nomadic hunters) played a key role in our evolution and in the development of our unique capacities to endure, envision, and plan.  I explore these themes in more depth on my website, willhumansendure.com.  Here, I will just share some of the day-to-day insights I've had about the ways in which I now think that running profoundly affects our abilities to contribute to our communities as active, healthy, and responsible individuals. 

In the photo, I'm nearing the 15-mile point (on the Appalachian Trail) of the JFK 50 Mile (largest ultra in the U.S.) last November.  I had just taken a bad face--plant on the rocks, but recovered enough to keep going.  I finished 3rd of 71 guys in the age 60-69 division.  Next year I'll be 70!