Monkeys, Maize, and Marathons --M. Carroll (original May 2010)

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.

Twenty miles into the “Forget the P.R.” 50K I knew that I was into uncharted territory. I knew it and my buddy Luc knew it too. He was standing at the covered bridge aid station and, when he saw me, he gave me a startled look that might have meant “Kudos to you my friend. You are running well and I see that on this fine day your years of training have paid off handsomely and your ship has come in”. Then again, the look might have meant “You have screwed the pooch this time buddy. You went out to fast. You know it, I know it, and the 18 calories worth of glycogen remaining in your liver know it as well. Have fun on the climb to the fire tower”.

The reason they build covered bridges is to cross rivers. They tend to locate rivers in low lying areas, such as river beds. The reason for fire towers is to spot fires. They tend to place fire towers in the highest spot possible so’s a person can scan a lot of ground at once. Race director Rob Powell is a nice enough fellow and I’m sure that his decision to run us from the lowest spot in the park to the highest spot in the park in just over two miles was a simple oversight at best, and latent malevolence at worst. He would never intentionally try to hurt a person.

At least that’s what I thought when I started the climb.

Twenty five minutes later I crested the last part of the hill and found Rob, whooping, hollering, and doing his best impersonation of a 1970’s track coach, pointing to his stopwatch and howling for greater effort. Rob likes to give his racer’s their money’s worth and today he was holding his own Blue Light Special on lactic acid…and loving it! I felt like my head was going to explode. But it didn’t. And I felt like my legs would seize up, but they didn’t. Instead I took an enormous gulp of air, ran past the aid station (surely Terri wouldn’t stop here and so neither would I; I didn’t want to let my species down) and automatically switched the quads from concentric contractions to eccentric contractions as we began the long, winding, swoop back down the hill to the bridge. Throughout this section I tried to get myself to forget that I could not do this. The idea that I could not run this hard and get away with it wasn’t negativity; it was an historical fact. It was 53 degrees and I had never been able to do this. Both of those were facts.

Actually I love the run from the bridge to the fire tower. I like it even better when we run it in reverse and have a long downhill on which to recover and chat. I remember running this section during the Mohican 100 mile run in 1997 with a good friend of mine who was and is a recovering alcoholic. My friend told me some pretty harrowing stories of his life of addiction. When I asked him if he thought that maybe he had traded one addiction for another by becoming an ultra runner he paused for a long while and then told me that he didn’t think that it was that simple. He told me that he had become an alcoholic for reasons that no longer mattered to him. He also told me that the act of transforming himself from an alcoholic into something different, anything different, forced him to create a skill set that he had used to morph into a Christian, and a better son, and a caring lover, and a runner.

Over the years I have noticed that the participants in our sport skew toward individuals who have lived difficult and troubled pasts. Others have noticed this as well. I once read the work of a theorist who believed that depressed personality types self-select into endurance sports for the endorphins they provide. Other theorists paint this picture in a more positive light; they believe that perhaps endurance athletes achieve a state of Zen or an inner peacefulness through the act of running. I heard ultra running once compared to the act of self flagellation...the claim was made that we are masochists.

I’d like to suggest that my fiend came closer to the truth. I like to believe that possibly the reason that our sport is populated by a higher than normal percentage of individuals who have experienced psychosocial challenges is because these individuals have mastered the art of change. Darwin said that the species that survive are those that adapt best to change. Why then, shouldn’t survival sports be populated with change artists? And why shouldn’t those who have experienced stress also be among the best users of stress as a change agent?

