Friday, June 28, 2013

Authentic experience

I'm working on getting my knee back, and I believe motion is important for this. Swelling went down, but the joint remains partially frozen. Bending hurts. It improves every day, which keeps me optimistic, but progress seems slow for a bashed knee. On Tuesday I successfully coaxed it to spin rotations on Beat's bike trainer, and on Wednesday I went out for a relatively flat road ride. Today I decided to climb a hill — my benchmark, Montebello Road — and I was taken aback by how tough it was. I didn't realize how much I was compensating for my sore left knee by putting all of the power into my right leg. Also, I couldn't stand out of the saddle. Any time I shifted pressure to the left, I got a shot of sharp pain.

So I effectively one-leg climbed in the saddle, and the effect left me feeling like I hadn't ridden a bike up a hill in a year. Like all of my strength had drained away, all of that hard-won fitness smothered by a minor and easily obtained injury.

Fitness, for me at least, is an illusion, I decided. The quickness and frequency with which my body's physical abilities can be dramatically cut back is, if not surprising, at least humbling. As I mashed the right pedal and weaved drunken switchbacks up a pitch my friends call "The Mitt Romney," a little smile cracked through the grimace. "This is the body that's supposed to get you through PTL in two months," I thought. "RTP even sooner. I'm going to need crutches. Why do I continue to fool myself into this ridiculous farce?"

Edward Abbey called the motivation "some sort of authentic experience" when he asked these questions of himself. I tend to think of authenticity in terms of sharpness — an experience that cuts deep enough to withstand the scouring effects of time. Memory is my greatest asset, because memory is the filter that gathers and preserves these pieces of my life amid the chaos. But when I am comfortable, I am forgetful. The realization hits whenever I click back through my blog and learn how much I've forgotten. I think this is one of the tragedies of life — that so much of what we experience is lost while we’re still alive.

When I let my mind settle — by which I mean let go of the act of deliberately thinking — I often sink into the reel of memories that is forever playing through the background of my consciousness. What I find there is often surprising. The big life events — first kiss, first car, college graduation — are all but gone now, little more than vague flickers of images that may or may not even belong to me. But there are many seemingly innocuous and meaningless moments that I remember with sharp clarity — pedaling my bicycle after dark in a drizzling rain near the end of the Glacier Highway of Juneau, or swimming across a lake in West Texas as the whole sky turned a bright shade of crimson. These kinds of images are the first to emerge when my mind goes quiet. 

Often, the intensity of emotion surrounding these memories kicks my conscious mind back into gear. “Why then?” my mind asks. “And why now?” My rational mind longs to find a correlation between these long-ago experiences and the present. Otherwise, why do they haunt me?

Perhaps it’s because I’m grinding out a pavement ride beneath the glaring sunshine and it’s 90 degrees; I’m missing cold and rain. Indeed, I can still feel the chill trickling down my shoulders, the numb fingers, the yawning black void beyond the dim beam of my headlight. My knee is stiff and it hurts to push these pedals; I miss the absolute freedom of movement I felt in that Texas lake, gliding across the surface of the glass-still water. 

But there's something else about those experiences that keeps them sharp, an authenticity that preserves them over the dozens of rainy rides I did in Juneau, the entire cross-country road trip surrounding that sunset swim. What was it? What did they mean? When I chip away at the surface, the first thought that comes to me is "uncertainty." On that particular bike ride, I was headed out the road to camp in an effort to practice setting up and staying in a winter bivy after after a long ride. I thought it would snow but it rained instead, and I was intensely afraid of being so wet and facing a night out in near-freezing conditions. Everything surrounding me came alive with malice and awe — the eerie blue light of the moon filtered by high clouds, the fog-shrouded channel, the ominous bend of towering spruce trees. I remember them in a way that's viscerally real, all of these years later. 

My memories of Texas surround the return swim, after I overzealously nearly crossed the small lake and suddenly wasn't sure whether I could make it back to shore. My arms were burning and my legs felt like cement blocks. The sky resembled a wildfire, with streaks of blaze-red light framing mountains of dark clouds. I was scared, and yet I felt calm, deeply — almost meditatively — calm. I knew I could swim all the way back because, well, I had to. For those minutes, it was my one responsibility in the world; that flowing movement was everything. It was beautiful in its necessity, freeing in its stark simplicity. 

