Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ultrarunning and capitalist ideology 3: Lessons from "The History of Sexuality"

I'm sitting here in the small boat of my mind, about to push off of the pontoon of reasonable reason (if it's at all appropriate to describe the previous two installments of "Ultrarunning and"... in this way) and into the murkier reaches of post-modernism and critical theory. There's a bunch of space beside me for interested readers, but anyone who could potentially mistake my paddling action for a fierce intellectual-wank should turn around and walk to the opposite end of the pontoon.

In the last installment, I made a brief introductory argument about how the bourgeois who runs (or more broadly, who choses to do some kind of physical activity) for fun or personal development is metaphorically taunting the person who must run (or develop their physical capacities) in order to make a living, to survive.
But alas, it was soon dismissed:
"this argument would seem to apply more to the sport of triathlon (if it does to anything at all), which is becoming increasingly populated by corporate types and rich people in general";
and described as ridiculously esoteric.

Then I started reading "the History of Sexuality: Vol 1" by the late Michel Foucault, a man who was to the intelligentsia what Kilian Jornet is to ultramarathon running - a fucking juggernaut. Anyways, I was plodding my way through the Frenchman's thick text, when I came across the following passage:

"The emphasis on the body should undoubtedly be linked to the process of growth and establishment of bourgeois hegemony: not, however, because of the market value assumed by labour capacity, but because of what the "cultivation" of its own body could represent politically, economically, and historically for the present and the future of the bourgeoisie".

Read that passage a couple of times, but it doesn't make a lot of sense outside the context of Foucault's ideas.

Basically, he argues that we haven't actually been repressing our sexualities for the last two hundred and fifty years as many have suggested, but that from the middle of the eighteenth century onward there was a concerted effort from society to poke and prod at our sexualities, to harness them and to make them speak for themselves. The most instructive example is that of psychoanalysis, a field which produced a huge amount of discourse on sex; every mental malady, from neuroticism to schizophrenia was related back to the patient's sexuality through discourse. Before this time, the emphasis was supposedly placed on blood as opposed to sex, that is, the dominant "technology of power" was one of sanguinity as opposed to sexuality; the dominant class (nobles) were obsessed with their blood-line, the purity of their breeding, etc - their blood was what set them apart from the other classes.

Now, the dominant class (bourgeoisie) is able to look to "the health of its organism when it [lays] claim to a specific body". Foucault was referring mainly to sexual health/"normality", but I think that health and fitness in a more general sense can function in the same way - they can be used to assert membership to the dominant class on an individual level and, more widely, to distinguish this class as superior to others.

As I once read in some chauvanist men's health magazine "Fit is the new rich". In our case, it could be reworded as "fit is the new pure-blooded".

This technology was originally deployed in the form of "works...on body hygiene, the art of longevity, ways of having healthy children and of keeping them alive as long as possible, methods for improving the human lineage".

The thing about ultrarunning is that, until rather recently, it has remained at the fringes of this dominant technology of power. For example, the "pedestrians" of the nineteenth century ran for wagers: the first recorded 24 hour race, held on October 12, 1807, where the legendary Captain Barclay ran against Abraham Wood for a grand prize of 600 guineas. The rich people who put these bets up were obviously interested in this activity, but they were ultimately sanctioning insanity as opposed to actually participating in it themselves. Fast forward to 1974 when the eccentric hippie legend Gordy Ainsleigh's horse had gone lame a week before the Western States 100 mile endurance horse-ride. He bumped into the rich director of the horse race, Drucilla Robie, who told him that his misfortune "might even be a blessing in disguise". He toed the line on foot and ran the 100 miles in under 24 hours. Again, here we perceive a certain amount of bourgeois interest, but no active participation.

Now, over the last decade or so, the dominant technology of power has finally turned its head to ultrarunning, seeing it as an easily-deployable and effective method for class distinction. Easily deployable: the character traits required to complete an event longer than 42.2 kilometes, such as tenacity, determination, endurance, etc..., are necessarily held by many bourgeoisie (e.g. lawyers, financiers, doctors, politicians, etc...) - they couldn't reach their positions of power without having these characteristics - meaning that it is actually quite easy for them to take up a sport like ultramarathon running. Effective: the majority of the people who have not reached these positions (i.e. the working classes) may not possess these same characteristics, or they may just be too preoccupied with putting dinner on the table and paying the bills to piss copious amounts of time down the drain through running - it's less likely that they would become involved in the sport. These two factors combine to create a relatively easy way for the motivated bourgeoisie to distinguish themselves from the working class.

It now seems that ultrarunning was rather ripe to be picked by the deployment of sexuality (which includes the deployment of health). An index of this is the fact that recently, a huge market for "gear" has arisen around the sport - one which was previously almost non-existent. This is partially because more people with a large disposable income have started to run ultras in the last few decades, but the other side of this is the fact that the gear which is now available has made it even more appealing for wealthier people to take up the sport - rendering this method of class distinction even more effective and deployable.

Coming to the end of this long, turbulent boat-ride through murky waters, it seems that we've followed a similar route to that of post #1, but this time Foucault, as opposed to Zizek, lent me his paddle. It felt like the kind of implement that could be better used by more experienced hands - I'm sure that some passengers fell or jumped overboard along the way. For those who stayed the course, I hope you enjoyed the ride.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Notes and sketches of ticks and plains

I was meaning to write these notes earlier but I got side-tracked with all the extra walking and finding a good spot and setting up my solitary camp and eating dinner. As I write this, I'm still side-tracked by the occasional tickles coming from my balls and lower legs which throw me into a fit of scratching and checking for blood-sucking critters.
To be completely honest, this trip is nothing but an elaborate side-track. I lie here on my belly peering out of the zip of my tent at the forest fires 100km to the east, at the bottom. They burn hard and orange and comfort me on this lonely shoulder in the Main Range.
After a few fruitless checks a tick materialised on my balls, so I removed it and pressed it with my pen until it burst. Yet the faint tickles persist.
I get afraid when I hear quiet sounds approaching my olive tent and whirring flying creatures overhead. The crickets whisper relentlessly, while the almost inaudible roar of the trucks in the great distance, passing through the gap, fills the momentary silences.
Earlier I walked down a flat road on a hot plain. The peak stood firm in the distance, bolted to the sky behind it, leaning into the wind. My face was turned down at the tar and it burned red and hot. This was inevitable (and there goes another brown tick off my leg. It's still attached to my pen's tip as I write. I should trust my tickles) excessive lathering of sunscreen could not prevent it.
On this hot plain, I thought of a ridiculously pretentious, somewhat Zizekian answer to the question "Why?":
To learn what I had always already known.
To become what I had always already been.
And it goes on.
I thought myself a clever visionary, but the whittle of a long walk and numerous murdered ticks caused me to reconsider.
The popping sound that marks their death is very loud, and I am now surrounded by their corpses. I always hope that this one is the last, but they continue to appear from unfelt crevices. Their stupidity is frustrating. They have me snared every time, yet continue to crawl, always searching for a fleshier, warmer sliver of skin. I fear that I will be scratching all night.
Compared to this, the long slog up Spicer's Gap Road (The truck sounds come from Cunningham's Gap to the North) with my heavy blue pack seems of little consequence.
Nevertheless, I will digress to describe it:
A rolling climb on wide brown, hemmed in by paddock, then by open forest, then by denser thickets. Small wallabies skitting away. Hues of green and straw. It is the kind of country which brings the myth of Australia into being.
That ending was less abrupt than I'd hoped and it fences in a reality that really has no bounds. Don't take it seriously. I feel like this caution has murdered it further.
I'll now brush my teeth for Civilisation's sake and settle down with a book: Gerald Murnane's "The Plains".
I feared that this would happen: I'm having trouble telling which ticks are alive and which are dead.
This doesn't make me stronger. It frays my edges until I realise that I need them repaired.
And yet I waiver between this and utter calm.

I opened my tent expecting to find a nascent sunlight but instead I'm hemmed in by a grey waft. I notice the grass trees now - they're contorted and ominous against this cloudy background. They stand out. I can only hope that it'll burn off.
I had dreams of unfaithfulness and an impossibly big and rugged peak but when I woke up I remembered my thoughts for my love and realised that the top of the mountain, Spicer's Peak, isn't quite as distant.
Now to climb it, although I will be careful.

Another ridiculous unwhittled thought that I now write with embarrasment: (wo)men aren't made on the mountains they climb, but on the warm, flat gaps between them.
And yet I'm compelled to describe the climb:
Large clumps of grass sprawling in the wind, criss-crossed by a thousand possible dirty tracks. To the left, a lofty space - desire and fear embodied in nothingness. Beneath my feet the slippery, tussocky terrain held precariously together by various rocks. I eroded my way up the side of the mountain and found dense, bearded rainforest where I had expected wide-open relief.
The mangled tea-trees clustered me to the summit, and wanted to herd me over the edge. I resisted and returned, pausing my downward scuttle to see a lyrebird hop into view and let out a beautiful scream.
I traced the faint brown lines down the mountain, pausing only to negotiate rocky spurs and impossible-looking descents 30 metres ahead, as well as to collect my pack.
As a quick and irrelevant aside, the fog burned itself into a bright morning within an hour of my grass-tree anxiety.
I write this now as it's approaching late morning and I'm rid of my delusions of adventure (what is "adventure" but a delusion?). Crawling across the side of a lesser peak and making my way impossibly back to the plains and a lake and the promise of cool water and iced coffee.
I never reached the lake.

And now I sit back in my tiny room, surrounded by the sprawling relics of what feels like an impossible trip. After a scorching plod back along the plains as well as fortunate lifts from a cafe owner and a woman whose name was conveniently embossed in dark ink on the side of her neck, I found myself 80km away from Brisbane on the Cunningham Highway. I found a wide turning lane that was perfect as a regrettable home and shoved my left-thumb into the spring heat. Storm clounds moved silently to my right.
The man who gave me a lift came in a red ute with p-plates. He was seventeen and as I occasionally glanced across the handbrake at his brown eyes, I saw myself vaguely reflected.
"I don't want money for its own sake," He said. "I just want it so that I can get a house and a nice dirt-bike bike and car". I agreed somewhat on a structural level, which manifested itself in nods and "yeah", and so it went to Jindalee where I seamlessly caught a bus and a train to mum's house to eat dry chicken and drink juice.
And now I sit back in this tiny room and in the backyard outside my window, obscured by blinds, people are talking of the beautiful house and "I love what you've done with...".

I'm a little more perplexed by these sentiments than I usually would be.

A long sleep has put me even more in mind of mountains, when yesterday afternoon on the long, hot road I turned my back to them.

