A second attempt by ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek to set a new speed record on the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail in under 40 days, presents a good opportunity to talk about Karl Meltzer. Meltzer, a legendary ultra-marathon runner himself, was helping support his friend Scott Jurek in this latest attempt. The pace and terrain of this north to south attempt proved too much for Jurek who was forced to pull out after 7 days this August 2021 due to a muscle tear in his thigh. Jurek is well known for dominating the world of ultra-marathons through most the 2000s, and for his role in the book Born to Run and as the author of his own books, Eat & Run and North. The latter book is about his AT record set in 2015.
But to me the unsung hero here is Karl Meltzer. He agreed to support, or ‘crew’, for Jurek, an unglamorous but quite important job. Not only are the two men long standing friends, but Meltzer was selected no doubt for his knowledge of the AT, having set a southbound speed record himself in 2016, and because of his own ultra-marathon bona fides. Meltzer has been running trail races of 100 miles and WINNING, for over 23 straight years! Think about that: this man has been running 100 mile trail races on often technically difficult terrain competitively, and placing first, from his early 30s clear through into his 50s. It is an astounding testament to his running ability, competitiveness, drive and determination and all that in a sport which is a brutally demanding individual endeavor.
Karl Meltzer won his first ultra when he placed first in 1998 in the Wasatch 100. And while other ultra marathon runners compete for six or seven years in a row and than move on to coaching and writing books, Meltzer never stopped running and competing at the 100 mile distance. He has run ultra marathons every year for the past 23 years. In October 2020, Meltzer placed first in the No Business 100. And while he is no longer winning at the most competitive marquis races like the well known Western States, he is still out there on the starting line, competing and winning in a sport where the runner is on his or her own, running through the day and night on single track forest and mountain terrain.
I honestly do not remember how I first became aware of Karl Meltzer. To my knowledge he has not written a book about his running career. He is a sponsored athlete however and has a pair of shoes named for him, the Hoka One One Speedgoats, a plush trail running shoe. He is also sponsored by Red Bull and has a short documentary out about himself. But for whatever reason, his name is not as well know as other running legends, like Scott Jurek or Killian Jornet or in more recent times, like the marathon phenomenon Elihud Kipchoge. And I take nothing away from any of these outstanding athletes or anyone else at the top of their game. Kipchoge’s sub 2 hour marathon may remain an unbreakable unofficial record. But will Mr. Kipchoge still be running competitively when he is 50? Will Killian Jornet? Will Scott Jurek return to the ultra-marathon circuit?
We all like winners. We like to read about them, emulate them, wear the shoes they wear when they win their races and eat the foods they eat. But we also like youth and change and newness and therefore yesterday’s winners are rarely who we cheer for today. But some winners are so remarkably talented that their greatness must be acknowledged. I do not know what if any races Mr. Meltzer has planned for this year or beyond. But based simply on his over two decade history of consistent 100 mile ultra-marathon starts and wins I believe it is undeniable that Karl Meltzer ranks as one of the most accomplished athletes we have ever seen.
“Born to Run” is one of the most successful and influential books ever written about running. More than a decade since publication I can make that declaration for three reasons.
First, some of the people featured in the non fiction account of the arcane world of ultra long distance running still promote their association with the book as an important part of their credentials. Second, according to author Christopher McDougall’s web site, best actor Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey is scheduled to star in a film version of the book.
And my third reason is the most convincing evidence of this book’s outsized influence. During the current COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, my wife and I have desperately searched the house for new books to read. I found and re-read “Born to Run” and loved it all over again. I urged my wife who is an adamant non runner and lover of fiction books to read this non-fiction book about running. She read it in one day. The very next day, she laced up her vintage white Keds sneakers and went for a run!
“Born to Run” fueled greater interest in running and a new curiosity about running barefooted or in minimalist shoes. Minimalist running shoes were marketed nationwide in the years following. The book’s popularity also probably helped at least a couple of careers and shined light and Ivy League caliber research on an indigenous people for whom running is a preferred mode of transportation.
McDougall introduced his readers to a running niche unknown to the general public and not well known even to most recreational runners in May 2009 when “Born to Run” was published. While most people were familiar with the New York and Boston marathons, fewer people knew that runners were meeting almost every weekend somewhere around the country to run 50 and 100 miles races some lasting more than 24 hours. During these ultra marathon events runners made brief stops to shovel food in to their mouths, change out of blood stained socks and have their weight checked to make sure they were not dehydrated and risking kidney failure. Runners were lining up in California, Colorado and Tennessee to name a few, not to mention at Badwater 135, the self proclaimed “world’s toughest foot race” starting in Death Valley and crossing through places like Furnace Creek. The asphalt along the route was hot enough to melt the rubber off your sneakers.
But that was not even the most interesting part of “Born to Run”. The primer on the world of ultra marathons was merely a necessary backdrop for the true crux of the book. McDougall takes us on a wild ride to a place most of us have never heard of to meet a motley collection of colorful eccentrics. To tell his story he introduces us to a middle-aged lanky bald runner who Hollywood could never have made up: Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, also known as Micah True.
And that was just chapter one.
