This Sporting Life
Sebastien Chaigneau, the Frenchman who won last weekend’s Hardrock 100 endurance run, sounds like an interesting fellow. He set a new record for the counterclockwise race direction at just over 24 hours, 25 minutes. But in post-race interviews he said it was not the winning that mattered, or the record, but “the spirit of the trail.” He said he runs “without objective.”
He was being genuine, I believe, in the euphoria of his early-morning finish in Silverton. But one can only follow the sentiment so far. He is, after all, a professional ultra traileur, a North Face sponsored athlete. And we wouldn’t be hearing about his groovy philosophy if he hadn’t in fact won the contest.
There was no such thing as ultra-running (let alone professional ultra-runners) when I took a course from the landscape architecture department at Berkeley in the late 1960s. The class was about the landscape of sport, about the change – the revolutionary change, the professor maintained – from the formal courts of play of the 19th century to the non-competitive expression of athleticism in nature. How and why did we go from the precise rectilinear constraints, the perfect lawns of tennis and cricket to the free-form individualism of surfing, skiing and hang-gliding?
One of the texts was Design with Nature, by Scotsman Ian McHarg, which was just out and already causing a stir among architects and planners eager to escape what McHarg called the “dominate and destroy” philosophy of urban-industrial modernity.
McHarg espoused what was then a radical ecological sensibility that countered completely the old norm of aristocratic estate design.
Design, he said, including the design of play spaces, should interweave the worlds of the human and the natural. It was already happening in the exploding popularity, post-WWII, of natural-terrain sports like skiing, climbing, backpacking, even jogging.
The Biblical notion of subduing the Earth was one of McHarg’s targets, but not the only one. For centuries play (sport) had been reserved for and dominated by the leisured elite. It was perfectly natural for the imperial powers to equate sport with outscoring your opponent on a field of predetermined dimensions. The Brits were great at this. It informed their philosophy of education (especially of boys), their notions of class and fair play, etcetera, and it stayed with them right up until the First World War destroyed all sense of fair play, obliterated the old rules of war. And what was sport if not codified, non-lethal war?
But then, of course, the empires crumbled as the ruled rose up against their rulers, and the rulers realized the game had changed.
Nowadays, people come to the mountains (or the seacoasts or to the rivers) to partake of this 20th century idea of sport outside the lines, beyond winners and losers. We’re in thrall to a kind of Emersonian ideal, where a man (or a woman) can be, in the words of novelist John Williams, “part and parcel of God, free and unconstrained.”
I played the usual court-and-diamond sports when I was a kid. But it was the pure throwing and catching I loved about baseball not the mano-a-mano war between pitcher and batter, or the score at the end of nine innings. I played tennis; it was in the family. And I loved the thwack of a ball struck perfectly in the sweet spot. But ultimately the ladders, the rankings, the high-strung high-school tournaments got to me. I wanted to be down at the beach riding my homemade skimboard, running and jumping and sliding timed precisely with the breathing in and breathing out of the ocean.
Skiing and, come to think of it, ultra-running across 13,000-foot passes, use some of the biggest, wildest playing fields of all, places where movement through space – pure movement, continuous balance, a search for grace (the spirit of the trail?) – are the only objectives.
Eventually, of course, all of these new sports found ways to incorporate competition, and marketing and professional hero-athletes. (Otherwise we wouldn’t have The North Face, or Nike, or Quicksilver.) I guess that’s only human nature, too. At least in a capitalist society.
Luckily for us, for the sports without courts, the wild places are still wild enough, and vast enough, to allow for amateurs and weekend warriors. On any given day (or night) we can feel John Muir’s “peace flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”
It was Ralph Waldo himself who said: “Here is sanctity which shames our religions.”