outside the comfort zone: trials of marathoners

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“I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead. I repeat this like a mantra.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

When I was young – somewhere in the febrile netherworld between adolescent and teenager, I dreamt that I married a marathon runner, which seemed ludicrous at the time. Bookish and living in libraries, it seemed highly unlikely that I would ever meet a marathon runner, let alone have anything in common with one. (It may or may not be worth noting that this dream-world marriage took place when I was quite young, and the dream ended with the young marathoner husband’s premature death at 30, which led to my grieving by riding around in a car with a group of gay male friends.)

In the many, many years since I had this dream, I have never married. I am well beyond 30 myself now. I have, however, been involved with so many triathletes and long-distance runners, and lately I wonder, being as obsessed as I am with how things intersect and connect, why this thread has woven its way through my life. I have had my other phases, unconscious and unintentional, such as the French phase, the Microsoft employee phase, and so on (most likely these ‘trends’ happened because the people you end up meeting are all part of the ‘web’ in which you are woven and the circles in which you travel. Being with a French Microsoftie would probably lead you both to more French people and more Microsoft employees). But through all of the various phases, it seemed these people who chose to push and exploit their own bodies to extremes reappeared everywhere. I had always imagined I would have nothing in common with these human-endurance outliers, but I suppose there are aspects of personality I relate to: grit, solitude, being drawn to extremes, obsession with transformation.

Lately I have been trying to understand the desire and resolve to run in this way, to these distances and at such extremes of human capability or need. It was not a burning question, but things kept popping up to return the question to the forefront of my mind. First I read about a sedentary academic who eventually began to run 100-mile marathons. His article led me to read Scott Jurek’s book Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. Not a great book nor high literature by any stretch of the imagination (one of my “filler” books really) but nevertheless peppered with cliché tidbits and the odd literary quotes that add some texture as well as a how-and-why journey to the motivation behind this kind of lifestyle:

  • “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” —ERNEST HEMINGWAY
  • “Not all pain is significant.” (from painscience.com: “It’s the difference between engine trouble and trouble with that light on your dashboard that says there’s engine trouble.”)
  • As Thoreau, an American practitioner (though he probably didn’t realize it) of bushido and a pretty good distance walker himself, wrote, “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers . . . simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
  • Stotan sessions “beautiful and painful . . . underneath it all there was a sort of sound philosophy based on ‘Let’s improve ourselves as human beings, let’s become more compassionate, let’s become bigger, let’s become stronger, let’s become nicer people.’”
  • “You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone.”

Then I thought, well, Haruki Murakami has written about his own running in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. His insights weren’t much different from any other long-distance runner’s except that he often creates parallels with his writing:

  • “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.”
  • “In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
  • “So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.”
  • “Each person has his own likes. Once when I had a chance to talk with a sales rep from Mizuno, he admitted, “Our shoes are kind of plain and don’t stand out. We stand by our quality, but they aren’t that attractive.” I know what he’s trying to say. They have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan. So to the average consumer, they have little appeal. (The Subaru of the shoe world, in other words.)” (I liked this one just because it highlights functionality and personal preference – what works versus what looks flashy. I have always, after all, driven Subarus.)

But eventually I get some clarity from these readings and others – everything from personal reflections and essays to the more scientific and clinical approaches, such as an article on whether or not ultra-marathoners feel less pain, thanks to the Twitter feed of Al Jazeera English news anchor Peter Dobbie (yes, this kind of stuff comes from everywhere, doesn’t it?). Of course they don’t feel less pain – it’s psychological really – so it comes down to brain over pain (as the article states: “theory of pain catastrophizing and how that might be translated into pain management when you are 40 miles in and everything feels bad”). It all ties together so that these symptoms, if not catastrophic or apt to do lasting damage, can be assessed as non-critical discomfort rather than critical pain, can be overcome with some of the psychology, the tying the effort into a greater good, a philosophical drive toward being greater.

Someone asked me the other day about why I think our mutual acquaintance runs in insane ultra-marathon-type events. (Sure, in this case, she just wanted to find excuses to talk to me about the acquaintance, but I treated it academically, as I do with most things.)

She asked: “Why do you think he does it?”

Impersonally, I replied, “I don’t think it’s something anyone who doesn’t do it can understand.”

I have recently read several books to try to gain insight into marathon and ultra-marathon “thinking”. I told this ‘interrogator’: “I cannot claim to understand the pathology.”

