Saturday, May 28, 2011

Freedom - What Does it Mean?

One reason why I love to run is the feeling of freedom it affords me. I slip on my shoes, open my door, and it's me and the world, and nothing gets between us. It doesn't matter where I am: in the country, in the city, in the mountains, at the shore. It doesn't matter what the weather may be: I've run through Nor'easters in Maine, forest fire smoke (not advisable) in Colorado, stifling heat and humidity in New Jersey. I've run through: pregnancy, illness (also not advisable), relationship break-ups, losing a parent, losing a best friend (my first dog), fear, joy, confusion, and utter contentment. Everyday is a different run - a different experience - another piece added to the puzzle of the being I am.

So today as I ran along a quiet trail in Boulder, Colorado on a magnificent, crisp spring morning, I embraced my freedom - and acknowledge how fortunate I am to be able to exercise this freedom.

And then I hear something coming from behind, approaching quickly. I look over my shoulder to see a mountain bike bearing down on me. No warning other than the sound of tires bouncing over the clay-mud rutted trail. I move to the right and the bike moves quickly past. I mention that this is a "no bikes" trail (which is exactly a quarter mile north of a well maintained dirt bike trail that runs exactly parallel to this trail). The biker says, "Oh, sorry". There are signs at every entry point onto this section of the trail system saying "no bikes". And the the rule in Boulder is that it is the responsibility of the biker to know where they may and may not go. I mention to the biker that his behavior is not helping the cause of cyclists hoping to gain more access to City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks trails. This has been an extremely contentious and divisive issue in Boulder. He responds "I'm willing to pay a ticket if I get one. Cars speed, they get tickets, everyone does it." I ask him to slow down if he wants to say something to me, and he does. I run alongside him for about a 1/4 mile as we civilly discuss this issue. I appreciate his civility immensely - this has been a rarity in my experience when dealing with cyclists. However, his arguments are illogical and untenable.

Here's the gist of it: It's okay to do whatever you want as long as you're willing to pay the penalty when and/or if you're caught. He fully accepts that what he is doing is against the law and he's ready to accept the consequences. He uses the analogy of speeding in a car to illustrate his point: First, everyone does it; Second, if you pay your ticket it's all good.

So my question today is: Does one's ability and willingness to pay a fine grant them the right and freedom to do whatever the hell they want to do? Notice, I'm focusing on his second claim because the first claim is blatantly weak.


Well, to begin with, the analogy doesn't work: If you speed and get caught, you get a ticket. If you continue to speed you continue to get tickets, but eventually you lose your license (even if you pay your tickets). And if you continue to drive even without a license, you will be thrown in jail. Paying a fine does not guarantee your right to exercise unlimited freedom. Why? Because in this case your actions effect others. In this country we live in and consent to a social contract - that is, we agree to live in a manner that is mutually beneficial to all. So, for instance, I agree not to kill you as long as you agree not to kill me. This agreement benefits us both. Given the reality that some of us are neither reasonable nor rational, we have laws. Those laws are meant to protect rational members (those who recognize that others have rights) of this social contract from irrational members. Traffic laws are there to protect us. It doesn't matter if everyone does it (which is just not true). It doesn't matter if I'm as rich as Oprah Winfrey. Having the the means and willingness to accept the consequences does not give me absolute (moral) freedom. Absolute freedom results in state of nature or anarchy. And as the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes noted, such a life would no doubt be nasty, brutish, and short.

Now, there seems to be another undercurrent to his argument - which he did not state, though in the spirit of charity I'll entertain another possible angle. That is Civil Disobedience: Let's suppose that bicyclists are unfairly discriminated against - that is: laws are imposed on them that unfairly limit their freedoms.