“Born to Run” brilliantly weaves together the true story of how the enigmatic Caballo Blanco, an American who re-located to be able to live and run in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, created one of the great running races you never heard of. The book deftly tells the story that brought together the Tarahumara Indians, an indigenous people who use running for transportation, recreation and sport and a disparate group of American runners, including a professional with product endorsements, some relative unknown college students, personal trainers, the author and someone who actually defies categorization, Barefoot Ted.
Along the way, McDougall introduces readers to an assortment of physical therapists, athletic trainers, renowned running coaches, a Harvard evolutionary biologist and a New Zealand professor all of whom have devoted themselves to the study and art of running.
The story follows McDougall’s quest to finally resolve his own struggles with recurrent running injuries and his attempt to train and run a 50 mile race through the Copper Canyons. But the book is not an ego trip for McDougall, as many books written by runners turn out to be. In fact, McDougall’s running plays a minor role since he shines the light on those who have mastered the art. He brings us as close as he can to Micah True. He introduces us to the world of the Tarahumara which leaves you kind of flabbergasted that this community lives about 270 miles south of El Paso, TX and is not a lost tribe in the middle of the Amazon.
Much of what makes “Born to Run” inspirational is the author’s uncovering of how running is innate to humans and the role it has played in our development as a species. And for that he cites Daniel Lieberman a Harvard professor who studies human anatomy with a focus on anatomical features unique to humans that allow us to run distances longer than any other species. He tells the story of David Carrier, now a professor of Biology who with his brother tried to prove the ‘Running Man’ theory by attempting to run down an antelope to exhaustion over the course of several days. We are also introduced to a South African mathematician who became so obsessed with the idea of humans as persistence hunters that he left college to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari to learn exactly how they used running as their primary hunting tool.
As McDougall discovers that the Tarahumara, the Bushmen and even Barefoot Ted can run just fine in flat sandals or, in Ted’s case, bare feet he questions the need for our modern over engineered running shoes and the multi national industry behind them. McDougall proceeds to take down modern running shoes and in the process the industry leader Nike. He draws support for the idea from physical therapist Irene S. Davis who’s treatment for injured runners evolved to recommend that they strengthen their feet, not their shoes. Cushioned over built shoes have existed only since the 1970s when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman brought the world cushioned Nike running shoes. Nike provided their shoes to competitive runners than marketed them to a growing number of recreational runners as the jogging boom began to ramp up.
The story concludes with an epic ultra marathon pitting modern running technique and technology against an ancient one as Caballo Blanco managed with difficulty to bring together some of the best ultra marathoners in the United States to race against the best of the Tarahumara runners over 50 miles in the Copper Canyon.
“Born to Run” has not only inspired people to run and still ranks among the best selling running books but the book likely had an influence on the running world. Barefoot running had a moment after the publication of the book with introduction of stripped down shoes which tried to mimic the unstructured sandals worn by the Tarahumara. I saw a young man trail running in New Jersey with a home made version of the ‘hurrache’ sandals the indigenous runners would make themselves and I saw a woman hiking steep terrain in the Catskills barefooted. Even today running races of various lengths and terrain will often have at least a couple of barefoot runners.
Corporate money capitalized on the barefoot running phenomenon too. Vibram, an Italian leading manufacturer of rubber soles for shoes and boots, launched the Vibram Five Fingers, a ‘shoe’ that looks like a glove but for the foot with shaped toes. The rubber bottom provides some protection for the sole of the foot. Vibram was sued for allegedly making some claims that running in Vibram Five Finger shoes “reduces running injuries” based on how the shoes changed a person’s gait. Vibram settled the lawsuit putting aside up to $3.75 million but denied fault and liability. The shoes are still sold. And as for Nike, “Born to Run” did not hurt the world’s leading shoe brand. Nike has gone from selling shoes that give you more support to their now famous very engineered Vaporfly that give you even more cushioning plus a carbon fiber plate to propel runners faster.
While mass enthusiasm for barefoot running has waned, the notion that our feet are stronger than we realize lives on. Physical therapist Irene S. Davis who was at the University of Delaware at the time of the book and now heads Harvard’s Spaulding National Running Center encourages patients to strengthen the muscles in their feet through a series of exercises and not to rely on over built shoes. Daniel E. Lieberman, at the time of publication already an established professor at Harvard and author of the idea that humans are anatomically adapted for long distance running, began studying the running biomechanics of the Tarahumara in 2012 adding to his research on natural barefoot runners in Kenya and attempt to fully understand just what our feet are capable of.
Some of the runners featured in the book went on to further success. Jenn Shelton who was in the early days of running ultras at the time “Born to Run” was written went on to compete around the world and win various marathons. She now is a running coach. Scott Jurek was already one of the most winning ultra marathoners at the time he was featured in “Born to Run”. He went on to set a fastest known time running the 2, 190 mile length of the Appalachian Trail and for running 167.5 miles in 24 hours. Jurek’s bio on his web site proudly proclaims in large font Born to Run.
