Saturday, May 30, 2009

Nature's Reasons

I was fussing around with the countdown timer on my camera when another hiker happened up to the summit of the Crags. So we exchanged cameras and took each other’s pictures. We ended up talking for some time. I’m always more apt to engage in conversation with a stranger after I’ve been alone for a while. It helped that the man was friendly and inclined to share his knowledge of the area. He briefly mentioned that he was hiking to strengthen himself before another round of cancer treatment. Mr. Tyler (I only remember his last name) was easy to converse with. His mind seemed designed to remember and share tidbits of information that others might find interesting. He pointed out mountain ranges and their names in the distance, discussed the geology of Pike’s Peak, and bent the limp pine to demonstrate the origins of its name. Mr. Tyler is a model cultural actor; he is both a product and a purveyor of culture. He is very civilized. We all are, but Mr. Tyler exemplifies it. It’s tempting to oversimplify and imagine his opposite, a caveman who takes what he wants by force and needs little more than to grunt to get across his message. The caveman acts on instinct. His only reasons are nature’s reasons. If clubbing his competitors works to win a mate, he will club his competitors. Mr. Tyler, by contrast, has his own reasons, seemingly independent of what nature intended.

My voice was raspy. After only 48 hours at close to 10,000 feet my sound-making equipment was dried out. After the hike I broke camp and drove back to Manitou Springs. I decided to hang out there and write so that I could meet Team CRUD for the Thursday evening tempo run. The dry sensation in my mouth caused me to drink a lot of water, so several times now I have had to take a break to find some tree cover and relieve myself. Nature, it turns out, is full of nifty inventions that don’t always work. I know when I need to drink because I get a dry sensation in my mouth. If the dryness is caused by lowered humidity, though, I mistakenly drink more than I need. So if I ignore the dry sensation, and reason for myself that I don’t need to drink, have I defied Nature’s reason?

So many of the comments I get from non-ultrarunners about my training or racing reflect the sense that what I’m doing is crazy. Like “that’s abnormal,” or, “I can’t believe your body can do that,” or, “where do you get the will to keep going?” It doesn’t seem natural to run 50 miles, so I must have my own reasons. We imagine that Nature’s reasons are wired into us. We don’t have to think about them – in fact, we are more likely to act on them if we don’t think about them. We act on instinct. When we are hungry we seek food. When we fast, it seems it is for reasons other than nature’s reasons. We think it is for our reasons. The instinct to feed ourselves can get us into trouble. The built-in mechanisms that cue us to eat were designed for a different world than the one we live in -- a world in which procuring reliable and calorie dense foods was difficult. These foods taste good to us – nature’s way of encouraging us to eat them. Nature didn’t anticipate we’d have an unlimited supply at our disposal, however. So we have to create our own reasons to avoid unwanted calories.

Diets, however, are notoriously difficult to follow. People have a sense that they ought to be able to resist temptation. It is just a matter of will. We don’t want to get fat, so we will just eat what we need. Likewise for all human activity that seems to fall outside of what is natural. We mow our yards, hang decorations around the house, or train to race 100 miles. What better evidence is there that we are deciding selves who can take nature or leave it? The model of our autonomy in which we are freed of nature to act as we will is mistaken and problematic. We fall into relationships, addictions, trends, and all manner of patterns out of which we cannot simply will ourselves. Our mistake is putting ourselves opposite of and apart from nature. We know a lot about the wiring that constitutes our nervous systems. We cannot help but imagine, though, that there is something else, something with the leverage to originate messages, cause them to change tracks, or stop them altogether.

Several comments to this blog reflect the basic sentiment that my training and racing mentality demonstrate just the sort of willpower that I keep trying to deny. I seem disciplined, strong, or tough. I can go beyond where others may have to stop. Implicit in these comments is the view that I exist apart from nature, and can act according to my own reasons. Relying on this view can be self-defeating. I want to be realistic. I want to explore a natural account of our capacities. I want to accept all the pushes and pulls on our behavior, not as something we must fight, but as forces that we must reckon with. The self has no leverage – it can only use nature. We may be able to ascribe some reasons as our own, but they can only be composed of nature’s reasons.

Berg called me many times during the Fall of my senior year in high school. He recruited athletes by paying them attention and getting to know them. As I described some of my running habits I can remember him asking: “it gets to be like brushing your teeth, doesn’t it?” We are creatures of habit. Once a pattern is established, it just doesn’t feel right to change it. We are compelled to brush our teeth before bedtime.

Establishing a daily run is at the heart of becoming a better runner. It seems like a perfect demonstration of the willfulness of the committed athlete. What makes the daily run a habit, though, is that no decision is involved. We run, no matter what. When I do my morning runs, I wake up, and automatically start getting ready. I don’t check myself over to gage my energy level, I don’t sample the weather. There are no factors that must be weighed to make my decision. The decision has already been made. I smile when people ask me what I do about my running when the weather is bad. I think to myself that if my running was contingent on the weather I wouldn’t be a runner.

Other features of my willfulness are like this: simple tricks. Many runners enjoy eating rich foods because they feel they have earned it. I bought a dozen donuts after my 3-day foray to the high country. We know that rewards will reinforce behavior. So I can reward myself for running, and increase the likelihood that I will keep doing it.

I have written recently about the natural desire to stand out. We tend to find things we can do well, at least among a subset of people, and then pursue those things. This drive may look like the will to succeed, but it is a natural mechanism for attracting mates that we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. We are a social species, so we also feel the need to fit in. Many athletes will pursue a sport because of the camaraderie. Again, we do things because of nature, not in spite of it. If it takes joining a group so that you will run, because everyone else is, then that is a trick worth pursuing. You still get credit for having the “will” to run, even though you really just tricked your desire to fit in to convince yourself to do it!

People do seem to resist nature sometimes though, even acting counter to their own interests. Where selfishness would benefit them, and was surely programmed into them by nature, they will instead be generous toward others. I have benefitted, as I’m sure you have, from the thoughtful tutelage of selfless coaches and role models. Mr. Tyler, for example, didn’t give a second thought to interrupting his own hike to share his knowledge with me.

That discussion will have to remain open for another post.

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