She exclaimed: “So you think it is a pathology!”

Me: (haltingly) “Not in the strictest sense, no. But as a deviation from what most people do, yes, it is a pathology in that sense.”

Some exchange/banter followed about the insanity of it, but I started outlining (at least for myself) what I think defines the reasons why (if we must understand or seek understanding):

  • The people who do this kind of running often also tend to think it is as crazy as non-runners do … in the sense that they push their bodies beyond the limits of what a body should be able to do. Pushing beyond physical limits. Feeling more alive than ever while also being almost dead. This drives the process, the motivation and desire to continue.
  • An ‘extreme’ runner is not doing it because s/he thinks it’s “normal” or “middle of the road” even if it becomes normal for her/him.
  • The opposing forces of isolation/solitude, as long-distance running is a solitary activity, and community/camaraderie built with a group of others who find this ‘insanity’ to be a worthwhile pursuit.
  • The opposing forces of feeling control while also feeling out of control (i.e. “I can undertake this unfathomable feat; I can’t feel my feet/hands/can’t stop vomiting – can I go on? Can I do this?”)
  • A unique/unusual sense of accomplishment from doing something that most other people cannot do, even if they did not find it insane to consider.
  • Added bonus if the running endeavor can be connected to some concept of “doing good in the world” (a charity component, etc.)

“…and I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world.” -from The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner: Stories, Alan Sillitoe

I engage in my own form of marathon, which has nothing to do with running, and it tests resolve and endurance, too. It is my test for whether someone, in coming up against me, is built to last. The drive to run, but not running from something, cannot be entirely dissimilar – it is a constant test of tiring but continuing, reaching an outcome, elated and exhausted, but facing the demand to get up and do it again, insane or not.

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

African Ramblings: Putting a Human Face on Distant Lands of News Stories

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That “Africa”, nebulous netherworld and neverland that it is in my imagination, is comprised of little, uninformed portraits, characters and blurbs on the news (usually about something horrible), is little wonder. I have written before about how Africa is something massive, which – even if trying to absorb the idea and place systematically – would take time and only be possible in increments.

Africa is an idea more than a reality to me. Not just because I have not been anywhere on this vast and ridiculously diverse continent but also because “Africa” as a concept is kind of an idea. One giant landmass it may be but this very vastness and diversity makes it impossible to categorize or talk about as one giant entity. People may refer to themselves as “African” but can there be an “African” identity in the same way there is an American one? It strikes me as more like trying to convince Europeans to identify as “Europeans” before their nationalities. It is not that one never identifies as “African” or “European” but neither label tells an observer much of anything.

As usual I am consuming Africa-related matters in small bites, like geographical, cultural, historical amuse-bouche. Not always a tasty sampling.

Today’s thoughts inevitably turn to the most newsworthy of Africa’s countries.

Rwanda

The 20-year mark since the genocide in Rwanda has sparked a virtually endless flow of news and related content, ranging from reconciliation (and photography projects chronicling that complex and painful process) to the “miracle” of modern Rwanda, from the firm and perhaps dictatorial hand of President Paul Kagame, to the growing power of women (who are the majority of Rwanda’s population once the massacre ended), from restoration, reconciliation and commemoration in societies torn apart by this kind of catastrophic human damage as well as individual stories about personal conscience, reminiscent of World War II-era stories of people who took in and hid Jews at considerable personal risk to themselves (and how those stories often came to late quite a long while after the war).

“It’s now 20 years after genocide,” Kamuronsi says. “And in every commemoration, every movie, we see stories of survivors, we see stories of perpetrators. We see less stories of rescuers.”

Those stories are particularly important, he says, for the more than half of the country’s population born after the genocide, to see that not every Rwandan played their ethnically assigned role of killer or victim.

Yet most of Rwanda’s rescuers are not officially recognized. A government program to give rescuers an official “thank you” was put on hold after canvassing just 20 percent of the country and identifying fewer than 300 of them. In comparison, Yad Vashem — the Holocaust memorial and research center — was seeking out the stories of German rescuers, the “righteous among nations,” by the 1950s — less than 10 years after the war.” (From NPR)

Before the genocide (and the film, Hotel Rwanda, which chronicled the 100 days of horror that ensued – and of which the first ten minutes were ruined when I saw it at a cinema in Iceland because the idiot projectionist let some horrible George Michael music play right over the top of the film and its soundtrack. Iceland: home of the world’s worst film projectionists – you heard it here first), all Rwanda was to me was mountain gorillas at Karisoke Research Center, Dian Fossey and a brief story an election-monitor colleague, Randall, had told me about being in Rwanda and how the air there – and in every African city – always smelled like diesel fuel.

