OM315 - Ultrarunning

This week, Ken and John talk about:

John being a cross-country runner in High School (OM315)

In High School John was in cross-country skiing and for one faithful year he was also in cross-country running, but he was not very good at the latter. He enjoyed being social with the cross-country runners because they are the real wits of the sports world and they tend to be fun! No, not really: They are mostly Scandinavians. At Ken’s school they were light skinny kids who also enjoyed fantasy role playing games. They tend to be quiet, introverted people and for whatever reason John hung out with them socially.

John’s dad was of the opinion that cross-country running was a virtuous sport that would make a young man turn his thoughts to higher pursuits. Adults really do like to see children having a bad time for an extended amount of time! The idea is that there is going to be a lot of this later in life, so let’s model it now in some laboratory conditions.

John’s High School girlfriend was a competitive cross country runner and skier, and socially it did translate into a culture for John because a lot of his friends throughout High School were part of that scene. The small runs were 5K, the long ones 10K. John was not an exceptional runner and he was pretty bad at the first few races, but over the year he was able to stay in the middle-back end of the pack.

John finishing last in his first cross-country race (OM315)

In the first race John ever ran he came last by several minutes. The best runner on the team, Matt Olnes, was coaching him beforehand and told him to get out in front of the pack when the gun goes off because the runners will narrow down to a single track and if you get out in front you will not be stuck behind a bunch of people. John took off like a rabbit, running the JV race, and no-one had ever seen him run before. Pretty soon he was 50 yards ahead of everybody else, way out front!

The crowds on either side were cheering with looks of amazement and John thought that he was the greatest cross-country runner the world has ever seen. Why did he not know that this was his gift? He was sprinting the first quarter mile, but as he came to the half mile point the first runner went past him and by the time he rounded a corner and went up the first hill they overtook him all. There are hills in cross-country races at least in Alaska because all their races were either on golf courses or cross-country ski trails. John limped across the finish line after the school bus had already started its motor. With time he got better, but it was hard for him and it was not his sport!

Ken enjoying the feeling after you stop running (OM315)

Ken has been running Green Lake this summer, which is 3 miles (about a 5K), but then he had to drag himself back up the hill. The best part is how good you feel after you are done and the key to that emotion is the fact that you are not running anymore. You could probably capture that by never running in the first place, but right now he is not attuned to the pleasure of not running yet. John’s longest race was probably 10K and he spent the entire race wishing it was over.

Normal people being able to decide they want to become a runner (OM315)

Ken and John's friend Peter Sagal became a marathon runner in his early 40s and has now written books about it. There is an advantage of being 5’7” when you are getting into it late because it is easier on your knees. 1 in 1000 people in America have run a marathon, which seems like a lot. Ken’s sister did it, and she is a regular person, meaning you can trick your body into running 26.2 miles, but that does not make you a superhero. Although, almost no species on Earth can outrun a human over that distance and you can even outrun most breeds of horse if the race is long enough. You just run it down! A Zebra can beat you for 3 miles, but it can’t beat you for 8 miles.

John injuring his knee at a concert in his youth (OM315)

John screwed up a lot as a young person and he broke every bone in his body. He has torn an ACL in one of his knees and all the meniscus is gone. When he walks around it goes clacke-di-clack. It happened in 1989 at a Grateful Dead concert with Edie Brickell opening at RFK stadium. It was an amazing night and when Edie was done the Dead spent a lot of time getting set up while John was way up in the stands at the back of the stadium, talking to people and getting to know them (He continues the story with a stoner voice, indicating that he was probably not just talking).

All of a sudden dark clouds poured over RFK’s open field and lightning started to strike just when the Dead took the stage, all at the same moment. When you are at a Dead concert you are already pre-disposed to being really ready to trip out, and John decided he had to get to the front. All the people were crowding and John thought he had found a better way: Instead of going down the stairs like all the other people, he was going to fly to the front!

He hurdled over the railing, but it turned out to be the outfield wall and he was 30 feet above the ground and fell like a dumb blob. There were some Hippies on the ground below him and in order not to land on them he had to twist and he completely dislocated his knee and tore his ACL. He took one for the team while those dumb Hippies are probably 60 years old now, living in Baltimore, and having no idea that John suffered the rest of his life on their behalf.

John has not stage dived as a performer when it was his show, but he has stood at the edge of the stage and fallen backwards into the crowd. In the early 1990s he did quite a bit of getting up on stage, running as fast as he could, and then flying out into the crowd.

John being buoyant just the wrong amount, not being able to achieve a state where you enjoy running (OM315)

Swimming is really difficult for John because although he is buoyant like every human, his nose is just under the water and he is struggling to stay up, while other people just happily float along. Ken is less buoyant and has to do a weird arching thing to breathe. Being just 10% more buoyant would be all it takes to float with your mouth above the water. It just takes a difference of 4 inches (10cm) whether or not your nose is under water or above the water.

When it comes to distance running, some people will go: ”Run? Sure! I will run! I will keep running!”, but if John runs to the end of the block he will feel like a rhinoceros, it all hurts and he will beg: ”Please let this be over!” He can't agree with the idea of running for 20 minutes, let alone for 4 hours! He has many friends who do it and they just put their headphones on, go running, and three hours later they have reached that certain state, which is achievable for some people, but not for him.

