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The Body as Ethical Compass

A good friend of mine wrote me today that he is restless and uncertain of the value of his work, both in terms of its immediate effect on his mental health and also its larger effects on society. In a complicated world in which effects of most everything seem divergent and diffuse, few have escaped these sorts of thoughts. They come to us most directly in the early afternoon lag, when the third cup of coffee has no more vital effect but instead sends our thoughts scattering out wildly. Mostly, however, we avoid pondering these imponderables and know them only as, say, a growing waistline or creeping insomnia or an endless distraction that cannot be shaken.

For these things, we need renewal. There are times when I marvel at nature's capacity for renewal: how many barrels of oil could there possibly be? How many cucumbers can this world provide? How is it possible that all the worlds forests have not yet been cut and processed into paper?

The body as natural object, delicate as it i…

Andy Anderson Snags Mt. Whitney FKT

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Andy Anderson has been kind enough to share his account of breaking the Mt. Whitney FKT (Fastest Known Time.) Andy is also the owner of the Long's Peak FKT and the Grand Teton FKT (see those links for his accounts of those records.) Nice work, Andy! The words below are his:

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“Those look like old man shoes,” joked my friend Ann as she printed out my day permit for Mt. Whitney.  
“Well, I'm almost 40, my forehead keeps getting bigger, and my beard is turning grey. I am an old man,” I replied. This was my third trip to Mt. Whitney this summer. When I ran up it for the first time in July, I spent a little more than five hours exploring the Mountaineer's Route looking for the fastest variations. On my second trip, on August 6th, I tried to go fast and ended up at the summit in 1:50 and back at the car in 3:13. While I managed to get the ascent record, my downhill time remained too slow for the overall record. This time I hoped I could actually run fast enough down the mou…

On the Runner's Dissatisfaction

Looking back upon the time that I was running hard, the thing that strikes me most was how little satisfaction I took in my fitness.

The drive to train can be cast in a positive light as a sort of drive to athletic perfection, a noble quest to be better today than we were yesterday. Each run a testament to the high-school coach's simple minded but effective euphemisms about work, practice, effort, will. Yes, we take pride in our discipline, and the lean and honed body of the runner reflects it and displays it.

But -- but, every runner who has really given himself over to the sport knows that the intensity and effort of training is also fed by darker and wilder motives and impulses. Driving through a set of quarters in the dripping August humidity, rolling steadily on tired legs through yet-another 10 miler -- this is not the stuff of cheery euphemism. If I remember correctly, it was hardly ever the thought of improvement that got me out the door. Dissatisfaction, though -- that di…

On Un-Becoming a Runner

Over the last few months, I have become less and less a runner. None of this was an act of will or a decision. Things have conspired -- family, body, job. I know this is true because when I go for a run now there is an absence of fluidity. The identity is not natural; it's artificial.

The causes of this change are not so relevant, and understanding them would bring little understanding to the fact of change itself. This is the thing about change: in the raw core of its newness its origins can't be traced. Things do come into this world out of nothing, putting the lie to the the logic of causality. The philosopher decrees: ex nihilo fit nihil. And yet -- each morning novelty covers the grass of the world like fresh dew.

Some changes, of course, run deeper than others, and we use the language of identity to talk about those deep changes. We say: I am this, as if the words am, is are, be were incantations that take a moment in time and lock it up in a case. John Dewey, following …

Why Do We Choose to Suffer?

"The strenuous life tastes better." --William James

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Effort is the currency of endurance sport and of course of life itself.

There is a thin but essential line between effort and suffering -- at the maximum intensity of effort, this line is thinnest, but the thinness of that margin makes the difference between the two all the more evident.

I have been pondering the sources of human effort lately in no small part because my life has become more demanding. I find myself working long hours and coming home to a busy house. There are few moments in my life in which effort is absent, and yet I find myself more capable than ever of giving effort.

