Monday, November 15, 2010

Running Meets Politics: 300 mile foot races vs. changing the world

When I was at Oberlin, I got to attend free speeches, lectures, and performances by famous people all the time. (Toni Morrison, Michael Pollan, Newt Gingrich, Jerry Springer,etc...) Once you're no longer paying great sums annually into the system, however, there are fewer "free" perks. However, every now and then, I still luck out.

This week at REI, we had our annual all-store meeting. Some ambitious soul recruited world-famous ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes to speak at it. Again, I realize that for most people, "famous runner" is sort of an oxymoron, and the vast majority of you won't even recognize the name. (I know Natalie will, though! What Would Ultramarathon Man Do?) However, a short list of Dean's accolades: Ran 350 miles nonstop without rest or sleep, Ran 50 marathons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days, Ran a marathon at the South Pole in -40 degrees F, Voted one of Outside Magazine's Ultimate Top 10 Outdoor Athletes, Voted one of the GQ's Best Bodies of the Year in 2004, Winner of the 2004 Badwater Ultramathon (135 miles through Death Valley in the middle of July), etc etc etc.

He's been called "The Perfect Human."

The gist of his motivational speech to all of us was that what he does isn't so miraculous after all; it's just a matter of yearning to test his own limits.

Whenever I go for more than a few weeks or months without running a lot, I forget how much I love it. I forget how good it makes me feel, how simple it makes the world seem, and how much my mind and body alike appreciate me for treating them. I forget the surge of creative energy and flow that comes when I run, and I forget the natural high I get, and I forget, most of all, what a perfect metaphor running is for everything in life.

I've always said that I could probably be a fiscal conservative, under one condition: that how hard one works actually corresponds with how much money one makes. (A terribly gross oversimplification of my political beliefs and interpretation of the world, but allow it to suffice for now.) In such a "perfect world", it's easy to get behind the idea of straightforward economic incentives to motivate people to contribute to society, in whatever way they best can.

On a tangential but related note, my favorite quote find of the week, on the Facebook profile of a Seattle ultrarunner I met briefly at my Vashon Island run..."Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." - Howard Thurman.

Anyway. Distance running is that "perfect world." Dean summed it up yesterday when he gave his tongue-in-cheek demonstration in response to the question "How do you run 300 miles without stopping?" He sort of did a little jog across the room in front of all of us and said, "That's pretty much it. Except instead of stopping, you just keep doing it until you've gone 300 miles."

Me smiling at the end of my first ultra!

In the world of distance running, anyone can excel. It doesn't matter if you're big, small, long-legged, short-legged, old, young, male, female, have a high V02 max or not, see 55-year-old women kicking 25-year-old men's butts at ultramarathons. The only things that matter are: how hard you trained, how well you fueled your body, and how hard you pushed yourself mentally during the race. Sure, injuries and weather and other minor unpredictables can happen and throw you off course, but for the most part, there is a direct correlation between how hard you work and how successful you are. The playing ground is level, how much time you're willing to devote to make yourself great corresponds with how far you're able to go, and ultimately, anyone can win.

I'm finding myself more and more confused about how close or far our American society, as it stands right now, is from mirroring that world of "anyone can win." How level is the playing field? So many important people in my life, all whose opinions I value and trust, have completely different answers to that question. How much more level is the playing ground than fifty years ago? How much more level should it be? And how do we get there?

Big questions without easy answers. As opposed to...Q: "How do I get better at running?" A: "Run more."

I wish the world were like running: simple and easy to navigate. The path to running success is long, but at least it's clear cut. The path to other goals is so much trickier to identify and get started on. Seyeon, for example, wants to design and implement an entirely new school system for adolescents. I want to be a better asset to this world and use my words to help people feel more connected and understood, less isolated and hopeless. America wants to stay true to its founding ideals and ensure every one of its citizens is given the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Where do you even start with such goals? If you want to run a marathon, the first step is a literal one; you pick yourself up off the couch and put one foot in front of the other. And you keep going. I sure wish I could figure out the first step on all the other things I'd like to change about our world...

1 comment:

  1. Dude, I appreciate the shout-out! By the way, while I occasionally catch up on your blog, I made sure to read this post so I could hopefully vicariously attend an Ultramarathon-lecture through your words. :)

    I feel like your post brought up a lot of interesting points that, were I not at work, I would respond to at length. But here's the short version: (1)Running is awesome and I also need to do it more, (2) that is one awesome quote, (3) Socialism!, and (4)like running, other goals can become more manageable by chopping them into smaller goals.