After the genocide, unfortunately, genocide is almost all Rwanda is in the collective public memory. But it should and could be so much more. How does a country referred to as “nonviable” become a “success story” (despite the dark side of that success)?

“During Kagame’s two-decade rule, Rwanda has made spectacular progress. A country famously deemed “nonviable” in the mid-1990s has become one of Africa’s best-run, most orderly, least corrupt, and safest states, with a booming economy (Rwanda’s GDP has grown by an average of eight percent in recent years). But Rwanda’s success has come with a darker side: opposition politicians have been jailed or killed under mysterious circumstances, journalists complain of harassment, and Kigali has been regularly criticized for meddling in neighboring Congo’s long-running civil war.” (From Foreign Affairs)

“Kagame is said to admire the limited democratic models of Singapore and South Korea, where economic competence is valued over political liberty. As the world observes and judges Rwanda, they will find a country tenuously balancing its need for stability and growth against the virtues of open democracy.” (From Harvard Politics)

Maybe this autocracy is good enough for the population for now – certainly craving stability, growth, opportunity and tranquility over “personal freedom”.

UGANDA

Uganda often comes up – whether because of its own problems with dictatorship (a story also told in the film The Last King of Scotland), conflict and disease (both positive and negative – Uganda had considerable success in controlling the spread of HIV but this appears to be moving backwards now; it is one of the countries in Africa to have had an Ebola outbreak as front-page news; or because of issues like Uganda’s notables (such as Joseph Kony) or issues (homosexuality is illegal and can carry a maximum life sentence in prison).

I sometimes joked that I would, if given the chance, exile people to Uganda. And that was (apart from a few of the aforementioned highlights) the sum total of my Uganda-related knowledge.

Recently, though, I saw a report on Al Jazeera about pain management and the world shortage of morphine – and what role Uganda plays in this. It is not really an issue I would have considered – I had no idea that there was any shortage of morphine or that this is in large part due to the ill-conceived and long-running “war on drugs” waged mostly by the United States. Likewise, I had no idea that there was some kind of stigma attached to its use.

“Red tape and misinformation are to blame for the world’s unequal distribution of medical morphine, and it is patients in the developing world who are losing out.

But Uganda has become the first country in Africa to allow nurses to prescribe morphine to patients.” From AJE)

It is hard to imagine that palliative care, particularly in Africa, where the disease burden is so high, in the form of pain management would be such a difficult matter. The Pain Project has documented this struggle.

“The International Reporting Program traveled to Ukraine, Uganda and India to find out, and to document the human toll of this hidden human rights crisis. It turns out a combination of bureaucratic hurdles and the chilling effect of the global war on drugs are largely to blame, leaving humanitarians scrambling to work outside the law — or change the law — to bring relief to suffering patients all over the world.

The Pain Project has produced documentaries on this issue for CBS Sunday Morning, Al Jazeera People & Power, and Global 16×9, reaching millions of people and gaining international media attention.” (From The International Reporting Program)

GUINEA

Finally, there’s Guinea – frankly not a country I thought about at all (other than an occasional mention of it, and a follow-up question in the form of, “Are you sure you don’t mean Guyana?” Not even the same continent! Even Wikipedia has to caution the reader not to confuse Guinea with Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea or – seriously! – Papua New Guinea!) until it appeared in recent news reports about its Ebola outbreak and attacks on treatment centers and universal airport screening for Ebola upon departure from Guinea. In Guinea, the death toll has topped 100, and worries about its spread are on the rise.

As the disease has traveled, neighboring Liberia has reported 21 cases, Mali reported a few, and bordering Senegal closed access to and from Guinea, citing outbreak fears.

Incidentally it is through these kinds of stories that I learn other things about these countries – under the siege of an infectious disease outbreak or a civil war or a massacre/genocide, the human face of these countries comes to light.

And while the human face is exactly what I want to strive to see, I did come across this map that should help with rethinking Africa in some ways – I have seen it before but came across it again just as I was writing and decided to share it again.