RAMROD Press Conference Transcript

Thank you for joining us.  We’re honored to have Ron Byrnes with us, the 39th place finisher in today’s 25th RAMROD.  Question one.

Phil Legget, Versus:  Ron, impressive performance given your underwhelming preparation.  Any truth to the rumor you were ridin’ dirty? 

Ron:  Thanks Phil, I think, for the compliment.  It’s true, I did not shower before the ride, but I did shower Wednesday morning, so no I was not ridin’ dirty.

Follow up:  Do you foresee a day when Le Tour will adopt RAMROD’s approach of having a start window of two hours?  I hate to be a wet towel, but you started early in the window, at 5:10-5:15, thus assuring you a higher place than those who started at 5:45, 6 or even 7.

Ron:  Yes, I expect Le Tour to take a long, hard look at RAMROD’s approach which penalizes those who sleep in, spend too much time at the breakfast buffet or in front of the mirror. 

Dan Patrick, Sports Illustrated: What was it like riding without your team?  Did you miss T and D out there?

Ron:  Definitely, although D blew by me in a group early on and I latched on.  He took a nature break at 33, but the coach was in my ear telling me to continue to roll.  His exact words were, “This is your only chance to ride in front of D the rest of the day.”  D and I pulled into the 55 mile rest stop about the same time.  That’s when the real work began and I didn’t see him again until the finish.  I’m proud of his 9th place finish despite riding large sections all by himself.  T is another story altogether.  He got a better offer, to ride with the President in Peloton One.  I can’t blame him.  Ron, President, Ron, President?

Follow up:  But President Bush?  Come on.

Ron:  Dan, you ride with the President you have, not the President you wish you had.

David Gaffen, Wall Street Journal:  Any validity to the RAMROD effect?

Ron:  Yeah, it’s true, on the last Thursday of July, as we go up, the market goes down.  Expensive ride.      

Bob Roll, Versus:  Funniest moment of the day?

Ron:  I was climbing Paradise with Fred from Bend when we came upon CAMROD (Croquet Around Mount Rainier in One Day), the notorious croquet player who sets wickets on the mountain and plays on the shoulder.  I said, “Hey CAMROD, go get em’.”  To which he replied, “You go get em’, pause, searching for perfect nickname, Sparky!”  Love it.  I’ve had a lot of nicknames, Rhode Island Red, HD (Heavy Duty), Rook (Rookie), but Sparky conjurs up youthfulness, fire, and dogs, or maybe doggedness.  So I’ve got that going for me.

Follow up:  Dumb thing of the day?  

Ron:  Looking right at the turn signals on the street at mile 13, the ones that pointed hard left, then watching 10 or so other riders continue straight, and deciding to follow them until we all realized we were riding away from Mount Rainer.  Of course, D only rode 149, I rode 152.  So I’ve got that going for me.

Christina Amanpour, CNN:  If world leaders wore more lycra would they feel sexier?  And if they felt sexier would they be more prone to promote love?

Ron:  Yes.

Paul Sherwin, Versus:  What were the keys to not completely sucking it up out there today? 

Ron:  Three things.  First, my RAMROD training program.  Paul:  You mean last Thursdays long solo effort?  Yes.  Second, the unusually cool temps, mid to high 40’s all through the morning and never much more than 60 all day.  And third, resolving to never push so hard I’d hear Phil shout, “Byrnes is in trouble, the elastic has snapped.”

Youth Sports Mania 3

Third in a series.  I acknowledge that I’m generalizing, focusing on the 51% of parent, coach, and youth sport activity that I believe constitutes mania.  There are lots of parents who sit mostly in silence and show excellent sportsmanship on the sidelines, cheering excellent play, irrespective of the color of the jerseys.  The same parents praise their children’s effort whether they fill up the stat sheet or not and offer them constructive criticism in a private, caring way.  And there are excellent coaches who focus on the forest that is their athletes’ long-term health and development.

But too often it seems, those coaches and parents seem to be overshadowed by the coaches and parents that become unhinged by single-minded competitiveness.  I’m not sure why I have let those coaches and parents ruffle my feathers so much. 

