Tuesday, May 16, 2006

David Blaine, Ultrarunning, and the Meaning of Endurance

I recently happened upon magician David Blaine's primetime television spectacle, during which he attempted to break the world record for submerged breath holding after having lived for a week in a water filled glass sphere. It is easy to dismiss Blaine as a huckster showman, a wannabe noveau-Houdini, which he readily admits to being. Yet, despite the veneer of self-promotion, I believe there are more layers to a man like Blaine. I've had some interest in him for years, even perusing his book "Mysterious Stranger" at one point. A street magician and illusionist, it's not these skills that interest me, but rather his feats of endurance and will where nothing traditionally magical enters the equation, just pure human spirit.

Blaine asks us to look into ourselves to find our perceived limits, assess if those limits are real or artificial and then make a decision to accept them or seek something beyond the artificial horizon of self-doubt.

Ultrarunning asks some of us the same questions. Why run 50, 100, or more miles in a single shot? Has not evolution eliminated the need for modern man to cover long distances on foot? Yes, as a utilitarian enterprise, there isn't a lot of discernible merit to distance running, living underwater for a week, free diving to almost unfathomable depths, being encased in ice for two days, or myriad other "crazy" human enterprises; and still such endurance certainly holds the potential to redefine what we are capable of.

I sometimes observe the look on a person's face when it's made known my desire to distance run (although the info is usually given grudgingly). Consternation is often the response. Is it perhaps natural to want to jump back from the cliff? To mock or be horrified by something so far outside our perceived comfort zone that the mere notion shellshocks our supposedly civilized sensibilities? The anarchist in me says to hell with such sensibility.

A few years ago I was vacationing in Colorado on a hike up in Yankee Boy Basin and struck up a conversation with an outdoorsy looking younger gentleman and a retired couple. The young man pointed up to an exposed rock face about 1500 feet above where we stood and told us that the previous winter he'd watched two skiers descend that vertical drop into the basin, to the which the older guy displayed not only shock but an intensely hateful response something to the words of "What crazy sons of bitches, they deserved to die for being so stupid." Why the vitriol? Jealousy? Fear? Perhaps the unwillingness to acknowledge that some humans push boundaries he'd never so much as considered.

One of David Blaine's stunts was to be suspended over the Thames River for 44 days, during which time many folks came by to taunt him with profanity or throw objects at him, proving yet again that some us truly do hate people or concepts we don't understand. But not I! My inclination is to attempt to embrace what I don't or seemingly cannot understand, that which may detonate my bodily and psychological security. I will run 100 miles!

The beautiful thing about endurance as a mode for exploration is that it unlocks the potential we have to go deep into our internal realms, to face down the shadows of being. That old guy in the mountains, I would wager, has spent a lifetime turning from his shadows. To house it in the running vernacular I shouldn't say that 5k runners are less enlightened (ok, maybe I should an am) but yes, sometimes speed is sex and distance is true love.

In our era of Mountain Dew fueled X-gaming, extreme just about anything, hell you can buy "x-treme" deodorant for lawd's sake, the heart of endurance still offers a gentle beat and a place for contemplative self-awareness. Free diver, Paul Kotnik puts it like this:

"I saw, for the first time, an approach to aquatics that is diametrically opposed to the heart pounding, blood curdling, white knuckle, hair-raising adrenalism of my windsurfing co-conspirators. My instructors mindset was one of...alert serenity. Everyone I'd ever known approached windsurfing or spearfishing as if he was going to war. They (instructors) were going to peace."

And so do Blaine, the ultrarunners, the thru hikers, those who endure embrace the calm found in another kind of extreme--the extreme effort that contacts all levels of being.

On my so small stage, I too will keep seeking the serenity just waiting to be discovered in the soft soul of endurance--to move toward peace.


Sarah said...

I love your quote: "....the heart of endurance still offers a gentle beat and a place for contemplative self-awareness." Its what I'm striving for. Thanks for putting it into words for me!

dirt_trail_runner said...

thanks, sarah! nice blog, i put a link up. good luck with your running. jason

angie's pink fuzzy said...

how beautifully written!