Ben Gibbart running 100 mile races (OM315)

Ken suggests that running is an inner virtue and runners are better people than he and John are, which is also what John’s dad thought. They can put their mind to it! No, it has to be the shoes!

John is close friends with an ultrarunner, which seems not on brand for him: Ben Gibbard, lead-singer and guitarist of Death Cab for Cutie, who routinely said that whenever he runs into Ken, then Ken will not remember him. Ben had just decided at some point during the last 10 years that he was going to be a runner, but it wasn’t enough and he was going to be a marathoner, then he discovered that this was not enough and he ran a 50K, a 50 miler, a 100 miler and he has done races where you run all night long until the next day, even mountain runs where you are running 100 miles not just across flat pavement.

John has known him for 24 years, they share a lot, they sit and talk, but John has no earthly idea what it is like to be him or to do his thing. It is like if he were an astronaut and John could not relate to it at all. Ben can also throw an 80 mph (130 km/h) fastball, he was a very successful High School baseball pitcher, and for a long time his dream was going into professional baseball, but he didn’t quite make the cut.

KENJR Omnibus Bingo, John’s walk across Europe (OM315)

People who are following along on Facebook are playing KENJR, the famous Omnibus Bingo and when they mention Hitler or other things it allows them to get a Bingo. One of those is John’s walk across Europe. A big part of John’s motivation going into it was something about long-distance ultra travel on foot with your belongings on your back. You can go on a steady, methodical plotting, there is the rhythm of your steps and the time outside where you watch the sun go from one horizon to the other. He thought there was some human wisdom he could unlock in doing that.

It wasn’t just about leaving consumerism behind, but his body would click into a level of enlightenment that you could only attain by going on a great pilgrimage or diaspora, which is something intrinsically human. Ken believes in that! He can’t do it while he is running because he is too busy thinking that he wished he wasn’t running, but just being disconnected from life like sitting in an airplane you have all these ideas you don’t have on the ground.

John talked to people who have studied meditation and have done 10-day silent retreats, and they have described what it is like inside to be wrestling with your different selves. John can absolutely relate to it because in a way he was meditating for 8-10 hours a day on this slow walk. He didn’t bring anything, no Walkman, no camera, no deck of cards, but he just sat and listened to the wind and looked at the tree tops. In a way it was an excruciating experience because he was wearing the hair shirt, asking himself: ”Why are you doing this? This is really fucking hard!” He went so far beyond boring and he was not talking to anybody for months at a time, talking to trees, the wind, and the 14 other people inside his mind.

The one way John could probably relate to ultrarunning is that you could be transported to a place where you are responding to pain in a different way and you are pushing through the pain. Ken definitely has the pride of doing something that is painful, but he never had it transform the discomfort of pain for him. The best he can do is not dwell on it. He never had the moment where it all goes away and you realize that everything is transitory.

John hiking up the Chilkoot trail (OM315)

When John was a kid he was hiking up the Chilkoot trail with his family, which took them 5-6 days. At one point they were waking up in the morning at the top of the pass, boiling water on their little gas stove to make hot cocoa and coffee, and three guys in 1970s running shorts, T-shirts, and with water bottles ran past them on the trail.

John had been wondering why human beings would subject themselves to this over weeks at a time, and these three just ran past them. His mouth was agape! Later one of his cousins confirmed that these guys were running the whole trail of 33 miles (53 km) in a day. When Ken sees people biking uphill he always wonders how they are doing that, or if somebody just tilted the camera.

Ken visiting a ski trail in Montana in summer 2020 (OM315)

During the summer of 2020 Ken was in a ski resort in Montana where you can take a gondola up to the top and then walk down the trail. Lots of kids were mountain biking downhill and hang their bike on the gondola to head back up. Ken was just going to the top, enjoyed the view, and then walked down the trail through the wild flowers, which was a nice way to spend a couple of hours.

They saw a tanned, leathery outdoor family with parents and two little kids running down the trail and Ken’s knees were hurting just looking at them. Ken passed them while the family was eating lunch and later they ran past Ken again. The poor kids were 4-6 years old and the girl was screaming because she had skinned her leg knee-to-ankle while the parents told her to shake it off.

Ken and John not having forced their kids to learn something at early age (OM315)

Both Ken and John have raised their kids by saying: ”Here are these kids that we are now responsible for, we have to keep them fed and clothed and we have to read to them until they can read to themselves”, but neither of them put a violin in their children’s hands when they were three, they didn’t teach them to break dance, they didn’t make little trick North Korean kids out of them, but in hindsight: Why didn’t they? Why didn’t John force her at gunpoint how to play the drums or do something cool so she would make him look like a cool dad?

John does feel like a Yodelayheehoo… he has friends whose kids are incredible skiers at 6-7 years years old because that is what the family does, and he feels bad that he didn’t make his daughter be incredible at something. Maybe it is just that everybody tries and the ones that turn out are the ones whose kids did not kick and scream like Ken’s kids when he suggested them taking weekly piano lessons. Now they are at an age when they rediscover all that stuff they have quit at younger ages. His son is enjoying chess and he will sit down at the piano and play the beginning of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie, but that only works because it was his idea. When it was Ken’s idea, it was: ”No way!”

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