My book The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance caught the attention of National Public Radio host Bill Littlefield earlier this month, and he did an interview with me that was broadcast on 220 NPR stations around the country. It was a little intimidating, I'll admit, because Bill was in Boston (at host station WBUR) whle I was in Pasadena, CA, at Southern California Public Radio, with a headset and a mike--and I'm frankly a lot more comfortable with a water bottle and a pair of running shoes than with a headset and a mike. Twice during the interview, I was in the midst of an interchange with the guy I could only hear, not see, when my headset fell off. But it really wasn't the headset that discombobulated me so much as the fact that I was all alone in the studio, in a big swivel chair in front of a semicircular array of equipment that looked like what they had at the NASA Mission Control in Houston on the day of the first moon landing, back when I was young. Except that in Houston they had about fifthy engineers and tech guys who could control a rocket flying 24,500 miles per hour, whereas I'm one of those clueless people (when it comes to tech, as opposed to my own bodily propulsion system) who never quite learned how to operate a VCR before it became obsolete, and who now wonders what the heck to do with all those useless cassete tapes in the TV cabinet. There, in the NPR studio in front of me, were five very large computer screens and seven keyboards plus a giant eighth keyboard the size of a surfboard, with about a thousand keys, flanked by a bank of instrument panels with enough blinking lights and controls to fly a fleet of starships to Pluto.
What had caught Bill Littlefield's interest, I think, was the admittedly far-out theory I discuss in the book, that there is a critical link between the kinds of endurance, patience, and persistence that long-distance runners learn to practice on wilderness trails, and the kinds of priorities that scientists tell us human civilization as a whole will have to adopt if we are to have any real hope for a sustainable future. In short, training for the long run--literally--can provide key insights to our own long-run future as a civilization.
Littlefield also knew I wasn't just an over-enthusiastic marathon or half-marathon junkie espousing an idea that was just a little too much of a stretch. In addition to having run long-distance races for over 55 years, I'd made my living as an editorial director for the Worldwatch Institute--publisher of the annual State of the World, which tracks global trends in such areas as human population, global warming, human food supply, major epidemics, and environmental decline. I'd done editing for some of the world's leading environmental and climate scientists. In my book, as I told the story of an iconic 50-mile race I had run a few weeks after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (one of my rivals in the race, Frank Probst, had been the closest survivor to witness the Pentagon crash), I offered some provocative speculations on just what that link between individual endurance and societal sustainability entails.
Along with the broadcast, Littlefield posted a review on the host station's website, and my impression was that he "gets it" in a way that not all readers do. (A few of the reader comments on Amazon have been like "Hey, I thought this book was going to tell me how to improve my marathon time. What's all that other stuff?" But if you happen to look at the book's page on Amazon, also note the comments by Bill Rodgers, Kathrine Switzer, Michael Wardian, Naomi Benaron, Marshall Ulrich, and others, along with the most recent half-dozen reader reviews at the bottom!). Here's a link to Bill Littlefield's review: http://onlyagame.wbur.org/2013/02/09/the-longest-race.
One reason I wanted to be fairly candid about my techno-cluelessness about things like VCRs or radio broadcast equipment (or smart phone apps, or Garmins, or any of the other electronic stuff that has taken over for our bodies and brains) is that I wan't to establish some credibility when it comes to making a candid observation about my strengths, as well as my weaknesses. There is one strength in particular (beyond a talent for running), which I'll discuss in my next post--an ability that has a strong bering on the validity of the theory of individual endurance and civilizational survival. Look for it in the next couple if days.