Other runners featured in the book openly promote their association with this juggernaut of a running book more than 10 years after publication. Eric Orton, the author’s running coach during the build up to the first ever Copper Canyon ultra and an author himself advertises on his coaching web site that he was “a featured character in the worldwide best selling book Born to Run”. Barefoot Ted mentions his “Born to Run” bonafides in the first line of his web site and he mentions his appearance in the book multiple times. He also sells his own line of minimalist running sandals and leads running trips and races in the Copper Canyon. For that matter, Christopher McDougall’s web site also mentions “Born to Run” in the first line above the titles of his more recent books. But he is the author after all.
And the Tarahumara continue to live and run in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, with their health and safety challenged by environmental threats and the risk of violence from drug cartels. The first ultra marathon organized with great effort by Micah True featured in “Born to Run” continues as an annual event, drawing runners from around the world. And as for the Caballo Blanco, several years after publication of the book he collapsed while running in his beloved mountains where his body was recovered. His spirit runs on.
Neither “sunset” nor “twilight” adequately describes the crepuscular time of day, that time when the sun has dropped below the horizon but still sends forth just enough of a glow to make your way home. In this dimming light one can just discern the path, but can not see what lives in the shadows.
The only true light to be seen in this liminal twilight zone is the flashing abdomen of the firefly, Photuris lucicrescens. I spotted my first firefly this summer just a few days ago. In the ebbing light the number of people outside was inversely proportional to the number of flashing, flying insectivorous abdomens. Almost no people. Lots of fireflies. They flash near eye level, staying close to the path or hovering over the grass where they can be spotted, staying out of the dense woods or thickets.
I immersed myself in the twilight several times this week. The first was in a swamp rehabilitated with hiking paths surrounded by phragmites and weeping willows, while dozens and dozens of fireflies lit up the trail like silent fireworks, no two flashes in the same location. The second time was in an urban park which hugs a tributary of the Hackensack River, with fields of yellow trefoils, butterfly weed, lavender clovers, daisies and purple asters, the petal colors all a shade darker in the low quality light. And the third time, tonight, during a run around the neighborhood, crossing through another park, the looming oaks blocking the day’s last rays of light. The bright green of the leaves faded to dark as the twilight zone drew closer to night absolute, shifting from lime green to emerald to hunter green, and finally to a deep brown-green, barely green at all.
We humans have traditionally not embraced this transitional period of dusk. When kids still played outside, the specter of the coming dark could send kids racing home as the sun set. We are not totally comfortable with this dim light of twilight, unlike the fireflies and other crepuscular creatures such as skunks and deer. This time is their time, the low-quality light the time when they shine.
We on the other hand struggle to make sense of what is neither day nor night, our eyes struggle to adjust, our pupils open at full bore yet not open enough. And religions that base their calendar on the sun and the moon struggle to categorize this ambiguous time as well. If the holy day is slated to begin at nightfall, an indeterminate time is of no help. If a fast from food and drink is decreed to end at nightfall, an approximate time is not helpful. When does one end and the other begin?
In the Jewish religion much is discussed about twilight and dawn in painstaking attempts to delineate one day from the next, night from day and day from night. When can you begin praying? By what hour must you finish? Precisely when must all work cease for the Sabbath?
But all is not knowable. There is no precise moment when the illuminated day time sky morphs into night, just as there is no exact moment when a child becomes an adult. And twilight will never resolve into nighttime with clarity. We must do the best we can to make sense of dusk and remember that at least some species flourish in the haze of the dimming light. The fireflies are one species that have adapted to use this period to search for a mate and live to illuminate another fading twilight with a final flash of light.
The speed record for the fastest known time on the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail has been broken by ultra marathoner Karl Meltzer, who chopped an impressive 10 hours off the previous record for a supported thru-hike of the trail. He went through 19 different pairs of shoes during the 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes on the trail, according to crew chief Eric Belz, power hiking in more than twice as many pairs of shoes as the previous record holder. Meltzer, who’s nickname is Speedgoat, wore only the Hoka One Speedgoat shoes and Drymax Speedgoat socks, two products named for himself. Crew chief Belz said on Facebook Live that the shoes were still in good condition even when the runner moved on to a new pair. Meltzer changed shoes as frequently as some professional basketball players, Belz and Meltzer joked. Actually, even at that rate the new record holder wore his shoes for about 122 miles, more than the distance run in a basketball game but less than the 300 or so miles most runners get out of their shoes.
Karl Meltzer resting, elevating and icing his legs during his AT record hike. Credit: atrun.redbull.com
Meltzer praised his shoes for having “grip like fly paper” but he heaped the real praise on his father for making sure the ultra runner took care of his feet every night. “My feet were money all the way” Meltzer said in a Facebook Live chat hosted after reaching the Appalachian Trail terminus in Springer, Georgia. He began his journey at the northern terminus on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Meltzer explained that he checked his feet every night and made sure his feet and lower legs were clean, even when he couldn’t shower for almost a month. “I had no blisters” Meltzer said, “Keeping your lower extremity good is really really important” he stressed during the on-line chat.
But neither shoes nor socks explain Meltzer’s string of ultra marathon victories or his newest record on the AT. The man is simply fast, strong and determined– this was his third attempt at breaking this record. Speedgoat is Meltzer’s nick name for good reason and now it is the trademarked business name for his line of product endorsements. He is one of the most if not the most successful ultra marathon runner ever. Sponsored by several companies most notably Red Bull he is also closely identified with the ultra cushioned shoes made by the up and coming shoe company Hoka One One and he has the eponymous Speedgoat model named for himself.