Spicer's Peak (with narcissistic guilt I write "1222m") is the largest tooth on the right-hand-side of the skyline, to the left lie endless possibilities of ticks and loose rocks and notes and sketches.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ultrarunning and capitalist ideology 2: Odysseus' DIY, the subject, fascist enjoyment and satire

In Homer's Odyssey, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, the protagonist enjoys a bit of DIY in his free time. As a young man, he built the "marriage bed" for himself and his wife Penelope around an olive tree.
"...his durable amateur handiwork: as a prototypical bourgeois he is smart enough to have a hobby. It consists in a resumption of the craft work from which, within the framework of differentiated property relations, he has long since been exempted. He enjoys this occupation, as his freedom to perform superfluous tasks confirms his power over those who have to do such work in order to live (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1992 ed: 58)".

There is clearly a parallel between this situation of the recreational bourgeois handyman dominating the blue collar worker and the recreational bourgeois runner dominating those who run for a living. The two can be boiled down to a simpler underlying structure - "I have freely chosen to do this time- and energy-consuming act for pleasure, whereas physical necessity dictates that you must do it" - in this way, it is a taunt of the oppressed by the oppressor. "I enter your hell for fun and can leave whenever I want to," Says the bourgeois handyman, the recreational runner, through her or his actions. "But you are condemned to endure it for eternity".

However, this argument falls down when we consider that very few people still run for a living - a couple of tribes in the Americas and Africa who occasionally run to hunt, as well as the people living in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia where professional distance running is a viable way of earning a living.

To surpass this objection, we could pose the taunt in a different way: "I develop my physical abilities merely for pleasure, whereas you are required to do so in order to live". Thus the taunt of the recreational runner is directed at all those who still partake in manual labour in order to make a living.

However this argument would seem to apply more to the sport of triathlon (if it does to anything at all), which is becoming increasingly populated by corporate types and rich people in general. On a more conscious and less ridiculously esoteric and representative level, the runner is taunting/admonishing the couch potato - "we have the same amount of free time, yet I employ mine in the pursuit of health, fitness and strength, while you spend yours in the mindless consumption of mass culture (watching TV, movies, etc...)". On first sight, this appears to make running a highly anti-systemic pursuit - the time spent running is time that could be otherwise be spent consuming material that enforces the values of the society in which we live. But the important question here is, does the actual act of running support or subvert these values?

Many ultrarunners (myself included at times) like to think of ourselves in the practice of our sport as a bit weird, out of the mainstream, somewhat alternative. By running for many hours at a time we're doing something ridiculous, "weird", even potentially dangerous.

But is this really the case? By running further than 42.195km (the standard marathon distance) at a time are we really challenging the norms of modern society? Or are we actually embodying these norms in a more extreme way?

In the following post, I'll string together a few disparate arguments to come up with some kind of unified answer to these questions.

"I guess a big reason why I run is the ability it allows me to tap into this more primitive, primal mode of existence that it seems like modern man has been divorced from" - Anton krupicka, two-time champ of the Leadville 100 mile.

From what I've observed, this attitude is pretty common in us ultrarunners with a "nature-boy/girl" streak. It's very likely that Anton is referring to is the fact that, while running trails, we're moving through the forest like our pre-civilisation ancestors. It's also likely that, on a deeper level, he's talking about a return to somewhat of a pre-enlightenment notion of subjectivity.

The split between subject (human) and object (nature) that characterises enlightenment (i.e. the kind of thought employed today) is well described by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment: "The 'happy match' between human understanding and the nature of things that he (Bacon) envisaged is a patriarchal one: the mind, overcoming superstition, is to rule over disenchanted nature (2002 edition, pg 2)". So in our modern patterns of thought, the human mind/will is the subject, which is divorced from and acts on nature, the object. An extreme comparison is instructive: "Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings (pg. 6)".

I believe that, in the above quote, Anton is alluding to trail running as facilitative of a return to an older conception of subject/object where nature, in its totality, is the subject and the human is simply an extension of this subjectivity. When we are running trails, many of us feel like we're immersed in, we're a part of, we're one with, nature. So while running on trails, we are enacting a pre-enlightenment concept of subjectivity - this represents a challenge to, a subversion of, one of the founding principles of modern society.

But unfortunately it's not that simple.

"Which brings me to the question I've been asking myself a lot this week...why the heck am I doing this? I welcome all comments, but I guess for me it is about the challenge, the insatiable urge to do better, to go longer and to go faster. To take my body to places it's never been and come out on top." - Brendan Davies, referring to the Great North Walk 100 mile run, which he later won in course-record time.

"To take my body to places it's never been and come out on top." - This is another common sentiment among ultrarunners. We speak of driving our bodies, pushing them through unthinkable pain to achieve our goals. This is an extension of enlightenment thinking - my mind (subject) is separated from and acts upon my body (object) in order to achieve a goal. My mind "stands in the same relationship to" my body "as the dictator to human beings" -. In this way, by running ultras we are enacting, supporting, the notion of the subject in modern society.

But what is the nature of the goal that we're trying to achieve by finishing a race? Our "unified answer" lies within this question.

Fascist ideology is instructive in this regard.
Fascist ideology, best exemplified by Franco's regime in Spain or Hitler's in Germany, "is based on a purely formal imperative", according to Slavoj Zizek (Sublime Object of Ideology, 1989 - pg 89):
"Obey, because you must! In other words, renounce enjoyment, sacrifice yourself and do not ask the meaning of it - the value of the sacrifice lies in its very meaningless; true sacrifice is for its own end; you must find positive fulfilment in the sacrifice itself, not in the instrumental value: it is this giving up of enjoyment itself, which produces a certain surplus enjoyment (89)."
In the quote from Brendan used above, he asks the obvious question: "Why the heck am I doing this?" It is a question familiar to all ultrarunners on the night before a massive race, or during its closing kilometres when the end of the run is not yet near enough to be mentally grasped. That is the secret of ultrarunning - the goal in itself, (running 175km as fast as possible in Brendan's case), is arbitrary, even meaningless. The true meaning of the endeavour lies in the process of reaching the goal - "To take my body to places it's never been and come out on top". As ultrarunners, many of us "find positive fulfilment in the sacrifice itself, not in the instrumental value". By renouncing the enjoyment of relaxation during training and racing, we "produce...a certain surplus enjoyment".

Fascist ideology and ultrarunning ideology are simply a more extreme embodiment of capitalist ideology in this regard. Or rather, for the purposes of this argument, capitalist ideology is a more moderate version of the preceding two. Every day that we go to work, we sacrifice the pleasure of relaxation, hobbies, etc... for the attainment of a goal: money, material goods, our well-being and that of our family. But for most people living in developed countries, this sacrifice is not merely instrumental - many people (not all) could still survive while working less and less hard, and some enjoyment is gained from the sacrifice itself. It goes some way to explaining why many wealthy retirees become depressed when they finish work - they may materially fulfilled, but they no longer have a means for self-sacrifice (and [I say this cautiously for fear of misappropriating the term] they no longer belong to a certain symbolic order). We sacrifice a part of ourselves to the god of capital, to the symbolic order, to society, for the surplus enjoyment generated by the sacrifice itself.

Both ultrarunning and fascism represent a more extreme manifestation of this element of capitalist ideology since, for the former two, the final goal attained through the sacrifice is much less substantial.

But there is a key (and obvious) difference between ultrarunning and fascism that should help us to answer the original questions - By running further than 42.195km at a time are we really challenging the norms of modern society? Or are we actually embodying these norms in a more extreme way?

Fascism is an inhuman distortion, an amplification of capitalist ideology that has lead to widespread death and repression, and human suffering on a huge scale. Ultrarunning, on the other hand, is relatively harmless. The only victim of ultrarunning is the competitor's body, which we hope will heal itself eventually anyways.

Because of the widespread suffering it causes, fascism is certainly not funny. But ultrarunning has no real victims. And because of this, it can be funny. It's ridiculous, hilarious that someone would put themselves through so much pain in order to gain, taking the Glasshouse series of races as an example, a large mug. So I'd say that by running further than 42.195km at a time, we are in a sense satirizing capitalist ideology. We embody the norms of modern society (arbitrary sacrifice) in a very extreme way, and by doing so we are indirectly making fun of these norms, thereby challenging and subverting them.

We laugh at ourselves in the act of running an ultramarathon. The non-ultrarunner, by laughing at us, calling us stupid and crazy, is really laughing at a more extreme version of themselves. This irony generated by ultrarunning is definitely subversive in this way, but is probably also ineffective.

It's like The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde's play which satirised the ridiculous customs of the Bourgeoisie at the turn of the century-before-last. I can guarantee you that many of the people who went to see this play were those that it sought to lambast. Would its content have caused them to rethink their stupid formalities? It's possible, but highly unlikely. They would probably have had a hearty laugh at the play, then moved on, back to their world of unnecessary politeness and frivolous customs in general.

In the same way, outsiders read and listen to the stories of and about ultrarunners, have a laugh, think "that's a bit odd" and then move on.

In fact, by giving people (and ourselves) a caricature of themselves to laugh at, we are rendering their sacrifice, their self-mutilation under capitalism, bearable. It is an outlet, a vent, a way for them to dissipate the negative feelings, the symptom, associated with this sacrifice.

And so we help them to make this sacrifice day in and day out: we support the system that we satirise, the system that we claim to subvert.

Similar ideas were explored in Ultrarunning and capitalist ideology: "facilitative consumption".

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Water striders and the serious nature of frivolity

The top of the small brown pool reflects the sun's filtered rays onto the trees around it. Their large boughs hang perilously over the water's gleaming surface, piercing and twisting the light as it strains to break through. The sun is losing the battle - deep into the afternoon, the yellow rays will soon drop to orange and red against the gums before they retire for the night. The rising hum of the cicadas forebodes this defeat with devastating certainty and the other insects go peacefully about their business; mosquitoes swinging on an erratic path through the warm air, flies hovering over the pool and water striders skimming across its top.

These slim insects spread their long legs across the surface, flitting them back and forth to dart around the pool. They run into each other, brush antennae and feed on the abundance of other insects that have strayed too close to the water. This glossy top holds them up, lets them move, feed, interact. It sustains them, allows them to exist.

A big brown Christmas beetle bumbles loudly into the clearing above the pool before running into a branch and falling back into the forest. It reemerges slightly lower in the air, glances at the inviting mirror below it and pauses slightly before dropping like led into the centre of the pool.
Splash, and its ripples are cast violently to the edges, disrupting the surface tension and sending the striders into a fury. Some lose a leg or two to the water, others are completely submerged. The rest speed frantically around looking for the culprit.
The beetle flounders in the depths for a few seconds before it begins to rise.
This motion is unstoppable, the beetle is full of air and can do nothing but  rotate its spindly legs. It's terrified yet perversely excited - in less than a second the striders will descend upon it, and it will have to lash and struggle and bite for its life. "Bring it on," the beetle thinks.