Is risk necessary for an authentic experience? Do we need to approach the edge and gaze out into the abyss to jolt the sensations of being alive? Clearly I'm drawn to experiences such as PTL because such a vast curtain of uncertainty surrounds them, as well as a level of life-affirming risk. There's also not a small amount of wide-eyed disbelief surrounding the whole endeavor. "I am gimpy and weak. Could I really cross mountain after mountain after mountain for days on end?" I would never believe it if I hadn't tried, and succeeded, at similar endeavors before. But I've never tried anything exactly like this. Therein lies the intrigue — reaching out to the unknown. 

And, also, connecting the foundation of our our awareness with the building blocks of our lives — our memories.

"Why do I do this? (My feet hurt.) Why? Well, it's the need, I guess, for some sort of authentic experience. (My hip joint hurts.) As opposed to the merely synthetic experience of books, movies, TV, regular urban living. (My neck hurts.) To meet my God, my Maker, once again, face to face, beneath my feet, beyond my arms, above my head. (Will there be water at Cabeza Tank?)" — Edward Abbey, "Beyond the Wall"


  1. I agree people need challenge and risk and if they don't get it something else replaces it, and often not a good thing. I also remember uncertain moments but I also think that just being out there full immersion can do it, whether I'm crossing a sketchy snow field or just hanging in a meadow. the time we were charged by a brown bear in Alaska probably stands out the most though. or mount Whitney in fog. so I get it.

  2. Beautifully written Jill. I agree that when we're in our comfort zone we're just sailing along without having to look within or truly pay attention.

    Also, you are still just as fit as you were and just need to let your knee heal and you will be totally fine. You should probably actually let it heal though.

  3. Oh for crap's sake. Don't blame old Ed for this one.

    If my knee had your symptoms I'd sit my authentic ass on the couch with a 12 pack, some bourbon, and season 1 of Girls.

    Take it from an old ghost; you only get two knees, and neither can be considered a spare. You don't want to go "desert solitaire" in the leg department, not if you can help it.

    I'd expect more chill from a jack Mormon. You need more than drunken switchbacks on a hill called Mitt Romney.

    You need to get drunk on Mitt Romney. Literally.

    Knee up, ice, range of motion, walk. Have you considered taking up smoking?

    I have plenty time before sundown for another hike. But the boots are in a bad frozen toes sticking out...I limp back to camp...I am very hungry. Tea and cigar for the final course.. Edward Abbey, "Tukuhnikivats, The Island In The Desert"

  4. Wrenched Knee GangJuly 1, 2013 at 12:29 PM

    Authentic chronic knee pain experiences are overrated, in my own experience. I agree with my friend Mooneye.

    Except maybe for the Mitt Romney bit. There's no hangover like a Mitt Romney hangover.

    Adversity gives you some nice--authentic--material for your writing though. Nicely done.

    I also often wonder about what my memory decides to retain--often certain landscapes from rides return in my dreams or daydreams. Not necessarily the most spectacular ones either.

    I remember less from car trips, Abbey's experience is similar to mine there.

  5. After reading your blog I'd like to say there is nothing heroic about pushing yourself the way you do when you're hurt or sick. You might think you're finding your limits of physical endurance, and how much you can sustain, but a lot of what you do is just stupid. Your blog could be the perfect bad example of how a non-professional athlete trains and races, or how NOT to do things.

    You don't eat right, you don't get enough sleep before events, you enter too many events per year and don't train to peak for the ones that you do enter, you enter races you're not physically capable of finishing, you race when you already know you're sick or injured, you don't quit events when you're sick or injured when you'd be physically better off with a DNF, and pretty much everything you do with over training and racing too much only aggravates any chances of recovery you might have so you could actually finish races in a better position.

    At best sometimes you are your own worst enemy and a menace to yourself, and at worst you're a menace to others.

    The Pennsylvania race was the perfect example of a race you shouldn't either have entered because you were sick, or you should have chosen the shorter distance instead. There was nothing heroic about you pushing yourself past your limits at that race and going into the woods twice to puke. A professional athlete would have realised they were sick and dropped out of that race at one of the earlier aid stations. The only thing you did was put yourself in jeopardy, and put the race organizers and volunteers in jeopardy too, by continuing on when you were sick. Did you ever stop to think what would have happened if you went into the woods to puke, and the sweep runner passed you by, and you DIDN'T make it back out on the course to the next aid station ?. The people at the aid station wouldn't have known you were still out on the course, then they'd have to send a search group out into the woods to look for you, and the sweep runner and the race organizers could be held liable if anything had happened to you.