Martin Luther King Jr. argued against racial segregation laws claiming that discrimination based upon race is unjust. In "Letter From Birmingham Jail" he called for all Americans of good will to break immoral human created laws: "One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the consequence." But, importantly, unjust laws are not unjust merely because I don't like them. (And to clarify: unjust=immoral) I may not like speed limits, but that doesn't make them unjust. According to King there are two criteria useful in determining whether a law is or is not just: It is a law made by the majority/those in power (my addition)and imposed on the minority/those without power, but that law does not apply to the majority/those in power. 2) A law that undermines the human personality (it makes a person feel like a lesser human being). So discrimination based upon race, sex, disability (possibly sexual orientation) qualify based on this criteria. I believe that King's criteria makes a lot of sense.

Do laws limiting trail access for bikes, or dogs, or equestrians, or people in general, qualify as unjust according to this criteria? No. The restrictions apply to all, not some segment of the population. I may be a runner first, but I do also mountain bike. I'm not allowed to bike on those trail, just like everybody else. And those who call themselves cyclists are permitted to use the trails, just not while riding their bikes. Does this law in some way make bikers feel inferior? No. The laws do not condemn bikers as lesser humans. They're aimed at safety and resource/environmental protection. Now, we may dispute the need for such restrictions, but it certainly isn't a case of civil rights being denied, and therefore, breaking the law is not an admirable act of civil disobedience.

So, no matter how charitably I interpret my cycling acquaintance's arguments, they don't work. Freedom is never without limits. My (moral) freedom is always limited by the rights others have to exercise a similar freedom. Freedom should not be available only to those who have the ability to pay for it. And, when freedom and rights are denied in a discriminatory manner, civil disobedience is not only allowed, it is required.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

My Journey to a Boston Qualifier

I spend a restless night at the Marriot listening to the elevator go up and down, up and down, all night long. The digital clock continues clicking though the numbers as the time slowly moves toward 3:45 a.m. - my wake-up time. The Colorado Marathon begins at 6:15 a.m., but you are required to take a bus 17 miles up Poudre Canyon to the start. The last bus leaves at 4:45 a.m. I am wide awake at 3:30 and figure the extra 15 minutes of tossing-and-turning will do me less good then a nice long hot shower. I look up the current weather conditions - it's in the 20s and cloudy with a chance of showers (rain or snow). Light winds - that's good. I shower, I eat my specially formulated pre-run/race super chocolate-chip cookie, I thoroughly enjoy some much needed coffee - and I try to figure out what I should wear and what I should bring, just in case it's raining or snowing. I make my way to the car and drive through the deserted streets of Fort Collins blasting "The Verve" on my stereo. An hour later I am at the start. It is cold. Runners jog around in plastic trash bags, drink one last hot cup of coffee, down a GU, visit the loo...

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I've been running for a long time, but I've really only considered myself a marathoner for, oh, perhaps a year. After all those years of running mostly 10ks to half marathons, I was bitten by and smitten with the marathon. I don't know how, why, or when it happened, but the malady seems to be getting worse with time. When I was younger I was fairly competitive usually winning or placing in my age group at bigger local races, and sometimes even placing overall. But those days are behind me. I'm probably not going to be setting any personal records at this point in my life. But there are still other things I hope to do with my running. One thing is to just keep on running for as long as possible. Another is to run some of the races I've always wanted to run.

When I was 30 I ran my first marathon, the Maine Marathon (1993). I trained for that race in a fairly haphazard manor. This was my first experience with the marathon and I approached it with great respect and low expectations. The morning of that race I drove the half-hour from my apartment to Portland in a torrential downpour. The temperature hovered around freezing. At the start I looked at my (then) boyfriend and said "Well, we'll see how this goes". It continued to rain and blow hard for about 16 miles. I had no idea what my pace was and I didn't have much of a time goal. I just ran. The idea of qualifying for the Boston Marathon occurred to me, but it wasn't something I was particularly invested in. For some reason I believed the qualifying time for my age was 3:30 (I don't think I actually checked on that). As I hit the last mile the proverbial truck fell on my back. My shoes, completely sodden, felt like leaden weights of torture as I made slow progress to the finish. I remember passing people and wondering how it was physically possible to go slower then I was going without going backwards. I crossed the finish in 3:41:20. I believed I had missed the Boston mark by more than 10 minutes. Later I found out that I actually missed it by 20 seconds (3:40 + the 59 sec. grace which was still allowed then). Well, that's a bummer I thought, and let it go. But did I?

