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!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lance Armstrong, Artificial Organs, and the Big-Brother Toilet: What Do They Have in Common?

Three Things That Really Piss Me Off:

1.  Lance Armstrong.  I'm a competitive endurance athlete, ran my first long-distance race before Lance Armstrong was born, and have never run for money or fame.  And no, I'm  not envious of Armstrong's money or fame, nor was I envious even when it was all golden, before it turned to rot.  The thing is, long-distance running and other endurance sports are not even remotely like pro football, baseball, basketball, etc., which bring obscene amounts of income to their stars--many of whom never developed their social skills or education beyond early adolescence and are too often in the news because they've been involved in beatings, burgleries, shootings, or other crimes (note that the Huffington Post has an entire news section titled "Sports Crime."  It's hard for me to imagine that long-distance runners might someday get sullied by such things--though with the huge cash prizes awarded in major marathons now, I fear the day might not be far off.  Personally, I run for the pleasure of running and for the benefits of great health and fitness it brings--which, incidentally, I wouldn't trade for all the money ever banked by any pro athlete or hedge-fund manager or other fat cat you could name.
      But I'm also aware that beyond what endurance running has meant to me personally, it has brought something critically valuable to our troubled society at large.  Long-distance running--especially trail running--has brought millions of us a greater sense of connection with the natural world that sustains us and that we depend on foor every breath and step we take.  It takes courage and honesty for an athlete to recognize that those assets are worth infinitely more than personal glory or wealth.  That's a truth that growing numbers of us have embraced, in party because it's a truth that may be critical to the survival of civilization itself.  And when the  best-known endurance athlete in the world betrays that truth, it's a tragedy not only for him, but for all of us.  Lance Armstrong, like Barry Bonds, was a kind of Judas.  He really pisses me off.

2.  Wilderness visitors loaded with equipment.  It started with hiking and camping, and has since moved to trail running and ultrarunning.  When I was young and maybe a little too innocent, I joined the Boy Scouts, which in those days seemed an admirable means by which kids could learn about nature.  We had fun going on camping trips, cooking dinner over a campfire with a cook kit the size of a cereal bowl, and sleeping in a pup tent you could fold up and carry in your backpack.  The other stuff you had in your pack included a canteen of water and a small spade for digging a latrine.  Decades later, I learned that people were going camping with 30-foot motor homes, fully equipped kitchens, chaise-lounges, and TVs.  In Southern California, guys were driving out to the desert to race 400-horsepower vehicles with monster tires, wrecking the landscape.  And still later, I noticed that many of my fellow endurance runners were carrying more and more high-tech aids to navigation and performance: GPS, camel backs, fuel belts, cooling hats, hand bottles, gel paks, computerized running shoes, vented jackets, super sleeves, thermal gloves, and so on.  OK, if you're running in a place where you'd be arrested for running naked, or if you're going more than 10 miles on an extremely hot or extremely cold day, some of this stuff is very useful.  But where do you draw the line?  Or, more to the point, are you ever curious about whether a line should be drawn?  Or to turn that question upside-down, if you currently carry a lot of equipment to enhance performance by cooling, warming, hydrating, fueling, pain-killing, and replenishing electrolytes, what's wrong with enhancing performance by doing what Lance Armstrong did? 
     There was a time, a few decades ago, when a fundamental part of endurance sports was teaching your body how to increase its adaptability to thirst, fatigue, heat, etc., by developing greater energy efficiency and more astute awareness of your physiological and environmental conditions as you go.  But who needs optimal energy conservation when you can have replenishment as often as you want?  (Hint: If paleolithic humans had had readily available replenishment of food and water every half-hour, our species would never have developed the endurance, patience, and ability to envision and adapt that enabled us to build civilization, and none of us would exist today.)  The unchallenged, never-questioned trend toward ever greater dependence on technological aids to do what the body can do amazingly well on its own--if well trained and attuned--is dangerous, because that dependence increasingly disconnects us from our own nature. 
     Someday, I'd like to see the announcement of an endurance race in which the quantities of water and fuel we can consume during the competition, as well as the kinds and capacities of all of any equipment we wish to use, are as strictly limited as are the kinds of drugs we're allowed.  If a "minimalist" approach to endurance sport makes any sense at all, it can't be just with your shoes but with all that other stuff some runners now carry as if they're heading to Afraica to shoot lions and tigers on a rich-man's safari.  The realization that large numbers of my fellow Americans, even including a growing cohort of endurance athletes, still embrace a safari attitude toward wilderness pisses me off.