The end result of the ruffling is that for all practical purposes I have opted out of youth sports.  To L’s dismay at times, I’ve chosen not to coach, I have purposely not pushed my daughters, and I watch their games passively, alienated from the most anxious and vocal parents. 

Yes, I have considered that I’m too analytical, that I should just chill, and go along to get along, but I accept that I often think about things differently.

Youth sports, like the arts, like schooling, like religious youth groups, have so much potential for good, but too often, coaches and parents focus too exclusively on winning and squander that potential.  When children take the field, too many parents think of them as extensions of themselves.  If their kid plays poorly it reflects negatively on them; if they excel, it reflects positively on them.

Sure, it’s possible I overcompensated, but that’s water under the bridge.  Maybe I should have had higher expectations and worked with A and J one-on-one more.  If I had, maybe they would have experienced even more success and enjoyed playing even more.  I guess I was waiting for them to take the initiative to practice by themselves or with friends outside of the schedules predetermined by adults, or to ask me for help, or both.

Outside of school, my friends and I played all the time without having to because we wanted to.  Rain, snow, searing heat, the setting sun, nothing stopped us.  We’d work on our putting and jump shots under a flood light and the rain meant after school football would be that much more fun.  I routinely played 9 or 18 holes of golf by myself.  If my daughters are representative of today’s generation of young athletes, they play when they’re told to, which begs the question, do they play mostly as a result of adult expectations?  And would the youngest athletes have even more fun if left to their own devices?

Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams, is an odd bird, but he did something as a tennis coach of his young daugthers that I think was brilliant.  Once a year he’d take their racquets and hide them in a closest in their Compton, CA house to see how they’d react.  He’d do this as a check on whether they were developing an intrinsic love of the game.  Apparently, they’d take one day off and then begin tearing the house apart on day two. 

What percentage of our young athletes is developing a genuine fondness for their activities of choice?  What would happen if the adults didn’t organize their leagues, didn’t unfurl their lawn chairs on the sidelines of their games, didn’t watch their every move two nights a week, and didn’t affirm their every effort?  

Unhinged Update

Got home from work early Thursday so I decided to move my RAMROD test ride up.  I thought I’d sleep better with the work done rather than with the work looming.  100.7 miles, 2,680′ of climbing (not enough), 5:50 total time, 5:39 elapsed*, 17.8 mph, not fast, but very steady.  Spirits flagged in the mid 50’s to low 60’s, same time someone passed me, so I probably turned it up just a little bit.  Recovered shortly thereafter and really felt quite good through the end.  I should have done more climbing, but then I wouldn’t have just beat the sun.  

We have really excellent riding around here.  Besides two quick stops to refill my water bottles, I hit ONE traffic light.  It was a beautiful ride, a long protected wooded trail, farmland, forests, rivers, deer and lots of other animals, and the sun setting behind the Olympic Mountains and the Puget Sound.  At different times throughout the ride, snow-covered Mount Rainier would pop up in the distance, taunting me, saying, “Come on girlyman, bring it!”  

I got a little emotional down the stretch because I was really taken by the beauty of the Puget Sound, the sun, and the State Capital and I was so appreciative of my small town and especially my health.  I was also proud of my effort.  I had a feeling I could stretch out a ride like that and it felt great to confirm that.  

With a mile to go, with the wind at my back, I got cocky, mentally slipped up, and said to myself, “Bring on the mountain!”  That’s crazy talk.  Now that I’m a veteran of two rides, I can offer RAMROD rule one, respect the mountain.

* Yes, Friday’s 102.8 mile stage of the Tour de France was won in a time of 3:37:09, but you have to add one hour for drafting and one for the PEDs (performance enhancing drugs).

Youth Sports Mania 2

Part two in a series.  Unless we attempt to understand why parents sign up their four year olds for organized soccer, we’ll never fundamentally reform youth sports. 

