Saturday, January 28, 2012

Race Recap: My first college track meet in 13 years

"Runners set!"

The gun fired quicker than I thought it would, and the guys jumped out at the line. I was on the outside edge of the track, hip number 11. Perfect position, I realized, as we rounded the first curve. I stayed out, running free, steering clear of the spikes, feeling the fellows jostling behind me.

Around we moved as a tight mass, settling quickly into a rhythm. As we entered the second lap, a runner moved around me on my right and forced me down into the rail. By the end of the fourth curve, we had ourselves more or less organized, just in time for the quarter split: 72.. 73...

Perfect, I thought. I assumed we were right on 5-flat pace, since everything goes out a bit quicker then settles. I checked my breathing: good, even. The legs felt great. Everything was smooth. Next quarter: 2:27... 2:28...

I had forgotten one thing since the last time I had been in this situation. Perhaps I can be forgiven because some of the kids I was running against were 5 years old the last time that I ran in a race like this. In track, you don't get to do what you want to do. You have to race the pace that is set. More than that: you have to make yourself a part of this barely formed organism that is tightly hurtling itself around this little track. You sit in there, and you lose yourself in the mass. This is the middle of the race. It's the only thing you can do.

I actually did this well at first. I ran instinctively and let the group carry me. It was remarkably easy. We floated through 1200 in 3:43 before I had a thought of my own.

Then, we approached the mile. The meet was indoors at ETSU's oversized track. It's 280 meters, and of course it would be impossible to get splits on your own, but they had a couple of guys who were holding a neon sign and reading out splits every 400m at various stages on the track. As we rounded what must have been about the 10th curve, I saw them coming into view, and I made my first mistake: I thought. I thought, "What if this is too fast?" 4:56... 4:57...

In a road race, you make adjustments off the pace, especially in a podunk road race where there is no such thing as a pack, just a few scattered skinny guys you know and train with all the time. You hear the pace at the mile, and you respond: okay, out too fast, or out too slow. You make choices, and these choices have nothing strategic about them: you simply try to stay calm, relaxed, and running within yourself. You aren't a part of a loosely-bound organism skittering tightly around a 280 meter oval. You are a normal human being, and you think like one.

Thinking, in the middle of a track race, is a HUGE mistake. It only separates you from the organism. [Side note, don't be confused: Thinking is awesome at the end of the race, if you can still muster it, because that's when the organism must be separated--and better that you do the separating.]

I heard that split, and I made my second mistake. I thought: "It doesn't matter if they go, I'll back off a bit and pick up the pieces. 4:57 is a little hot." So, I let the little organism of tightly packed, non thinking, runners running go, and as soon as I did I found myself totally and utterly alone.

There is no lonelier thing than a runner who has just lost contact from the pack. This is why you hear coaches screaming at their runners: "Don't lose contact!!!" They know it is death. So, there I was, alone. I'd been amputated from the organism. Worse: I'd amputated myself.

Almost immediately--immediately, actually--I was useless. A sensation rose up the back of my spine and clutched me between the shoulderblades. It yanked me off kilter, and suddenly instead of the smoothly striking, gently gliding running machine that I had been, I was a hunched and pinched and struggling body. Just up there, easing away, was the organism. It was strength, grace, beauty.

Me, I was left with that sensation--that icy clutch right at the base of my neck, that tightness in my chest. That was fear itself, the primitive sort of emotion that is bred into us by the wolves that chase the pack, looking for stragglers. To be alone, in the chase, is to be eaten.

So, there I was, literally straggling around the track, running not from strength and power, but out of fear and loathing. Over the course of a half a mile, I'd gone from smooth 75s to grinding 80s. I had no peripheral vision, no relaxation. The lap counter swung into view. 10 fucking laps to go.

I dropped out.

Well, I wanted to drop out about as bad as I've wanted anything. I wanted a hole in the middle of the track to open up and swallow me. But no hole opened up. I wanted to drop out SO BAD, but I ran on. Because there are no fucking wolves. Because it's just a goddamn indoor track meet. Because nobody gives a shit about running 75 second quarters except me.

We've all been there--the last half of a bad race. These are its qualities: 1) Shame--cause really I've given up on racing; I'm just running because I'm too proud to quit, and what kind of pride is that? 2) Strangling, staggering fear--we've already touched on this. 3) Disappointment tinged with self-pity--stupid body, stupid mind, why did you betray me? 4) The normal pain of running your balls off--but we are used to that and even sometimes love it.

So, I staggered on. I told myself that I must be running 6 minute miles, but of course that was just the stupid pity talking. Let the record show: mile 2 was 5:20, mile 3 was 5:27ish. Total time was 16:22.

