Posts Tagged ‘Endurance Sports’

A couple of posts ago, I used the phrase “pay to play” in reference to our bought-and-paid-for system of political patronage. This is one of those open secrets we all recognize but gloss over because, frankly, in a capitalist economy, anything that can be monetized and corrupted will be. Those who are thus paid to play enjoy fairly handsome rewards for doing not very much, really. Yet the paradigm is self-reinforcing, much like the voting system, with promises of increased efficiency and effectiveness with greater levels of participation. Nothing of the sort has proven to be true; it’s simply a goad we continue to hear, some believing in the carrot quite earnestly, others holding their noses and ponying up their dollars and votes, and still others so demoralized and disgusted with the entire pointless constellation of lies and obfuscations that refusing to participate feels like the only honest response. (Periodic arguments levied my way that voting is quite important have failed to convince me that my vote matters a whit. Rather, it takes a bizarre sort of doublethink to conclude that casting my ballot is meaningful. Of late, I’ve succumbed to sustained harangues and shown up to vote, but my heart’s not in it.) I can’t distinguish so well anymore between true believers and mere manipulators except to observe that the former are more likely to be what few civic-minded voters remain and the latter are obviously candidates and their PR hacks. Journalists? Don’t get me started.

The phrase put me in mind of two other endeavors (beyond politics) where a few professionals enjoy being paid to play: sports and performing arts. Both enjoy heavy subscription among the masses early in life, as student sports and performing groups offer training and experience. The way most of us start out, in fact, we actually pay to play through classes, lessons, training, dues, and memberships that provide access to experts and put us in position to reap rewards later in life. Maybe you attended tennis camp or music camp as a kid, or you paid for a college education (defrayed perhaps by activity scholarships) majoring in athletics or theater. Lots of variations exist, and they’re not limited to youth. As an endurance athlete, I continue to pay entrance fees to race organizers for the opportunity to race on courses with support that would otherwise be unavailable without the budget provided by participants, sponsorship notwithstanding. Chicago’s popular 16-inch softball leagues are pay-to-play sports.

A second phase might be giving it away for free. As with paying to play, pure enjoyment of the endeavor works as a strong motivation and justification. This is probably more common in the community-level performing arts, where participation is just plain fun. And who knows? Exposure might lead to a big break or discovery. It’s also what motivates quite a lot of amateur athletes, especially for sports that have not gone mainstream. Olympic athletes (tertiary events) might fall roughly into this category, especially when their primary incomes are derived elsewhere. A third phase is being paid to play. If the audience or fan base is big enough, the financial rewards and fame can be considerable. However, those who enter the professional ranks don’t always demonstrate such great prowess, especially early on. More than a few blow up and flame out quickly, unable to sustain the spark that launched their careers. There’s also being paid to play but earning well short of a livable wage, which borders on giving it away for free or at least for too little. A final phase is being paid not to play. A mean interpretation of that would be that one is screwing up or blocking others’ opportunities to the point where it becomes worthwhile to pay someone to not show up or to go away. A more charitable interpretation would be that one’s employment contract includes time-off benefits that require continuous payments even when not playing.

As with my post about the differences between the Participation, Achievement, and Championship Models, I’m now content with numerous endeavors to be either pay to play, play for free, or play for too little. Participation makes it worthwhile under any payment regime, the alternative typically being sitting at home on my couch wasting my time in front of the TV. I never made it to the enviable position of being paid to play or paid not to play. Still, as an individual of some attainment and multiple areas of expertise, I admit finding it irksome to observe some truly awful people out there pulling in attention and wealth despite rather feeble efforts or abilities. The meritocracy may not be dead, but it often looks comatose.

