Friday, July 12, 2013

Review: The Longest Race

In Ed Ayres, The Longest Race we're taken on a run. Not just any run, but a 50 mile ultra-marathon. The author uses this run as a device to pass along to us a combination of history and philosophical musings. It's a clever technique and one I can relate to. I'll often get lost in my thoughts while I run, many times thinking I've got most of the world understood (all of this goes away as soon as I stop and a normal level of oxygen returns to my brain).

The run isn't just any old jog through the park, but the JFK 50 Mile Ultra marathon.. A few interesting tidbits about this race: the JFK 50 is one of the oldest ultra marathon events and was developed in response to a challenge by then President John F. Kennedy:

Perhaps Kennedy's most famous intervention in the area of fitness, and an indicator of the extent to which the Council became identified with him, was the fifty-mile march. The idea of the march developed from Kennedy's discovery in late 1962 of an executive order from Theodore Roosevelt challenging U.S. Marine officers to finish 50 miles (80 km) in twenty hours. Kennedy passed the document on to his own marine commandant, General David M. Shoup, and suggested that Shoup bring it up to him as his, Shoup's, own discovery, with the proposal that modern day marines should duplicate this feat.

Not only that, but the race takes place in my backyard, covering parts of the Appalachian Trail, Harper's Ferry and Antietam Battlefield. The running part of the book is a hit.

The same could be said for the history. The JFK 50 route is an easy gateway to a number of cool topics (the Civil War, C&O Canal, etc.) which Ayres explores. Though a good portion of the book explores a historical topic that goes far beyond the 1800's. Ayres uses his journey to delve into the Running Man Theory of Evolution. That's the idea that our prehistoric brethren weren't just skilled tool makers and problem solvers, but were uniquely designed to run. The theory suggests that while other animals may be able to run faster in short bursts, humans were capable or running for much longer durations (no fur, for example, reduced our chances of overheating).

Ayres wants to impress upon us that these ancient humans weren't just dumb cave dwellers like our popular imagery suggests, but were most likely a creative and content bunch. He's probably on to something, just because people don't live like we do, doesn't mean that they were necessarily unhappy. Sure, they had no internet, but they also had no traffic jams.

And then there's Ayres' philosophizing. That's where he loses me. It seemed like every few pages there was a mini rant about how this generation, or perhaps civilization in general, had lost its way. It's typical stuff: this generation wants instant gratification, whereas when he grew up slow and steady was appreciated. This generation has no problem decimating the Earth, while his generation appreciated and loved it. Here's a sample:

Our parents' and grandparents' generations believed that the rewards of life come from years of hard work, but we were conditioned--by commercial advertising and promises of politicians--to want those rewards now: the winning lottery ticket, the lawsuit award, the casino jackpot, the racetrack win, the guy from that "you may already have won" contest coming to our door with a check for ten million dollars--and, soon, the clever day trade, the lucrative initial public offering, the merger, the flipped house, the illicit Nigerian fortune. We'd become a nation of impatient two-year-olds!

He relates these rants to endurance running by suggesting that thanks to technology we're obsessed with speed and have lost sight of the big picture.

Of course, there's an element of truth to what he's suggesting. More stuff, faster, is frequently not a good thing. But this notion that greed or impatience were invented in the last 50 years because of TV is just absurd. Every generation looks at the generation that follows it and thinks they are lazy and irresponsible. That's because the next generation is made of young people who are lazy and irresponsible. And most of those young people will grow up and realize what's important, and that instant gratification isn't it. As my Father-in-Law Z"L used to say: "Youth is Wasted on the Young."

After all, the motivation behind Ponce de León's search for the fountain of youth and most of the SPAM that gets sent my way is the same.

As for Ayre's thoughts on technology, I think it's worth reviewing what Douglas Adams had to say on the topic:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

My grandparent probably thought TV was destroying society, their grandparents probably thought it was radio that would be our undoing and their grandparents were probably sure that the speed of information introduced by the telegraph would turn us into mindless zombies. As Douglas says, this probably goes all the way back to the wheel.

There's another side to these rants which get me all hot and bothered though. It's the arrogance displayed by those who pine for a time that never was, and implicitly suggest that life for all was as good as life for them. Ahhhh, the iconic 50's. They were probably a great time if you were a white male. Sure, parents lived in absolute fear of a disease that could randomly crippled their children, and we were on a head-on collision with nuclear holocaust and complete planetary destruction, but still, good times. Now, if you were a woman interested in being CEO, good luck. And if you were black, and wanted your kids to go to high quality schools, well you were probably out of luck there, too.

I'm not suggesting that we have nothing to learn from the past, or that we haven't lost our way in some regards. I'm just too much of an optimist who believes our best days are ahead of us when we embrace both growth and change as well as our history.

In the end, I suppose Ayres did his job. I found myself thinking about his book on my last few runs, and perhaps that's the greatest compliment I can offer.

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