Until now the record for a supported thru hike of the AT was held by ultra marathoner and author Scott Jurek who hiked for 46 days. Jurek in turn bested the previous record by 3 hours set in 2011 by avid hiker, back packer, author and guide Jennifer Pharr Davis who shattered the previous record by 26 hours. Pharr Davis who hiked without major retail sponsorship wore Salomon Synapse Natural Motion boots, according to an interview that appeared in Backpacker magazine after her record. She still holds the woman’s supported record on the AT.
We are all quants now. Like the Wall Street analysts, we quantify everything that has a number associated with it. We can track our steps, our total distance covered, our sleep, our heart rate. We can track our pace or our speed. We can track our rise and fall in elevation, our calories burned, our daily, weekly, monthly and yearly accumulated mileage, or, switch to kilometers to really up the numbers. We can get the information on a gps watch, a black bracelet, a fancy watch, a smart phone or tablet or delay the gratification and wait to get back home to check out the stats on a desktop. Now with wearable technology, even our shoes and socks can log our data.
The quantitative analysts on Wall Street can do what they do because business is described in numbers-the quarterly profit and loss numbers, the numbers of widgets manufactured, sold, not sold and sold and returned and of course the stock price and dividend. But now quantification is becoming firmly embedded even in the trail under our feet not to mention in our daily lives. The proliferation of tracking devices reduces a post hike recap from a simple ‘wow’ to a “wow, did you know we just logged 1,854 feet of elevation change” and a simple sense of exhausted exhilaration following a hard run is replaced by poring over the stats, the list of mile by mile times and a careful evaluation of the pace. Was it better or worse than the day before, the week before or the month before. And these tracking devices now add the daily temperature and wind speed to their reports as well and even leave space to add a few comments like, “felt pretty lousy” or “sore left knee”.
I know about this because I have succumbed to this practice. Immediately after a run I immediately check my tracking app. And I actually find the information quite useful, interesting and even actionable, especially if I have a goal in mind.
But what are we not measuring and not communicating? My running app has no happiness metric or pure joy tracker. It has no early morning dew on my shoes alarm, or sunlight shimmering on the water detector. It does not have an amazement meter that goes off when watching acrobatic swallows diving through the air or an “oh wow” tracker when I spot a cormorant surfacing in the river with a fish in its beak or spot a yellow warbler amongst the leaves. And my running app does not tabulate how many times I started out in a so-so mood and ended up pretty happy, or, vice versa.
I submit that what we can not measure gets lost and subsumed in the massive data which we can measure. The intangibles like joy, freedom, inspiration, accomplishment, overcoming adversity and other critical elements that constitute the human soul are lost as the fleeting moments that they are and perhaps, that they are supposed to be.
We truly have no language to quantify the most valuable of our experiences and this is certainly true when out in nature, pushing our physical limits or simply enjoying the time out doors. Art and music strive to capture out deepest emotions at the most ephemeral moments of life but they can not quantify our experiences like a gps watch can track our miles, pace and elevation changes. Our time in the woods, by a lake or in a meadow, will remain what it is – a transcendent moment. And our memory of that experience with nature will leave us as it should. Speechless.
If activities had an official poem like states and countries have national birds and flags and songs, than Robert Frost’s 1915 poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ could be the patron poem of the outdoorsman. Deep in the woods, the narrator contemplates the two paths before him, “and sorry I could not travel both” he says. But choose he must. “And I-I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference” concludes this poem with its two most famous lines. And to the tens of thousands of people who have read this poem’s 20 lines, the credo of taking the road less traveled has become an anthem of sorts, a clarion call for rugged individualism, a recipe to how we can be certain our decisions make all the difference’.
In The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the poem everyone loves and almost everyone gets wrong (Penguin Press 2015), author David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, a teacher at Cornell University and a graduate of Yale Law School, challenges the common interpretations of this poem. He argues in the 172 page book that Frost was not actually exhorting the reader to take the harder or hillier or more difficult path. Rather Frost was exploring what it means for people to have free will to choose.
Mr. Orr calls on his own considerable talents of literary analysis to plum the nuanced depths of this poem but he also cites a number of Frost experts and other scholars to help explain the man and his writing as it bears on “The Road Not Taken”. Orr cites the Frost biographer Lawrence Thompson to explain the roots of this work. According to the biographer, Frost and his friend English poet Edward Thomas would often take walks together in the woods. Thomas however was indecisive and, regardless of which path they took would invariably regret that path not taken. Frost penned this poem and sent it to Thomas who according to Thomas’ biographer Matthew Hollis was “troubled and confused by the poem and might even have read it as a goad”. Whether Frost’s poem had anything to do with it or not is beyond knowing but shortly thereafter Thomas decided to enlist in the British army and was killed two years later. Frost meanwhile returned to the United States. “So the confusion embedded in “The Road Not Taken”is mirrored in the love and misunderstanding between its American author and his English friend”, Orr writes, “an ironic parallel for a thoroughly American poem.”
