Thursday, October 22, 2009

Winging it

Wednesday, March 2, 1143 B.C., 9:13 a.m., Isle of Crete
Daedalus was nearly finished with a project that been many months in the making. The final construction took only a few hours and the gathering of feathers was easy. It was the constant tinkering with the base material that had troubled him. All types of wood had proven too heavy, animal bones too fragile to bind reliably, and bamboo simply wouldn’t hold the feathers.

It was going to have to be wax.

Wax took bees and bees took time. But time was no issue. He and his son had little other than time in this island prison. The worrisome thing about the wax was that it could melt, but only if his son, Icarus, flew too close to the sun. All the lad had to do was play it safe. All he had to do was maintain the status quo, walk the line, stay well above sea level, but not too high above sea level, and get the job done. If he pulled this escape off he would have the rest of his life for adventure. Surely the boy would do the right thing. Wouldn’t he?

Friday, March 4, 2:04 p.m., 1143 B.C., One mile off the coast of the Isle of Crete
The freedom was too much. Years of confinement left Icarus as he did another loop and let out a final yelp of pure unbridled joy. He soared to impossible heights and then he plunged to his death.

Thursday, May 28, 1983, 3:27 p.m., Athens Ohio
“Every morning when you wake up this summer there will be a certain amount of training that you should do to attain fitness by fall. Too much is not good, too little is not good. Your job is to wake up every morning, determine what the proper amount of work is, and go out and do it.” –Elmore Banton, Head Coach, Cross Country and Track, Ohio University.

Saturday, July 11, 1983, 8:37 a.m., lying beside a dumpster behind Marathon Gas Station, Berea, Ohio
I lay on the ground on my back looking straight up at my feet propped against the dumpster. I’d averaged 112 miles per week for the past six weeks and this is where it brought me. I was beaten into oblivion in the Berea “Between the Lakes” 4th of July race by a pack of mugs, including J.V. runners from my old high school. The answer had to be more mileage and so I was attempting to cover 150 miles this week. I ran to work, slept in my lifeguard chair all day long, ran home, slept, and went out for another 10 miles at night. Today I stared at my shoes for 45 minutes before I put them on. I was moody, thirsty at all times and, strangely ONLY felt good when I was running. Trashed, tired, depressed, but hopeful when running; ill at all other times. Now I was 4 miles from home and staring at my shoes again. The sun was getting high in the sky and scratchy summer heat was becoming a factor. My gaze shifted to the Marathon logo and the irony hit me. I stood up, wiped the gravel from my bare back, found a dime on the pavement, went into the gas station, bought three tootsie rolls, and ran home. The next time I had a weekly total over 40 miles was three months later.

Tuesday, October 8, 2009, 10:23a.m., The University of Findlay, Findlay, Ohio
“Collagen based tissues, such as tendons, ligaments, and bones, hypertrophy at a much slower rate than muscle tissue or vascular structures. Furthermore they have poor sensation. If you are not careful your patient’s fitness can outstrip their skeletons and stress reaction injuries will result…you really have to progress training slowly, methodically, and in response to their symptoms. It pays to be smart.”—Me, lecturing physical therapy students at UF

Tuesday, October 8, 2009, 8:17 p.m., The North Rim Trail, Mohican State Park, Ohio
I am climbing a mud-slicked hill on my hands and knees, flashlight clenched between my teeth, to guard against the pitch-blackness. There is no defense against the pouring rain or 52 degree temperature. I am 16 miles into a 20 mile run and I’m feeling more certain than ever that the pain in my left foot, specifically the ventral aspect of my 5th tarso-metatarsal joint, must be a stress fracture. I’m trying to regain the lost trail, and despite it all I am at peace. This is killing me. It must be good training for…something.

As I was climbing the hill I flashed back to my time behind the Marathon Station. I also recalled that my shoes were the Nike Pegasus. What is it with our sport and Greek Mythology? Pegasus was a winged horse, Nike the goddess of victory, Marathon the legendary battleground that resulted in the death of a messenger and gave birth to the most epic race on earth.

