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December 3, 2018

The Community Chapter - The Means for a Long and Happy Life

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The GYAS Community on top of the Madison River at the Water to Whiskey 5K 


 The Community Chapter


Project Marathon, the book that I am writing on races worldwide, is really a quest, a search for an explanation.  I'm trying to figure out why so many people around the world have suddenly decided to sign up for races.  It doesn't seem to matter which kind of races: marathons, half marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks, triathlons, Ironmans, Spartans, etc...  They are all growing. People from all walks of life, all countries, all ethnicities and on and on just keep showing up.  The basic question is why.


The DNA chapter offered a hypothesis.  We are meant to run because it's part of our DNA. However, it was a hypothesis without much hard data.  This chapter on community offers a hypothesis as well.  We are meant to run because there is a community of runners and nothing gets humans going like a community and the shared experience that it offers.  Again, this is only a hypothesis.  However, the difference is that with this one there is at least some data to support the idea.


Check it out.


Stay Happy, Healthy, and Keep Running Forward until you're very, very old and are still happy, healthy, and running forward.







            "I pulled the van over because there were six bull elk near the road.  Six!  You know how rare that is??  They were beautiful.  I pointed them out and started talking about them.  They all looked up and said, "Oh."  Then they went back to talking about marathon running."


                        Nick Gevock, outdoorsman, hunter, and early start van driver for the Madison Marathon


As running communities go, it's hard to beat one that has over 2,000 chapters in almost every country in the world and an 80 year history.  It's even harder to beat one that has as its trademark phrase, 'A drinking club with a running problem.' 


That's the case with the Hash House Harriers, probably the oldest, largest, and most diverse running community in the world.  As the story goes, a very bored group of Malaysia-based British Army officers and enlisted men needed a drink.  However, doing so was against army regs.  So, like any good group of drinkers, they came up with a story and a plan.


The story, told to their commanders, was that they wanted to get some exercise by running around the jungles of Malaysia.  This would keep them fit.  The plan, known only to the members, was that they had stashed hooch at various points along their running trail through the jungle.  They would run from point to point knowing that a drink was awaiting them.


The running method patterned a fox hunt - as crusty British Empire as you can get - where there was a hare (fox) that had to run like hell to escape the hounds (and guys with red coats on horseback).  For the Hash House Harriers in the Malaysian jungle, the hare was the guy who set the trail and stashed the booze.  The hounds were everyone else who had to find the trail, stay on it, and keep running without losing the trail because they knew there was booze in the end.  Lose the trail, no drink.  Find and stay on the trail, you get a drink. 


This was in 1938.  Though the British Empire, the one that the sun never set on because of its size, was about to dissolve, there was running, drinking, and a community dedicated to both.


Sounds like a fun community, no?  I'm a late-comer to this 80 year old tradition, but starting in Shanghai, continuing on in Saigon, and hopefully coming soon to Montana, I've proudly called myself a Hasher for a few years. 


It's all about community and the value that communities bring.  And that's something I know a bit about. 


Among the many perks of being a race director, the role of inadvertently being part of and, to some extent, the creator of a community is way up on the list. It's even better when communities (plural) converge in one place and then form yet another community.  They already have the shared experience of an athletic endeavor (e.g. the marathon, double marathon, triathlon, cycling, etc..) and now they are doing so at your race.  They create a Montana version of what they already have. Take away the community part and it's just not the same.  It's just a race and there's lots of those.


These Ain't No Pansy Ass City Races


There's a few meanings in the GYAS trademark phrase.  It's not meant to disparage city races.  After all, most races are in cities and urban areas.  Why pick a fight?  The pansy ass part sounds disparaging, but it's not meant to be.  Call it a 'distinguishing characteristic' of our Yellowstone races.  We host the races in remote and mountainous areas with really long up hills at high elevations.  We add to this by not providing the kind of hand holding support that many races offer.  I'd love to, but the GYAS races are too damn remote to get this done.  It would cost an arm, a leg, and at least a couple pair of good running shoes. We got you covered with the basics of water, Gatorade, and some fruit.  We also have free beer.  


We also encourage rather than frown on taking nature calls in Mother Nature. Most races can't do that.  If you try to piss off the Brooklyn Bridge during the New York City Marathon, chances are good that someone will object or more likely you'll get fined. At the GYAS?  Piss away, I say!  Just be sure to appreciate the view while you are doing so.