And sure enough, its small black eyes poke through the glossy wall. Before its back has done the same, a few of the enraged striders have darted together and are eating the brown bug alive.

We often forget that the surface tension created by our views and assumptions is as supple, is easily penetrated. We skate around on these views and assumptions, making jokes with others who share them, teasing out-groups and highlighting their stupidity. And when a big brown Christmas beetle crashes in and breaks this tension - challenges our assumptions and points out the flaws in our arguments - we are enraged, we attack, we bite back.

"Stop being so serious, we're only joking" we chide.

But what we fail to realise is that behind the frivolousness of the joke lies a deadly serious set of assumptions about the world. Prior to the challenge of the irrupting beetle, our seriousness is internal - the offence, the violence of the challenger lies in the fact that he/she reveals this underlying seriousness, de-masks it, lays it bare for all to see. In doing so, she/he breaks the illusion of the seemingly-stable surface - its a lot weaker than we think. And so we retaliate with more violence - with insults, name-calling and if we're smart enough, we break the surface tension of the challenger's own worldview.

And the Christmas beetle is quickly devoured by the water striders unless other beetles come to its aid - unless others validate the legitimacy of her/his challenge. If not, its muffled chirps are drowned out in the fury of the onslaught.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The politics of "Born to Run": exploitation, the past in the present, in defence of Habermas and other long-winded points

“That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle--behold, the Running Man.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else. And like everything else we love--everything we sentimentally call our 'passions' and 'desires' it's really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We're all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.”

And thus you wipe the tears from your eyes, laces up your shoes, and leap out through the front gate and into movement. Running quotes don't come more inspiring than this.

But once you've rolled back through the front door, past the fridge for a drink and a snack, and onto the couch, what remains of this quote? Beneath its inspirational value, what meaning can be derived from these two paragraphs, and from "Born to Run" in its entirety?

 As a point of departure for our analysis, let's look at Jurgen Habermas' conception of the bourgeois public sphere. Because reading this guy was what got me thinking about that great novel again. Bear with me here...

In his incredibly detailed and difficult to read book "the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere", Habermas describes, somewhat idyllically, a period in history when public debate was the basis of the press, not the other way around. According to the great German scholar, in early capitalism (~mid 1700s), state and society were firmly separated, only linked by the public sphere - a series of locations (salons, clubs and - crucially - parliament) where bourgeois intellectuals would meet to rationally-critically debate the literature and issues of the day. The content of the "periodicals" (early newspapers) reflected this debate, it did not shape it.

But progressively, as state started intervening in society - through social welfare measures - and society in the state - through the formation of "special interest" and pressure groups with unalterable aims, the "purity" of the public sphere (in the sense of it being a space of rational-critical debate, of reason) was corroded. It became less and less about rationalising the exercise of state power by its members trying to determine and move towards a set of common goals, and more about protecting sectional interests.

Today, Habermas argues, we still have the constitutional laws and norms left over from this period of history, but the reality is different - public debate is shaped by the culture industry and mass media, which has its own hidden agenda (profit), and parliament is less about rational-critical debate than it is about explicating a party line. To use an adage which has been beaten nearly to death multiple times: real democracy no longer exists.

What's important about Habermas' argument (for the sake of this discussion) is not its specific content, but its form. We are all to accustomed to accounts of the past which position our day and age as the pinnacle of historical development, with all other occurences, victories, losses and lives building on top of eachother to amount to the greatness of today, the greatness of now. What Habermas did was shift the pinnacle of democratic development backwards about 250 years, and to describe our situation today as a retrogression in the principles of democracy.

Democratic development is to Habermas as human happiness and health are to Chris McDougall - they are the values which underpin their respective perspectives on the history of human development. But where does the temporal pinnacle of Born to Run lie? The Tarahumara, McDougall's idealised super-tribe of ultrarunners are alive now, in the present. However, the tribe are described with terms like "ancient" in the book and linked to the humans of old, who caught their prey through the practice of persistence hunting.

Moreover, they are described as elusive, inaccessible, "ghosts" - the only window to their world comes in the form of the late Caballo Blanco, who fits quite neatly the old, wise sage archetype. He is a magician of sorts who has the keys to the past.

So because of this, I'd say that the Tarahumara are described by the author as embodiments of the past living in the present. The real temporal peak of McDougall's argument is many thousands of years ago, before spears were invented and humans supposedly ran their prey to death.

There are a few issues with this analysis:
1) Were humans ever endurance hunters?
2) What does this mean for the Tarahumara?

At the risk of sounding stupid, I'd say that the first "issue" is completely irrelevant for the point that McDougall is trying to make.

First, let's return to Habermas (Groooaaaaannnn......). I talked to a lecturer recently who said that the true public sphere, as described by the German scholar, never actually existed.And that, if it did, it was not quite as robust and dialectic-driven as Habermas had said. This point obviously merits further reading... But let's assume that it did not exist. So, in that case, Habermas is comparing our current predicament with a communicative utopia that never really existed. Is there anything wrong with that? He has imagined a better past in order to make a really strong critique of our modern communicative environment and to imagine a better future. Critiques of the present are often based on ideals (equality, justice, freedom) which have been instilled in us by years of development and the coercive mechanism of formal democracy. They are ideals which might just be impossible to fully realise in our existential reality - but this doesn't make the critiques that they are based on any less important, subversive or valuable. Habermas is effectively doing the same thing, although instead of grabbing these ideals from the empty rhetoric of the present-day coercive mechanism, he has taken them from a supposed past.

It seems that the persistence hunting theory - that humans first had access to meat by running their prey to death - is somewhat more credible than the idea of the bourgeois public sphere of rationally-critically debating citizens, but I haven't read enough about either to be entirely sure. Let's assume, for a second, that humans never actually ran their prey to death. If that is the case, McDougall is comparing our current predicament (regarding health and happiness) to a past which never existed. Does that matter? He has imagined this past in order to give weight to a number of solutions - in essence, run more barefoot, eat fresher (no, not Subway) which would actually be of huge benefit to the human population. The fact that this past may or may not be imagined doesn't detract from the tangible benefits which the solutions would provide.

But what of the people who have already put these solutions into practice and are living in McDougall's utopia?

2) Make no mistake, life for the Tarahumara is tough. (A quick note, when I refer to the Tarahumara here, I'm describing particularly those who still farm and run - many of them have been urbanised.) A while ago, I read a brilliant feature article in Nat Geo that described the huge issues which confront these people. They are periodically stricken by famine and drought, face a huge amount of crime/murder from the drug trade, their lands are subject to pollution, and the list goes on. McDougall is not an idiot - he mentions these issues a number of times in the novel, but yet he still maintains that their simple way of life should be preserved at all costs. It doesn't matter that some Tarahumara farmers barely have enough to feed their children and that others die of preventable diseases, they must keep on living their simple, healthy way of life! So, in this way, McDougall's argument could have a real negative impact on the Tarahumara.

So, while some would argue that the novel is good for the Tarahumara as it causes the readers to value their way of life, my position is the exact opposite.

Through his temporal pinnacle, the Tarahumara as the "past in the present" and his argument in general, Chris MacDougall colonises the Tarahumara again.

When the Spanish invaded Latin America five centuries ago, the native people were hugely disadvantaged (murder, disease, etc...) for the gain of the colonisers - this, to me, is the essence of colonisation. In the same way, the argument in Born to Run disadvantages the Tarahumara in the ways outlined above for the gain  of the Anglo-Saxon readers in terms of health and happiness. Without the idealistic portrayal of their way of life as a point of departure, McDougall's story, his analysis of history and his solutions to our Western problems could not exist. He needs the Tarahumara to be kept in the past and as such disadvantaged to make a compelling argument about how we Westerners could have a better future. His argument could not exist without this disadvantage.

It is fundamentally exploitative, and as such should be rethought. It's ok to dream of a better future, but not at the expense of others.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Love may only be a feeling, but...

I dug up this brilliant video up today, after not having watched it for a good eight years. It's taken on a new double significance for me:

1) Blue Mountains yeeeeaaaah!!!

2) The landscape adopts an almost magical presence in the video, and the instrumental music is that of a classic power ballad, the lyrics of which typically seem to lament, celebrate, or just describe the superficial characteristics of love.

The brilliance of this music video is that juxtaposes these two characteristics; the magical landscape and the instrumental music of a genre which glorifies love; against the lead singer's lyrics, which describe the fact that "Love is only a feeling anyways". The lyrics describe the reality behind the illusion, while the music and the images uphold the illusion itself.

The first criticism which comes to mind is "well, of course it's an illusion, everyone knows that, but does it really matter?" I'll come back to that question.

But first a closer reading of the lyrics themselves helps the video to surpass this argument. The verses describe the beauty of being in love ("The state of elation that this unison of hearts achieved / I had seen, I had touched, I had tasted and I truly believed"), while the chorus describes the "truth" behind it ("Love is only a feeling/ Drifting away/ And we've got to stop ourselves believing /It's here to stay").

It's the flickering between the subject's complete immersion in the illusion (verse lyrics + landscape + instrumental) and the subject's understanding of the fact that it is an illusion (chorus lyrics) while still being positioned within the illusion (the instrumentals which back him up and the landscape he's singing in) which is really intriguing. The last lines of the song hint at this - "we've got to stop ourselves believing/ It's here to stay" - it suggests that the subject still believes, is still immersed within the illusion, even though he understands the supposed truth behind it.

So the video's positioning of the truth in the context of the illusion possibly suggests that an escape from the illusion, as much as we might strive for it is impossible. Louis Althusser (according to Zizek's "the Sublime Object of Ideology") is one intellectual who held this view; he posited that "a certain fissure, misrecognition, characterizes the human condition as such: by the thesis that the idea of a possible end of ideology is an ideological idea par excellence."

And, perhaps more importantly, would an end to ideology necessarily be a good thing? That's a whole other question for another day, but I'd say that in the case of love, definitely not.
Here's my sentimental liberal side coming out...
Although love might "only be a feeling", it is the basis of family and friendship - two incredibly important institutions that are crucial to upholding our society.  It makes many people happy, and gives meaning to countless lives; lives that would otherwise feel deeply meaningless. And for that reason, I'd disagree with the last lines of the song. As opposed to "We've gotta stop ourselves believing", I'd say:

Friday, September 28, 2012

Ultrarunning and capitalist ideology: "facilitative consumption".

People run for many reasons.

One of the reasons that many would cite is "for the experience".