I may have stumbled upon the beginning of an answer a year later when I was teaching A to ride her bike without training wheels for the first time.  As she gleefully weaved down the middle of the street trying to figure out how to stop, another father of a child A’s age watched from inside his house.  The next day I saw him struggling to teach his five year old to ride his bike sans training wheels.  Never mind that children develop at different rates and that some four year olds hop on their bikes and leave some six and seven year olds in their dust.  Dammit, his kid wasn’t going to be left behind by that Byrnes girl. 

If the kid next door is riding her bike and she’s playing soccer, and my child isn’t, it’s just a matter of time before that kid is in the highest reading and math groups in elementary school, on the select teams, in the honors courses in middle school, on Varsity and in the Advanced Placement courses in high school.  Ultimately, if my kid doesn’t start riding his/her bike and playing soccer when other kids do, they won’t make it into colleges that are as selective as the other kids undoubtedly will, and then of course, there’s grad school.

I digress, back to the inaugural tiny tot soccer practice.  Before leaving for it, I rolled up the newly arrived issue of Sports Illustrated (ala John Wooden) and jammed it into my back pocket.  I intended on using it as a shield of sorts in case any “Little League” parents showed up.  I would compensate for their intensity by sitting to the side dispassionately reading SI.  Interesting that I began my youth sports parent journey with that alternative, even outsider mentality, because I thought it might have evolved following A’s first practice.

Right before the practice the coach gave a great talk to the co-ed hoard of pipsqueaks about learning one another’s names and the importance of teamwork.  I thought, “Cool, A’s going to have a positive first experience with a progressive coach.”  But then, immediately after everyone quickly whispered their names, he threw the ball out onto the field and the pre-school athletes began “scrimmaging.” 

From behind my SI, I alternated between chuckling and cringing because the scrimmage consisted of fifteen midgets chasing one speedster with natural skills.  This went on and on.  There were no drills, no introduction of fundamentals, and no one learned anyone’s name.  There was learning going on though, fifteen children learned they weren’t nearly as good as their one teammate.

Midway through the scrimmage, A bonked heads with another runt and came running to me in tears.  As I hugged her and wiped her tears, I wondered, “What the hell were we thinking?”

Fast forward to the present.  A friend coaches a select soccer team and surprise, surprise, he says some parents are never content with their kid’s playing time and others, immediately after the game, want him to relay critical feedback to their daughters.  Recently, a ref said that he “should be embarrassed” by his parents’ behavior on the sideline. 

My friend didn’t elaborate on what prompted the comment, but I can picture the scene, some of the parents barking at their kid, or hectoring opposing kids, or ripping the fifteen year old ref just getting a feel for his first part-time job (as if he secretly has money in Vegas on one of the U12 girl teams).  To my friend’s credit, he was embarrassed, and things have improved following a lengthy team email.

To be continued.

Coming Unhinged?

We interrupt the Youth Sports Mania series (which will continue in a day or two) with this emergency query: have I totally lost it?  The last two years I’ve spent the last Thursday in July cycling around Mount Rainier in what’s known as RAMROD.  Both rides were a highlight of both summers because 1) I trained hard from mid-April or early May and 2) I had two excellent wingmen, T and D, stronger riders than me who I often tucked in behind to conserve energy or to manage the final 25 miles when running on fumes, 3) the scenery is unrivaled, and 4) we rode really well and passed people all day long.  

Fast forward to this year.  I returned from Europe in late May, and began cycling, but because I was something like 199th on the RAMROD wait list, I wasn’t terribly motivated to go long, especially since I’m training for the Portland Marathon.  My longest ride of the season so far is 59 solo, fairly hill miles.  Even that ride involved a big brunch with the fam and in-laws in the middle.  I’m riding really hard twice a week (averaging just over 100 miles/week), but compared to 06 and 07, my mileage is way down.  For an event like this, I’m seriously under-trained.  On top of that, T is in Washington D.C. mountain biking with President Bush on the weekends (22 times so far) and D has gotten too damn strong for me to try to ride with this year.  