Robert Frost struggled as a writer and a poet from high school until well in his thirties after he was married and had a family. Indeed, “At thirty five he was nobody even to the people to whom he might have been a somebody”. He was publishing short stories in a chicken farmer’s publication called The Eastern Poultryman. But he had commercial success in 1912 with the publication of “A Boy’s Will”. “The Road Not Taken” followed a few years later and his success continued. He read his poem, ‘The Gift Outright’ at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Frost died in 1963. And according to the author David Orr, “The Road Not Taken” has appeared in more than 2000 news stories and as a subtitle in more than 400 books not written by Frost. The poem was even featured in a Super Bowl commercial.
So, what is ‘The Road Not Taken’ really about?
In an almost talmudic analysis Orr writes about the title of the poem, or, that is the title that is popularly but incorrectly typed into search engines, ‘The Road Less Traveled’. The true title however, focuses on the road not taken, and is decidedly not about what the narrator did, Orr states emphatically but about what he didn’t do. Every phrase and sentence of the poem is up for close reading by Orr as he tries to decipher this oft cited yet not clearly understood most popular of American poems.
For example, the choice of the word “roads” instead of paths or trails. Although Frost’s traveler is alone in a forest, “which ever way he goes, he follows a course built by other people” as opposed to following some game trail or haphazard path that cuts it way through the forest. Frost’s wayfarer defines his choices, “one path grassier than the other”, with no mention of his destination. Is he in a rush? Is he interested in scenery or is he looking for a challenge. Does his choice really make a difference? And, does he even have a choice?
Orr titles the next section of the book, ‘The Choice’, wherein he probes the whole notion of free choice and what it means to choose:
‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both’ – within two lines, it feels as if we’ve arrived at the center of the dilemma intrinsic to all dilemmas: the necessity of choice itself. If we were to dream about what it means to choose, that dream would look something like “The Road Not Taken”.
Nonetheless, this poem does not address critical elements of choice, Orr explains with several examples. Frost does not address the affect of this choice on others. The decision does not have anything to do with the culture of the place, a forest. It does not reflect on any moral consequences or even present the traveler with so many options, just two. The narrator can chooses in peace without the distraction of the details of daily life yet there seems to be no chance the walker will fail to choose and simply turn around and go back. “So if all these potential dimensions of choice are missing from the poem, what are we left with? A kind of idealized or “pure” choice,” Mr. Orr proposes.
And so the author concludes his thoughtful discussion of “The Road Not Taken” by focusing neither on the poet nor the poem but on the nature of the chooser.
“One of the less remarked features of “The Road Not Taken” is that it offers a portrait not just of decisions but of deciders-or,to pick a more helpful word, of selves.” Orr brings several examples of how this notion of choice has been embraced by a community of self help authors and valedictory orators, urging us to choose the difficult path and challenge ourselves as a means to discover our true selves. Orr suggests that we can not precisely define ourselves wholly by our choices and their consequences:
“But most of all, we see the centrality of the junction itself. “The Road Not Taken” never mentions what the speaker finds on the path he eventually takes; instead, the poem concludes by echoing its own opening lines, “Two roads diverged in a wood,” as if to return us to the forest in which we started. What matters most, the poem suggests is the dilemma of the crossroads.”
We all make choices in our lives and no one can really ever know what would have happened had we veered onto the road not taken. Do we do ourselves any justice by trying to peer back into a past that never became reality? Frost’s traveler does indeed look back at his moment of decision with a sigh. But in a remarkable poetic irony his thoughts turn not to the road not taken but to the ultimate choice he did indeed select, the road less traveled.
Robert Frost has created a most challenging duality where one can be both “sorry I could not travel both” but assured that his choice “has made all the difference.” Something to thing about at life’s next crossroads.
Henry Worsleyi n the Antarctic, shackletonsolo.org
This past week brought news of the death of Henry Worsley, a retired officer from the British military who had dedicated himself to Antarctic travel, inspired by his hero Ernest Shackleton. Worsley, who was attempting a coast-to-coast trek of the Antarctic continent, was airlifted only 90 miles from his objective after 71 days and 913 miles of self-supported travel — pulling up to 300 pounds of gear — before dying in hospital from complications of peritonitis. Others have made Antarctic crossings but Worsley’s was to be the first unaided trek . Before his trip, Worsley raised $142,000 for charity to go to the Endeavour Fund, managed by Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, a charity that aids wounded British service men and women.
A few days prior to the news of Worsley’s death, I received an e-mail from a relative I do not regularly hear from, a letter announcing his plans to participate in a 170 mile bike ride to raise money for a camp for children with disabilities, a worthy cause. Like Worsley, my cousin is using his participation in a strenuous event to raise money for charity. And he is far far from the only one trying to raise money by participating in an outdoor adventure. In fact, I would say the practice has become an epidemic. Every 5-K and marathon seems to be a fund raiser. And even if you do not win the lottery to run in the vaunted New York marathon, there is a back door to get a guaranteed spot in the race by running with and financially supporting the New York Road Runner Team for Kids by raising $25,000 for a team of ten runners. Even establishment institutions like Backpacker magazine promote their annual ‘Summit for Someone’, a way to raise money for Big City Mountaineers to support outdoor adventures for disadvantaged youth. Participants must raise several thousand dollars to earn a spot on a guided climb of famous peaks like Mt. Rainier or others.
