Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Finding Your Greatness

"For what is the best choice, for each individual is the highest it is possible for him to achieve."  ~ Aristotle

What is "greatness"? What is "excellence"? Is there some absolute standard that applies for all people at all times, or is it a relative thing?

I think it's both absolute and relative in the Aristotelian sense of individual non-relative excellence. How about that for confusing?? Eh?

Runners can get caught up in the numbers - the measuring - and remeasuring of one's self against others. We log on to Dailymile, we post our runs on Facebook - we yearn for community and support, and we reach out to others who are just like us - runners. We compare, we contrast, we compete, we congratulate, we cajole...This may serve to fuel our drive and passion. This may bring with it personal greatness. Or it may make us feel like we don't, and never can, measure up to some standard that seems to remain forever out of reach.

But what does "excellence" mean? For Aristotle "excellence" requires functioning well as a human being. Our excellence as humans is reasoning well and participating well as a social and political beings. That's what we do better than anything else, and so, we function best when we do these things well. Then, and only then, are we excellent human beings

And excellent human being exercise the virtues - Virtues being those admirable characteristics that suffer neither deficiency nor excess. So 'courage' is a mean of action where one feels just the right amount of fear, not too much and not too little. But here's the catch with courage - THE courageous act in any situation is not the same for everyone.

Let's suppose you are standing on the beach. The surf is rough and dark, menacing waves roll in fast and furious. You see someone flailing about in the water. You don't know how to swim. Should you attempt to save the person? Well, given YOUR ability, it would be foolhardy of you to wade in after the drowning swimmer. Likewise, it would also be cowardly to simply run away in fear or become hysterical. In this situation you have to ask: What is the rational thing to do given the situation and MY abilities? Now let's suppose that you are an experienced swimmer and a certified Life Guard. This situation is importantly different because YOU are different. Each one of us has A 'mean of action' - an absolute that is relative to each of us - but that mean varies from person to person depending on the person - their physical skills and strength, their experience, even their physical make-up. For instance, two trained swimmers, one 100lbs and one 200lbs, might have a different mean of action.

So what does this have to do with finding your greatness? Well, your greatness is your own. Your greatness is where you push yourself, given your particular situation - not compared to someone else. I may not run a 2:20 marathon, but I'm still out there pounding the pavement at 4:30 a.m. I still wake-up and drag myself out of bed while the rest of the house quietly sleeps. I still push myself onward as my muscles cramp up with fatigue and pain. Why? Because something in me will not settle for less.

Others may call me a glorified jogger. They may make thoughtless, disparaging comments. They may not even be aware of how deep these seemingly innocent comments can cut. I could just throw my arms up in disgust and resignation, and say "What's the point of all of this? I'm never going to be great! I'm never going to be the best!"  But down even deeper, deeper than anyone can cut me, I know that this matters for me and my life. I need to shut out all the naysayers, all the belittlers, all the people who tell me that what I hold as important is silly and pointless. This is my life.

I may never be GREAT in the absolute sense, but then that kind of human greatness may never exist - Rather, this life is about each of us reaching for and discovering out OWN limits - our own greatness. I can admire the greatest athletes and all those who are faster and stronger and more skilled than me. But I am my own person - and my greatness is in my hands alone and is completely independent of the achievements of others. If only we could each embrace this instead of forever being dragged down by those who just don't get it.

Because the fact is - this is all about YOU - this life is what you have. Make it great.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Strange, Surreal, and Scary Adventures: Tales from a 20 Mile Run

There's always adventures to be had on a 20 mile run. It does not matter that you've run this route a thousand times. Every run is different.

Some adventures are good, some adventures are not so good. This is the tale of my adventures on one 20 mile run, on one day in July.


It's 5:05 a.m. It's still dark outside. I head out for a 20 miler. It's quiet all around as I search blindly for my footing. The miles tick off as the sun rises and the air begins to warm quickly. 10 miles in, I'm on a quiet dirt road up just above a valley north of Boulder. Houses here are few and far between. I look across green fields dotted with cows and hay bales. It's picture perfect.  I can practically see my house across the valley quietly sleeping 10 miles away (I can actually see the tall pine tree in my next door neighbor's yard). I hear a Wood Thrush, my absolute favorite bird song. It's about 6:30 a.m. now.

As I round a curve, a 1990s vintage dark blue Saturn wagon careens around a tight turn followed by a billowing cloud of dust, fishtailing slightly on the loose gravel road. The driver sees me but doesn't slow down. I make a "slow down" gesture with my hand, stepping off the road just in case he losses it and then continue on as he passes me. I'm grumbling a bit.