Fast forward to yesterday when I learned I made it into the ride.  Does the fact that I’m even considering doing the ride, mean I’ve lost touch with reality.  Any of you who have lost your sanity see the same telltale signs in me?  

Here’s my plan.  Spend six hours in the saddle Friday with ample climbing.  Then the question is can I ride extremely conservatively to the first climb, and then conservatively up to Paradise, and then conservatively through Backbone Ridge, and then conservatively up Cayuse.  I think I can do it if I stay within myself and repeat this mantra, “No heroics.”  I’ll suffer mightily, but that provides the opportunity to develop more mental toughness which will make me a better endurance athlete.

So, I’m leaning towards attempting it.  Let me know if I’m totally crazy, I suspect those who are most crazy are the last to know.  

Here’s last year’s race report:

143.3 miles.  10,406’ elevation gained.  10,027 calories burned.  Total time, 8:50-8:55.  Riding time, 8:03:49.  Average speed, 17.8.  Maximum speed, 42.7.  Average heart rate, 132.  Max, probably mid 150’s.

Last year I overinflated my tires and had to change tubes, ran out of tubes, and then tipped over all between 3:30a.m. and our start at 5:40a.m.  This year prerace prep went perfectly and I even stayed upright as they checked our numbers at the start.

Like all endurance events, this one is all about preparation.  This summer I’ve totaled about 90-95% of last summer’s miles.  Despite the slight dip, I went 103 miles by myself a few weeks ago.  Thanks to the wettest July in ages, a lot of this month’s miles were solo.  When it’s warm and not windy, I really don’t mind riding in the rain.  Of course that’s only when it starts mid-ride.   

Rode with three friends, one who had three additional friends who we waited for at the start, but dropped almost immediately.  That’s a nice segue to the line of the day, which ironically occurred at the 2 mile mark.  My plan was to effortlessly spin for 10 miles, slowly increase it over the next 30, until hitting the base of the first extended climb when I knew it would be every man for himself to the top.  Ease into it and reduce it to a damn hilly century.

Problem is D (former professional marathoner) has gotten crazy strong and he’s hardwired to go hard all the time.  So I happened to lead us out and I’m crawling along at 15mph on what is actually a 40 mile 2% grade run up to the base of the first climb.  We actually pass and pick up a few riders when T says to D, “How you doin?”  To which D replies, “Hemmed in.”  A club passes us hard in matching kits and he pulls out, passes me (I had decided to let them go) and quickly closes the gap.  At my advanced age, I still bowed to peer pressure, and followed suit.  We used those guys for 10-15 miles until they stopped for some sissy reason no doubt.  We put time into them all day. 

Last sentence requires an explanation.  Normally, we ride up, down, and around the mountain, meaning you have no idea how many people are in front of you or behind you.  This year it was an out and back due to major winter storms and road damage/closures, with three major climbs off the main out and back highway.  Therefore, we saw a handful of riders descend before us and 98% climbing behind us as we descended the three big hills.  Out of 800 riders, maybe 10-15 finished before us.  And they may have started before us.  Start was open from 4-6 and we rolled at 5:42. 

Long story short, D and T dropped the hammer for 8 hours and I hung on for my dear life.  T climbed Sunrise with me, the first, longest, and most scenic of the three climbs.  It was nice to have someone to talk to, especially someone who knew the road and was able to tell me what was ahead.  We blew off the 25 mile rest stop so I stopped for two minutes at the base of Sunrise (mile 40 I think) to drink, swallow a few salt tablets, and pop a few dried mangoes in my mouth.  That gave Steve, friend three, just the separation he needed, but T and I caught him 3/4ths of the way up.  We passed person after person.  I told two guys we came up on, “The coach told us to bring some water bottles up to you” and they cracked up.  Most other guys didn’t find being passed so amusing. 