Nothing is named after Icarus though. Alas.

I guess that tragedy as a result of bad judgment doesn’t make it as a brand name in corporate America. It’s a pity though isn’t it? If Icarus was tragic and Icarus was irresponsible, wasn’t he also passionate and adventuresome? Shouldn’t that count for something? Was there something even remotely noble in Icarus’ failure? Do I get a simple attaboy for the drive that led to my crash behind the marathon station? Was my risky run in the rain completely without honor just because it was stupid?

If our sport is rife with examples of bad judgment can we, or should we, improve our decision making skills? I have heard ultra running described as an “extreme-sport” but I doubt that I will ever see it televised on MTV’s “X-Games”. I cannot decide if our sport is truly extreme or if it is not extreme at all. Surely running all day and all night in all temperatures, sometimes without adequate oxygen, sometimes in high humidity, always on poor footing doesn’t place it in the middle of any bell-curve. But don’t we also achieve what we achieve through a careful and miserly meting out of our resources? Doesn’t patience and wisdom usually prevail? Then why does the compulsive behavior and drive that can push judgment to the bad side of the tracks seem to reside in nearly all of us?

I don’t know the answer to these questions and I have recently decided that I no longer care. I’m not foolish. I don’t court injury but I don’t yet fear injury either. Everyone seems to know the story of Icarus. Most of us remember the part where Icarus was warned against “flying too high” but the part that struck me upon re-reading it was the warning to also avoid flying too low. I wonder if other cultures recall the metaphor of not excelling too much and forget the part about keeping well above sea level the way we have. I wonder if we fear success more than we fear failure. Icarus was a fool. There is no doubt about that. We can say that Icarus should have known better and we can extrapolate this need for conservancy to risky business ventures, unwise love affairs, or going for a touchdown when a field goal seems like guaranteed points.

But I don’t think knowing is enough. After all, let us never forget that Icarus was warned.

On the day of my Mohican 20 miler I stood on a sore foot and lectured about stress reactions. After the lecture I grabbed my gym bag and sped to the Mohican forest. I knew my situation well enough to name the injury in detail. And yet sometimes my soul needs to fly no matter how unwise. That’s how it has been lately. I needed to take off the tie and grovel in the mud. I had so much fun being borderline hypothermic and lost that I wonder if my mind didn’t lead me, literally and figuratively, down the wrong path so that I could have the adventure my heart needed. Maybe someday I will fear injury. I feel certain that someday my running will fall to earth. But in the meantime I have to acknowledge that it might be sinful to ignore the miracle of flight.

This paradox dooms me to a life of monitoring softening wax.

Coaches speak of building character and tolerating pain. Nike’s own commercials show athletes heading out to train in the rain, Hollywood makes a movie about a guy pounding raw beef with barely bandaged hands in a meat locker. If such behavior is considered heroic on celluloid shouldn’t our real life heroics be admired in some sense as well? Perhaps the passion is part-and-parcel with who we are…and how we should be. Maybe its evil to try to bottle passion.

I wonder if Icarus would admit to any regrets? I like to believe he wouldn’t.

I like to believe that I won’t regret a moment of it either.


  1. Yes, it's evil to bridle passion!! Oh my goodness, I loved this post--it was masterful! It's my new favorite, but then again, every time I read a new post of yours, it's always my favorite. Bob and I are going to get out the Mohican trails this weekend to do the 50 mile component of the Mohican 100 next year. I'll probably rile up my hip flexors, but I don't care...

  2. I'm so happy I stumbled on to your blog recently. Excellent post!

  3. Red
    Thanks. Sooooo happy you are on-board for Mohican next year. You are gonna love it! Let me show you and Bob some trails there some time OK?

    Dan, thanks so much. I like your blog as well.

  4. great blog
    hope to make it down to the Mohican 100 someday