Then I hear the skid of wheels on gravel as he comes to an abrupt stop. He slams the shifter into reverse and winds it out backing towards me. All I have time to say to myself is "Oh, crap" and start sprinting away up a steep hill in the direction of the closest house. When I am about 30 feet from the driveway, he stops and gets out of his car screaming obscenities at me : "You f-ing bitch - the f-ing speed limit is 30 mph." and he continues screaming at me for several minutes (the speed limit through the turns is actually 20 mph). Realizing he's stopped the car, I stop and turn to him and reply "Sorry, but you scared me!" - which precipitates another barrage of obscenities.

As his verbal assault continues, I move on, through a now surreal feeling world behind a fuzzy scrim of adrenaline and anger and confusion and disgust. Where is my Wood Thrush to bring me back?

A couple miles on, I pass a man, weaving across the road wearing a wool cap with ear flaps, a down coat, long dark pants and heavy hiking boots. It's at least 80 degrees at this point. What could he be up to? It can't be Badwater training since that was this week. He yells, "Go pink" (I'm wearing pink shorts and shoes). Weirdness.

I turn onto a road popular with cyclists and they are everywhere and moving fast and furious. Surprisingly, they all graciously give me space, except for one, around mile 16, who is checking his cell phone and I swear he's texting (on a bike!). He looks up, surprised, just as he gets to me and swerves around me! Whew.

I hop onto the Niwot Loop Trail - From here to my house I'm pretty much entirely on trails, and I feel strangely relieved to get off the (crazy) roads. 

I spot up ahead on the path two people, a man and a woman, each holding a little dog on extend-o-leashes. One is yipping non stop at me as I approach, his little front feet popping off the ground with every energetic yip. The woman holding the little beast continues chatting with her companion, looking occasionally in my direction. As I get closer she does not reel the dog in and of course the dog goes for me. Now, I have a sizable and very visible 10 year old scar across my lower leg from a nylon extend-o-leash cutting through my flesh attached to an out of control dog trying to kill my dog. So, I stop. She weakly apologizes. I note that she saw me a quarter mile away. All I say is; "That really isn't very nice". I want to kick her, not her dog.

As I move on I now see waves of runners moving along the trail in my direction. Two women pass, and I know one from BoldRunning, a training group I'm familiar with. We high-five each other. Okay, I'm coming back. Thank you Kelly. Then I see others. Friendly waves and "Hi Caolan"s further pull away the surreal scrim thrown in front of me by the A-hole in the blue Saturn - and when I get home, I am back.

And it was a good run. And I am changed by the experience. Every run is an adventure, and every run changes you in some way.


Road rage: I've written on this many times. It infuriates me. It scares me. I have a 'thing' about road rage and it's more insidious twin - passive aggression - and today it happened again - but this time I didn't just get angry, this time I was scared - very, very scared.

Perhaps my anxious meter was running high after yesterday's shooting. But I didn't feel anxious. I've been fairly stubborn about not taking a phone with me on runs. I like to run without technology. I like to run away from the world, for just a bit. But my mind has been changed on this. I hate that I have to be concerned about people messing with me. It's just not fair.

I called the state police to report the incident. I didn't get the plate number, so there's not much that can be done, but I did want a report on record. I will continue to run in this area because I love it. But today he changed my feelings about that place. Over time that may fade a bit but it will always be there.

And that's just part of running and being out in the world and bravely doing what you need to do to be happy.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Where Is The Love?

Okay, this post isn't really about running, but this blog isn't just about running - Sometimes it's about the things I think about while I'm running...and today the thoughts are anxious, angry, frustrated...

Another mass shooting in America. Children, sitting in a movie theater watching "Batman", are senselessly gunned down in Aurora, Colorado...And again we are up-in-arms about it. How can this happen?? We all wonder. And we remain upset for a while until the dust settles and a little time passes and then we slip back into our comfortable complacency - until the the next horror is unveiled on the TV news.

What horrifies me even more with each new incident is the call to arms from my fellow country-people. Again, some trot out the old National Rifle Association nonsense: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people". That may be technically true, but the correlation between gun ownership and gun deaths is statistically suspicious at best. Many in the US believe that if we are all armed then violent crime will drop and we will be able to defend ourselves against these attacks.

But I just keep coming back to the question: Do I want to live in a world where everyone around me is packing heat? Will that make me feel safer? Will I FEEL safer if I were to carry a gun?  Will I BE safer?

I think about this occasionally as I run down a deserted country road as the sun rises above the horizon. Does that guy driving by have a gun? I think about this as my daughter goes over to a friend's house to play. Are there guns in that house?

It seems to make intuitive sense to claim that criminals are less likely to commit crimes if they believe others are armed and able to respond with deadly force, but the data doesn't support this view. Unfortunately crazy people are rarely thinking rationally about consequences. And the idea that you can respond to a homicidal-suicidal gunman cranking out rounds from an assault rifle with a handgun is equally nuts.