Next Saturday, there's a 3000 at TSU. I just sent an email to the coach to see if I can get in. Yeah, the race today was a shitty race. Yeah, I'm kinda embarrassed about my time. Yeah, it was a waste of a drive and a hotel room and all of that.

But I tasted the FEAR.

And if I can conquer that...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Running as Aesthetic Rebellion

Schiller was the only handsome philosopher.
"We know that man is neither exclusively matter nor exclusively spirit. Accordingly, beauty, as the consummation of humanity, can be neither exclusively mere life, as has been asserted by sharp-sighted observers, who kept too close to the testimony of experience, and to which the taste of time would gladly degrade it; Nor can beauty be merely form, as has been judged by speculative sophists, who departed too far from experience, and by philosophic artists, who were led too much by the necessity of art explaining beauty; it is rather the common object of both impulses, that is, of the play instinct."
--Schiller, "Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man"

"As in Puritan New England, grace was not blithely attained. A believer--a runner--earned it by losing toenails and training down to bone and muscle, just as the Puritans formed calluses on their knees from praying. No one made a cent from their strenuous efforts. The running life, like the spiritual life, was its own reward."
--John Brandt, The Duel in the Sun

Runners know matter: body, flesh, sweat, gristle, blood, muscle, and bone.

Runners know spirit: will, desire, pain, hope, fear, and joy.

Experience comes, shot at us, a muddled blend of both matter and spirit. Though it is mixed thoroughly in its primary apprehension, if we turn our attention to it, we can trace it back to these two origins, neatly categorize it. Schiller had an idea that the task of education was to keep these two types of experience in play. He called this harmonizing play beauty, and he thought that it was the highest end of human affairs, the fundamental way of evaluating experience.

Positive experiences allow us to harmonize matter and spirit; they are beautiful and educative. Negative experiences create discord and antagonism between matter and spirit; they are ugly and miseducative.

This, for Schiller, is what life is all about: spirit, matter, play, harmony, beauty, education.

At the present moment, 2012, with the economy as it is, politicians and their acolytes yapping at each other, the news stations and the advertisers stirring up our jangled nerves, social media reminding us just how little we have in common with our "friends," thinking of life in terms of harmony and play seems totally out of place. The idea of beauty itself is almost impossible to square with our present condition.

"The purpose of mankind is beauty?" "The harmony of spirit and matter in play?" Please. To paraphrase one of the great philosophers of our day: "How's that spiritey-mattery stuff workin' out for ya?"

It's an ugly moment, socially.

The fact that Schiller's thoughts are so out of whack with our current ways of thinking is why it is important to read him and other philosophers. These untimely and out of place thinkers give us the courage to think against the grain of our current moment, to create something new.

If we follow Schiller's lead, we turn away from the things that we are told are most important. Apart from politics, taxes, money, and power, we find small moments of beauty scattered about. A sparrow in the wind. The smell of a home-cooked meal. An unexpected kiss or glance.

Brandt writes that "the running life, like the spiritual life, is its own reward." He gives us  imagery of the harmonious unity that the runner creates out of the material and spiritual selves. The body, trained down to essentials, mirrors and reflects the soul, trained down to essentials.

It sounds odd, at first, to say such things about this constant scampering down the road. But runners know matter and runners know spirit. They know them together: body, will, flesh, desire, sweat, pain, gristle, hope, blood, fear, muscle, joy, and bone.

If that's the case, then in these times you might think of running as a type of civil disobedience, a rebellious practice of education against the dominant forces of mis-education. Running is energy dissipated not for money or power or privilege, but for beauty. Like reading Schiller, it's hard to explain the practical value of running in a world that seems deadset on winners and losers, discord, chaos, and strife. Its practical value is play--the impractical grace of beauty.

Stride by stride, effort by effort, we stitch the two sides of experience together, matter and spirit. We ride, we flow -- that's play; that's grace; that's beauty. Despite the politicians, the economy, the wild and alienated swirl of contemporary life, despite the fact that everyone tells us we ought to be doing something more productive with our lives, we end up making time to play.

We can't help it. It's called being a human.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ryan Hall, Tim Tebow, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Men move between extremes. They conceive of themselves as gods, or feign a powerful and cunning god as an ally who bends the world to do their bidding and meet their wishes. Disillusioned, they disown the world that disappoints them; and hugging ideals to themselves as their possession, stand in haughty aloofness apart from the hard course of events that pays so little heed to our hopes and aspirations. But a mind that has opened itself to experience and that has ripened through its discipline knows its own littleness and impotencies; it knows that its wishes and acknowledgments are not final measures of the universe which in knowledge or in conduct, and hence are, in the end, transient. But it also knows that its juvenile assumption of power and achievement is not a dream to be wholly forgotten. It implies a unity with the universe that is to be preserved. This belief, and the effort of thought and struggle which it inspires, are also the doing of the universe, and they in some way, however slight, carry the universe forward. A chastened sense of our importance, apprehension that it is not a yardstick by which we measure the whole, is consistent with the belief that we and our endeavors are significant not only for themselves but in the whole."