3.  The Big-Brother-Is-Watching-You Toilet.  Somewhere, a few years ago, I read about a new high-tech toilet developed by a Japanese company, which can save you a lot of the inconvenience of such disagreeable tasks as doing stool tests or being lectured by a doctor about your bad dietary habits.  Or, if your doctor is ignorant of nutrition himself (as many doctors clearly are), it's a toilet that at least might alert you to a problem that would otherwise be overlooked.  You don't want your underside to be overlooked, do you?
     This toilet, if I recall, will automatically collect small samples of your poop, analyze them for various diseases, drug residues, or dietary deficiencies or excesses, and automatically report them via direct electronic links to the appropriate authorities.  The purported use is for getting data quickly and efficiently from your bowels to the local Health officials, who will then be alerted if you are carrying a serious disease even before you know it yourself.  But you can also see the other obvious uses for this toilet: Any residue of illicit drugs could be automatically reported to the police or DEA (Lance Armstrong should have had one of these years ago), and--if you're a celebrity--any indication of pregnancy could be passed on (for a price) to reporters who know the right people at the Health Department or other agencies.  And if the model of toilet you have is equipped with a camera, personnel at these agencies might make a nice income on the side by selling photos of your butt. 
     When I read about this toilet, I found it both hilarious and appalling.  When I poop or pee, I'd prefer not to have anyone watching.  OK, if I'm running an ultra and have to stop and step into the woods a few yards, I don't mind if other runners see me as they go by.  But close examination should be for me, and only me, to do or request a lab to do.  The idea of having every poop or pee intercepted, examined, and evaluated for possible further action by the government?  It's part of that same trend that's bringing us police-department drones looking in our windows or  CIA analysts perusing our phone calls.  That really pisses me off.

OK, so how are all these things connected?  And what about that other item in my catchy title, "Artificial Organs"?  Well, I need to clarify something important: I'm not a Luddite, one of those people who hate technology.  Technology is not always bad.  (Do I really even need to say that?)  But too many people, especially Americans and Japanese, regard it as always good.  Virtually every new technology generates excitement in the media and among investors and consumers, and rarely do we have any concern about unintended consequences.  We are enticed by the short-term satisfactions (the newest Apple or Samsung devices, etc.) while the long-term consequences of what were once promising technologies (coal-generated electricity, nuclear fission, DDT) fade from our awareness. Who even remembers Hiroshima, Chernobyl, or Love Canal?  And who really worries about obesity, diabetes, or global warming?
     For a more hidden example of a seeminly promising technology that has yet to reveal its fangs, who isn't glad for the biotech research that's beginning to produce artificial organs to replace diseased or injured ones?  Isn't that good?  Well, of course.  But then, we don't think much at all about the long-term imnplications of a technology that could someday be used by a neo-Nazi government or organization not to help the ill or injured, but to build a superior breed of human.  The technology that builds replacement livers and limbs could also be used to pioduce tall, blond, blue-eyed, beautiful, high-IQ children for the 1-percent of the population rich enough to have their genes engineered to order. Does anyone remember Hitler?
     What artificial organs, the big-brother toilet, and Lance Armstrong's chemical joy-ride all have in common is that all are manifestations of the mad rush of our civilization to allow our most fundamental human capacities, including our intelligence and wisdom, be replaced by mindless technology.  We turn our legs over to cars; we replace the mental mapping capacity of our hippocampuses with our GPS; we alleviate the stresses of hard work (whether at the desk or on a bicycle) by handing the burden of that work over to stimulants, painkillers, steroids, synthetic hormones, and narcotics.  The trouble is, unlike in our highly evolved bodies and brains, which have had 60,000 years to work out the bugs, these new technologies are not coordinated with each other, and have no conscience.  And the fact that we are so easily seduced by them really scares me.

If these themes are of interest, I hope you'll check out my book The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance.  It's had great reviews from Bill Rodgers, Jacqueline Hansen, Michael Wardian, and editors at Runners World, Running Times, and Ultrarunner, among others.  Available at Amazon and in bookstores.