In the ultramarathon running populace, the proportion of people who run "for the experience" is higher than in the general running population (from what I have observed).
This is in large part because the experience of running is hugely intensified (in a good or bad way) by the extreme fatigue inherent in the events that we participate in. This fatigue-induced experience is what draws many people to keep increasing the distances that they cover on foot past the reasonable length for good health and eventually to beyond the marathon mark.

This "for the experience" attitude is characteristic of the ideological stage of consumption-driven capitalism in which we find ourselves in the 21st century. Slavoj Zizek broadly describes the three stages in this video (from about 30 minutes on).

Previously (i.e. at the beginning of last century), when buying an object, we were sold (i.e. marketed) its inherent qualities. Later on in the history of bourgeois society, we were sold its ability to elevate our social status.
Now, we are being sold an experience; we are being sold the satisfaction of our softer emotions, of our loftier need to feel and to be in the world.
Zizek's much(over?)-used example of this is the cup of Starbuck's Coffee; we are told that by purchasing a coffee we will help to save "starving children in Guatemala". In fact, by buying that cup of coffee, we are helping to reproduce the system that causes the starvation (by feeding money to the huge corporation), while doing an infinitesimally small amount to alleviate it.

What is important about buying that cup of coffee for us is that it satisfies our internal need to think beyond ourselves, to empathise with others, to understand ourselves as virtuous (charitable) human beings and, on some level, to humanise the inhuman system in which we live.

Running an ultramarathon is by no means the same as chugging down a soy cap from Starbucks, but the result of running ultras is similar. Many of us pursue this passion to satisfy the need to subjectively position ourselves in the world; for example, to understand ourselves as virtuous (unlike the apparently lazy masses) human beings or to "free" ourselves from the system, if only for a few hours.

Many people would cite the critical difference between these two actions, as far as their "authenticity" is concerned, as follows:
Purchasing a coffee to be drunk is an act of commodity consumption, whereas running an ultramarathon is not. Therefore, the feelings of satisfaction and freedom that people achieve from the latter are somehow more "real" than those generated by the former - that somehow, by running an ultra, we are actually freed from the capitalist logic for the duration of the run.

This is a very decontextualised understanding of ultrarunning.
In the process of preparing to run an ultra, we purchase countless commodities - shoes, back packs, t-shirts, shorts, gels, energy bars, etc, etc, etc... so that on the day, we can undergo a "truly authentic" experience.
This consumption, we are told, is secondary to the experience. But this consumption is also essential, in order to get to the point where we can have the experience.

So, with this in mind, I would argue that ultrarunning represents a different, more seductive ideology in consumption-driven capitalism.
People who claim to see behind the veil of directly consuming experience prefer to directly experience, with consumption being facilitative of this experience.
With the advent of major ultrarunning brands and news websites, the idea that consumption (of shoes, back packs, etc) is essential to facilitating the experience is gaining more and more strength in the minds of the sport's participants. It is being solidified as ideology.

It is in this way that ultrarunning does not free us from the system. It represents a capitalist logic for people who wish to escape capitalist logic.
It gives us the illusion of freedom while drawing us into consumption in a more subtle and subversive way.

So my point is really that we can't escape this logic by  consuming something more ethical, or consuming for the purpose of doing something authentic.
Authenticity and freedom in ultrarunning is an ideological illusion.

There is really no way out (on a personal level: leaving out other, more revolutionary solutions) as consumption, on some minimum level, is necessary.
With that said, a partial exit could be made by simply consuming less.

Similar ideas are explored in Ultrarunning and Capitalist Ideology 2.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bout of run-blogging apathy.

I've been running recently - mainly speedwork and shorter stuff - enjoying it, and getting excited about it, but haven't really felt compelled to blog. Not entirely sure why, but when I think of a reason (or anything else to write) I'll be sure to post something meaningful.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Crawling --> jogging

I wont pain the reader with the details of my gradual return to solid training over the last few weeks, but one recent incident was indicative of the changes that my body has undergone in that time.

The Saturday before last, Dan Nunan picked me up at 6am and we drove out to Cunningham's Gap, nestled at 700m altitude, between Mount Mitchell and Mount Cordeaux. We tagged the summit of Cordeaux first, before dropping for about 7.5km to near the front of the range at Gap Creek falls.
We had a quick break at the lip of this monstrous drop before turning around to complete the very steady climb back out.
I doubted whether I could even run the whole climb at my then-current level of fitness, but resolved to try. Within 100 metres, Dan had pulled ahead.
"I'll cya at the lookout" I panted.
The next 4.4km were slow and painful, but every step was at a pathetic-run, a crawling pace. I reached the top, apologised for holding Dan up, and resolved to do better next time.

Fast forward almost exactly a week, and Dan, JP and I were splashing our feet in the creek, chatting and laughing.
"Let's get moving," JP said.
So we turned around, and began the 4.4km slog.
To be fair to the trail, it was very runnable (5-10% gradient mostly), and it was really giving me every chance to show an improvement.
"Go on", the brown path beckoned, "run me".
Writing now about the first section of that trail reminds me of the opening lines of the one of the funniest books I've read, "Hang on a Minute Mate" by the Kiwi Barry Crump:

Sam Cash looked at his old woman the way a man looks at a steep ridge he's got to climb on a hot day. It was a long time to spend in one place. Time wasted with a woman who had come to represent only a tremendous amount of noise.

When I read those lines, I pictured an open dry-grass hill scorched by the sun and dotted with a few motley eucalypts. The terrain in front of me now was almost identical, with a couple of exceptions; the eucalypts were replaced by grass trees and although the sun was out in full force, it was a cold winter's morning.
The tremendous amount of noise that beat down on me was purely internal - "Come on, faster. You don't want to keep Dan and Jono waiting at the top. Come on, surely you've improved since last week".
My head drooped as I blended off of the ridge and into the forest. The switchbacks came, as well as a tonne of lactic in my calves. I stopped to stretch ("Great, more time lost") and then chugged some more.
It was painful and slow.
But this time it was no crawl. It was a jog. A glorious jog.
Step, step, wince, step, step, spit, step, step, snot-rocket.
Last kilometre perhaps?
Think of a good song Zac, something to keep you going.

The leaves darkened and the hard dirt was replaced by soft black soil.

I rounded a bend, thinking that there were a few switchbacks still to come and, voila, there were Dan and JP at the lookout.
"How long have you been waiting" I asked.
"Oh, about four minutes".
I felt sure that four minutes wasn't too much of an inconvenience for them, and I smiled.

We finished the run with a climb of Cordeaux, and stopped off at the Aratula bakery on the way home for a feed.
JP's prowess on the trail was matched at the table - he scoffed a blueberry danish, a slice of quiche, a jam doughnut and a meat pie, putting Dan and I to shame.

But I digress. To quote countless bureaucrats and business(wo/)men as well as our national leader, [I am/think I am/hope I am] "moving forward".

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The holidays have been a bit blogless

I've spent most of the uni holidays in Sydney and have had some fantastic adventures in the Blue Mountains. I'm still getting a bit of hamstring pain, but it's definitely improving.
I can't think of anything meaningful and interesting to blog unfortunately, so I may aswell just list a few adventures in dot-point form:
- 1.5hr run at Wentworth Falls: Charles Darwin Walk, Wentworth Pass, Under/over-cliff track. - Sweet views, stairs, waterfalls & forest. A willy-wonka's of trail running.
- Overnight stay in Blackheath: 6k walk out and back from Govett's leap on the Cliff-top-track (Nat and I were sick). Even better views!
- 2 hr run at Leura: Leura Cascades, Dardanelle's pass, Giant Stairs, Prince Henry Cliff Walk. I attempted to run the Giant stair case. Got about 3 ladders in and nearly died. The road back to fitness is long and slow.
- 2 hr run at Lawson: North Lawson Park, Blue Mountain - thick scrub, smaller and more interesting waterfalls followed by some fire-trails with lofty views.

Interval in Brisbane
- 3hr hike/scramble on Mt Beerwah with Mike - Lots of fun and a bit nervy as always on the huge exposed slab of the first section. Explored some butresses on the North side of the mountain, but didn't venture very far because of the cliffs that surrounded us.

Back to Sydney
- 3hr run/bushbash at Medlow Bath. Went down on the Colusseum track - carefully manouvered steep stairs without railings at the edge of long drop-offs (eek), was suitably impressed by the huge cliff-cove which gives the trail its name, and started to venture down towards the Megalong valley on a faint track without checking the topo map first. Well, it turns out that I went the wrong way, and was up to my nuts in ferns for a fair while before hopping down a rocky, mossy creek and running through the open forest at the bottom. I arrived at the road back to Blackheath, ran about a kilometre, then thumbed my way up as I had no food, was flagging and, frankly, couldn't be fucked running 5km uphill on tarmac. The man who gave me a lift was a really friendly beef-farmer, living on a property in the valley.
- 2hr run/walk at Bilpin. Down Mt Irvine Road to the bridge over Bowen's Creek. More of a fact-finding mission for an article I'm writing than anything else, but it was awesome to get out in the mountains with my dearly beloved.
- 1.5hr run at Wentworth falls. Charles Darwin Walk, National pass, under/overcliff track. Again, these are possibly the most enjoyable trails that I've ever run on. If I had some friends and a job in the area, I would love to live in this little town. The trail begins 300m from the train station, there's an awesome second-hand bookshop in the centre and it's only 90 minutes from Sydney. Oh well, one can but dream.