--John Dewey, "Existence, Value, and Criticism" from Experience and Nature

Much ink has been spilled lately on the role of religion in sports. The entire country, it seems, has been transfixed by Tim Tebow, as he marched onward in the NFL playoffs. Through his play, demeanor, and public pronouncements of faith, Mr. Tebow has asked us all to consider such strange questions as whether or not God takes sides in football games, whether religious faith can make you a better athlete, what role religion ought to play in public life, and exactly how much credit we should give (or take away) from Tebow for so boldly proclaiming his faith in our increasingly secular and pluralistic culture.

Before Tebow hit the NFL, we few followers of the sport of distance running already had our Tebow. Ryan Hall and Tim Tebow seem to carry themselves similarly. After he finished 2nd in Saturday's marathon trials, he talked about how God was with him for every step of the race. Hall left his coach, Terrence Mahon, and now talks about waking up in the middle of the night inspired by the insights that God has given him into his training.

It's important to remember that there have been a lot of great athletes who have reached the pinnacle of their sports without the same sort of evangelical zeal. History shows that this sort of open faith is unnecessary for athletic success. However, both Hall and Tebow are so convinced that their faith is the key to their performance that it is hard not to take their personal conviction seriously. The question they pose to us is simple, but stunning: "Would I be a better athlete--not to mention a better person--if I had the same sort of religious faith that Hall and Tebow did?" Both Hall and Tebow basically answer in all their words and actions, yes. They see their role as celebrities as a platform given to them by God in order to celebrate him and spread his messages.

Today we also celebrate a man who put his faith into action, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Reflecting a bit on his life, remembering the ends to which he put his religious belief, helps to put the question that Hall and Tebow pose to us in perspective. While both Tebow and Hall contribute to charity and practice good works, King took the lessons of Christianity to heart in a more profound way, focusing not on charity but on social justice. While Tebow and Hall speak eloquently of the power that God gives them in their personal lives and as they practice their professional sports, King preferred to emphasize the duties that God imposed upon him as a believer.

It seems to me that King's connection with God was much less personal and individual than the way Tebow or Hall characterize their connection. For King, God's greatest gift to humanity was the ability to dream of social justice, and to give ourselves in effort to actualize that dream. King was not content to proselytize through celebrity or games; these are essentially conservative social functions. He used his radical vision of religion to push an entire nation to change itself in fundamental ways.

When King was assassinated, he had moved through the issue of race to the issue of poverty, which he thought was a more fundamental concern. The day that he was shot, his approval rating stood at 30%. My grandmother, a Nashville native, spoke to me just last week of how much people hated Dr. King in her community--a fact that she herself had almost forgotten in the 44 years since his death.

In the passage above, John Dewey draws our attention to two psychological extremes, both of which stem from the same weakness. The first extreme is overestimating our own power, believing that we are gods or that a god will bend the world to our own plans. The second extreme is disillusionment with the world: seeing the world as fundamentally broken and withdrawing from it to a dream world of idealism. I see both of these extremes in the internet discussions of the meaning of Tebow and Hall's successes. The "haters" impugn their idealism, calling them crazy. The "lovers" see in Tebow and Hall confirmation of their own personal vision of reality, evidence of the transformative power of Christianity.

Dewey was not a Christian, and neither am I. But he was a clear-eyed examiner of social life and the role of religious sentiment in it. I think he would have found both of these ways of seeing Tebow and Hall lacking.

The mature balance towards which Dewey pushes us, and which I would like to encourage as well, neither puts too much power in faith, nor too little. Athletes like Tebow and Hall can remind us of what Dewey calls "the juvenile assumption of power and achievement." Their naive belief in themselves and in their personal vision of the world is refreshing in a cynical age. But we should not forget that our cynicism and the tolerance that it can give us for other points of view and working through difficulties is also hard won--the product of ripened experience. This is why, for me, King provides a more complete vision of the role of faith in life. His faith focused not only on power and achievement, but turned him steadfastly towards the most difficult of problems: how to create lasting change for the better in this world.

King's democratic faith had an element of the blues in it. Cornel West called this element of faith a capacity for "tragicomic hope" -- the ability to dwell amid suffering, to confront the tragedies of the human condition, and to make a song out of it. Tebow and Hall are young, still. They are great representations of juvenile power, and they ought to inspire us with their power and performance. But King, to my mind, is the greater exemplar of a fully mature human faith. Like the man from whom his religion draws its power, his life is not a reminder of the power of the individual to forge its own destiny or do what he puts his mind to. The lesson is deeper. His life and faith is a reminder of the work that is left to be done on behalf of humanity: the duty of social justice.

