12 September 2014
State of Mind?
Dearest Spouse and I sat down to watch the flick Milk the other night. It’s worth a couple hours of your life to see how a fight for the rights of one slice of humanity became, though Harvey Milk’s leadership, a cause of human rights. But in the end of this true story, both he and the mayor of San Francisco are assassinated by a crazed political and personal opponent who’s attorney used, somewhat successfully in that he was convicted only of manslaughter, what became known as the “Twinkie Defense”, the theory that his devolution from a previously healthy lifestyle to a diet of junk food proved his state of depression and consequently his inability to act rationally. (Actually, the movie gets this fact wrong and perpetuates the myth that his diet caused the irrationality – a mark of shame on an otherwise excellent work – but some quick web sleuthing – thanks Snopes and imdb – corrects the story.)
What does this have to do with running, I hear you cry? Simple. It raises one of the most basic questions of our being: How do any of us recognize when we’re no longer able to recognize that we’ve lost the ability to recognize reality? And how can that affect – or even cost – our lives while we run?
Few of us, thankfully, will find ourselves in a state of such depravity that we engage in violence against others. Some of us, though, will indeed find ourselves in a state of sufficient depravity to drive ourselves past rational limits. We may, in a way, engage in violence against ourselves.
Remember who’s writing this. The person who rationalized his collapse at the end of the 2008 Wineglass Marathon as a simple fall, but who over the years came clean with himself and recognized that he didn’t get to the moment of that fall through a series of entirely rational decisions. And the person who is somewhat convinced that he learned his lesson and stopped himself from doing it again a few years later at Boston.
It’s good that I think I’ve learned, and I think that I can keep from making the same frightening mistake again, though there’s no guarantee I’m right. But even if I am, there is still the problem of the first time. I like to say that you don’t know what the thing that eventually kills you will feel like, because it hasn’t happened yet. Likewise, you don’t know what it feels like to pass from rational mental functioning to something else, certainly not the first time because you haven’t yet felt it, and maybe not even later, because, well, it’s a circular argument as you can see.
I won a race the other day. That doesn’t happen often, and it was an exciting occurrence for me, but my excitement and happiness lasted all of about one minute before turning to horror. At the end of that minute, my rival for the first two miles of that five kilometer race came into view of the finish line, staggering wildly, obviously physically unstable, and clearly heading for disaster. Despite being nowhere near recovered from my race, I raced again, this time toward him, but didn’t reach him in time as he catapulted headlong, frighteningly, into the pavement. Then things got weird.
But first, let’s back up about forty-five minutes. The event was a local community race, and I’m leaving details vague to respect the privacy of those involved in the story. Many of you readers already know where it happened and to whom; it’s no secret, but these identities don’t matter to the telling of the story. So for those of you who don’t know them, I won’t spread any more details. But suffice to say that it was a small event. Despite the best intentions and efforts of the organizers, word just didn’t get out too well. The thought had crossed my mind that morning that maybe only forty folks would show, and maybe I’d have the fun of a moderate-fish-in-a-small-pond win. I wasn’t far from wrong; only sixty showed.
Still, it only takes one contender to push you to second place, so I scoped the crowd and picked out a somewhat familiar face, a man about my age who I was sure I’d seen at the races before. A little chit-chat confirmed that on any given day, he’d likely give me a run for my money, and I knew that at a minimum he'd be vying for our mutual fifty-plus group. A few minutes later at the starting line, another apparent player appeared, a young turk who humbly self-deprecated his readiness, but fooled neither of us. It’s amusing how we tend to spot each other, but we do.
After one of the stranger race starts I’ve experienced – someone blowing a horn from somewhere behind us without warning – and our subsequent vocalizations of less-than-savory oaths in response, the three of us split from the pack for the almost-entirely-uphill first half. In almost a repeat of that woodsy 10K from a couple weeks back, my two rivals set a pace a hair too hot, and I satisfied myself with staying within a fifty-foot tape measure of them. Like that day, I knew they’d either come back to me, or there wasn’t much I could do.
By about a mile and a quarter, the young one did come back. Adding a bit of nitro to the mix when I passed, I tried to convince him that I wasn’t going to let him come back at me, and indeed that was the last I’d see of him till those frightening moments a minute after my finish. That left my same-age rival still about forty yards up.