The views were incredible, but I was working too hard to really enjoy them.  The descent was one of the best ever.  Air temp most of the ride was in the 60’s, so perfect, and probably 50 with wind chill on the descents.  Some guys were cold on the descent even with arm warmers, but I went without and was only borderline chilly, which again was perfect.  Couldn’t have asked for better weather.  Climbs 2 and 3 were mid-day and in the sun and the only times I sweated quite heavily.  Hours 1 and 2 were so quick I struggled to drink enough.  I was worried about the medium and long-term effects of that, but I compensated by drinking a ton mid-ride.  That plus 8 salt tablets kept me from cramping. 

We regrouped at the bottom of descent one and rode together to climb 2.  We separated on climb 2 fairly early on and regrouped again at the top.  Same pattern for climb 3.  Climb 3 began at mile 100 and was 10 miles long.  The first 4 were relatively gentle and I sat in our group of 5-6 (having picked up two riders).  Then as they started to pull away I said, “Meet you at the top.”  At mile 107 we came upon a 12% grade sign.  Kid you not, I was as close to unclicking as I’ve ever been.  I probably slowed from 7-8 to 5 mph and still pulled away from the two guys I was riding near.  Had to stand most of the way and after somehow making it over borrowed from Kurt Warner after his SuperBowl victory, “Thank you Jesus.”  Almost immediately though, there was a 12% descent which I couldn’t enjoy at all because all I could think about was climbing it very shortly.  We took a nature break at the top and immediately started descending.  Hit the 12% climb right at 112!  I said to Steve, “I just love hitting 12% climbs at 112 miles in.”  I also told him I’d have to swear him to secrecy if I had to unclick.  We both made it, all of us reformed at the main highway at mile 120, and continued to the infamous deli stop at 123. 

Amazing organization and volunteers.  The deli stop is actually a sandwich bar.  I had turkey on wheat with mustard, mayonnaise, and a tomato.  Throw in a Diet Coke, oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, and 20 miles suddenly seemed doable.  We told some guys we were leaving and we formed an 8-9 person paceline.  Now it’s a 2% downgrade, but it’s into a pretty strong headwind, so the two neutralized each other.  First guy starts pulling at 17 and I’m behind D just cracking up.  I’m loving it because I’ve been riding way too hard for way too long.  I had no pride at that point and would have sat in the whole way home!  The guy pulls and pulls and pulls and I know D in front of me and T behind me are like restless thoroughbreds in the gate.  Then the guy pulls off, drops back two riders and cuts in right on top of D.  D somehow avoids the ditch and just shakes his head.  Apparently, the guy had no idea we were back there.  That’s all T needed to snap, saying, “Come on, let’s go” and took off into the wind. 

Leaving the deli stop I had told D and T that they could easily blow me off the back, and I reminded them that I had the car key.  It worked out because they pulled a lot farther/longer than I did.  After one of my puny pulls, I barely got back on and then started to fall off, but I told them and they sat up for 45 seconds which was all I needed to recover.  At that point we picked up two equally strong riders and flew over the last 15 miles. 

Positive peer pressure.  As we approached the finish, I eased off to cool down.  D and T accelerated.  They couldn’t be nicer guys, but I sure wish they’d learn the joy of spinning.

I was extremely proud of how well all of us rode, but I know there’s a whole other category of riders that would humble us.  We ride with some cat 1-5 guys most weeks and we know we’re just a bunch of Cutters.  Increasingly though, D pisses off those guys by hanging with them to the very end of our club rides.

Next year, T will be living in D.C. until September 08, and I return from Europe on May 23rd.  So I won’t have anywhere near the necessary miles in, and therefore, won’t extend my streak*.  D is already preparing to go solo.

* Or will I?


Youth Sports Mania 1

First in a series.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about youth sports, mostly while sitting on the sidelines at my daughter’s soccer games.  Just because I’ve done a lot of thinking about youth sports doesn’t mean that what follows is “the truth,” it’s simply my subjective perspective based upon my particular life experiences.  I welcome opposing viewpoints and I’m curious if my perspective resonates with anyone.  Like Ben Stein said in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Anyone? Anyone?”

Some context.  I grew up playing sports all the time, switching sports with the seasons.  I was decent in most every sport, but didn’t distinguish myself in any.  I think positively about my sports experiences and I would describe myself as sports-minded.  

