November 9, 2018
Why are we crazy about running? - We have no choice. It's in our DNA
The DNA Chapter
Okay, Sports Fans. I posted the Introduction in the last newsletter so let's continue our Dickensian journey. I got a regular chapter for you to read.
It addresses the most basic and simple question of my BHAG on writing a book about marathons and other races. This is to explain why people do them. Why do they run? Why, really, does anyone do anything? Why not just stay home and watch TV? That's certainly a lot easier.
I don't have an answer, but I do have a hypothesis.
Check it out here. Let me know if you think I'm onto something or neck deep in something smelly and basically talking out my you-know-what. I'd love to hear from you.
Stay Happy, Healthy, and Always Keep Running Forward because, if my hypothesis is correct, you really have no choice. This is how we were made. We have to run forward.
"I thought they would all look like Kenyans. You know, young, tall, skinny, and looking like they could run for ever. But they didn't. They looked like me."
Madison Marathon volunteer in 2012 when he was in his early 40s and out of shape. He then completed the Madison Trifecta in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
For most of 2018 in the United States, one of the most common phrases spoken on television and/or written on social media was a version of the sentence 'This is not who we are.' This was mostly uttered in response to the political and social environment of the year. Whether it involved immigration, taxes, tariffs, Russia, or just plain common decency, talking heads and social media pundits stepped over each other to be the first one to exclaim, often in a high-pitched voice, "This is not who we are!"
In my opinion, they were usually right. It wasn't/isn't who we were/are as Americans. We're a whole lot better. But that's mostly politics, and this is not a book about American politics. It's about what humans can do when they decide they want to do something. It's about who we are and why we do things.
Really, it's about our DNA. Who we are as humans regardless of where we're from.
Here's a hypothesis. We can do more than we think we can. What we're doing now is not how we were made. We were made to do more. A further extrapolation of this hypothesis is this: If not for our DNA, we would have stayed in caves. We no longer live in caves. We are moving forward and always will.
Whether we know it or not, we're in a match race with our DNA. We're always behind, but every few centuries we gain some ground. To keep the sports metaphor going, we have some shitty races, but then we post a P.R. We get ahead (i.e. learn how to make fire, invent the atlatl, farming, the compass, the printing press, Mozart, and when we finally realized that slavery was wrong). Then, we sign up and race again and post some new PRs (the steam engine, the airplane, electronics, free trade, The Beatles, Elon Musk and Space X, etc...). Our DNA makes us play catch up to where we're supposed to be even if we don't really know where we're going.
This is who we are. We're always moving forward to get over the next hill and around the corner. We're always trying to figure shit out and by doing so we make life more beautiful.
The idea of a DNA match race is my way of trying to understand one of the central questions of this book. To answer the question of why is there such a growth of races globally, why double or even triple marathons are almost the norm, and why this seems to be happening irrespective of country, gender, age, race, religion, or any of the other ways that humans are always trying to distinguish themselves from other humans. Our DNA makes us do it, or at least it allows it to happen without dire consequences.
That's why Roger Bannister did not implode when he ran a 3:59.4 mile in 1954. It's also why Eliud Kipchoge would not have imploded if he had run 26 seconds faster at Nike's Breaking2 project in May 2017. Our DNA can handle these kinds of things. There's no question that someone, if not Eliud himself, will run 26 seconds faster and post the first ever sub-two marathon. The real question is whether we will ever learn how far our DNA can take us.
Among the long list of amazing observations that a race director (RD) has access to is watching someone surprise them self. Witnessing DNA in action. That one is way up on the list. It's as if our hearts and minds are several steps behind our DNA. We didn't know we could do that. In this marathon called life, we are always playing catch up and when we do catch up, if but for a moment, it's wonderfully surprising. It's beautiful to watch, this DNA match race.
It reminds me of one of my favorite novels - The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols. Robert Redford made the novel into a movie in 1988. The book and movie tell the story of the small town of Milagro in New Mexico where the rich get richer by building golf courses, condos, and providing front porch view sheds to the beauty of the New Mexico landscape. It's also about the fight over water with a tiny little bean field as the protagonist. Though set in New Mexico, the story could have been set in Montana.
What I liked most about the book, and why it relates to this idea of a DNA match race, is how Nichols spends the first several pages describing Milagro's ancient citizen Amarante Cordova and his constant battles with impending death. Amarante nearly and should have died at birth. It was a miracle - un milagro - that he survived. He repeated the drama through every childhood illness in the books. As an adult, he was a rabid alcoholic. As Nichols writes, he "drank until his asshole hurt" (one of my favorite all-time sentences in literature). Amarante kept having accidents and operations that took out an almost-but-not-quite-vital organ of his body. He kept getting one form of cancer or another so, Nichols writes, the doctors decided to just take out everything and sew him back up and see what would happen. No organs, no cancer, or so they reasoned.
He kept living. He kept having children and they gave him grandchildren and great grandchildren. He kept flirting with death, but just wouldn't stop turning corners and moving forward. Every morning, he woke up at dawn, groaned and sputtered like an old John Deere tractor, coughed and hacked up enough phlegm to start a phlegm bank, lit a cigarette, had a shot, farted loudly, and stumbled to the sink to look at his blurry face in the mirror and give praise to God for giving him another day. Like the beauty of the New Mexico landscape, he refused to not be. He kept moving.