I wouldn't run another marathon for 14 years. While I continued running many miles a week, I pretty much stopped racing entirely. I was burned out and my athletic focus became rock climbing. Years later I was recovering from an injury many doctors told me I would never recover from. I remember promising the forces-that-be that if I did manage to recover and run again that I would run a marathon to raise money for a charity. Slowly I began running. After 10 months sitting on the bench, even a mile challenged me more than I ever could have imagined. I had always taken my ability to run long distances for granted. Suddenly I found myself so very grateful for any running I could manage. And I began thinking about the promise I had made. That year I signed up for the Boulder Marathon and raised money on my own for Camfed (Campaign for Female Education). This marathon was a horrible experience. I probably ran it too soon after my recovery, and it was hotter than Hades the day of the race (and the race ran out of water and Gatorade). The last 7 miles were a cramped hobble to the end. I can only compare the experience to child birth without the happy ending. Never again, I proclaimed to all who were willing to listen to my sad tale.

But a few months later I was back - this marathon bug is a sickness. That marathon was so bad I just had to do another one. This time I approached things more methodically - and I wanted to qualify for Boston. One fatal flaw doomed my plan: I went into my training with a case of calf tendinitis hoping it would improve, which of course it did not. I missed the Boston mark by 8 minutes. Now, this was becoming a issue.

Something that initially really didn't matter to me started to matter way too much. This time I had a plan and I trained with that plan in mind. I raced a bunch during my training getting used to running hard when I was tired. I did tempo runs and long runs and VO2 max runs all based upon my target - which was set to be reasonable and conservative. And I had a plan for the race itself. I was determined to stick with it.

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The tuba player plays a somewhat tortured, frozen lipped, National Anthem and the horn sounds. We are off, some still donning plastic bags. The first 17 miles of the Colorado Marathon move down the canyon, a very gentle downhill grade. Everyone is off like a shot. I look at my watch as runners stream effortlessly past me. "No" I tell myself "stick with your plan, don't go with them", and I don't. The first 5 miles feel painfully slow, but I stay on target. I've written my aimed for 6mi, 10mi, 13.1mi, and 20mi splits in ballpoint pen on my arm. I'm a little ahead at mile 6. I back off. A pit stop around 10 miles puts me on pace, and at 13.1 I'm just about spot on. We leave the canyon and head up the one long hill on the course from miles 17 to about 20 - and I feel great! I decide to start pushing it just a bit. I start passing people who flew by me earlier - I look at my watch - I'm still on target. By mile 20 I feel I'm hitting my stride and I start to really push it. This is where the race begins. I focus on my form, on running the tangents, on continuing to drink, - and I stay on pace. The last few miles I push hard and find I'm able to do what I will my body to do. It hurts and it's hard but I can actually do it. At this point many runners are struggling, many are walking, and many are stopping to stretch cramping muscles. There is one other woman running about 100 meters ahead of me, and we're both cruising - passing one person after another - her form looks strong - And in a way I feel we are in this together - I'm running with her not after her. At this point my watch goes blank - a "low battery" message covers my time. I'm on my own. As I approach the final stretch to the finish I look for the clock and push with all I have left.

I cross the finish in 3:53:22 - a Boston Qualifier by 8 minutes. I thank the woman ahead of me for being there and she thanks me for pushing her. We congratulate each other and disappear into the crowd of satisfied, blissfully exhausted runners.

But, now I know I can run a faster marathon...Dang it all...

The Things That Change Us

“The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.” ~ Goethe Sometimes we never "go back" to what we were before....