Also, I had a speed session on Monday and last night I ran a 5k time trial at the Hills Athletics track. The first km passed in about 3:40 and felt super-comfortable, but then the hard week of training so far (as well as the run earlier that day) seemed to catch up with me. 19:06 as an embarassingly pedestrian final time - the road back to full fitness is certainly a long one.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Colonialism is in the air

It's 20 years since the High Court made its historic Mabo decision, granting (some) land rights to the indigenous peoples of Australia.
I'm currently reading Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", a novel which deals with the ways in which Colonisers rationalise and ideologically justify colonisation, an act that is fundamentally greedy, violent and exploitative.
So these two factors made me starry-eyed and nostalgic about my own forays into anti-colonial angst.
Below is an essay I wrote about a year ago, expressing my thoughts on the European colonisation of the Americas. It's not overly exhaustive (there was a word limit), but you get the gist. It's a really simple introduction to anti-colonial thought.
And don't worry - the irony/ridiclousness of an Australian student's railings about the evils of his own race's colonisation of a completely foreign continent is not lost on me.
I am here leading a cushy life and doing very little to cauese change, while the oppressed are there, suffering.
Europe’s Arrival in the Americas: Divergent Perspectives

In the lead up to October of 1992, an enormous landlocked lighthouse in the shape of the Cross was built in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic (RCC, 1992). It was erected to commemorate and celebrate Columbus’ arrival in the Americas five hundred years earlier; however, there was a darker side to this construction (RCC, 1992). The surrounding shantytowns were demolished to create space for lavish parklands, displacing thousands of Dominicans, while a wall was erected to block the remaining barrios from view (RCC, 1992). This is a poignant reminder that every historical “fact” has multiple interpretations; it is a summary, an echo, of the treatment of the Americas throughout the past five centuries. The glorious monument was constructed - Europeans “discovered” the New World and its riches; the residents were displaced – Indigenous peoples were murdered and marginalized. The only undisputable fact is that Europeans arrived, having a huge effect on this landmass and inhabitants. However, this essay will argue that the European invasion of the Americas was necessarily framed as a discovery, in order to justify and execute the subsequent exploitation of the indigenous peoples living on this continent.
Before the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492, the Americas did not exist to Europe, that is, it was ‘covered’ from European eyes (Dussel, 1988). When the Spaniards, the Portuguese, French, English and Dutch arrived, they revealed that which had been covered, that is, they ‘dis-covered’ it (Dussel, 1988). And when they ‘dis-covered’ the Americas, there was nothing present that resembled Europe’s cities, nothing to which the discoverers had an emotional attachment (R. Esposto, LTCS2026 lecture, April 12, 2011). So, lacking any resemblance of European habitation, it could also have been framed as ‘uninhabited’. There was one problem with this perspective; there were human beings present in the Americas who had spent thousands of years developing sophisticated cultures, ways of life and even civilizations. The Americas were certainly not ‘covered’ to these people; this continent had been dis-covered when their ancestors had crossed the Bering Strait tens of thousands of years before, and they had inhabited  it ever since. This reveals that the supposed ‘fact’ that the Americas were discovered by Columbus and the European colonizers who followed is in reality a highly-Eurocentric interpretation of his arrival.
If this event; Europe’s arrival in the Americas; is interpreted from the perspective of a Westerner in the year 2011, a different reality is apparent. The UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (1974) considers invasion to be an act of aggression, where aggression is “is the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State”. As an example, the actions of the first Europeans who attempted to settle in the Americas, the conquistadores, will be analyzed. These men were certainly armed; in fact, their main advantage in battle (that is, the use of force) against, in the case of Cortés and his troops, the Aztecs was that they possessed firearms (Miller, 2001). War was waged in order to claim their territory, and the conquest ultimately led to Spanish control and suppression of the Aztec people, that is, a removal of their political independence. The Aztec Empire, as one example of an Indigenous civilization, was politically organized by the time the Spanish had arrived; it consisted of an alliance of city states which paid tribute to Tenochtitlan (Merrill and Miró, 1996). There was a rigid social structure which governed Aztec life, with the emperor selected from the nobility comprised of military officials, priests and political leaders; who ruled over the merchant class, the commoners (artisans and farmers) and the slaves (Merrill and Miró, 1996). Furthermore, the Aztecs clearly occupied a definite territory; the Valley of Mexico and its surrounding areas (Merrill and Miró, 1996). With the fulfillment of these two elements; political organization and occupation of a territory; it becomes clear that the Aztec Empire was a state when evaluated against the current Western legal definition of this term (State, N.D.). Therefore, the actions of the conquistadores against the indigenous inhabitants of the Mesoamerica meet the UN’s definition of an act of aggression, or more specifically, an invasion. The European conquests of other sections of the Americas, for example, Pizarro’s defeat of the Inca State in Peru, involved similar circumstances as discussed above (TUOC, 1997). As such, when analyzed from a perspective situated in the West in the year 2011, the European conquest of the Americas was an invasion.
However, this perspective has the advantage of a vast body of scientific knowledge negating racial differences previously constructed as concrete, for instance, many are now aware of the fact that 99.9% of the DNA of each human is identical to that of all others (JS, 2001). In the sixteenth century, there was no such scientific evidence of the similarity of all ‘races’ and as such, minor differences could be manipulated to serve the intentions of, in this case, the invaders. Thus, the obvious question arises: what led to, and what was, the European construction of indigenous peoples in the Americas?
Anibal Quijano (2000) believes that the classification of races began with the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista, which led to the establishment of the ‘certificate of purity of blood’. This, coupled with the invasion of the Americas, led to the Eurocentric concentration of power, allowing the subjects (Europeans) to classify the objects of expulsion, invasion, and domination (Jews, Moors, and Indians) as inferior, thereby legitimizing their exploitation (Quijano, 2000). This also explains the homogenization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas; despite the fact that there was huge cultural diversity across the continent, they were all classified as Indians, because they were all objects (Quijano, 2000).
Mignolo (2009), on the other hand, believes that racism was an essential epistemic hierarchy, constructed for the purpose of legitimizing the supremacy of Christianity, and later, the supremacy of Science and Philosophy.
Whatever the relationship of cause and effect, the structure was certainly self-perpetuating; it resulted in the development of an apparently objective, scientific scale of humanity, with Europeans at the pinnacle, and all other ‘races’ ranked according to their likeness to Europeans (Mignolo, 2009). For example, the Aztecs had developed a sophisticated written language which used logograms to convey meaning (Rojas-Lizana, 2011), but because it did not include characters resembling those used in the European languages, they were considered to be illiterate (Mignolo, 2009).The Aztec religion, with its plumed serpent God Quetzalcoatl, was considered as demonic, when compared to Christian symbols, thereby increasing the Europeans’ sense of righteousness in dominating and destroying these people (Mignolo, 2009). Moreover, the Aztec practice of human sacrifice was in total disagreement with the increasingly anthropocentric view of the world adopted by Europeans, thereby justifying their subsequent “sacrifice…to the God of capital in the [next] five hundred years (Giese, 1992:1)”. This is the example of just one indigenous culture; Fernandez de Oveido believed that the autochthonous peoples of the Americas had “become irrational and bestial because of their idolatries, sacrifices and devilish ceremonies (as quoted in Dussel, 1988)”. From this, it is visible that the indigenous ‘objects’ were constructed as intellectually, morally and philosophically inferior to the Europeans. Because of this inferiority, it was impossible for indigenous groups/civilizations to be regarded as ‘states’ in the European sense of the term, meaning that any encroachment upon their territorial integrity or political and religious independence would not be regarded as an invasion, but as a discovery and an enlightenment (Dussel, 1988).
This was a sort of Eurocentric self-righteousness, and had devastating consequences for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. What followed Columbus’ arrival in 1492 was the largest genocide in human history; in 400 years 100 million indigenous people had died, and in the areas which the Europeans had populated, typically 95% of the indigenous population was eliminated (OUP, 1993). The remaining people were enslaved or, later, forced into labour through the Encomienda system, and evangelized, for the material gain of Europe (Proach, 2009); that is, they were exploited.
From all this, it is now apparent that the European invasion of the Americas was necessarily framed as a discovery, in order to justify and execute the subsequent exploitation of the indigenous peoples living on this continent. These people are yet to regain their complete territorial integrity and political independence, although many claim that the situation is improving (Stocks, 2005), with the coming to power of many left-leaning presidents across Latin America, many of whom emphasise social justice (BBC News, 2005).
In a different reality, the monument erected in Santo Domingo in October 1992 would have depicted a European and an indigenous person embracing, and would have been covered in the symbols of all of the indigenous groups of the Americas. Instead of surrounding parklands, there would be housing built for the residents of the shantytowns. This would be symbolic of the events of the past five hundred years; the European arrival and the subsequent intercultural, mutually beneficial encounter between the peoples of Europe and the Americas. The past cannot be changed, but in the future lies the possibility that indigenous people in the Americas will be restored their epistemic rights and their capacity for self-determination.

BBC News. (2005). South America’s Leftward Sweep. BBC News Online. Retrieved April 29, 2011, from
Dussel, E. (1988). Was America Discovered or Invaded? Concilium, 220, 126-134. Retrieved April 28, 2011, from
Giese, P. (1992). Five Hundred Years of Sacrifice Before Alien Gods [online interview]. Retrieved April 27, 2011, from 
Jupiter Scientific. (2001). The Greatest Biological Development in Science History. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from
Merrill, T. and Miró, R. (1996). Mexico: The Aztec. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from
Mignolo, W. (2009). Dispensable and Bare Lives: Coloniality and the Hidden Political/Economic Agenda of Modernity. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology and Self-Knowledge, 7(2), 69-88. Retrieved April 27, 2011, from
Miller, A. (2001). Conquering the Aztec. Junior Scholastic 104(2), 18-20. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from
Oxford University Press. (1993). Review - American Holocaust: Conquest of the New World. Retrieved April 29, 2011, from 
Proach, D. (2009). The Encomienda System in New Spain. Retrieved April 29, 2011, from 
Quijano, A. (2000). Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America. International Sociology, 15(2), 215-232. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from
Rojas-Lizana, S. (2011, March 15). LTCS2026: Cultures of Latin America, week 3 [lecture]. Brisbane: The University of Queensland. 
Roman Catholic Church. (1992). Columbus Memorial: Another Invasion. The Christian Century, 109(23), 704-705. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from
State. (N.d.). Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from
Stocks, A. (2005). Too Much for Too Few: Problems of Indigenous Land Rights in Latin America. Annual Review of Anthropology, 34, 85-104. Retrieved March 26, 2011, from:
The University of Calgary. (1997). The Conquest of the Inca Empire: Francisco Pizarro. Retrieved April 29, 2011, from
UN General Assembly,  29th sess. (1974, December 14). Resolution 3314: Definition of aggression. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from  

Monday, May 28, 2012

Rethinking the "Cootha Debacle", ultrarunning and the entire world.

Just under two years ago, I did not have a residential address for three weeks. For the most part, I slept in a tent in the forest and on a mangy mattress in the UQ Canoe Club. I had intended to live this way for at least half a year, but lasted less than a month.

At the time (and until recently), I justified the project as an interesting experiment, a way of testing myself, etc...

Now, I have a different understanding of the pattern of thought which led to the uncontrollable emotional urge to remove myself almost entirely from the mainstream.

I'd been reading Clive Hamilton and listening to a particularly leftist lecturer, agreeing entirely with their arguments.
The system itself creates oppression, not individual agents or institutions. The system itself is oppressive. Full stop.

When someone reaches that kind of ideological closure they have two options.

It's really a sad indictment of the amount of  agency we have in the world, that an idealistic student should feel that removing himself from the social system is a better option than attempting to change it, to revolve it. Because, ultimately, all meaningful revolutions are crushed, or chewed up by the culture industry (mass media among other things) and spat out in an alien form, or become diluted by power grabbing.

From the feudal system of the middle ages to today's global network capitalism, the "fundamentals" haven't changed (in terms of power relations), just the way in which consent is manufactured. Back then it was done through religion, today, pseudo-choice.
But over the last few months I've been trying to accept that, well, if it's always been oppressive of a large majority (of which I'm, thankfully, not a part), why should I expect that it could be any different?

