Thursday, May 27, 2010

Monkeys, Maize, and Marathons: Part 1

Generally speaking corn does corn stuff.

It grows. It produces pollen. It lines nearly the entire 70 mile route between Delaware and Findlay. And because, for the past 6 years, I have routinely driven this route, I believe that I have come to gain a serviceable knowledge of corn and its doings. I believe that sweet corn is one of the surest signs that God loves us. During August I stop at roadside stands, buy corn, and eat 3-4 ears every day. I’m enthusiastic about August sweet corn because I know that in just a few weeks the corn will be gone… except for that stuff they have in the grocery store. Oh, I know that I can get corn in May. I saw some in Kroger yesterday. I know that that stuff is supposed to be corn but I also know that it is not the real deal. That corn is grown somewhere in Central America and I believe that it is insincere. God doesn’t get corn in Central America and he doesn’t buy it in the grocery store. I believe that God stops at a roadside stand in Ohio and loads up. And so I do the same.

Corn is noble. Corn is completely and utterly dependable. It is nearly always “knee high by the 4th of July”. Sometimes it is even taller. In July corn begins to change the landscape of Northwestern Ohio from an endless expanse of nothingness into a mini-woodland. From late July until early November drivers have to actually stop their cars at road crossings to check for traffic, because the corn obstructs the usually endless views in this part of the state. Corn makes this area, formerly the site of the ‘Great Black Swamp’, into a cozy and homey place. In the fall corn mazes pop up. Cross country races run between the partially harvested rows, and hunters begin a ‘secondary harvest’ of the fattened corn pilfering deer in the area.

And it happens this way every year.

Rotary dialed phones have come and gone. Hand cranked windows are no longer placed in new automobiles. I no longer need to get newsprint on my fingers to learn of race results and stock prices. But corn still does corn stuff. That’s comforting isn’t it?

I was thinking about corn as we came roaring into the Hickory Ridge aid station at the “Forget the P.R. 50K” a few weeks ago. I was thinking about corn because I noticed that the enormous cornfield visible from Hickory Ridge hadn’t been planted yet. In fact it hadn’t even been plowed. It seemed to me that it was getting just a bit late in the year for a cornfield to lay fallow and this caused me a bit of vague discomfort. But it didn’t cause me as much discomfort as Terri Lemke was causing me. And the discomfort that Terri was causing me wasn’t vague at all. Terri had her chin pressed against her sternum and was administering the anaerobic word of God to anyone attending her Sunday morning service. A pack of 5 of us held on, sucking wind on uphills, holding on for dear life on downhills, while Sister Terri testified. I had never, in my 33 years of running, been lulled into such a recklessly fast pace so early in a race. If it was too late in the year for a field of corn to lay fallow then it was too EARLY in the season, and very certainly too early in this race, to be pushing this hard. But we were pushing hard anyway, because this is what we have become. It would have been so easy to drop off the pace, have a Hammer gel, a sip of water, and walk a bit. But I couldn’t because I knew that this is who we now were, this is what we had made ourselves into.

I guess that developing our strange ability has been a PERSONAL evolution of sorts, although Charles Darwin would disagree that there is such a thing.

Darwin never said “Only the strongest of the species survive”, even though everyone thinks he did. He also never said that the smartest of the species survive. What he said was that the species that survive are those that adapt best to change.

Darwin never believed that an individual organism could evolve. He suggested that it takes many generations for a species to change its form. Natural selection involves the weeding out of some species as a result of the success of other species. The species with the greater advantage takes over that phylogenetic niche, forcing the less adaptable species into extinction.

Fundamentalist Christians tried, in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, to outlaw the teaching of the theory of natural selection in public schools, by disproving Darwin. They failed. Even today, in some parts of the south, fundamentalists argue against such teaching in schools. They ultimately fail as well. But Sister Terry was doing one mighty fine job of proving Darwin wrong. I know she was beating the Devil out of me!

If human beings cannot evolve within their own lifetime then how on earth was Terri doing this? Terri was built for speed. She was an elite 5K and 10K runner in college. She would be the first to tell you that a 30 mile jog back then would have landed her in bed for days. Nowadays a hard and fast 31 mile run doesn’t even get enough respect out of Terri to earn a stop at the six mile aid station…she ran right through it! And if human beings cannot change then how does one account for the strange behavior of Casey Clark?