I have a hunch that I may be different than most sports fans in that I tend to root for the underdog even if “my” team is favored.  Between 1985-1989, I taught at four high schools in Los Angeles, one in the inner city, one in an upper middle class section of the San Fernando Valley, and two in between.  When watching basketball games at the well-to-do school, I recall silently rooting for the visiting inner city teams.  Similarly, if I read a compelling story about a foreign athlete before the Olympics, I’ll typically root for him/her even if they’re going head-to-head with an American. 

My daughters are privileged, as are most of their teammates.  Sometimes they play teams that appear to be less privileged, imperfectly measured mostly by the number of adults in attendance.  Sometimes my daughters’ teams thump less privileged teams and I feel alienated from the parents who continue to cheer lustily after each successive goal.  I’ve been on the other side too, having watched my daughters’ teams get spanked, and was amazed at how oblivious the other parents were to the larger context as they cheered wildly for goal eight, nine, ten.  

My first youth sports experience as a parent was unequivocally negative.  L and I signed up A, at age four, for soccer.  Good thing I have a modest blog readership because that’s a difficult admission.  If three seconds ago you didn’t stop and say to yourself, “What the hell were they thinking signing up their four year old daughter for organized soccer?” you should have.  And in case you didn’t, I will, “What the hell were we thinking signing up our four year old for organized soccer?” 

I guess the sad truth of the matter is we did it because we were human lemmings mindlessly following the lead of our peers.  I’m not proud of that, but at least I’m owning up to it.

Stay tuned.


My dad was a successful executive.  In contrast, I’ve been content to work with students in high school and college classrooms.  I don’t think I have any fatal flaws that would spell administrative disaster; I just haven’t felt the call of administration.  Recently though, I’ve agreed to coordinate our Masters Program with Teacher Certification for the next three years.

L, far from objective of course, says she’s certain I will be successful.  I appreciate her confidence.

I’ve worked with a gaggle of administrators, some who were effective that I respected, others that made you wonder how on earth they rose to their positions of leadership.  I’ve reflected on all of their strengths and weaknesses; as a result, I have leadership intuitions that that I’m sure I’ll refine over the next three years.  Maybe my goal should be for no one to mutter, “How on earth did Byrnes become Program Coordinator?”

Given my new responsibilities, I read a recent Wall Street Journal bio about a technology CEO a bit more closely than normal.  One year older than me at 47, his leadership philosophy consisted of three things: work hard, treat people well, and listen.  Love it.  Substantive and simple.

Before heading out for last Sunday’s training ride, I downloaded a few podcasts including a recent CarTalk episode, a favorite Saturday morning National Public Radio program of mine. 

While listening to the hosts, brothers Tom and Ray, it dawned on me that their success is also a template not just for administrative success, but workplace success more generally.  The three keys to their success: know your stuff, connect with people before getting down to work, and don’t take yourself too seriously.  

What do you think of these frameworks?  How would you boil down the keys to successful leadership?

Taxes and Tenure Tempo Run

Early Wednesday morning, before TP (Training Partner) and I had left the hood on our tempo run, the talk turned to new taxes, economic growth, Governor Christine Gregoire, inflation, and tenure.  Tenure? 

TP doesn’t think I understand the negative consequences of tax increases on people like him.  More than that, he thinks I’m incapable of understanding the negative consequences because my paycheck isn’t contingent on how many students I recruit and retain.  His annual salary is based in part on bonuses that are based upon steadily increasing sales.  Steadily decreasing sales means he’s looking for work.

I counter that lower taxes don’t always lead to increased economic growth (see 2005-2008).  And economic analysts agree that both JM’s and BO’s economic plans will add to the deficit which of course has negative medium and long-term economic consequences.  Rather than simply repeating that we need lower taxes, we need to discuss national, state, and local priorities and how we’re going to pay for any tax cuts. 

Ultimately, TP and I disagree about the role of the government; consequently, we usually finish our runs/debates agreeing to disagree.