So what is going on here? For hundred of years, adventurers needed no outside encouragement for their adventures. They were self-motivated. Sir Edmund Hillary famously quipped that he climbed Everest “because it was there”. That was actually a throw-away line answering a reporter. He climbed Everest out of a deep attraction to the outdoors and a desire to see just what humans can accomplish. And so it has been with expeditions around the globe. Alexander von Humboldt attempted in 1799 to climb Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador, thought to be at that time the highest mountain in the world, documented so well by Andrea Wulf in the beginning of her 2015 book “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World“. Sir Ernest Shackleton’ famously attempted to cross the Antarctic. The world’s highest and most difficult mountain peaks have all been summited by intrepid and driven individuals, for example Mt. Meru, climbed in 2011 and featured in a recently released visually stunning documentary.
imdb.com. But somewhere along the way, the populace has started associating personal challenges in the outdoors as the perfect way to raise money from friends and family for a worthy non-profit.
Why do we as a society think that participating in a 5-k race or marathon or 3-day bike riding event is worthy of fund raising? Why do we as participants in these events think that our friends will want to donate money based on how may miles we run or bike ride? And why should we as friends and relatives of the runners, bikers and climbers give anyway? What exactly is the message of “sponsor me to run” that we are conveying?
Outdoor adventure was once a necessary way of life for much of our history, from providing food and fuel to building shelters and settling new territory, with all that is entailed. Physicality was just a part of life.
Until recent times.
For most of us, our lives are strikingly without great need for physical prowess, No need to hunt or gather or pack up the home and move camp miles away to higher ground when the season’s change. So perhaps, we satisfy our innate need for adventure and physical challenge by setting goals that are a true physical reach for us. For some, the reach is running 5 kilometers ( 3.1 miles), without stopping. For others that challenge is running 100 miles. In either case we are quenching a deeply entrenched human need to push ourselves toward our physical limit and at least know what that limit is.
But the question remains: Why connect that need for personal challenge to raising money for charity? Shouldn’t my desire to challenge myself remain personal? Fund raising is that thing you do by naming buildings and libraries and college campuses for wealthy donors or for the more plebeian among us, simply asking your Facebook friends and people in your e-mail address book to support your worthy cause.
Running 26.2 miles, on the other hand, is that thing you do to see if you can do it. Could you follow that marathon and swim 2.4 miles and bike ride for a 112 miles to complete a triathlon? Can you cross the Antarctic from coast to coast self supported? Yet for some reason we connect the two events, endurance and charity, and they are connected week after week with the ever present 5k rfund raising ace that take pace on so many weekends. Indeed, in the past year or so, more than 500,000 people in the U.S. completed a marathon and many of them were no doubt raising money for charity.
In the radio interview before his trip, and subsequent death, and in response to the incredulity of the interviewer at the sheer difficulty of his planned Antarctic trip Henry Worsley humbly said, “It’s no black art to sliding one ski in front of the other, but what will drive me on is raising money for these wounded soldiers…”, referring to the charity he was supporting, the British Endeavour Fund
Worsley. then, touches on the answer. We do not give money to charity to see people punish themselves physically. Quite the contrary. We give to help motivate the athlete motivate himself, to keep running when he wants to quit, to keep cycling when he wants to rest, and to keep pulling a sledge with hundreds of pounds of supplies across the frozen landscape of the Antarctic in sub-zero temperatures against all odds.We help motivate him and he gives money to a good cause. He does our work.
Clearly, millions of dollars are raised each year for charities through sponsored events. And for that reason, I should leave this question alone. As a society, we should be very proud that we rally around supporting our non-profit organizations, the not so hidden fabric of many of our lives. And for spectacular high-profile never-before-accomplished feats like the one attempted by the late Henry Worsley, the endeavor is a great opportunity to shine light on a worthy cause. For those people who will not get themselves out but for the fund raising angle, then the charity connection is indeed mission critical. And you could even say that by donating in support of a run or bike ride you build a stronger connection to the charity you are supporting. It’s all good, it seems.
But perhaps the point at which we as a society have arrived today, where so many either need the motivation or the validation to challenge themselves to run for a cause or summit for someone should make us stop and think. Will we push ourselves when there is no cause? We should ‘summit for someone’ if we can, or run to raise money for the kids, but, I feel, we should also aspire to return to the status quo ante when we valued physical challenge and adventure as an integral part of life, where enduring a daily physical challenge was simply part of what it meant to be a human being.
By the way, I plan to support my cousin’s bike ride.
Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall (Alfred A. Knopf 2015)
Anyone on the trail either hiking or running invariably wonders at some point, “How far could I go if I had the time?”. With a subtitle of “How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance”, Christopher McDougall attempts to answer the question of just how much we can endure, both physically and psychologically, when put to the challenge. And in answering those questions he aims to understand “the art of the hero”, and to explore the “foundation of both Greek theology and Western democracy: the notion that ordinary citizens should always be ready for extraordinary action.”