Casey was racing his first ultra marathon and he was doing it in style. Casey is one of my running buddies from Delaware. He’s not a newbie. He finished the Mohican 50 mile run last summer with another friend of mine, Scott Wolf. But they jogged and walked in that event. They grazed at aid stations, and more or less enjoyed the day. What was happening here was extreme. We were running the toughest 50K course in the Midwest and covering uphill miles at just over eight minutes apiece. Casey was breathing through his nose and looked perfectly at ease despite the 25 miles (!) that lay before us. Casey was a basketball player in high school. He can jump. I’ve seen him do it. And he’s fast. He’s a cross country sort of fellow and can lay down a nasty-ass kick when the occasion calls for it. But over the past few months Casey had turned himself into a fine and fit runner of long trails.

And that’s something, despite all of its glory, that corn will never do.

The comparison might seem unfair. Corn has no legs, which might put it at a disadvantage in a race. I’ll give you that one. So let us compare Casey to another runner. Let’s compare him to a Quarter-horse. No matter what sort of bounce Casey has in his legs he’d get his ass kicked by a quarter horse...for a quarter. Is this comparison still unfair? “Quarter horses are sprinters” you might correctly claim. Fine, then lets compare Casey to Secretariat. Casey loses again. But Casey would nail either of them in a 50K trail race, and here is the thing: A quarter horse will ALWAYS beat a thoroughbred over a quarter mile and a thoroughbred will ALWAYS beat a quarter horse over eight furlongs. And neither of them will EVER beat Casey in a 50K. These fine animals, in fact all fine animals, cannot change their form on the fly. Except one…

Casey could train for a few months and become a pretty serviceable 400 meter runner. He could also become a good miler. I’d bet he could get his jump shot back if he wanted to. Wilt Chamberlain finished a 50 mile race several years ago. Do you know how he did it? He trained hard and TURNED HIMSELF INTO AN ULTRA MARATHON RUNNER!

We are the only species with the ability to change our form to follow our chosen function. God gave us this gift to use. It’s a miracle and it’s a miracle unique to us.

Only us.

Isn’t that amazing?

The fundamentalists have it wrong. They needn’t worry. Evolution doesn’t disprove the existence of God. Pure happenstance wouldn’t produce a rule that exists for every species except for one. Maybe we need to stop thumping our bibles and start reading them. The Old Testament states that God favored mankind above all other creation. What greater act of favor could there ever be than to allow us freewill and couple it with the latitude to develop our own tools so that we can pursue our own dreams? What good would free will be if we cannot move in the direction that our will drives us? Perhaps no other animal has this (adapt)-ability because no other animal has been granted free will. We can become who we want to be.

That amazes me.

I have other thoughts on this. I think that God gives us this ability to change, and couples it with the greatest change agent possible, the gift of stress. I’ll continue on in a few days. I love that a few people read this blog. I’m sorry that I have been so infrequent with the postings. I’ve had some stress and some change recently, as well as some changes to my form and function. I promise that part 2 of this post will be out in a few days. I hope you come back and read it. Peace. --Mark


  1. Hi Mark,
    It's good to hear from you again. Your posts are always thoughtful, insightful, moving, entertaining and worth waiting for. Yes, I eagerly await Part 2.

  2. Mark, I check back here frequently to see if you have posted. Your writing is so fantastic, I really think you need to write a book!

    In all seriousness, your writing has played a part in my development as a runner. I haven't always been a runner, but your stories about running, your love of running and of course the community we all have as runners has helped me realize that it is just where I belong.

    I do think that if you ever had the time to do it, you would really be sharing a lot to the running world by writing a book. (Or even compiling blog posts!)

    Thanks for writing!!!

  3. Keep on writing Mark - you have a gift! and don't leave us hanging with Part 1! xo Karen

  4. Dan, El DCampo, and KB
    Wow! Thanks for the kind words. It really is nice hearing that someone reads this. I write it so I can remember is some day. I really appreciate the kindness but no book is on the way. You are paying exactly what this stuff is, as I have demonstrated, I'm no good with deadlines : ). I'll improve that for the next few months, I promise : )