Collecting my thoughts after what I’d tried to make look like an easy burst, but what had in fact taken a toll, I lost attention for just long enough that I didn’t catch my rival missing the turn at one-point-four until he was ten yards past. This being a gentleman’s sport, I gave him a holler about the turn, and he doubled back, erasing half his lead but still leaving me with a challenge and no certainty whatsoever that I’d be up to meeting it. But on the next small hill, I caught up far more easily than expected. My racing sense signaled weakness, but what lay ahead was almost entirely downhill, not my best skill, and an easy place for a contender with some speed to open it up. Left to a sprint to the death at the end, my confidence would not be high.
We hammered the subsequent big downhill elbow-to-elbow and made the turn for the last rise, a mere tenth of a mile of barely perceptible up, leading to a full mile of gentle downhill to the finish. Having sensed that weakness earlier, I put on my second burst of the morning on that rise and opened a gap before starting the downgrade, still fearing the dogfight that might erupt. Knowing he must be nipping my heels but refusing to glance back and show weakness, I poured on all the intensity I could muster. Halfway down, a spectator said I had fifteen seconds on him, but I didn’t buy it; he wasn’t in position to have timed the gap, and besides, it seemed far too quick a drop-off considering the level of competition I’d been up against. I didn’t let up, and glanced back only after making the final turn; seeing nobody, I wore my best Death-Warmed-Over face over the line.
Win. Small pond, to be sure, but so what, a win’s a win. Now, how close was he, after all? Come out of the chute, look back, nobody. Time passes, nobody still. It made no sense. For what seemed an eternity, but was only a minute. And then, around the corner appeared the young guy I’d lost at a mile-plus, and my rival, reeling, lurching, tottering at high speed, stumbling, crashing, shoulder to the pavement, maybe the head, road rash for certain, concussion perhaps? Horrifying.
I arrived seconds after he hit the ground, but rather than groan or moan in pain, he demanded that no assistance be given. I was taken aback. This wasn’t the famed 1908 Olympics, where Dorando Pietri was disqualified for receiving assistance when he collapsed before the finish line. This was a local race, where we could have carried this guy over the last stretch and nobody would have complained. But to my amazement, before I could do anything, he got himself back up and started to shave down the fifty yards remaining to the finish line.
He didn’t make it. Thirty yard down, he crashed again, this time with me in chase, entirely uncertain what to do. Again, he demanded no assistance, and again, he rose and staggered toward the line, which this time he crossed, only to collapse a third time, this time at least landing on my feet to break his fall.
Watching the first fall was frightening enough. Experiencing the bizarre sequence of events that followed ratcheted up the scale considerably. Then, while tending to him as he lay prostrate in the chute, hearing that in fact he’d been witnessed going down two or three times before I’d seen him, that what I thought was his first fall was in fact his third or fourth, was simply mind-blowing. Fellow caregivers spoke of competitiveness and type-A personality, but clearly there was more going on here.
The EMTs rolled him into the ambulance and the report came back from the emergency room that his internal temperature had hit a hundred and five – basket-case heat stroke, also known as hyperthermia (oh yeah, did I mention, it was HOT!). More telling was his later report that he had no recollection whatsoever of the last three-quarters of a mile; a report that was to me in a way a relief. It was no Twinkie Defense, but it helped me to understand that his irrational actions were the product of his heat-compromised head rather than some crazy competitive drive seeking second place in a rather meaningless local race. And this is where we get back to presence of mind.
A lot of things can cause us to lose our heads, and none of us is immune from this danger. In the case of Harvey Milk, his assailant suffered from, at a minimum, depression, if not true depravity. In my case at Wineglass, my best clinical diagnosis would have to be stupidity-induced type-A over-competitiveness. In the case of my rival, heat stroke is known to cause neurological symptoms including bizarre behavior, irritability, delusions, and hallucinations. For all we know, he really might have thought he was Dorando Pietro in the 1908 Olympic Marathon.
This is the local bleeding edge of the national debate. How do we prevent people who lose their heads, for whatever reason, from doing things harmful to themselves or others? At what point do we intervene? When is that prudent, and when is it infringing on that person’s rights? Had someone tried to stop me at mile twenty-two of Wineglass, I would have been mad as hell and given them the fight of their life. This time not only I, but apparently other spectators beforehand, had tried to assist, which would have meant stopping, my rival, and he gave the fight of his life. The cause of his losing his head was different from mine, perhaps more insidious and harder to spot and control, but in the end the result was the same: we both could have given our lives.
I am no expert and claim no answers here. After Wineglass, I learned some self-policing, which helped at that subsequent Boston, but I can’t say that experience would have helped me avoid the heat-induced irrationality we witnessed this time. Perhaps a more activist intervention stance is in order? You might save a life, though you might also get someone really upset with you.
I just don’t know. Please be careful out there.