    There was nothing smart about continuing to push yourself in that PA race, and there was nothing smart about continuing to push yourself after you got the goose egg on your knee and your leg locked up. It was just you being you, and not knowing to quit. Your biggest problem is you think you're being mentally tough by continuing to slog it out when you're physically sick or injured.

    Most readers of your blog might think you are incredible for continuing to slog it out when you're sick or injured, but my opinion is the exact opposite. It must get old too for Beat to have to keep holding himself back and keep babbysitting you during the races whenever you push yourself past your limits. You don't seem to be a very good runner, and you have poor coordination and are always hurting yourself, maybe you should leave the running races to Beat, and stick to bicycle races on non-technical courses.

  6. Anon — it's interesting that you post these criticisms about my recent race results here, as I wrote this in response to some philosophical questions I've been asking of myself recently in regard to my motivations for entering PTL specifically, but also racing in a more general sense. I feel my motivations don't fit the typical mold of constant self improvement. Instead, on some level, there is an unconscious desire to tear myself down, to destroy my ego, and therefore break out of my ever-expanding comfort zone in order to see the world and my life in new and astonishing ways.

    It's a common misconception that I do the things I do because I think I'm "awesome" and "amazing" and I crave adoration. No, it's actually the exact opposite of this. Because, you're right, I'm not a great runner or mountain biker. If my motivation was respect, I'd probably spend more time bolstering hobbies I'm actually good at or that are a little more mainstream than ultra-endurance sports. No, I do the things I do because they make me feel alive. And the more difficult or challenging they are for me, the more alive I feel. I wasn't writing this post as an answer to why this is, but the question itself. Why is this?

    One issue I take with your criticisms is the "menace to others" comment. I make mistakes but I am always ready to deal with them on my own. People who equate minor discomfort and injuries with being in imminent need of search and rescue don't know what they're talking about. In the case of the PA race, I would have called the race director on my cell phone if I arrived at the aid station and no one was there. I would have asked for permission to continue onto mile 57 and if he said no, I would have waited there as long as I needed to. It's not really that hard.

  7. Moonshine UnicornJuly 1, 2013 at 5:30 PM

    Wow, this has gotten controversial!

    For example, some are claiming a Mitt Romney is basically a Tom Collins with granulated honey!

    I thought it was an IPA boilermaker with Everclear.

    Still others are claiming it is a tequila PBR boilermaker with orange juice and fancy grenadine!

    People, let's not fight.

    Let's also distinguish between joint injuries and upset tummies and the like.

    I'm also pondering whether authenticity is ever found at rest, and why races keep getting longer and/or increasingly involve mud and hay bales or even manufactured airborne powders and lets try it barefoot while carrying a boulder next time.

    Any race or designated course must be an artificial construct, so authenticity must be something, in part, that participants bring and find inside themselves and partly rely on race staff. Why is a race or event needed at all?

    I'm just thinking that "keepin it real" at the race requires increasing extremity for some folks over time, particularly now that everyone's great-grandma has run a marathon and qualified for Boston and Kona. The needle keeps moving for individuals and race culture.

    There is in Abbey a lot of "me vs them" authenticity dualism, which doesn't mean he's wrong, particularly as regards foot vs cars (early work). But notice that we've slid Abby, or he's slid himself, into a comparison of fit foot vs injured foot. I'm not sure Abbey's intent was to encourage injured bodies to initiate an adventure. Why not just take a hammer to my knee then, and get a jump on the process, if injured is more authentic? Now, fasting might be a different story, or not, at least it has some cultural practice behind it.

    I also note we are having this discussion on interactive TV, so we at least are on both sides of even Abbey's TV vs reality distinction.

    Just thinkin.

  8. Monkey Wrench Gangnam StyleJuly 1, 2013 at 7:04 PM

    Oy, Eyeshine:

    Why not just take a hammer to my knee then, and get a jump on the process, if injured is more authentic? Now, fasting might be a different story, or not, at least it has some cultural practice behind it.

    Nobody's bashing their knees with hammers. MIGHT there be cultural practice of slogging through the wilderness, without thought of injury, as an aide to remember, oh Mitt Romney drinker?

    Check this out from the Book of Jill:

    I tend to think of authenticity in terms of sharpness — an experience that cuts deep enough to withstand the scouring effects of time. Memory is my greatest asset, because memory is the filter that gathers and preserves these pieces of my life amid the chaos. But when I am comfortable, I am forgetful.

    If you have Desert Solitaire handy, flip to the passages on the relentless Hole in the Rock march.

