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.