Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

The Secluded Parts of the Soul

Solitary Tree, Caspar David Friedrich, 1822

Tim Noakes has learned many things from his journeys, most of them personal rather than geographical. About humility, honesty, perseverance. Not all of the lessons have been easy. They “taught me a heightened degree of self-criticism and self-expectation.”

Surrounded by fellow travelers, Noakes noticed things about them too. He saw patterns of behavior similar to his own “a love of privacy, an overwhelming desire for solitude, and an inability to relax or talk in company.”

Tim Noakes

They shared “mental behaviors that include daydreaming, absentmindedness, procrastination and … the eternal quest to understand the riddles of life.”

“The point is reached when fatigue drives us back into ourselves,” Noakes writes “into those secluded parts of our souls that we discover only under times of such duress and from which we emerge with a clearer perspective of the people we truly are.”

These are interesting points, if ones commonly invoked in the literature of exploration and adventure. What makes Noakes’ points particularly interesting though is that he is not describing explorers or adventurers.

He is talking about runners.

“Runners have been shown to score higher on psychological scales that measure needs for thrill and adventure, and one study has suggested that running may be an important method for thrill and adventure seekers to acquire sufficient sensory input to keep their needs satisfied.”

As I read this in Noakes’ thousand-page book, The Lore of Running, I took notice. It not only spoke to my interests as a scholar, but profiled me precisely as a runner.

I’ve loved running since high school,  when I abandoned swimming for cross country. I didn’t think much of the switch at the time. Swimming was boring. In the blue nothingness of the pool, I felt like I was exercising in space, struggling to feel something  in a sensory deprivation tank.

Running cross country, by contrast, set me on fire. The world moved by so quickly, in a blur of forest, root, and field. And each race was a story, a chase up and down muddy paths. It hurt. It was exhausting. It filled me up.

After high school, I ran less. Or more accurately, I ran too much and, once hurt, stopped altogether. In college and during my years in Egypt, I gave into other pursuits, found other ways of reaching “the secluded parts of the soul.” And since then I’ve oscillated between lifestyles active and passive, running, resting, running again.

But over the last twelve months  I’ve come back to the road with new resolve. I’ve been offering the same justifications for it that I always have: It’s good for me. It calms me down.

Yet reading Noakes makes me realize that there are deeper motives too.

Thrill-seeking and risk taking were once a big — perhaps the biggest — part of my life, but it’s a part that I’ve had to alter to fit with my other roles as husband, father, and professor. This is a common experience, I know. We are led to believe that perilous experience, both physical and emotional, is a young person’s game, that age induces caution as if it were encoded into our DNA, as biologically determined as a receding hairline.

But is it?

Does the hunger for transcendent experience really fade? Or is it that our lives become more complicated, forcing this desire to become something else? Do we lose it, or simply transmute it into something less volatile, something that will fit within the structures of the middle-adult life without blowing it apart?

The explorer risks death. He spends months or years away from home. But the scholar of exploration sleeps at home at night, works inside, gives himself over to the experience of hypoxia and frostbite without trips to the hospital.

So too the act of running creates a world of thrills with comparatively few risks. Most of the time my runs are routine, but every few weeks there are moments which are special, even transcendent.

Last November, I went running in Phoenix at dawn. Mexican fan palms towered above me on each side of 9th Avenue. Even in the middle of the city, the mountains and sky seemed everywhere, the world so big and quiet that I felt, as Noakes would put it “driven back into myself” an experience of beauty and aloneness so profound I had to stop and give myself over to it. Maybe this was really the point, the true object of my perpetual motion. I thought about this for a minute. Then I kept running.


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4 Comments»

  Thony C. wrote @

The Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks Thony – I will check this out.

  Valerie Olson wrote @

Beautiful essay!
BTW, Stephen Pyne has an essay on exploration (NB: and a new book on the Voyager spacecrafts as explorers) that might be of interest to you and the readers:

http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1674/1

  Michael Robinson wrote @

@Valerie: Thanks for the kind words and the heads up about Pyne’s essay. I will check it out.


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