Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Calling Massanutten Runners

What machine could be making that sound? The thought woke me at 3:15 am this morning. I would have been waking up if I had been in Virginia, but now I really wanted to be sleeping. A distinct and rapid staccato clicking rattled around in my room. I had put the futon on the floor so I could pull a chair up to the large counter that runs the length of the room on one side. An older computer sits on the counter, along with many of the odds and ends that I packed for my month long training camp (and writing retreat). I had to wake up enough to think through the devices (cell phone, computer, mp3, etc.) that might create a noise and then rule them out as the source of the sound that I was hearing.

Although I ran in cold and wind for my 20 mile run on Sunday, the weather has quickly shifted to the warm and sunny climate I expected. So I had opened my window to feel the cool night air. Carried with the air, I finally reasoned, was the clicking of some desert insect. Back home I’ve had to go on the hunt for a stray cricket that found its way to some out-of-the-way corner. It waits until all is quiet and dark and then cracks the night wide open with its shrieking call.

This insect was outside, though, and it’s clicking much more mechanical sounding than a cricket’s call. I wasn’t going to fight it. The outside air was too pleasant to close the window, and the sound was so constant and repetitive that I could imagine wading into it, like it was the short steep ripples disturbing an otherwise placid lake. When I woke back up sometime later, dreaming of escorting my wandering daughter back to her bed, the sound was gone.

I spoke with Bradley Mongold before I went to bed. He explained his decision to withdraw from the Massanutten 100, held last Saturday. He had dedicated enormous resources preparing to win the race. The aggregation of several adverse circumstances in the two weeks prior to the race, culminating in an upper respiratory illness, tipped the scale against starting the run. I had hoped to continue the discussion about the nature of his striving in light of the results of his run at Massunutten. Because of the intensity of Bradley’s pre-race efforts, his legitimate bid to win the race, and our friendship, I was particularly interested in his story.

Adam Casseday placed 5th overall and Robin Meagher placed 3rd woman. These outstanding runs no doubt have compelling stories behind them. The Massanutten is not for the faint of heart on any year – because of the extremely rocky and mountainous terrain. This year was added a spicy variety of weather conditions, from hot and humid at the start to dangerous thunderstorms in the afternoon.

This is a call to all Massanutten runners for your story. I am interested to hear all stories of extreme striving. This platform has a particular bent, though, which may need some explaining before you offer your response. I have expressed skepticism that you have the sort of powers we are tempted to ascribe to you. You have run 100 miles, in difficult circumstances. You have endured extreme discomfort, if not pain and injury. We are tempted to marvel at the sheer power of your will. “Sheer” is an appropriate modifier for this power because it seems not only unaffected by such brute forces as gravity, but it is at the ready to resist the earthly forces that cause everyone else to relax at home.

I do admire you, and your efforts. I just think that all the things you are able to do on race day are explainable. We reap what we sow, so to speak. Karl Meltzer gave himself the best odds to win the race in his pre-race blog post. He knew his fitness to complete the event because of his experience in training and his prior runs at Massanutten. Karl did win the race in a remarkable time given the conditions. The outcome is explainable. I suggested in an earlier post (The Bradley Running Machine) that if Bradley did well in the race his effort would be explainable in terms of his preparation. He made many of the decisions that would come up during the race in advance. That, I said, was his willfulness, in contrast to the image of a levitating essence inside Bradley that could “will” him forward despite his (predictable) bodily difficulties.

All this is not to suggest that we can know the outcome in advance. We have to actually run the race. It is not just a contrived goal in service to all the preparation. We have to actually deal with race-day variables, all of which cannot be known in advance. Prepare for the unexpected.

Bradley isn’t ready to discard his “benign user illusion.” This is the phrase coined by philosopher Daniel Dennett to describe the deciding self we all imagine at the helm of our bodily ship. Bradley wants you to know that he tends to all the details of fueling, hydration, and decision-making in advance so that he is free to focus on what needs attention during the race. My response is: if he did his job right, no work is left to be done.

For Massanutten runners, I would like to offer a parable. I am interested in your interpretation of this story as it applies to your efforts. It happens to be true, as witnessed by Bradley while hunting stone sheep in British Columbia:

Through the binoculars, I saw a lone caribou bull on the run. This unusual behavior caught my attention, and I searched for an explanation. I soon found it. Trailing behind, at an unhurried pace, was a black wolf, followed closely by a gray wolf. The open landscape of the plateau in front of me was dotted by small lakes, about 100 meters across. The wolves didn’t close, but neither did they lose ground. Eventually the caribou slowed as it approached a lake. The wolves gained ground. The caribou jumped into the lake and swam toward the middle. The wolves stopped at the lake’s edge.

The caribou exerted much effort swimming. When it reached halfway, the gray wolf trotted around to the other side of the lake, where the caribou was headed. The black wolf lay down. The caribou approached the far edge of the lake, without seeing the gray wolf, which had also lain down. Not until the caribou was nearly climbing out of the water did the gray wolf stand. The caribou lunged back around into the lake and swam for the near shore where it had first jumped in. Many minutes later, when it had reached the near shore, the black wolf finally rose from its near-slumber. The caribou turned once more. It slowed, fighting to keep its rack above water, and to creep once again to the far shore. The black wolf trotted to the far side to join the gray wolf, and to wait for the caribou, already nearly dead from exhaustion.

The caribou saw the wolves, but could not fight. The wolves closed on the caribou, and killed it. The wolves then trotted off, leaving the carcass of the caribou whole by the side of the lake.