The book, which follows his 2011 best-seller ‘Born to Run’ about endurance running, retells a war story that occurred in April 1944 during World War II on Nazi occupied Crete, an island known for its isolationism, spirit of rugged individualism and adherence to what resembles a “paleo” diet since they eat mostly home raised meat plus vegetables which were either grown or foraged in the surrounding mountainous forests.
McDougall opens his book with a retelling of how a band of British Special Operations soldiers together with Cretan resistance fighters kidnapped the Nazi General Heinrich Kriepe. The kidnapping occurred near the general’s Nazi headquarters with a daring display of “chutzpah” on the part of the kidnappers. Once the general and his car had been commandeered, the British-led team than spent more than two weeks navigating the very rugged Cretan backcountry on little sleep or food while they transported the general to a point where he could be conveyed off the island as a prisoner of war.
The journey was arduous and required truly superhuman physical skill and nerves and resolve of steel. And the mission proved fatal for some of the resistance fighters as well as Cretan citizens of the town of Anogia who were massacred by the Nazis as they struggled to re-capture their general. But it is the endurance of the soldiers that McDougall explores in the book and the topic of endurance in general often in a zig zagging manner darting between the main narrative and long diversions into ostensibly related topics.
Weaved between the narrative, McDougall details a history of military survival training and takes a questionable detour to look at the world of Parkour, and finishes with several chapters devoted to a history of nutrition especially as it has been practiced by endurance athletes. McDougall contends that the gods of Greek mythology learned to survive adversity while dealing with human scale challenges even as they inhabited a godly abode. Some of those gods such as Zeus originated on Crete and they created a Grecian zeitgeist of heroism that was embodied in Crete during the war where men, women and children of the Crete countryside embodied paideia, arete and xenia (skill, strength and desire) but understood that “heroes are protectors” but, “your’e only strongest when you have a weakness for other people”, McDougall writes.
And he discusses the ancient Greek military technique of pankration, a type of free form wrestling, which has its roots in Greek mythology and dates to the Olympic games of 648 B.C. He touches on ancient martial arts and “The Natural Method of Training” published by Edwin Chekly in 1890, among other techniques, after introducing us to suburban English women who have mastered the art of Parkour. Named for the French parcours, Parkour acolytes learn to turn an urban landscape into a playground in which they have taught themselves to scale brick walls by running up them, balance and jump off of railings, landing in a somersault, only to spring back up and over the next obstacle. Parkour, McDougall posits, proves that humans have an innate ability to overcome physical obstacles tapping the ‘elastic coil’ stored up in our tendons, ligaments and even our fascia. (see a video of these Parkour moms here).
McDougall strains at times to make the case that the British special ops and Cretan resistance fighters were successful because they harnessed the skills and spirit embodied in these ancient techniques that have some Grecian roots. But one of the main focuses of the author’s thesis rests in his theory about the benefit of the Cretan diet, essentially a paleolithic meat and vegetables diet. McDougall interviews and visits with world renowned South African exercise physiologist Timothy Noakes Ph.d as well as tracking down the enigmatic chiropractor turned nutritional consultant both to the stars and to star athletes, Phil Maffetone D.C.
Both Noakes and Maffetone eschew our mainstream carbohydrate laden diet as unnatural, unhealthy and down right dangerous. They both explain that from an evolutionary point of view humans have evolved to eat meat and plants and if those plants contain carbohydrates, then they are at least complex carbs, not the simple sugars that appear in almost all of our processed food, from Ketchup to soda to breakfast cereals and even packaged bread. Our consumption of large amounts of sugar, they explain, stimulates our body to release insulin, which stores the sugars in our bodies as fat and than drives us to consume even more sugar laden food to repeat the cycle.
When you retrain your body to burn fat as fuel, and not carbohydrates, you can increase your endurance and remain more satiated for longer periods of time, the experts explain. When Dr. Noakes adopted the eating lifestyle he professed, he lost weight and cut his time in the famous South African Comrades 56 mile ultra-marathon by two hours and reduced his time to run a 5K race by more than 20%, all that at the age of 56. Even the entire Los Angeles Lakers basketball team finally cut sugar out of their diet, began eating grass-fed beef, nuts and kale chips. The exercise and nutritional guru Phil Maffetone went a step further and maintained that not only was the no carb or very low carb diet healthier but combined with some training tips, the eating lifestyle changes would reboot the subject’s metabolism to start burning fat as its primary fuel source instead of glycogen and sugars. And since the body stores much more fat than sugars, endurance will naturally improve. He is even beta testing an app to help make the switch.
Overall, Chris McDougall presents a compelling argument that anyone could probably push themselves much harder, set higher standards and tap in to inner resources. You hiked 10 miles today? You could definitely push on. You ran a marathon? Start training for an ultra. The key to ‘mastering the lost secrets of strength and endurance’ then, would be to understand human evolutionary history and make a course correction in one’s nutrition. Assiduous training and having resolute confidence in your abilities like the Parkour moms would also help. And having a tantalizing goal like kidnapping a Nazi general right from under the noses of his hapless soldiers would help as well.