Mostly though, the GYAS trademark is the birth of our community.  Do one of the races and you belong.  You're in. You're a non-pansy ass city racer. You earned it.  You can go to the grave with that one. 


And so it goes with running clubs and communities around the world. The good news is that it's easy to join most of them.  In some cases, you just show up (e.g. the Hash House Harriers welcomes all as does the GYAS) and say, "Hey, I wanna be one of you guys."  Do the race or distance a few times and you're in.


The even better news is that there's a ton of communities to choose from.


There's a community for Ultra runners.  There's one for 5Kers.  There's one for marathon walkers, and then of course double marathon walkers.  As part of my research for this book, I joined a Facebook group called the 'Slow Runner Community.'  It has over 12,000 members. I'm in something called the Vietnam Run Club and Vietnam Triathlon Club with 2,500 and 3,500 members each.  On WeChat in China (WeChat is basically the Facebook for China), I'm in like five or six groups under the Shanghai Hash House Harriers umbrella. Each day of the week has its own club, each with several hundred members. The Saigon Hash has over 2,000 members on Facebook. Closer to home, I'm one of 67 members of the Bitch and Wine Club in Ennis, Montana.  


You can just show up for most of these.  Other clubs, though, are not as easy to join.  You really have to earn you're way in. 


The Marathon Maniacs


The Marathon Maniacs might be one of the fastest growing running clubs in America.  They have their own Facebook page with nearly 21,000 members.  As I write these words (last week of November 2018), the 14,899th runner has earned a single star and qualified for the Marathon Maniacs.  Over the past week, 34 marathoners joined what's called 'The Insane Asylum' of the club.  These are marathoners who have completed a certain number of marathons over a specific time frame and thus have joined the club and earned a star or sometimes stars.  A runner can earn up to 10 stars in a single year and many do. 


To get in and earn your first star, you have to run three marathons within 90 days.  Or, you can run two marathons in 16 days.  You have to do one or the other to qualify.  After that, there's all kinds of ways to add stars.  Here's what I advocate at the GYAS:  Come to Montana and do our double marathon. Do the Madison Marathon on Saturday and then the Big Sky Marathon on Sunday.  Finish both.  You got yourself four stars. Now that's a seriously cool weekend in Montana.


The Maniacs are quite organized.  It's easy to find races on their calendar.  It's then easy to scope out a running schedule to complete a certain number of races in order to earn a certain number of stars.  Our double marathon weekend in Montana is usually close in terms of dates to the Deseret News Marathon in Salt Lake City as well as the Idaho Falls Marathon in Idaho.  An organized Maniac with a bit of time on his/her hands (and feet) can 'knock out' three or four marathons in three states in less than 10 days.  That'll earn five stars on its own (three marathons in three states or four marathons within nine days).


At the GYAS marathons, probably like at most marathons in America, the Marathon Maniacs gather at the starting line for a group picture. It quickly gets posted on the Maniac's Facebook page.  Also at the GYAS, the double marathons gather.  The walkers do as well. Then, the TBAs follow suit.  The communities gather, they share, and then they set off.  Some run together for a few miles.  Others run solo. No matter the method, the communities bond.  They share the experience.


And they do a lot more, for themselves and others, perhaps without even realizing it.


Just Ask Harvard


I am one of  more than 11 million people who has watched a TED Talk on YouTube by Robert Waldinger (link below), an academic who is the fourth director of one of the longest duration studies in the social sciences.   This research project, titled the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has been going on for 80 years.  It started with 724 men. Less than 20 of the original members are still alive, in their 90s, and still participating in the study. 


In 1938, social scientists from Harvard College began a survey of two groups of people.  One group consisted of the current class of male students from that year's sophomore class at Harvard.  The other was a group of teenage boys from a poor neighborhood in Boston.  Each year, researchers would meet with the participants and ask them about their lives.  How were they doing?  What kind of challenges were they facing?  How about their health?  Are you happy?  Sad?  Is your boss still a pain in the ass?  Seeing anyone interesting? The research included medical checkups.  They drew and analyzed blood, had CT scans, heart checks, and many other medical procedures.  It was essentially a life-long study about life in real time.  Who are we and why do we tick in the way we do?


This is fascinating stuff.  First off, very few, if any, such research projects can last so long.  Normally such a project loses participants, lead researchers, funding, focus, or a combination of all.  To keep such a project going for 80 years is amazing. So, too, was the time frame. The annual interviews covered some fascinating time periods for America.  From the GreatDepression to World War II to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and going to the moon.  Just those events covered less than the first third of the project's time frame.


