Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What Was I Thinking?

Whatever you think you can do or
believe you can do, begin it. Action
has magic, grace and power in it.

From the Joel Zucker plaque

My last post about Tim's HR100 race essentially highlighted the risk involved in that particular race (the 2011 version specifically) and suggested that it might be worthwhile to interrupt our congratulatory hoots and raise-the-roofs in light of the gravity of the situation. To my point, he got all kinds of pats on the back for his efforts. Mine was definitely a marginal perspective (and I did say "Nice F-ing job, dude" as well).

As is typical of this human world, the majority voice gets its word heard most and pretty much colors the overall impression of whatever is being calculated; the minority view needs more evidence or must simply persist using all means of strategy and eloquence and might in the end catch a small share of the ears dangling out there in the wind.

My reconciliation of HR100 concerns a discussion of what I want to call mountain ethos or mountain creed. The mountain, needlesstosay, has its own culture. That culture has a language, values, histories, laws, competing regimes, kings and queens, etc. It's a culture. And the members of that culture have a natural way of seeing the world that is particular to that culture, the histories, values, etc.

This may seem obvious, but what Tim did, or what AJW did at Angeles Crest 100 in 2004, or even what Eric Skaggs did to his kidneys a few years ago (shame on him!) are all of them understood as inherent/germane to this lifestyle of the mountain. So, the congratulatory emails and blog posts for Tim and other runners and hikers and climbers that have met some manner of crisis are true to the mountain creed.

In fact, these kinds of disasters are expected; there is no doubt an understanding that people will suffer trauma during such adventurous events as mountainous 100s (any type of ultra or endurance race for that matter). I think my last post works as a concerned reader saying, "wait, that's not as cool as you all think. In fact, I think that sucked." But in the context of what Tim was doing and what all endurance athletes are doing, especially ultra distance mountain runners, what he did is fairly courageous and, well, amazing (okay, I said it). We might even venture to say that what he and others did in that race is par for the course.

Chris' comments that Tim excerpted in his HR100 Afterthoughts post speak to this kind of mountain ethos. I have to copy them here:

"I hope you made it back to civilization alight and are recovering well. I just wanted to tell you again how impressed I was with how you stuck in with the race, and more importantly, how you handled yourself when things went south out in Putnam. I was glad to be able to be around and able to lend a hand to you and JT, but the person that saved you was you. If you weren't as tough and as well-trained as you are, you never would have pulled off a 2 hour wander in those conditions. At that point when we had to turn around and head back, hoping to find a flag to get us back on track, I've never had a more sickening feeling in my gut. Most people, even having made it as far as you had, lose it right there and I pretty much figured I'd killed you with that wrong turn. That you had the guts to turn it around and keep moving at that point is what made for a successful close to the evening.

All that crap aside, great work getting after the run and sticking in to the finish. I'll let you draw your own lessons about what Hardrock is and what it isn't, but in my opinion, the guys like yourself, Mike Mason, Christian Johnson, and some of the other legit racers who saw their goals and expectations crumble but still pushed on for the finish help define what the run is all about. It's not Western States, and never will be."

Heavy. There is no bullshit there. There's a very clear view of the world shaped in those words.
That's just one particular example of the mountain creed at work, carrying-on despite all kinds of hell in the belly of that whale.

I pasted a picture of Chris McCandless in my aforementioned post. I said Tim's report read reminiscent of Into the Wild. I might have been stretching that some, but Tim's incredible candor about his self-perception, the role his own insecurities played in that Hardrock ordeal further that connection between McCandless and what some ultra runners put themselves through to finish.

But here I bring-up McCandless for the way Krakauer makes vivid an extreme version of this mountain creed. Krakauer defends McCandless. His book is an argument that claims the boy is more admirable than many experts think. In his account of the boy's fatal journey, Krakauer supports his argument with references to Jack London, Thoreau, Everett Ruess, John Muir, and even Krakauer himself in his bid to climb Alaska's Devil's Thumb. There are other references as well, all of them made to somehow suggest that what McCandless did is just part of the mountain or wilderness creed. And yes, as is the case with some of his examples, death is part of the ethos of the mountain, the mountain character.

I would say one of the big ethical arguments of committing to such brutal trials of man vs. wild is man and woman's willingness to die.

Granted, I think my previous post was legit and I loved the comments some readers left. But I think I stand corrected, so to speak. We might agree that Hardrock should undergo some genre scrutiny (should it be classified as "trail 100 miler?"), but in the end that's not going to happen given the heart and soul of the ultra running community. That would be way out of character.