    Jill is a Saint on a mission (and perhaps a saint, but that's not relevant).

    Not sure what Beat's excuse to suffer is though. Maybe he's just Catholic like me.

  9. As Abbey tells it, the Mormons came upon Hole in the Rock because it lay on the straight line they had imposed upon the landscape before marching across it. Having arrived pysically at the Glen Canyon rim, they forced the crevice wider to conform to their idea that a route should let them down to the river. They blasted the crevice to widen it. They got out hammers to pound anchors in the rock. After getting what they wanted, they abandoned the route. Wham, bam, thank Him, scram.

    A one-way line. Like a race, I suppose you're right, Gangnam. For Abbey, though, this route must have seemed the ancestor in spirit to the "new" entrance road to Arches. Both changed the landscape to conform to an abstract idea. And yet, the Hole in the Rock route had deteriorated into a revegetated ruin by the time Abbey explored it. The changes had only ever (barely) accomodated wagons let down by ropes. Abbey thought the easily-built new road into Arches destroyed the Monument by allowing easier loop access for cars. The Hole in the Rock imposed on the landscape but also created an awesome, if partly artificial, physical challenge for people on foot and horse.

    But, I'll see you religion and raise you politics. Jill's construct, that, for her, experience creates memory which orders chaos (and creates community), is somewhat at odds with Abbey's anarchist opposition to imposed social order. Abbey literally saw the Western landscape as a future redoubt for a geurilla war against the government should the US turn (more) despotic. (The surveillance revelations of the past month make it rather chilling to reread Abbey's predictions.) Even in Abbey's present, the point of pushing one's body through the landscape was to find meaning in opposition to social order, away from that order, and to find the body's resting place within an unrational nature. Abbey was more about accepting chaos than imposing anthropocentric order.

    Abbey contemplates Moon-Eye's flight from society, and refusal to return to society. The horse's solitary resting watchfulness and minimalism is perhaps as much natural balance as domesticated creatures like ourselves can hope to find. This horse is just standing in the shade.

    Abbey might risk his knee to hike to a rainbow arch, but not to cross beneath a corporate finish banner. Suffering may not produce genuine experience, even if induces memories. Genuine experience is tied to a direct, unmediated interaction with a specific landscape (connection to a place), the less societally constructed the mode of interaction, the more real. Entering the wilderness may not mean we leave the TVs behind; the TVs can still be playing within us. Even runners or bikers can impose on and dominate landscapes. The body is a landscape itself. How we get to the landscape (foot, horse, car, plane) has to be considered part of the experience, for good or ill. The land also has memory. The most authentic experience is to rest as part of the landscape, to respect the body as our part of it, to torture neither.

  10. Embroidered PapistryJuly 3, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    Abbey's political philosophy is also a social construct, Mitpie, and not without impact. If everyone got themselves buried in the desert just off a twotrack Arches would become an ossuary to rival Sedlec. Better than beer cans and junked flat screens I suppose.

    I'd say that religion also challenges anthrocentrism, and that Abbey himself offers a version of monotheism. Setting aside a couple millenia of church foppery, you basically have in Jesus an anarchist wandering in the desert who rejects both kingdoms of the earth and the hierarchy of his church. Like Abbey, Jesus had an FBI file. Like all of us now, apparently.

    I'm just saying what you said earlier--Abbey had a me vs them, but he also could appreciate harmonies in different belief systems.

    Elite ultra-runners may seem apolitical and corporate, but their playgrounds are literally on fire and melting. You can only jet around the world so much without noticing. They will notice; they are. Seeking a manageable individual uncertainty assumes a backdrop of global sustainability. If the global isn't sustainable, our individuals paths become deterministic.

    You should be glad that racing is becoming more communalistic, less competitive, even if more commodified. Participation is a first step to a politicized opposition, something more like Egyptian revolt than Abbey's militia nightmare.

    We need people who can lead people, not just loners talking to horses.

  11. "“Exercise addicts display all of the hallmarks of substance addicts: tolerance, craving, withdrawal and the need to exercise ‘just to feel normal."

  12. Catching up on a couple of months of this blog. Just when I start to get bored, Jill writes a blog entry that really gets me thinking. I'm not alone, I know, because this time, the commenter/philosophers really came out of the woodwork this time!

    I'm glad the comments remain civil here; there's a lot of room for the (sadly) usual vitriol from commenters hidden by the cloak of anonymity this time.

    Thanks, Jill, for blogging about a lifestyle that I will probably never experience. Ain't that internet grand?!


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