Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tale of Two Books

When I used to skydive, we had a nickname for those non-skydivers who didn't really understand the lifestyle of those of us who lived to jump out of airplanes 12,000 feet in the air. We called them "Whuffos", as in "Wha-fo' you want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?" (there's no such thing as a perfectly good airplane, but I digress). It's a good question, and one that any sports nut or extreme athlete considers at times. Of course it's a question you get asked, whether it's "Wha-fo' you want to swim 2 and a half miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon?" or "Wha-fo' you want to climb that mountain?" but it's also a question you ask yourself. Often in the darkest moments of self-induced athletic torture, say at the infamous mile 21 of the marathon, you have undoubtably asked yourself something along the lines of "Why the hell am I doing this???" Usually, your brain is too fogged over to come up with any kind of meaningful answer in the moment, but the next time you sign up, the question remains.

Two autobiographical books that chronicle the different adventures of very different athletic extremists are Ultra Marathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes, and Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest by Lincoln Hall. Both of them take on this question of Why as they tell their stories of pushing themselves to the edge of human endeavor.

Of the two, I really enjoyed Dead Lucky a lot. For one thing, Lincoln Hall, though one of the world's top mountain climbers is an incredibly centered and introspective human. His Buddhist practices show through in the way he steadfastedly refuses to pass judgement on himself or on the actions of others. In this way, he is able to show us clearly through his own eyes, his amazing ordeal on Mt. Everest. After a successful summit attempt, he experienced mounting confusion (probably associated with cerebral edema, a not uncommon side effect of extreme elevations) and despite the valiant attempt of sherpas to get him down the mountain, he was eventually left for dead only a thousand feet below the summit. Climbers the next day were amazed to find him still alive, and his rescue and eventual recovery (minus some fingers and toes) make for a compelling story.

One of my favorite quotes:
Of course, all mountain landscapes are immutable and emotionless. There is a purity that exists in the absence of life there, and perhaps it is to make that beauty a part of ourselves that we climb mountains. Looking from afar is not enough. As climbers, we need to sacrifice or comfort, our safety, and arguably our sanity, as a tithe to the mountain. But no matter what homage we pay, we are the losers, spurned in love. A summit reached can be a one-night stand, big on experience but empty of meaning -- except to our egos. We need the mountains, but the mountains do not need us.

He also explains very well that feeling of rapture, often described as a "runner's high" that happens to many athletes when pushing their bodies and minds the furthest:

I had experienced thi kind of connection to a world beyond oneself on the hardest of mountains, when danger had put all of my senses on red alert. Afterward, as I descended from the last of the snow and steep rock, my senses remained tuned to the present moment. The sounds were more insistent, the colors were brighter, and my eyes seemed to take in everything around me without my mind asking them to look. It was an extraordinary feeling -- one of the reasons I climb.

I liked UltraMarathon Man a lot less, though there were moments of humor and insight. Though in many ways, the forces that drive someone to run 200 straight miles and the forces that compell them to climb the world's tallest mountain might seem similar, Dean Karnazes seems a lot more ego-driven and it shows in his writing. Not two paragraphs into the book, we're treated with "At less than 5 percent body fat, my body is ripped like a prizefighter's", a fact that he manages to repeat several more times throughout the text.

The quality of writing is also on a lower scale, with prose like "The night air was dry and fresh... I was able to enjoy the tranquility of the surroundings. It was a rare moment of serenity in an otherwise frenetic life."

The most interesting part of the book for me was the descriptions of the Western States Endurance Run, which I'd never heard of (probably like many folks). The course sounds intense and brutal, and the elevation chart in the text comparing it to the Boston Marathon is highly entertaining. However, some exaggeration on the part of the author lets skepticism sneak in to the reading of the rest of the pages. He ought to know better than to type something about his shoes falling off and shirt "dangling by threads" only to be followed with an actual photo of him at the finish with all clothing miraculously intact.

All in all, it's a quick read and with some interesting bits (the South Pole marathon is one of them) but overall the author's smug tone and continuous self-praise ("Sure I'm ripped, but it's not for the sake of vanity" is one gem) gets tiring after a while. Though ultra-endurance sports are appealing to me, this book sadly was not.

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