  1. Eric,

    I've really enjoyed reading your deeply phylosophical posts. Although I feel "baited" into this comment....here it goes. I agree with parts of your post, but I have to disagree that a race performance is always explainable (I know you didn't use the word always). Sometimes there are variables and factors beyond your control that alter your potential in which was previously prepared or trained for. Lets take my race at MMT as an example. I was prepared and trained to run slightly under 20 hours based on my fitness and course knowledge. I ran 22:39. What accounted for the extra 2:39+? Well it was things I had accounted for and prepared for; heat, inclimate weather, vomitting, even two nose-bleeds(??)....but it was my body's response to those variables that was my demise as far as the finishing time. Explainable you say? Well, yes and no. I agree that all those factors all explainable, but my response may not be. I could have easily quit while facing my worst "feeling" in a race to date. I did not quit because of my will to continue no matter the result. I believe that it is that will/soul of a person that leads them to success and greatness in life. This deep and soulful will is an unscientific and intangible thing. Does this exist? I believe it does and is that voice inside that pushes me along in all of life's pursuits. I would much rather have the will to succeed, than the talent to succeed.
    In the epic struggle of the caribou and the wolves, it is the caribou that recognizes his surroundings and survives the wolves advances by standing in the shallows where the wolves will not follow; exercising his will against theirs. Will the wolves tire?.....

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Adam.

    You made it through a tough slog. I know what that's like. It does help define things for us, doesn't it?

    Congrats on a very respectable run in difficult conditions.

  3. Professor:

    i doubt that you will get many bites on the wolf analogy from the MMTers. most won't get it, and those that get it will be horrified by its realities.

    my impression is that you have still got some of this wrong, and i don't like being misrepresented.

    having said that, i will leave the philosophy to you... this is your blog so you should spin it how you see fit. plus i know absolutely nothing about philosopy and i intend to keep it that way.

    i will editorialize.

    you are oversimplifying my story, and "The Beast" has nothing to do with "the image of a levitating essence inside Bradley that could “will” him forward despite his (predictable) bodily difficulties." quite the opposite.

    there were two (equally important) messages in my analogy. the first you clearly understand -- that a being can be both untamed and calculating.

    the second (and the more important of the two if you really want to be inside of my brain) you quickly discarded because you could not explain it. the wolves killed the caribou and then walked away from it. this is the magic of the Unknown. the anti-religion, the anti-civilization, the anti-science, and yes, Professor... the anti-philosophy. the goal of these four is to minimize the Unknown, to disenchant it. the point of the second half of my message is that you must embrace it. in the second half of a 100-miler, that is all you have -- the Unknown. when you have calculated and calculated and followed your race strategy to perfection, and you are still vomiting at mile 65, you must not question what you have done, but rather embrace what you cannot control. the point of the calculations and preparations - the "oiling" - is not to enable a "deciding self we all imagine at the helm of our bodily ship." the point is to throw that deciding self overboard, to leave the bull's carcass by the lake, and embrace the idea that, although you do not know that there are caribou over the next ridge, you must run to find out.

  4. These thoughts jumped out at me in these posts:
    Eric: I just think that all the things you are able to do on race day are explainable.

    Adam: I would much rather have the will to succeed, than the talent to succeed.

    Mongold: The point is to throw that deciding
    self overboard . . .

    What a great discussion about will, motivation, and the "benign user illusion."

    In a conversation with Ed Davis yesterday, I mentioned that Eric is planning to run 100 miles this summer in one 24 hour period. Ed commented that Eric was heroic. I'd like to see some posts about this idea that doing something as seemingly impossible as running 100 miles in 1 day is heroic or rather that the person is heroic. It's not just that the task itself is heroic, but the person is. I didn't press Ed on it, but I thought it was interesting that he used that word. How does that feel to be thought of as heroic? Do you want to be thought of in that light? do you care?

  5. not sure if you meant it for Eric or for the general community here, but i will bite on your question Robin.

    keep in mind that these are only my opinions -- i am not seeking to offend Robin or Grossman or Ed.

    running 100 miles is not in any way heroic -- it is natural.

    people that can run 100 miles are not heros -- they are normal.

    the fact that people believe that running 100 miles, or killing elephants with spears, or surviving in extreme conditions with little equipment, is heroic or even unusual -- is a sad reflection of how super-civilized our species has become.

    500 years ago a bear on this continent lived almost EXACTLY the same way that a bear lives today. i think the Professor will agree that very little true "evolutionary change" has occured amongst either our species or other species during that time frame. BUT, look at the insane amount of difference between how humans live now versus then.

    we are soft, heart-diseased, depressed shells of our ancestors.

    what is the price of comfort and security, of artificial harmony, of our husbandry of the beasts?

    the price is your freedom.

  6. We admire athletes. They not only show us what our bodies really can handle (that maybe we forgot) but they also show us how deliberate intervention (yes, Bradley, there is an upside to civilization!) can help us to get better. Isn't that freedom?

    So we should embrace heroism if it inspires. We may want to avoid it, though, when it only serves to make some feel smaller.

  7. maybe i was a bit ambiguous. i absolutely agree with everything you have said about heroism and athletes. BUT, that is NOT freedom.

    what you are speaking of is the freedom to choose (we could call it liberty).

    the fact that we must choose "deliberate intervention" to do what is absolutely natural is further evidence that we have lost the freedom that i am talking about.

  8. Keep speaking the truth (as you see it), brothers.