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I picked up and read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (2009), which achieved immense popularity after publication but only came into view for me quite recently. I can’t help but to project onto the book or draw from it considerable resonance with themes I have been developing on this blog over the years. By my reading, the book is fundamentally about resolving the mind-body disconnect commonplace in modern, post-industrial society. (The author may not see it that way at all.) The point of entry is the conflict between what our bodies are evolved to do — running long distances in persistent hunts (which I blogged about here) — and what modern medicine insists is highly destructive to the body if not impossible, namely, ultrarunning. However, running is merely the context in which the larger goal to reconnect mind-body occurs. One might even say that the mechanics of our bodies make running something elemental, undeniable, so a natural bridge. Though we (post-)moderns have often lost touch with the sense of our bodies as our selves, locating identity instead in the brain/mind, runners sometimes regain that connection, albeit temporarily, and in the case of the Tarahumara people from the Copper Canyons of Mexico, a people characterized by their running ability, they may never have lost the connection.

If you don’t recognize the notion of mind-body duality, you’re hardly alone. My contention for some years now is that we live too much in our heads and mental noise is increasingly drowning out what the body supplies in day-to-day life with respect to self-knowledge, contentment, and serenity. Think of the Zen of the cat. There may be spiritual aspect, too, but that lies beyond my sensibilities and does not seem to be within the scope of the book, either. Sensitive folks, or sometimes those who have simply been left behind by the incessant struggle of getting and having, may reach toward an unknown horizon in search of something otherwise fulfilling; running is a natural candidate. McDougall tells what amounts to an underground history of the second and third incarnations of U.S. running crazes, not unlike cyclical religious and political awakenings and reawakenings. One can argue whether such fads are part of our deep culture (if often feels that way), responsive to social turmoil, or merely more surface noise. There is nothing conspiratorial about it, but McDougall revels in the lost secrets and unheeded goings-on that constitute the subculture of ultrarunning. Runners’ athletic prowess is hard not to admire, but their compulsive pursuit often feels more than a little unhinged, not at all Zen.

The author employs a whole bag of writerly tricks to engage the reader, as though he distrusts his own subject matter and must resort to storytelling clichés to keep readers teased and entrained. Irritatingly, he starts one story but smash cuts to other tangential stories repeatedly within the larger structure. The stories all tie together, but the thread is interrupted so often that I felt my chain being yanked, which ejected me from the flow to contemplate the seams and joints within the narrative. That style probably works for dull readers, much like the TV news constantly strings viewers from segment to segment with rapid-fire disorientation and discontinuity mixed with flashes of what news is about to be reported, but first … this (typically, a word from sponsors). The best aspect of McDougall’s many diversions from the main story arc are what amount to detective stories behind body mechanics, running shoe design, persistence hunting, etc. Although they suggest we have arrived at a final understanding of such topics, handily turning conventional wisdom on its head in most cases, I rather suspect that further refinements are inevitable, especially if the real story is mind-body rather than running.

Most of the people profiled in the book suffer from mild to severe character distortion (by modern, post-industrial standards). Perhaps it’s exactly those who abandon or rebel against the dominant paradigm who are redeemed by what they (re)discover beyond. More than a couple of them are just assholes, though. Having done a little additional Internet research on some of the characters, it’s difficult to decide whether ultrarunning is indeed for them redemption or merely the fruitless chasing of lost souls. The unifying character (besides the author), Caballo Blanco or Micah True, died while running wilderness trails, though his autopsy revealed he died from heart disease. Others achieved of a mixture of notoriety and infamy both before and after the publication of the book. McDougall appears to have become a running guru and inspirational speaker, with numerous YouTube videos promoting his books and findings.

In summary, I’m glad to have read the book. Its potboiler style aside, the book has fascinating content and fairly good storytelling. The denouement felt a little incomplete, but then, many detours from the main story were left hanging, so finishing with a 50-mile race in the Copper Canyons may be as good a finale as anything. Being a (lousy) endurance athlete myself, I was encouraged to learn that there is still some opportunity for me to improve my athletic ability. According to the book, the human body doesn’t have to slow down appreciably until the middle 60s. So I’m encouraged that, unlike the steep drop-off in participation in the late fifties typical of endurance athletes, I can keep going a while longer. However, I am seeking elsewhere for mind-body connection.