Month: July 2018

AVOIDING SUMMER CHORES

For all the attention the spring and fall marathons attract, there is a red, white, and blue, freshly mown grass quality to the U.S. summer road circuit, something purely American akin to Broadway musicals like The Music Man and Oklahoma! 

Mighty Mississippi River flowing south past Bettendorf, Iowa

Last weekend was the quintessentially Mid-American Quad City Times Bix 7 Road Race in Davenport, Iowa, celebrating its 44th anniversary. During my 26th year at the Bix, I was brought back once again to the charms of that great rolling land with its open , friendly faces, wide front lawns, and the smell of freshly mown grass. It is a deeply seeded memory anchored in my own Midwestern upbringing down the Mississippi River in St. Louis.

But just as dearly as I loved the loamy fragrance of a freshly cut lawn, even more did I hate the chore that brought it about.  But since most parents in those less-child-centric times still ruled with an unbending hand and believed in the Emersonian qualities of hard work, I was forced on many occasions into action not of my choosing with implements of yard work in my bony little hands.

This dichotomy, then, between parental will and my own private interests became the motivation that led me to a system whereby my desire not to do such things as yard work would supersede their need for my household contributions.  I found it to be a design for a mostly chore-free childhood existence.  I’ll explain. (more…)

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“IT’S GOTTA BE DA SHOES”

Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon

In his classic Nike ads from a generation ago, Spike Lee (as Mars Blackmon) asked Michael Jordan what made him the best basketball player in the universe. Was it the vicious dunks?  The long shorts? The short socks?  

“No Mars, “ replied MJ. 

“Money, it’s gotta be da shoes!”

I have never written a shoe review in my life, but how can shoes not be an issue in a sport where footwear is the only equipment used?  Like tires on a car, shoes are where rubber meets the road/track in foot racing.

If the kicks weren’t so important. why has every shoe company continued designing and experimenting for the last 50 years?  Obviously, marketing is one answer, but there is always more to learn, more performance to squeeze out. Not that a new pair of Air Jordans will make you approximate Mr. Jordan on the court, but in the realm of performance, the small difference is where the money gets divided. Which makes new strides in technology open to new rules in governing. Which, in turn, illustrates why a shoe company sponsorship of a governing organization eventually leads to conflicts of interest both unwanted and unneeded in a time when the integrity of the sport has been called into question over and over again.

So, say, someone goes out and breaks the women’s steeplechase world record by eight seconds, but does so like she were taking the pet terrier out for a walk in the park, and instead of unalloyed encomiums, inevitably some will say, “Whoa! That sure looked easy!”  That’s how you know a sport has a PR issue, when a great performance raises red flags rather than simply goosebumps, and the big, red carpet sports awards show (ESPYs) doesn’t even take note of two of the historic American marathon performances in 30+ years.   (more…)

MIND OVER MATTER

Foot racing is both a simple and complex proposition.  Simple in the sense of one foot in front of another from a set starting point to a fixed finish line, first in wins.  Yet it is also a complex set of physical, emotional, and psychological interactions, both within the individual athlete and externally among opponents, that produces the outcome.

When asked about a racing effort, Kenyan athletes will often say, “my body did not (or did) respond” in explaining their experience.  To some, this comes across as oddly detached.  What do you mean, “ my body didn’t respond?  Why not just say “I didn’t perform?”

Maybe it’s a simple as language, say, the way American English and British English differ in terms like bonnet (in the U.S. it’s a woman’s hat, for the Brits, the hood of a car).  But it’s more than that.

I have found that for Kenyan athletes, me, my body, and my performance are all quite distinctive, in the same sense that an opera singer sees his/her voice as a distinctive instrument rather than an extension of self. Though contained within, it is not one and the same as that which constitutes ME. 

This distinction mirrors Rene Descartes’ philosophy of “mind-body dualism” that argues that the nature of the mind is completely different from that of the body, and therefore it is possible for one to exist outside the context of the other. In racing terms, it is one thing to come up with a race strategy and quite another to successfully carry it out. Therefore, “my body did/did not respond” perfectly explains this duality.

This argument also gives rise to the famous problem of mind-body causal interaction which remains a hot topic of debate.  Since the mind is the cause agent for the body’s functions – right let, left leg, breathe in, breathe out – how can the body cause sensations in the mind when their natures are completely different?  To which runners might answer, ever hear of endorphins?

Yes, there are times when your legs actually tell you what to do, almost like they had a mind of their own.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does the feeling is that of riding on auto pilot, what athletes call being “in the zone”, or “flow state“. 

We bring all that we are – mind and body – to the race course, and what we produce on the day sometimes works in unanimity, and other times does not.  Meaning all we can manage is the effort and the response to competition. For the most part, the mind is the willful agency as we push our sorry ass forward despite the discomfort being experienced by the body.  It is a learned response, this willful act that makes the body to perform beyond its base intentions. This is how champions are decided and individual moments of grace are achieved on race day.

Here’s hoping everyone gets to experience being “in the zone” sometime this summer. 

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WHAT IF WORLD CUP…

As I watch World Cup quarterfinal action from Russia, I can’t help but think how well an American team comprised of all the great NFL slot receivers or running backs, or someone like Julio Jones the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver, would do – given that they grew up playing futbol instead of American football.

Or think if you put NBA center Anthony Davis in goal? Imagine trying to score on that level of athleticism in that outsized body. 

I suggested the same thing before regarding athletics, in that the very best athletes in the USA don’t play futbol as they do in almost every other nation except China, which is also missing from World Cup action.  (more…)