In the novel, Amarante was a metaphor for the small communities of New Mexico, small towns anywhere perhaps. More broadly, I feel he is a metaphor for the human race. DNA takes over sometimes and makes us all but impossible to kill. We keep moving forward because we want to find out what's on the other side of the hill and around the corner. We want to finish the race. And when we do, we start another race. That's how DNA works.
In the past 11 years, I've seen the likes of Amarante cross the finish lines of the Greater Yellowstone Adventure Series (GYAS) races many, many times. Since 2012, I've seen Madison Trifecta athletes like Jon Goodman (see this chapter's runners profile) cross three finish lines - the Madison Duathlon, Madison Marathon, and Madison Triathlon - within one month of summer. The ability to surprise ourselves is one of the gifts that God has given us. Perhaps it's even more valuable than our ability to reason. I could argue that the ability to reason sometimes takes us away from the opportunity to surprise ourselves.
I didn't know any of this when we launched the Madison Marathon in 2008. Actually, the gift of reason would indicate that no one was going to travel to Montana for a marathon on top of a mountain ridgeline at over 9,000 feet. It was too high, too difficult, too remote, and having aid stations spread out too far from each other was too dangerous. That's a lot of negative 'too's' for one sentence. No one would sign up. So, the first person who surprised himself was me. I didn't know this would work out as well as it did. But there you go. DNA.
So over the years, I've learned something about who we are and what we can do. My job then became to set the DNA bar at various heights for athletes to try and clear. Make it scary. Make it uncomfortable. Make it so the person is doing something for the first time, something they've never done before. Make runners (figuratively, I hope) shit their pants. Make them get a PW and be proud of it. Above all, make the races beautiful and memorable. It was through these efforts that the GYAS logo of 'These Ain't No Pansy Ass City Races' was born. These races definitely ain't.
Do this right and you have an interesting and hopefully successful race series. Not everyone is thrilled when the DNA bar gets set too high. I'm certain (and have been told) that many runners cursed me over the first mile of the Madison Marathon because it's all uphill for more than a mile and the starting line is at 9,250 feet above sea level. One running friend has threatened to turn me into a eunuch more than a few times especially when he arrived at a water stop and the water had run out. But, that's the price of being the guy who sets the DNA bar.
Honestly, I love it. You get to see the limits of human endurance, and then you get to see humans pass this limit. You get to see them chase their DNA.
Humans being human, we divert from our DNA path often. It's sadly not a straight line. It's easy to pinpoint events in history where we diverted (e.g. The Crusades, the slave trade, Germany in the 1930s, Civil Rights in America,.....this list is several books long). Yet at these diversion points, there were also people waving red flags and screaming 'This is not who we are.' While it sometimes took time for others to listen and get back on track, we always have. We always will. It's DNA.
Sports is a good case study for this DNA hypothesis. There is almost always a reason that an athlete signs up to run a race whether it's a 5K or a marathon. If they're not running for or because of something inside them, they are running for others or for a cause. It's the fuel that allows something tremendous to happen.
One of my favorite athletes is a man now in his 70s who began running marathons in a serious way less than 10 years ago. He started running because his son had cystic fibrosis and was undergoing painful treatments. Feeling as helpless as helpless can be as a parent, he set out to run and complete the most difficult marathons he could find. For him, it was a metaphor for life, certainly for the life his son was enduring. It was his way of feeling and experiencing the pain that his son was going through. He wanted his marathon pain to take away some of his son's pain from a horrible disease.
Sadly, his son did not survive. We first met because he asked permission to scatter some of his son's ashes near the base of Black Butte Mountain which is at mile one of the Madison Marathon route. At 10,547 feet, Black Butte is the highest and most prominent peak of the Gravelly Range. It's a beautiful mountain that is part of Native American lore and their story of creation. Though I was not at mile one with him, my friend scattered some of his son's ashes at the base of this mountain. Later that day, he crossed the finish line and collapsed into my arms, placed his sweaty, bald head on my shoulders, and sobbed.
He kept running. He returned the next year. Then, he did his 600th marathon at the Madison Marathon and I received emails from around the country from his running friends with inspiring messages, congratulations, and even gifts to be handed to him at the finish line. His most recent goal was to get in 100 marathons or ultras every year. He is now most likely in the 900 range for completed marathons/ultras and the four digit threshold of 1,000 marathons completed cannot be too far away.
Being an RD has made me a more fervent optimist than I already was. I get to play a role in setting the DNA bar at each of our races, but I also get to see people set their own DNA bars and try to clear them. Imagine when, not if (an optimist writing here), all 7.5 billion of us tries to clear our own DNA bar. Imagine when we seek out and complete something truly difficult and groundbreaking either for ourselves, a loved one, or for society. Imagine when we are not worried about the 'too many, too much' of challenges and just say to ourselves and to anyone around us who will listen, 'This is who I am.'
We all have some Amarante Cordova in us. Let it out. See how far it goes and how well you can do in this DNA match race called life. It's one hell of an interesting journey. You just gotta start.
The John Colter Club
The John Colter Club is a members-only club for athletes who are or have been:
An inaugural athlete in one of the six GYAS races.
Earned a podium finish (top three) in the overall men and women's category of any GYAS race.
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:
A personalized water bottle with the GYAS logo, your name, and the club's name.
Early access. Members get to sign up for the GYAS races before the March 1 opening.
A 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.