Instead, the data shows that those countries with the strongest restrictions on gun ownership and/or gun ownership at a lower percentage per household - have the lowest incidents of gun related violence.

But we do have a chicken-and-egg problem here - because so many factors influence the data. Perhaps it's just our U.S. "gun culture" that explains both the high rate of gun ownership AND the high rate of gun deaths.

In the 2008 New York Times essay, Gun Laws and Crime: A Complex Relationship By Adam Liptak it is noted that the causal relation is hard to firmly identify:
Many criminologists say cultural, economic and demographic factors play a big role in murder rates, and some say the number of guns and the number of murders may well be uncorrelated.
The murder rate in the United States, in any event, is higher yet — 5.7 per 100,000 people in 2006, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2005, according to the Justice Department, 55 percent of homicides were committed with a handgun and 16 percent with another kind of gun. 
Correlation or not, the United States is a special case, Nicholas Johnson, a Fordham law professor, said in an e-mail message. “Our culture of armed civilians is unparalleled in the history of the world,” he said. “According to the high estimate, there is a gun in every other American home.”
Most experts agree that at the very least more stringent background checks will decrease the number of gun deaths (states with background checks have lower rates of gun deaths). In the 2008 NYT essay Gary Kleck, a professor at Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, points out that:
“Background checks in general at the state level did show lower homicide rates. I’d improve the enforcement of laws against unlicensed carrying of guns in public places.”
Americans should be doing some deep soul searching that doesn't end as time mellows the outrage we feel today. We should be asking ourselves and those around us: Why is this happening here? What is wrong with this culture? Why have we become such a divided country? Why is there so much anger and aggression floating around?

So how can I somehow tie this in with running? Well, this may sound like a stretch but I truly believe that people are happier and more more at peace with those around them when they run (I've said this before) - outside, though the world, in nature... through their towns, cities, communities. My feelings about my community are intimate and intense partly due to the fact that I run through this place everyday - past houses and people leaving for work...greeting children waiting for school buses... Waving to the regular walkers and runners I see daily, though I do not know their names. These people are part of my world and I am part of theirs. In so many ways we have cut ourselves off from those around us - we're scared to go outside, we're scared to greet a stranger - We walk from house-to-car, close the car, shut out the world and drive off safely sealed away from all those people out there.

So, as with many things, I think if more people got outside and ran and walked and waved to their neighbors and stopped to chat from time to time then things might get better. Is that simplistic? Yes. But there seems to be a lot of anger and frustration floating around out there, and I'd wager a fair sum that runners are less angry and frustrated than most.

Ultimately the question comes down to: What sort of life do we want for ourselves and for our children? Do we really want to walk around, run around, always carrying a gun...knowing that others are carrying guns. I know that I don't. We cannot continue down the path we are currently traveling.

Go for a run and greet a stranger with a smile and a friendly 'hello'.


Gun Deaths - International Comparisons  

Showing latest available data.

Rank   Countries  Amount 
# 1     South Africa: 31,918 
# 2     Colombia: 21,898 
# 3     Thailand: 20,032 
# 4     United States: 9,369 
# 5     Philippines: 7,708 
# 6     Mexico: 2,606 
# 7     Slovakia: 2,356 
# 8     El Salvador: 1,441 
# 9     Zimbabwe: 598 
# 10     Peru: 442 
# 11     Germany: 269 
# 12     Czech Republic: 181 
# 13     Ukraine: 173 
# 14     Canada: 144 
# 15     Albania: 135 
# 16     Costa Rica: 131 
# 17     Azerbaijan: 120 
# 18     Poland: 111 
# 19     Uruguay: 109 
# 20     Spain: 97 
# 21     Portugal: 90 
# 22     Croatia: 76 
# 23     Switzerland: 68 
# 24     Bulgaria: 63 
# 25     Australia: 59 
# 26     Sweden: 58 
# 27     Bolivia: 52 
# 28     Japan: 47 
# 29     Slovenia: 39 
= 30     Belarus: 38 
= 30     Hungary: 38 
# 32     Latvia: 28 
# 33     Burma: 27 
# 34     Macedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of: 26 
# 35     Austria: 25 
# 36     Estonia: 21 
# 37     Moldova: 20 
# 38     Lithuania: 16 
= 39     United Kingdom: 14 
= 39     Denmark: 14 
# 41     Ireland: 12 
# 42     New Zealand: 10 
# 43     Chile:
# 44     Cyprus:
# 45     Morocco:
= 46     Oman:
= 46     Luxembourg:
= 46     Iceland:
Total: 100,693  
Weighted average: 2,097.8  

DEFINITION: Total recorded intentional homicides committed with a firearm. Crime statistics are often better indicators of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report crime, than actual prevalence.

SOURCE: The Eighth United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (2002) (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention)

Everyone Seems to be Looking for "Motivation"...

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