Jennifer Pharr Davis who set the record for fastest know time for a supported hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011 has probably set another record- authoring the longest known essay about the same trail ever to be published in the New York Times. This essay consumes an entire page and a half, including pictures and will complement the long distance hiker and author’s previous record for her supported hike of the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, a record just broken by ultra-marathon runner and author Scott Jurek.
Pharr Davis, a serious long distance hiker but with minimal ultra marathon running experience, hiked the 2,100 mile AT in 46 days with the aid of a crew to provide her with food and a chair or van to get some rest at road
Pharr Davis resting during her AT record setting hike. New York Times, Melissa Dobbins
crossings along the way. Jurek, a 7 time in-a-row winner of the 100 mile Western States Endurance Run trail race which takes place each year in the mountains of northern California and a celebrated ultra marathoner, broke Pharr Davis’s record this past summer, but only by three hours, which is a surprisingly narrow margin over more than 46 plus days.
In a long piece supra titled ‘essay’ and titled ‘Gender Gap Narrows as
Pharr Davis on the trail. Appalachianjake.wordpress.com
Miles Add Up’ which appeared in the sports section of the Times on November 4, 2015, Pharr Davis discusses the trail and the records for fastest known time on it. But her real subject is exploring the role of gender in feats of endurance. She recalls the incredulity she received after posting her AT record as she received suggestions that “she must be an exceptional woman-or, an androgynous one-to hike the trail so quickly”, comments, that she writes, caused her ” to doubt my own accomplishment. I wondered, what was different or wrong with me?”.
Pharr Davis recounts the successes and failures of other long distance hiking and ultra running superstars, such as Karl Meltzer and Heather Anderson, the latter of whom recently set a fastest known time for an unsupported hike of the AT, another record for a female. The author goes on to interview exercise physiologists and other experts, even Scott Jurek himself, who offer thoughts about the advantages or disadvantages of either sex when it comes to completing long distance endurance activities, debating the value of men’s strength and muscle build versus women’s lighter weight skeletal frames and increased levels of estrogen.
For herself, Pharr Davis surmises that “maybe women have a genetic and evolutionary advantage when it comes to enduring physical pain and stress”. Frankly, anyone who can go fast over 100 miles and especially 2,100 miles gets my attention and respect, and, this may indeed be one area where guts and grit make the difference more than an X or Y chromosome.
This past Sunday morning about 50,000 people of all ages and abilities challenged themselves to run the New York City marathon, 26.2 miles through the streets of the city, finishing the last 6 miles in Central Park. The elite runners ran at close to 13 miles an hour, finishing in a bit over 2 hours. About half of the runners finished in less than four hours and fifteen minutes and some, well, let’s just say, they could have walked as fast.
This past Sunday night about 50,000 people sat for more than 3 hours to watch what would be the final game in the 2015 baseball World
Series, where the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets, winning their 4th game out of five. The baseball fans were encouraged to get up and stretch after the completion of the seventh inning and people were free to walk around during the game as well. But watching a baseball game is a spectator sport.
There were most likely some people who ran the marathon in the morning and went to the baseball game at night, for a memorable Sunday participating in two significant annual events. If someone was lucky enough to fill their day with both those events, that would indeed be a day to remember.
Mostly though I suspect there were the runners and there were the watchers. And on this past Sunday they were pretty well balanced, at about 50,000 people apiece.
The runners and the watchers. Or, to think of it another way, the doers and the sitters, neither one inherently superior to the other just markedly different types of activities. On a broader societal scale, we can categorize ourselves, at times, as either consumers or producers, each necessary and invaluable. We all can not be exclusively consumers for than who would produce what we consume? And this past Sunday, the runners benefitted from the cheering crowds who had lined the streets to watch them, not so different from the 50,000 people who sat in Citi Field to cheer on their favorite baseball team.
As a city, a community, a country, and even a world, we need both the runners and the watchers, the producers and the consumers. But as individuals, we also need our own varied diet of activity, similar to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Plate, which recommends a variety of types of foods in healthy amounts. Not all carbs and not all proteins. Not all fruits and not all vegetables. Similarly we need to mix up the watching with the running, the consuming with the producing.
“My Feet” Chart
What if in addition to a ‘My Plate’ diagram, we also referred to a ‘My Feet’ diagram, which would suggest where our feet should be throughout an average day. About one quarter to one third of the day would show our feet in bed, a third or so of the clock would show our feet at work, in school, creating and producing or otherwise involved in some type of sedentary activity. A portion of the My Feet pie chart would show our feet under the kitchen table and a miscellaneous slice would allow for personal needs. But a solid slice of the daily pie would show our feet in a pair of sneakers, either indoors or out, getting some exercise. And there would also be the ‘Weekend My Feet’ chart which would replace a portion of the work/school slice with even more time exercising or otherwise being active.
This past Sunday was an interesting look into how so many people chose to spend their time in a major metropolitan city. The runners we know also prepared by training for a few months in advance. And the World Series attendees had to hustle somewhat to get their ticket and the price may even have caused them to break into a sweat although their chosen activity was mostly sedentary with some periods of standing and cheering.
But in a well balanced life, we would all run some and watch some, consume some and produce some, win some and as reality would have it, lose some too.