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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

The Truth About the Fact: A Journal of Literary Nonfiction is an international journal committed to the idea that excellence in the art of letters can play a vital role in transforming the planet we share.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

See You Next Fall

If its true that the important moments in life are the ones that take your breath away, then a marathon is about 3 to 5 hours worth of huffing and puffing breathless moments. At mile 23, I told myself I’d never do something so outrageously crazy again. At mile 26.2, collapsed on the ground and with my head in between my knees, I couldn’t wait to sign up for the next one at the first chance I could. They say that a truly profound spiritual experience is like a death of the self… I’m still not certain I know what that means, but I know that after running the LA marathon this last Sunday, I have never felt more dead and more alive at the same time.

Biomechanically speaking, running is technically just a form of controlled falling. Each step is just another break in a repetitious series of forced flings forward into space. One of the largest muscle groups in the human body, the Gluteus muscles (maximus and minimus, also known commonly as "the butt"), are disproportionately enlarged in the humans as compared to other primates for exactly this reason. Based on the laws of physics, it requires a lot of muscle power to keep our elongated torsos straight and upright, and even more to do so in the midst of a controlled fall. Perhaps this is why butts can be a feature of attraction amongst both genders—adaptively, a nice butt is essential to survival.

Most people don’t realize it, but there are multiple features of the human biological arsenal which make it clear that as a species we are designed to be long distance runners. The most inarguable of these is a certain tendon that we have in our necks, one that is found elsewhere in only dogs, wolves, hyenas, horses, and zebras—all of which are species that use long distance running as a method for survival. The tendon keeps our necks stationary over extended periods of exercise. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you put any other type of animal on a treadmill and have them run for half an hour or more, their necks will begin to sway violently and they eventually would collapse from the exhaustion it causes to their brains. To this day, there are some tribes in southern and central Africa that still practice an ancient hunting technique (one which was once practiced by some Native Americans as well), in which the hunters will chase after an antelope, never being able to catch it by speed, but never giving it enough time to rest or drink water, so that within a few hours the animal simply collapses in fatigue and the tribesman have their meal all laid out for them.

Here in Los Angeles, in our “modern” and “civilized” society, it often seems that the concept of running as a matter of survival is something completely foreign and alien to us. If we run at all, its not to get food but to burn off the calories of eating too much food. We may be biologically designed to run, but our culture has somehow managed to get completely separated from our evolutionary past. And yet, the culture of marathon running could be called nothing less than a mass social phenomenon. 25,000 people congregated in Chavez Ravine before the sun had risen this last Sunday, urinating and defecating in the woods just like their primordial ancestors, because the race organizers simply hadn't provided enough port-o-potties to go around. 10,000 years ago, anthropologists estimate that humans roamed an average of 10 miles each day in their hunting/gathering pursuits. Today, in modern Western cities around the world, a teeming throng of people, who as whole probably only average 10 miles per week, psych themselves up to do 26.2 miles all in one fell swoop.

As I found myself staring out at the immeasurable mass of bodies stretching out before me as I ran, I couldn’t help but wonder how this phenomenon was possible in such a sedentary culture. But as I worked through the pain and the agony, and finally the sheer joy of the finish, I came to be aware that in a way, we still do run for our survival. Maybe not biologically, but certainly for a kind of spiritual survival. What makes a marathon unlike any other kind of “race” is that at the end, your time doesn’t really matter—its just about the sheer feat of finishing. By mile 18, you’ve abandoned any last futile attempts to mentally calculate your pace, and your only goal becomes simply putting one foot in front of the other. Past and future melt away, and honestly the prospect of ever reaching a plausible end to it all seems impossible. You simply keep going for the sake of going—you move for the sake of moving. You live for the sake of living.

What is life, after all, if not just one big controlled fall? The specter of death is always off on the horizon, and yet it is always looming right over our shoulder. We are all racing to our graves, no matter if it will be a Prada coffin or a gutter on the side of the road. There are so many varieties of goals along the way there, but what do any of them ultimately count for? At the end of each day, all you can really do is keep putting one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. And maybe along the way you will discover the beauty of the small fragments of the world you get to run past, or the miracle that is in the kindness of others who you bump into during your journey. And maybe, just maybe, when you turn a corner and the end is suddenly in sight, you will be able to smile, and the pain of the journey will have been worth it.

And then you’ll be ready to sign up for the next one.

--Paul Beckwith


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