The ideologies through which public consent is manufactured in our "democracies" have caused many people to envision a world of perfect freedom and equality that has never existed.
A world that might just be impossible.

The implications of this hugely cynical idea (obviously conceived of by someone before me) can be very serious.
But they don't have to be. For me, it could potentially involve accepting and being grateful for my position of privilege in an oppressive system, while being sympathetic of (and helping, where convenient) those who are oppressed.

Wow, reading that line back to myself, it seems like I might soon embody the one thing that I fear the most: middle-class indifference.

I can now understand why people tend to move to the right as they get older.

So where does ultra-trail-running fit into this?
Until recently, the sport was (in my mind) a microcosm of the impossible world which I had yearned for. It was community-run and almost entirely free of corporate interests.
The fact that it is no longer so pure, with a growing commercial hype machine involved, may have shattered the last scerics of my idealistic worldview.

But I can still hold on to SOME hope, right?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Why do I refuse to go to a physio?

Why do I refuse to go to a physio (or any health care professional) for an injury that has been persistent for the past 18 months? It's a question that I've been grappling with a fair bit recently.

Some possibilities:
 - I've seen many friends throw money at injuries to no avail (although there are many others for whom it's been successful).
- I'm confident in my body's capacity to heal itself.
- I (mis)place stock in my own ability to diagnose and treat my injuries.
- I subconsciously believe that I don't deserve treatment.

Above all, I think it's because I despise most forms of institutionalised, dogmatic and mainstream knowledge. They tend to be grounded in often-flawed cultural assumptions and provide reductive and narrow understandings of reality.

My choice may or may not be vindicated as I return to light jogging in the following few weeks. The initial signs are good...ish. I'm taking a measured, cautious approach for once - let's hope it works.

If not, off to the doc.

Edit: Was convinced that I'm being an idiot - appointment booked for Thursday morning at 11:15am.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

One for the ages: Canoeing the Ebro in 2010

I dug this previously un-posted account out of "my documents" at work, the only place where I had it saved.
Basically, it describes a 4-day canoeing trip in Spain three Januarys ago - my eighteenth birthday present from some really generous relatives.
Somewhat embarassing is the strong influence of DK's two books on my writing. Oh the shame.

It’s interesting to note that before this ill-fated journey began, there were only two possibilities for the canoe trip that had been envisioned and discussed. Uncle Peter (UP) suggested that I would stroll down the river with a hard-bag in the hull, chatting to locals over a pint at every village and sleeping in a warm bed at a hostel or hotel every night. I, on the other hand, wanted to embark upon a transformative journey of endurance, fighting fatigue for three weeks, all the way down to the Mediterranean, while camping in fields along the way. I wanted a physical gruelathon of epic proportions.

We didn’t listen to the only person who had any idea of what the conditions on the river would actually be like; Alberto Blasco, the Spanish canoe-guide who we had become acquainted with. He had asked multiple times if I was a professional canoeist and had warned us that the river was “quite dangerous”.
I was an 18-year-old child who had started canoeing properly two months before and whose only experience of rapids had come in the form of ripples emanating off of the side of the “Citycat” – a suburban ferry that ran up and down the placid Brisbane River.

“Even if the river is quite dangerous”, I thought, “and I happen to fall in, I can just jump back into the canoe and keep going right?”
I had assumed that because there were no bull sharks in the Ebro, capsizing in Spain would not be half as dangerous as getting dunked in Brisbane.

I had said before I left that I was “mentally prepared” for sub-zero temperatures, but no amount of fortitude of the mind can protect one against the harsh physiological reality of such a climate. How are you supposed to deal with the lack of feeling in your fingers and feet beneath wet gloves and shoes when the next village is kilometres away, with many rapids and weirs in between?
I would soon learn the answer to this question and many more, in what ended up being the most valuable four days of my life.

Day 1 – Miranda Del Ebro (City) to El Soto (Vineyard)
The night before I left, UP and Auntie Geraldine (AG) called me into their hotel room to discuss the weather forecast, both with very grave facial expressions. They were both visibly distressed when telling me that a massive cold front was sweeping southwards across Europe towards Spain, bringing ungodly weather with it. They wanted me to wait for a day or two in the hotel in Miranda before setting off, but I dismissed the idea immediately. I desired to leave as soon as possible and this news did nothing to dampen my blind lust for adventure.

So there we were, on the 6th of January, I was sitting on the bank of the Ebro, with the sit-on-top canoe in front of me, waiting for UP and AG to bring back a few supplies. A few curious locals had gathered atop the nearest bridge to look at a crazy blonde foreigner with a paddle in his hand and a smile on his face. I chatted to a few Spaniards wandering along the river bank, with one plump lady finishing her speech with a resounding “ten cuidad!” – be careful. I asked another man if he had any suggestions for me; “que no lo haga,” he replied - that you don’t do it.
This didn’t scare me at all, I attributed their sentiment to a mental weakness on their own part, as I did the fact that AG and UP were crying when they sent me off half an hour later.

By 1200 I had been paddling for fifteen minutes and it was going, more or less, according to plan. Fatigue was my only enemy, and so far I was beating it. All that I had to do was to drink in the splendour of my surroundings and ignore the lactic burn – I had been doing the same while running up and down Mount Cootha for a year. There were peaks in the distance, sandstone spires on either side of me, as well as gorges, wineries and endless rows of grapevines. The sky was grey and pregnant but everything else displayed the Iberian vibrance that I had expected; brilliant orange and yellow colourings painted on to the countryside.

I came to the first weir of the trip at about 1530. Immediately, I heard the roar of the water, then I saw the stillness of the water next to a large hydro-plant. After this, I was slightly confused, as it seemed like the river was running right into the middle of the countryside up ahead. Finally, I realised that I would have to exit the river as close to the lip as possible without being caught in the current and sent over the lip. I was able to pull up next to a concrete block beside the weir, which rose a metre out of the water, removing my backpack (strapped to the top of the vessel) and hauling the canoe up a steep slope and along a grassy path for about 50 metres. I re-entered without a problem, and that turned out to be the easiest weir to traverse of them all.

At 1605, I pulled up along side a random vineyard1 past the town of Haro and set my tent up without any great difficulty. By 1700, I had all of my damp and dry gear inside of the tent, and all of my soaked gear between the mosquito net and the fly. I cracked open some hand warmers in an attempt to revive my feet. Everything was wet and cold, especially the floor of the tent, and for the nine hours, I followed a rough pattern of one hour sleeping, and one hour trying to keep my body temperature up by rubbing my legs together and grasping my feet. At about two in the morning, I cut my losses, after realising that there was no way that I could warm my lower body, and just tried to be satisfied with the fact that I could still feel it. The ambient temperature had varied between -50C and 00C throughout the night, and was much the same the next day.

        Removing my beanie because I was feeling too hot. The beanie became soaked when I traversed some minor rapids.
        Taking off my wet canoe gear upon making camp. My underwear, skins and thermals literally froze through the night.
        A sleeping bag designed for a temperature as low as 100C does not provide any warmth if the surrounding air is colder than this level.
        If a piece of clothing is advertised as waterproof, it most likely isn’t.
        Not surprisingly, thin Australian canoeing gloves are not designed for European winters.

Overall, I was happy with the first day. I had handled it with the mental attitude suggested by the Dalai Lama – view a problem as a challenge rather than a threat, and one’s ability to cope will be greatly enhanced. I had maintained a positive outlook.
That night, in the city of Logroño, UP and AG were completely distraught and barely slept at all.

Day 2 – El Soto to San Vicente de la Sonsierra (Riojan village)
I awoke to about ten centimetres of snow on parts of and all around my tent. In other circumstances, I would marvel at such conditions, but on this day it made everything a bit harder and a bit more frustrating.

I was on the river at 0900 after having an asparagus sandwich for breakfast (white bread made up about 60% of my diet while en route) and packing up. I covered about a kilometre in the first thirty minutes – a snail’s pace – the time being equally split between paddling and having my hands down my pants for warmth. The snow was relentless and blinding.

After this time, I came to a weir2 with a diagonal lip – a part of which was dry and therefore traversable. I hauled the canoe out of the water, over, and then back in but within twenty metres I had hopped out again to haul it over rocks submersed by shallow water. For the next fifteen minutes, I was in and out of the canoe constantly being beached in the shallow water. Just when the switch in my mind had been flicked over from ‘challenge’ to ‘threat’, I came to a long but narrow stretch of deeper water. Just before the river widened was a semi-submersed log, through which the current was flowing. On the right hand side of the log was a small gap that led to the next widened section of the river. I had had enough of hauling the canoe, so I decided to hop back in and to try to work my way around the obstruction. In my optimistic state of mind, I envisioned myself hitting the log parallel, pulling myself along it, and being released at its tip. I was too lazy to pull the canoe along the sandy bank next to the log and too lazy to properly analyse what would have happened to me when I hit it.

Sure enough, I ran into the log parallel, the canoe was immediately tipped to its side, and I fell out up to my waste. My water bottle and watch fell out, and I had to fish around in the icy water for half a minute to find them. I had also lost my gloves, meaning that I had to paddle for the next two hours in sub-zero temperatures with my hands uncovered. Frostbite beckoned.

It’s amazing how your senses can be dulled when you are forced to focus your mind on resisting the cold. I passed leafless trees with countless branches completely covered in snow like carefully crafted ice sculptures in a winter wonderland. There were severe orange rock faces that constantly seemed as if the last rays of sunlight were giving them life. Periodically, a group of picture perfect European ducks would fly past me, or I would see a large black water-bird explode from beneath the surface and disappear in the blink of an eye. However, my survival instinct had taken over – my surroundings weren’t classified as beautiful or mundane, but as an aid or a threat to my existence.

I think that this only occurs when there is no safety net. While running or canoeing in Queensland I had the opportunity to quit at any point and I wouldn’t have been in any danger (this goes without saying for swimming or gyming). If I had decided to relinquish the canoe and pull up on the bank at most times while in Spain, it could be hours before I would find the next village and by then I could be hypothermic and/or frostbitten. It sounds like a great motivator, but I didn’t have the experience and discipline to see it in this way. I almost felt as if I had already died and that I would never know warmth or life again – I was trapped, there was no escape.

Not surprisingly then, when I saw the top of a church and the makings of a village in the far distance I was exultant. I pulled the canoe aground under one of the arches of a medieval bridge made with the intricacy and attention to detail that I had come to expect in such relics.