King's life and faith preached "a dangerous unselfishness." He taught that the clear-eyed recognition of our duty to humanity is the mark of a belief that fully deserves to call itself religious.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

On Resolve

One of my goals for 2012 is to continue posting weekly on the blog. Of course, it's been three weeks since my last post and more than a week since the beginning of the new year. So, I've already failed. Now that I've gotten that resolution out of the way, I can go ahead and write a post.

*  *  *

The trend this year in discussing New Year's Resolutions is to downplay the role of willpower in the construction of resolve and to emphasize the more complex aspects of achievement. A few articles (I could have chosen others) are representative of this trend.

"The Fat Trap" by Tara Parker-Pope discusses the physiology behind the difficulty of losing weight, constructing the picture of weight-loss as a complex matter of personal history, epigenetics, hormones, and metabolism rather than a simple question of having the will to stick to a diet.

"Be It Resolved" by science writer John Tierney looks more directly (and a bit more simply) at the actual effectiveness of willpower, its limits and its possibilities. Tierney suggests that the key to resolutionary success is constructing an environment in which the willpower necessary to accomplish our goals is minimized.

Finally, a fascinating piece by the guys from Radiolab entitled "Help!" [one of my resolutions this year is to listen to more of their podcasts] discusses the science behind willpower and the tactics of self-deception that blocked writers, alcoholics, and war generals use to increase their resolve to accomplish their goals.

A common thread behind each of these pieces is a picture of the self as fundamentally interactive and plural. Self-rule requires not straightforward authority, the "Just Do It!" of Nike marketing, but a set of strategy and tactics, often requiring deception, playing parts of the self against other parts, and dependence on other people, objects and tokens from the environment, and pharmacology.

Woodie Guthrie's resolutions from 1943. [click to read]
The resolutionary (thanks to TanyaS for the coining of this excellent word) self of 2012 is less an integrated person governed by a rational will (we are far indeed from Descartes' pure cogito) and more a populated and diverse city governed by a bureaucracy of unreliable and corrupt politicos, who every now and then do what is good for the whole but are more easily directed through manipulation, self-interest, and trickery. The self is not a well-ordered republic ruled by a transcendent and good-oriented soul. It's more like the world we live in--globalized, interactive, warring, plundering, unruly, prone to distraction. Governing it is a dirty affair. No wonder Odysseus is invoked so often in these articles--our subjective lives read much more like epic poems than clean philosophical treatises. Like these poems, our inner lives are complex and divergent. They are not held together by arguments but by adventures, rhythms, and battles with mythological demons.

This is all rather exciting, but such a picture of the self is really at odds with the whole resolutionary impulse. At the beginning of a new year, we look back on a past year or indeed an entire life that is full of events that don't really add up. The tangled web of personal history stares at us somewhat blankly, with no overarching meaning. In the face of that mess and meaninglessness, we seek to impose a bit of order. The future, having not yet happened and therefore unsullied by the complex and haphazard nature of life, tantalizes us with the possibility of getting that mess straightened out. So, we set a goal. The resolutionary impulse is essentially a drive towards cleanliness and order. After a 2011 that feels like a Trojan War, we want some Platonic clarity.

I think that's why at some level I am suspicious of the complex, Homeric picture of resolutionary achievement that is painted by these articles. The point of having a resolution is to rise above the meddling, corrupt, warring, and bureaucratic selves that we've become and actually assert something with some degree of authority. Sure, it's naive to believe that we can get our lives together through a simple act of will. Absolutely, we are setting ourselves up for failure by putting too much faith in the power of our better selves. But we are only doing this because we are currently a mess that has already failed in its messiness! Our hand has been forced--it's naivete or nothing!

So, at the beginning of each year, we stand like Socrates did long ago in front of the Athenian jury proclaiming something simple: that life only requires following the good and the true, that power and tactics and corruption is unnecessary to the good life, and that the individual will has the power to be true to itself. We all know how the story of Socrates ends: in tragedy. He chooses to drink the hemlock, to kill himself before he can reform his corrupt society. This sort of simplicity is not sustainable; it always ends unfulfilled.

The year 2012 will likely end just as 2011 did: after the debauchery and fun of the holiday season, we will come to terms with the mess of corrupted and divergent selves that we have become. As 2013 dawns, however, we might look back to this time, right now, when for a short time we became Socratic selves--full of the resolutionary purity of our mission to be better people.

When that time comes we may find in these moments of early 2012 a few noble accomplishments. The memories of those failed attempts at a purer self might yet sustain us through the dreamy dark and resolutionary winter months of another new year. The martyr spirit of Socrates lives on, after all, not in spite of his tragic ending, but because of it.
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