  1. Good stuff Matt - and well well written. When guys like you or Tim or Tony write this sort of stuff it makes me realize that there are folks who can write, and then the rest of us ought to just keep training logs.

    Not much to contribute to this thread other than I was thinking (although not as articulately) that Alex Honnold might be a fair comparison in this realm as well.

  2. Thanks GZ. I'll move on from this HR100 bit. . .

    I have seen a video of Honnold. Brilliant stuff and death defying. I think it's a great connection. What he does (drops-out of school to push those limits) is similar to the people you all are talking about in your post about high altitude training. Just dawned on me that what makes these wilderness sports so compelling is how personal they are at the core. Great fellowship too, but the real suffering (which I myself miss badly cuz I've been "out") I think draws people so close to who they are. Who they can be.

    I remember a few years ago while I was running pretty regularly, an old acquaintance asked what I was running from? Hmmmmmm...

  3. "Death is part of the ethos of the mountain, the mountain character."
    There is a clear distinction, to me, between tragedy from a series of preventable mistakes made by McCandless and Aron Ralston, for example, and the death due to pushing the unknown (Mallory) or a truly accidental cause (much rarer than preventable causes). It is imperative to learn from and avoid errors, and to celebrate with the utmost enthusiasm the shared goal of ourselves and our friends returning safely first and foremost. As is obvious in the mountaineering community, there is no shame in "turning around before the summit" when the plans start to go awry, if the risk of severe injury, death, and a SAR operation becomes too high.

  4. Since I've become the poster boy on Matt's blog for idiots in the mountains, I'll just add that one of the main (if not THE main) reason I'm loving long, mountain races is the disconnect from society and its controls I feel when I'm 'out'. I dangle on the fringe of society as it is and it's true freedom to be out relying on myself with no social mores or norms guiding (rutting) my daily existence. It's just me with my own rules for a bit. I think that's why I like running at night so much; it's a magnification of freedom and anonymity. I've constantly thought about dropping off the face of society (like McCandles) but haven't gotten there yet for one reason or another. The long runs feeds that hunger, keeping it a happy dream for now.

  5. Tim, that's my favorite dependent clause of all time. Of course, the point I'm making is you're not an idiot at all (the most recent post). But your sense of humor is right on the money. Now I'm thinking t-shirts/hats: idiots in the mountains. Brilliant.

    Mike, I don't think the distinction is very clear. People participate for personal reasons. The wilderness (trails, glaciers, cliffs, canyons, waves, etc.) is unforgiving. That's a potentially combustible mix. Where you get an example like McCandless, you still get people defending his cause. It's part of the history of that relationship.

    Unless of course you have blatant recklessness (which some think in the case of McCandless). Still there's so much more there that people relate to, connecting with these adventures on a very emotional level. Tough to be objective on this other than to say, if you go out there, all bets are off, you're on your own.

  6. Totally dig what you guys are saying, and I like running/hiking/skiing for the same reasons.

    Now we're really close to converging on what I thought Matt was saying originally: I've been wondering if the social expectations of races (finishing status, finishing times), including things like wondering about judgment, praise, or criticism, and the short window of opportunity (race day) end up working sometimes against the mountain ethos and freedom from social pressure that we're looking for.

  7. Mike, good question. That is what I was originally saying, I think. That might be a better "distinction" here of how "the race" affects (undermines) the bigger mountain ethos (ala John Muir); I don't see the distinction between what Reuss or McCandless did and what a tough 100 miler does.

    Mountain racing has established its own ethos it's own ethical dialect (so to speak ;) so these social expectations, the wondering about judgment, etc. are reconciled under that culture's values.

    Good stuff. Thanks!

  8. Wait, that last line of the 1st paragraph didn't really jive with what we're saying.

    Racing can conflict with "the adventure."
    But the conflict is reconciled because mountain racing is such a natural extension of the adventurer's character. So, the distinction is, in effect, blurred to the point of being non-existent.

    I smell a nice run and a cold beer coming-up later today.


    And how about those Schlecks and that grinder from down under?!

  9. I think there's a weird stigma being at the top of the food chain. We find our own ways to suffer. Perhaps the suffering that a gazelle has at the paws and jaws of a cheetah has a euphoric ending?
    Andy Schleck suffered today, but not as much as he'll suffer tomorrow. The more he suffers the better he'll feel on Sunday. Euphoria.
    Rick M