Is this what distinguishes effort from suffering? Effort is the sort of act that leads to the growth of the feeling of will and power. Fatherhood feels very much like this, an activity -- when it goes well -- in which our actions lead us to feeling fuller and more capable. A good job that matches our capabilities also seems to have th…

Boston 2014: Running Together

My buddy and training partner Andrew sent me these thoughts as he headed up to Boston to run the marathon on Monday. Andrew would be the first to say that he is not an eloquent writer, but the thoughts he shared with me struck me deeply, and I think they will resonate with everyone in the running community. He's given me permission to share them.
I have to admit, I wish I was on that train with him -- but for those of us who are not at Boston 2014 in person, we are there in spirit, stride for stride. Good luck to all the runners: may you endure well.
My old cross-country coach used to say it like this: "shared pain is less pain." 
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Where to begin?  As I sit on a train headed toward Boston, I figure it's about as appropriate time as any to put down some thoughts and reflections on what brought me here.  April 15th, 2013 was a day that I'll always remember.  I don't think I need to dwell on what that day meant to me and to us, to runners and our community.…

The Running Bum as Sad and Admirable

There is a thread on the letsrun.com message board right now about whether running bums are sad or admirable. I find the thread sort of fascinating because you can't really separate out the sadness from the nobility of it. Most arguments against building your life around running in your 20s make an instrumental argument about that part of life. If you decide to become a running bum, the argument goes, you are sacrificing your future potentialities. You will wake up some day in your mid- to late- 30s with sore achilles tendons and nothing to fall back on except 15 years spent working stocking shoes in a running store. Many posters find this sad, and it might actually be.

But it's exactly this thought that is the nobility of the running bum lifestyle: the thought that life is not fundamentally instrumental in nature, that the present ought not be sacrificed to an unknown future. The running bum forsakes imagined possibilities of midlife success for all sorts of real immediacies:…

What Parenting and Running Have in Common: or why joy is more essential than happiness

In the fascinating and perceptive All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior takes a look at the cultural expectations surrounding parenthood, adulthood, and childhood. The book is fashioned out of a lovely mix of psychology, philosophy, sociology and real-world reporting, and while the drama of parenting is her ostensible subject, she uses this drama to explore even more fundamental questions. The book is not a manual for parenting; it's a book about the way we frame our lives and the narratives that support the answers we give to the hows and whys that face us down as parents and even as human beings.

The most interesting claim that she makes in the book is that the pursuit of happiness at the center of contemporary culture, enshrined in the Constitution, and a central guiding concept in parenting--we want our kids, more than anything, to be happy--is deeply problematic and a threat to other, more important, more achievable, and more satisfying human g…

A Defense of Academia

In 2004 I decided to leave my job as a high school teacher in a boarding school to go to graduate school in philosophy. My reasons for doing this were varied -- a mixture of naive idealism [maybe the study of philosophy will give me some insight into life] and real fatigue from the work of teaching young people [reading books and writing papers sounded pretty awesome at the end of yet another 15 hour day devoted to young folks.] My reasons had little to do with career. I was realistic about the instrumental value of a philosophy PhD. I hoped it would be a great way to spend a few years and left thoughts of Future Ramifications for Career to the gods.

Ten years have passed since that decision, and I am happy to report that it was a good one. A recent article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times  caused me to reflect a little on my nine year stint in academia as a graduate student, as a professor (though never tenured), as a writer and thinker, and as an educator. In the article, K…

Promoting Belief in a Clean Sport: a look at the results of the letsrun clean/dirty poll

Recently letsrun.com carried out an interesting experiment. The polled their readers as to their perceptions of who in the sport was "clean" and who was "dirty." You can read the results of their poll here as well as an interesting explanation of why they decided to do this polling. Their explanation makes good sense to me: they state clearly that the results of the poll do not tell us whether someone used PEDs; they only tell us about a specific community's beliefs about who is clean and who is dirty.

What can we do with this information? Quite a bit, it turns out. We can look at the relationships between class, race, nationality, and beliefs about performance-enhancing drugs. We see that as a community we do have some degree of bias in these areas, but we also see that while these biases affect individuals; on the aggregate the beliefs of the community as a whole is not fundamentally skewed by any of these factors. Letsrun.com notes that the most important bi…

Tracing a Path I'd Traced Before, Once Again This Morning

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This morning I followed an old trace: it dipped down, dipped around, ducked under, squirming along an icebox creek, bursting out onto a high ridge into the sunshine and leading me out to the edge of a cliff where I saw Little Falling Water Creek plummet down off the dihedrals, the open vista just extending out eastward, on and on, reminding me that I had forgotten how clear the winter sky can sometimes be on a cold morning.

It was the trail back behind the house I grew up in, and I ran it so many times that I knew every little dip, knew just exactly how to skip from rock to rock without breaking stride and how to carry my momentum up and down across the rollers so that it felt like flying.

In fact, 20 years have passed since I started running that trail, and almost 30 have passed since my brother and I discovered it. I ran it most often in the summers in high school and home from college. So of course as I ran all sorts of memories came flooding back, the old rhythms drawing back old …