After removing my gear from the canoe, I began trudging up the hillside to the road which led into the village, falling over numerous times and giving my hands a large dose of exposure. The progress was arduous along the 600-metre road into the centre of the village. A police car made its way carefully past me, with the driver smiling at me in amazement from behind the wheel. I didn’t try to reciprocate the gesture, and I there probably wasn’t enough blood in my face to allow me to do so.

At some point during this march through the persistent snow, I lost all feeling in and ability to move my right pinkie, which had become stuck in a claw-like curve. My lack of experience in cold climates caused me to panic, and I believed that if I didn’t soon find somewhere warm, that I would lose my hand. Thankfully, some locals directed me to a brilliant hotel, and after explaining my situation the astounded hotelier and asking if there was somewhere around where I could buy ski gloves, I was able to thaw out. I had arrived at 1200, was in bed at 1500 after talking at length on the phone to UP and AG, woke up at 1700 to get some supplies, and then slept from 1900 till 0645 the next morning. I was so grateful for the comfort of heating and a warm bed, as well as the hospitality of the large owner of the hotel, who had somehow managed to find me four pairs of ski gloves from which to choose. These gloves were very well priced, and I thought long and hard about buying two pairs, but decided on purchasing one. It would cost me later on.

        Trying to tackle the log.
        Never take the risky option when hypothermia is a possible outcome.
        Don’t let your judgement be clouded by fatigue and wishful thinking.
        Paddle through the middle of rapids. If your try to avoid them on either side, you will be sucked back into them without any forward momentum, making it a lot more likely that you will capsize.
        On a canoe, the only way to protect something from the water is to put it at the very bottom of a waterproof bag, inside the hull. Everything else is vulnerable.

Day 3 – San Vicente to la Puebla de la Labarca (Basque village)
Upon waking, I talked to the Godparents on the phone again and I now find it very ironic that it was I who was nearly in tears upon hanging up. It was like the morning of my execution – I subconsciously thought that I wouldn’t talk to them again.
After a breakfast of white bread with jam and fruit, I was ready to head off; despite having developed what I thought was a head cold throughout the night.
The first obstacle was a weir leading onto a group of narrowly separated islands, which was only fifty metres past the bridge. I had a good look at it as I walked back down the road, and it seemed controllable.

Overall, I believe that I handled it quite well. It was as complex as the one the day before but I managed and made the correct decisions. I had to walk over slopes of slippery rocks and miraculously didn’t slip over at all. The overhanging trees and logs were just as treacherous as the day before. A few times I brushed under them and was completely covered in snow, trying to find it funny instead of aggravating. Admittedly, a large measure of luck was involved in my safe passage as it always is in such journeys.

I re-entered in a very narrow straight through which the water undulated violently and the trees obstructed my view of what lay ahead. I was fortunate that another log was not hiding around one of the many bends.

Once the river had widened I believed that my troubles were over and that I could just focus on paddling and keeping my hands warm (there wasn’t much that I could do about my feet, but the wet suit boots were more-or-less doing their job). I was complacent and I was wrong. I had dealt with rapids on the previous two days, which I had thought were rough but were mite-sized in reality. I had treated them as challenges but what I now faced turned on an instinctive fear, as I did not have experience in such rough waters. My stomach sank as I heard the faint roar of the water from a hundred metres away.
There were two drops of about one metre in height, with roughly thirty minutes between them. The kayak went over both at a 450 causing the whole of the seat to be filled with water. Because I had almost completely consigned myself to being capsized before going over, I felt as if I had been resurrected when I realised that I was still in the canoe at the end of each ordeal. An experienced canoeist would have no problem in handling such waters. I was enthusiastic and determined, but I was not experienced.

My ski gloves – advertised as waterproof – had soaked through, and to extract the water I was using my mouth as a siphoning system. I wouldn’t realise how stupid this was until much later on.

Just as my hands were going numb, I pulled up at another weir that was, thankfully, next to a small village3 (Mañueta). I had to haul the canoe up a 1.5 metre high wall (at an incline of about 75%) created by a series of boulders. I still had some energy left in me from the massive breakfast and made light work of the obstacle. However, upon reaching the top I realised that I really needed to get inside in order to warm myself up. After walking for about five minutes, I was grateful to see a red circle jutting out of the side of a building, undoubtedly indicating the existence of a pub.

Upon entering, I was given a few curious and suspicious looks by the locals, before announcing to the bartender (with limited modesty) that I was going down the Ebro on a canoe. A few gasps followed and then one man exclaimed “Un hombre con dos cojones!” – A man with two balls. I liked this aspect of the journey; to the locals I wasn’t just another drunken Aussie rollicking around the countryside, I was accepted as one of them and I commanded a certain measure of respect.

As I sat by the fire, chewing on some pistachios and chatting to an old bearded lad in gumboots, I thought about how I always arrived at a well-equipped village when it was needed. An hour later, after finishing my tea I was out of the bar and off again. As I made my exit, the locals looked at me as if I was about to be crucified; it was a kind of solemn respect. Others probably thought that I was crazy.

Yet another local helped me to haul the canoe about a hundred metres down a road and on to a boat-ramp – which turned out to be one of the best re-entry points of the entire trip.

I had been told by the bearded geezer that there was one weir between Logroño and myself. There were four. The first4 came at about 1400, opposite to the village of Cenicero and looked very manageable at first. I approached the hydro-plant to make my exit, being careful to stay out of the current, which was uncharacteristically strong at this weir. I was ten metres away from it when I realised that there were a series of metal spikes jutting out from the water that made the ledge next to the plant inaccessible.

The rest of that side of the river was covered in scrub and was far too steep for an exit. I had to turn around and cross over, despite a current of about 12 km/h sweeping to my side. I analysed the situation and formed a game plan. I would turn around swiftly and avoid the flow for as long as possible by going up the river along the bank. When I hit the current, I would paddle against it for my life. It all went according to plan until I hit the rapid flow, which turned the nose of the canoe quickly and sent me towards the lip.

Fear. My experiences have told me that fear can be very dangerous if left untamed in such situations. The best way to manage it is to ask yourself what it is that you fear, to reaffirm yourself of the negative aspects of this genesis in order to cultivate a motivation to avoid it, which will translate into clinical action to do so. I didn’t have that kind of time to think however, so I just pulled hard on the left, dug in on the right to swing the nose of the canoe around, and then paddled for my life. I got to the other bank and out of the current after about a minute and by now traversing weirs had become a routine procedure, so that I handled the rest of that one with ease – walking down a 4-metre long diagonal face with the canoe in tow. I had become so used to turbulent waters, obstacles and wild weather in the last two days that the next two sunny, rapid-and-weir-free hours were almost boring. I should have cherished them.

The following weir5 came next to a concrete-floored park, complete with picnic tables and barbecues. It had been my goal for the day to reach this location, however, my tent and sleeping bag were soaked through, and if I had decided to sleep under one of the benches and the weather took a turn for the worse during the night (it was still about 30C but sunny) I could quickly become hypothermic. It was 1530 and there was still plenty of sunlight left, so I decided to push on, dragging my canoe over concrete, grit, and snow for a few hundred metres to the closest clear launch (a clearing in the trees). About thirty metres from this point, I noticed a log jutting out of the bank that I was on, that had the current flowing right under it. I ran ahead for a closer look and realised that I would have to paddle very hard towards the still water on the right-hand side in order to get past it. There was no clear launch point anywhere ahead. I returned to the canoe, hauled it in and paddled like I had intended. I celebrated as if I had won an Olympic gold medal when I passed the obstacle, floating down the narrow, bumpy straight with my paddle raised high in the air. I spotted a smaller fork-shaped log on the right, at a 450 angle with the flow of the river and a lot of space  – it was nothing, barely a blip on the radar. A few hard pulls on the right and I would sail past it. I was complacent and it cost me dearly. I waited for longer than I otherwise would have before paddling hard.

I didn’t hit the log at a great pace, but as soon as I did the canoe tipped to its side against the log and filled with water. I fell in immediately and was submerged up to my chest, before the canoe was shifted under the log and up onto the other side, upside down, by the force of the current. Luckily, I was attached to the canoe by a rope that was connected to the front of my jacket, which held the boat in place on the other side of the log. The downside of this was that this rope had become wrapped around my right leg, seriously reducing my mobility and pinning me to the log.

After letting out a mid-pitched “uuaaaahhhh” sounding yelp a couple of times, I considered my options. My first thought was to swim under the log in order to free my leg from the rope and get to the canoe. I am grateful that I decided against it. Who knows what could have been below the surface? Additionally, I could have become even more tightly grasped by the rope - with my head underwater. UP had told me of a professional English canoeist dying in this way before I had left, and at the time, I barely factored it into my planning. That wont happen to me, I thought.

By the time that I had decided to try to flip the canoe, I looked up to see my backpack floating down the river. In it was half of my food, a pair of thermals and the useless hand warmers. More worryingly, the clear waterproof sleeve containing the maps of the river had also disappeared, although I didn’t have the luxury of watching it go.

After flipping the canoe, I was able to wedge it up the middle of the fork along side me. I then unclipped the rope from the canoe and somehow managed to climb back into the vessel. Somehow, during all of this, I managed not to lose my paddle (the rope connecting me to the paddle had broken earlier on). This was a significant stroke of luck that allowed me to continue on my journey. I threw my weight back and forth to get off of the log, and was on my way again in a matter of moments. I thought about what I had lost: the thermals’ untimely exit meant that I would have to find a way to dry my clothes out every second day, the food was replaceable, and UP had a copy of the maps. He could text me each morning describing the distance between myself and the weirs and villages of the next forty kilometres. It was manageable. Stay positive.

Oh shit, was my wallet in the plastic sleeve? No, of course not, it was in the hull with my money belt.  Hang on…It was. Most of its contents were useless in Spain – my Medicare card, driver’s licence, Australian bankcard – except for one small piece of plastic. My Spanish bankcard was in the river. Even that wasn’t a huge problem. I was one day away from Logroño – a small city and the capital of la Rioja – and could probably extract the cash at a branch there. We were still in business.

After the first night, my thoughts were straying ever more frequently to my parents and Godparents. AG had informed me that UP hadn’t slept for the first few nights since I had left, and I received some voicemail messages from AG that sounded like she was in tears. Mum and Dad had read about the weather, and I was in worst affected region of Spain. They would be worried sick as well. I thought that it was unfair to them to be put under such amounts of stress by my selfish ambition. I shouldn’t have been surprised by their sentiments though, whenever I embarked on any physical endeavour more strenuous than a walk, that I had planned myself and required me to leave our neighbourhood, my parents’ usual reaction was at first to try to convince me not to do it, and then to offer to make it easier for me through their use of a car. Not once was I told, “Good idea son, you can do it!” They had doubted my physical and mental ability to deal with such challenges for a long time. After I had left home, they just accepted that if I challenged myself to do it, I would.