Stress IS a change agent in organisms you know. I wrote the following paragraph in a very old and boring posting that no one ever read, here it is again:

In the body, stress is needed for growth. Without stress there is the opposite of growth; atrophy. As tissues are stressed, an inflammatory reaction occurs which leads to environmental changes including increased temperature, a lack of blood flow to the affected area, a buildup of damaging acids, an accumulation of waste products, and a lack of oxygen. This environment, though unpleasant, does have beneficial side effects. If the body is stressed, cells called osteoblasts spring into action and repair an area using collagen; a bony material which makes the tissue stronger. Osteoblasts only function in a hot, acidic, low oxygen environment and so stress is always needed to strengthen tissues. There is no growth without inflammation and no inflammation without stress. The next time the tissue is stressed it takes more stress to cause the area to become inflamed because the body is now stronger and more stress resistant. Continued mild stress applied to tissue being repaired causes it to form itself to new job demands. This process is known as remodeling. It’s a great system.

I wrote it then and I’ll write it again now: It is a great system. And I believe that it works not only for tissues but, metaphorically, for the mind and the soul as well.

The final mile of the “Forget the P.R.” race turns cruel. I arrived at the base of the North Rim Trail nearly 40 minutes ahead of my predicted time. Even though the race leaders finished over 4 miles ahead of me I was having the race of my life….all I had to do was keep it ‘rubber side down’, and I managed to. But the last mile of the race brought cramps into my inner thighs that felt like high voltage electrical shocks, my balance was thrown off and I repeatedly stumbled over rocks and tree roots. I had absolutely nothing left. None of it mattered, of course. I slowed to a crawl, lost a minute or so, and met a smiling Rob Powell at the finish for a hug.

The immediate joy of the finish line remained, but was soon accompanied by a realization that my race, as strong as it had been by my standards, showed a need for growth and change before I could expect to finish the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run in two months. I would need to become patient; no more howling nasty words into the woods about poor old Rob Powell when I become tired of the hills. I would need to take care of the details; no running 12 miles with a rock in my shoe. That sort of thing produces bloody socks in a 100 miler. And I would need to learn to handle the slow trickle of poison that my body would produce better than I had in the 50K. Dehydration, low blood sugar, and swinging blood pressures make for a good post-race story when they happen in the final miles of a 50K but they make for sober sounding excuses when told by a runner seated in the back of an ambulance at a 100 miler.

My long winter runs with Terri had turned me into a better 50K runner. And I now need to leave those skills behind and change again if I am going to survive those same trails in June.

That’s OK though. I can change. I know that I can.

I have been asked to change so many times, and in so many areas of my life, that at times I can almost forget what my old life was like. I might be stronger and I might be weaker. I’m probably a bit of both I suppose. But one thing is certain. I’m here. I’m not extinct. I’m alive because I have been given a gift that allows me to change and to adapt. It is a gift that is so unique to us that I wonder if God even needed to warm up to the idea.

The Old Testament is chock full of stories of God telling us what to do. In the stories we routinely DIDN’T obey him, and then we were punished. And God didn’t mess around either. We aren’t talking about getting grounded or not being allowed to watch TV. We are talking plagues, boils, locusts, floods. And still we didn’t learn. God doesn’t seem to operate this way anymore.

This is going to sound blasphemous but I like to think that maybe God didn’t understand us.

Maybe God sat up in heaven and realized that we were different. So he took on the form of a man and came down to be with us. And maybe God then realized that being human is hard. After all, God is perfect. This means that everything that God does is Godly, which means that nothing that God ever does is a sin. And that’s absolutely perfect and unchanging…like sweet corn. But the problem is that if God never sinned then this means that maybe God was never tempted. Maybe God didn’t understand envy and greed and lust. Maybe God didn’t understand guilt. Maybe God didn’t understand stress. And if these things are true then God wouldn’t understand how we couldn’t follow VERY SIMPLE ORDERS, no matter how many times he punished us. I like to think that after God became man he understood all of these things. It seems like it. The relationship sure is different than it used to be, at least that how I see it.

So why doesn’t the North Rim Trail get easier after I ask God to allow it to? Why do families break apart if God loves us? Why do healthy young people die horrible deaths and wretched sinners prosper? Where is God at these times? Maybe God is practicing his new sense of empathy. Maybe God is cheering for us and watching us grow, and watching us change.

Maybe God is proud of us.



Posted on April 4, 2015 .