Over time, the interviews also included family members of the participants.  Questions about life and love were asked not just of the original participants but also to their spouses, kids, and grandkids. So much interesting data about life was collected and Hypothesis could be tested.  Conclusions perhaps could be made. Perhaps most importantly of all, the study was able to answer a fundamental question about life as life was happening.gleaned.


What is the fundamental question?  It's this:  What makes us happy, healthy, and is the means for living a good life?


The quite clear, data-supported, and peer reviewed answer is this:  Community.  Relationships. Having people around.  Having shared experiences.  Sharing love. Sharing pain. Just simply sharing.


Ask Runners, too


Athletes who are part of runners' communities have always known this.  And they are beginning to tell the world one new running club member at a time.  Those members tell others who tell others and so on does the community grow. 


It's good timing for this. In America and probably other countries, something not good is afoot.


The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently reported that the life expectancy for Americans has begun to decrease for the first time in a century.  It is the first downward trend since World War One. The scientists say it's a combination of the opioid crisis, suicides, and chronic liver disease.  But naturally there are other factors. 


David Brooks, one of my favorite writers, says American society today is having a "crisis of connection."  Quoting from various studies, he writes that people in America are less likely to do just about anything that they used to do.  Less likely to volunteer, go to church, know their neighbor, or get married than at any time in the past several decades.  One of my repeat runners, a pastor from Great Falls (the town in Montana that I grew up in), said the average person who is a member of a faith 'goes to church' just 1.4 times per month. As a kid growing up in Great Falls, we had to go every Sunday.  The world just ain't like it used to be.


So what can fill the gap?  Is it running marathons and competing in other organized races?  Does this help explain why the world has gone crazy for racing?  Is this one of the means to reverse the trend that the CDC is warning us about?


Runners might be on to something.


One of the cool things about the Harvard study was that researchers had subjects who were in their 80s and 90s that they were still in contact with.  They knew them.  They knew their current life, but also they knew their historical life.  They had the data.  They knew what they were like in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and so on.  They could measure the how and the why a happy and healthy old fart of a 90 year old became such a healthy and happy old fart.  They could go back in time and find out "the secret" to later becoming a happy and healthy octogenarian. 


So, what did a 90 year old man do when he was 50 to become a happy and healthy man when he was 90?


It has nothing to do with cholesterol levels or some weird ass diet.  It sure as shit had nothing to do with how much money he earned or how many toys he had.  It had everything to do with community and the relationships that surrounded the person. Who is in your community and how you interact with those in it is the key. It's really the only thing that counts.  


The beauty of this story is that the average age of the athletes who participate in the GYAS races is about 42 years old.  I have the data to support that. This is also about the average age of American marathoners nationally and most likely the average age of marathoners internationally.  A very high number of the chronic marathoners who come to the GYAS - those that get at least five stars if not the full 10 every year as a Marathon Maniac and/or have done the 50 states a few times - didn't start running until their 40s or 50s.  That's when they joined their running community. If you believe the data from the Harvard study, they are destined for a long, happy, and healthy life. 


You wanna be happy and healthy when you're in your 80s and 90s even though you're a coach potato and life kinda sucks today?  


You can be. This is your ticket.  It's free.  It's not too late to join a community. There's like a gazillion of them around the world.  Find one, join, and then run/walk/cycle/swim. Then, do it all over again and bring a friend with you.


Complete these steps and in the future, your happy, healthy old fart of a self at 90 will say thank you.


* * *

Here's a sure fire way to have a good day. Click on this link and absorb the most important message of Harvard's 80 year research project.







The John Colter Club

The John Colter Club is a members-only club for athletes who are or have been:

  1. An inaugural athlete in one of the six GYAS races. 

  2. Earned a podium finish (top three) in the overall men and women's category of any GYAS race. 

  3. Are a three-time returnee to a GYAS race. 


We want to recognize those who went first, those who finished well, and those who just keep coming back.  For a membership fee of $30 per year and immense bragging rights for getting in, members receive the following:

  1. personalized water bottle with the GYAS logo, your name, and the club's name. 

  2. Early access.  Members get to sign up for the GYAS races before the March 1 opening. 

  3. discount of 15 percent off the entry fee of the race you sign up for. 


Do the math and you can figure out that your $30 comes back to you pretty quick.   If you qualify and if you want to join an exclusive club of athletes named after Montana's most famous total bad ass, send me an email.  Tell me how you qualify.  I'll confirm it all and send you the application. 

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