It would have been so easy for me to slip into the path of least resistance, to take the easy road and never to have known the deepest lows and most soaring highs of life. I had fought it, and realised that pain ultimately brings joy and is transformative, giving strength and compassion to those who undergo it. I will never be a suburbanite like my family and friends.

In any case, when I pulled up at la Puebla de la Labarca6 at just before 1600, my will was waning considerably. I asked a bartender to direct me to a hotel, and by 1730 I was showered, dry and ready for a meal. A few euros bought me a couple of lettuce and tomato sandwiches (I didn’t wash the veggies), half a litre of orange juice and a bowl of dusty looking almonds from the chubby Basque lad who ran the place. I chomped my meal down merrily and was in bed by 1900.

My sleep was very troubled, I had visions of myself being dunked by huge rapids and going over weirs.

I awoke at about 2a.m. to a feeling of nausea. It wasn’t the worst that I had experienced, but it was enough to keep me from sleeping. It could have been the suspicious almonds, the salad, or the river water. That didn’t really matter. What did was that I was constantly in and out of the toilet to empty my bowels for the next 90 minutes, losing what little fluid, electrolytes and energy was left in my body.

        Trying to dry my gloves with my mouth.
        Turn the canoe over when you pull up so that the seat doesn’t dill with snow and ice. It sounds simple, but when you’ve been going for the whole day, all you can think about is food and shelter.
        You are never out of danger. Be constantly vigilant.
        Treat positive and negative outcomes objectively.

Day 4 – La puebla de la Labarca to Assa (Riojan village)
The following morning, I was completely drained, and only ate two pieces of dry toast for breakfast, for fear of a relapse.

I walked out of the hotel and was greeted by a cold, sunny day. It had snowed relentlessly overnight. I had tried to damped my nervousness by repeating the mantra “just get to Logroño”. Logroño was a major city centre – the capital of La Rioja – and once there, I could try to recover from this headcold (which caused odd chronic-fatigue-like symptoms and left me very weak) and diarrhoea for a few days before setting off again. These thoughts pulled my focus away from keeping my stomach intact. Consequently, as I made my way down to the boat ramp where I had stored the canoe overnight, I managed to soil myself, if only very slightly. This added to my gloomy feeling as I set off down a very flat and calm stretch of the river. Every stroke of the paddle caused me to feel even sicker.

At one point, for whatever reason, I started crying, while exclaiming “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. I believe that I was thinking about all of the stress that I had caused to others, and the fact that so much danger could still be ahead. I was mapless, soaked, sick, nauseated and basically defeated. It was as if I had regressed in years to a whining toddler, incapable of controlling my bodily movements. I think that it was at this point that I decided to give up upon reaching Logroño. At the time, I told myself that it was because I could possibly die further ahead, and that I was causing so much anxiety to others. Now, looking back on it, I really took the soft option. I had, unlike ever before, let my circumstances get to me.

After about 90 minutes, I came to the roughest weir7 of the journey, with a proper dam wall. There was no danger of going over it, but this monstrosity was spouting a huge amount of white water on the other side. As usual, I hauled the canoe out of the water almost mechanically and then pulled it along a dirt road covered in snow at the side of a vineyard for about 400 metres. I then traversed a rough thicket, went over a small stream and trampled my way through a small island. If I had had the maps, I would have realised that I could have gone down the stream to avoid the mess that was about to come.

From the launch point, I faced the largest system of rapids, currents, islands, and rock obstructions that I had faced. It was like the perfect canoe-wrecking mechanism. Directly in front of me, to the right of the safest path, there was a small piece of land, detached from the bank, with an array of outstretched branches, and raised about one metre out of the water, so I couldn’t just slide nicely on to it. If I hit it, I would almost certainly be capsized. To the left, through another thicket, was a launch-point past the island. My mind was clouded with fatigue, and I honestly didn’t really care what happened now. It was almost as if I wanted to strengthen my excuse for giving up. That was the first time I had felt this way. In the past, I had always wanted to prevail in spite of rough conditions, not to give in to them. My fastest run up the back-end of Mount Cootha had come when I had a bout of raging diarrhoea. This time, I had bitten off more than I could chew.

I hopped into the kayak and tried to paddle past the obstruction. Not surprisingly, I slammed into it nose-first, and the current slowly rotated the vessel, while I paddled furiously to keep it straight. I knew that what would happen next was completely inevitable. You guessed it – I capsized, and found myself neck-deep in the icy-cold water. The rest of my drinking water disappeared, as did my will to continue.

I wasn’t incredibly afraid of my own mortality – to me the consequence was not incredibly great. If I were dead, I wouldn’t feel anything. If I was lucky, there was a heaven, and if not, I would cease to exist. But I knew that the risk was present, and that it was greater than it was in the course of my normal life. If something were to happen to me, my parents would be devastated, and would blame UP and AG, who would be equally distraught.

I think that this factor contributed about 50% to my decision, with the rest split between the grimness of my conditions and my current state of health. I was disappointed that I had become so soft, but I think that I knew I had made the right decision by my family. I had also learnt an incredible amount, and had escaped with my life. But I hadn’t gained what I was seeking. I was looking to turn myself in a human machine, welcoming rough conditions and making friends with pain and fatigue. Looking back, conditions on the river could only have improved, and I would have eventually recovered my health. I should have been patient, waiting in the next village for a few days to continue. I would have broken through the barrier and become mentally stronger and more capable than I had ever imagined. Either that, or I would have died.

The time between when I capsized and when I arrived at the next weir was mainly spent warming my hands up. All I thought about was how sick I felt, and the cold. At some point, while I was alongside a large factory that obviously produced wine, my mind strayed away from my bowels, and I managed to soil myself for a second time. Throughout the morning, I had let out about ten cubic litres of gassy burps.

The next weir8 (right before the village of Assa) had no visible exit point. I went right up alongside the hydro-electric power plant and stepped off of the canoe on to what I though was hard ground. It turned out to be a soft, layered mix of snow, scrub and mud. As I continued the climb up the bank, it became deeper and deeper, until I was submerged up to waist. My progress was arduously slow – I moved about ten metres in as many minutes. I found a thin yet sturdy log that I was able to step up onto, counterbalancing my weight against that of the canoe to inch it a little bit further. To my right, there was a one-metre-tall face built out of rock, much like I had encountered before. I swung the nose of the canoe around to face it, positioned the vessel for the ascent, climbed to the top myself and pulled the boat up. My body felt light and weak, and my vision was a bit fuzzy – it seemed as if I was in a dream. It was almost as if I had burned through my physical reserves, and was now running on the little remaining spirit that I possessed.

I walked about 400 metres ahead along the road going through the village to search for an entry point. It was a Sunday – the place was deserted, but for a couple of mangy dogs that were barking at me from the rooftop of a filthy sandstone house. I didn’t find what I was looking for. I trudged back to the canoe and started hauling it down the road. Once I had arrived at where I had walked to – the far side of a closed pub – I yanked down my pants and let out a few splatters of defecation. There couldn’t have been anything more left in my stomach. At this point, I realised that I was pretty dehydrated and that if I didn’t find an open establishment soon, I could have collapsed on the roadside. This wasn’t helped by the cold, which had become like the flu and would, the next day, make me so drowsy and weak that walking up a flight of stairs would leave me puffing and fill my legs with lactic acid.

I stood tall, reached mechanically into the front of my lifejacket for my phone, and without any conscious thought, I sent a text to UP and AG informing them that I was giving up. By this time, I had entered survival-mode and was running on autopilot. The godparents called me, and I was able to hold it all together for a few minutes, but as soon as I hung up, I broke down and cried. It wasn’t just a few sobs, it was a full-scale tear shed. I gathered what was dry from the canoe, leaving my tent, my volleys, and a few items of clothing, and started walking down the road to Logroño. I didn’t turn around even to look at the dream that I had left behind.

        Going too far too soon.
        There are some things that you shouldn’t push through.
        I am not invincible.

So there it was, thousands of dollars, a month of planning, the hours of training, and the emotional investment that I had made, sitting on the side of the road in a little dump in the middle of La Rioja.

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”
- Wilhelm Stekel

I think back now and am glad yet disappointed that I didn’t do the canoe trip for charity, as I had considered at one point. I would have preferred to have died than to tell a charity that was depending on me that I had failed. Because at the end of the day, that’s what it was. A failure. But the large failure can be broken down into a series of smaller failures along the way. I failed to train for rapids and to properly analyse the river before I left. I failed to give myself a few more days to acclimatise to the weather before setting off. I failed to secure the backpack and the maps to the canoe. I failed to realise the dangers of eating unwashed salad and consuming river water. Before this journey, I had defined myself as someone who pushes through fatigue, pain and poor conditions simply for the sake of doing so. Just before I left, a friend had said to me, “I respect you Zac. If you say that you’ll do something, you will.” This time, I didn’t. I had betrayed my very nature. Failure was only half of the story though. Equally important factors contributing to my decision were compassion and chance.
-          Compassion; I was so worried about my family that I had decided to spare them the misery of waiting to discover if I was alive from a text every morning and night. I was seriously afraid that UP would have a massive coronary if I had kept going for much longer, and id something had happened to me, my parents would never forgive him and AG.
-          Chance; there were so many forks in the river, with both options seeming identical and linking back onto the Ebro, but which presented completely different outcomes. Maybe it was a blessing that I had capsized when I did, and lost my backpack. If chance had allowed me to nip past that log, I might become even more cocky, and wound up with my head submerged at the next. I might have kept going and perished. I might have kept going and survived. Still, it doesn’t help to consider what could have happened.

Despite the fact that I failed, I believe that I have learnt a lot from the experience. Fatigue in itself is not a reason to give up. You can push through fatigue without causing any long-term negative consequences. You may use your discretion, however, when facing risks to your survival and the wellbeing of others. Fatigue is nothing compared to these factors. I hope that this realisation with help me to push harder in the future, and that it will help to make decisions more objectively. My risk analysis skills have improved as well.

The most interesting thing is that I went into the trip wanting to further develop gratitude for the quality of life that I possess. My improvement in this regard has been minimal, but I have developed a different kind of gratitude. I had been grateful for the objects and opportunities given to my parents, and UP and AG. Now I was grateful for hearing their voices, for their love and care, and for the simple fact that they existed. I had spent most of my life trying to escape my family, and now I wanted to embrace them.

Maybe this is what it means to become a man. One day, after all of my current family has passed from the earth and before I have started a family of my own, I may return to Spain to risk my life in order to erase the biggest failure I have ever made. For now, I am content with the lessons that I have learned, and will stick to the safe option; running high into the hills, where the air is pure and modern man is nowhere to be seen.