Intellectually at least, I understand that people will purchase fewer of TP’s products since they’ll have less disposable income.  But what TP was trying to communicate is that I can’t truly empathize with him.  And I admit I don’t understand his day-to-day work experience in a “deep down in the gut” sense.

I think his frustration is I can’t fully appreciate how stressful his work world is and I wouldn’t be quite so liberal if I had to walk in his work shoes.

In my early twenties, I decided socially redeeming work and meaningful interpersonal relations were more important than making lots of money.  By the time I received tenure seven/eight years ago, I had developed a sense of professionalism that hasn’t changed since receiving tenure.  In TP’s thinking, employees are motivated almost exclusively by economic incentives.  As a result, he struggles to understand what motivates educators like me to continue trying to improve.

Just like me, TP tends to generalize from his own experience; nonetheless, I don’t want to say he’s incapable of understanding what motivates me because that’s a conversation stopper.  When he pulls out the “free market business” card and says I can’t understand the impact of higher taxes, it’s a conversation stopper.  Instead, I want to be a good friend and listen and learn by saying, “Teach me. What’s it like to get increasingly more difficult sales targets? What’s it like to feel like your customers won’t be able to afford your product? What’s it like to feel you can’t take an afternoon off without fear of falling behind your targets?  Are the rewards worth it?  Why or why not?”

TP and I have a unique friendship.  We often get into passionate disagreements that we’ve learned to quickly put behind us.  I may never understand the world of a salesperson as deeply as he would like, but as a result of our long running friendship (pun intended) I have a little better feel for life outside the Ivory Tower.  And for that, I’m thankful.


Knowing Our Physical Selves

I was teaching in Yakima, WA last week.  On the way into Yakima there’s a sign that proclaims, “Yakima, The Palm Springs of Washington.”  While it’s often sunny and hot in Yakima, its self-perception is a bit skewed.  I like Yakima, but it’s working class, has few golf courses and swimming pools, and according to newspaper reports, is a huge international drug hub. 

Imagine if only saying it made it true.  Maybe I should make some signs for my yard.  “Ron Byrnes, Ironman World Champion.”  “Ron Byrnes, British Open Champion.” “Ron Byrnes, Husband and Father of the Year—Again.”  “Obama-Byrnes 08.” 

Clearly I’ve underestimated the power of positive signage for far too long.  For the Mall in D.C., “Energy Independence.”  For the White House lawn, “Inspired, Enlightened Leadership.”  For Wall Street, “We’re Rallying Now.”  For the Seattle Mariners’ Safeco Field, “The Team to Beat.”  For the Chevron station down the street, “Gas is Cheap.”  For the side of McCain’s Straight Talk Express, “More Inspired, Enlightened Leadership.”

I digress.  When I’m in Yakima, I run on a bike trail by a river.  It’s a pretty nice vibe.  Last Monday night I felt good, so I picked it up, passed the normal turnaround, a junk yard/chop shop, and kept going.  The physical toll of the previous day’s drive and the psychic toll of that day’s teaching fell away as I entered into half marathon-zone, a mod-hard sustainable pace.  Mid-run, drenched in sweat, I started to wonder what it would be like to be sedentary and never have the sensation of extending myself physically.  Never cut wood, never do yoga, never lift weights, never run, never walk a long ways.  I assume you lose touch with your physical self.  I think that disconnect or “physical deadness” would be worse than the all of the negative health effects of a sedentary life combined. 

Over the last fifteen years, as I’ve developed an active lifestyle, I’ve grown increasingly in-tune with my body.  In the water, on my bike, running, I have a good feel for the effects of distance and geography on how hard I can push it and how long it will take my body to bounce back. 

After the run, I filled my water bottle and collapsed into a chair in my hotel room.  The air-conditioner revived me in short order.  If pressed, I couldn’t really explain the science of the “runners high” although I know endorphins play an important part.  My explanation is simpler.  My runners’ high is the result of the sudden contrast between extending myself physically to an uncomfortable point and then completely stopping.  Subconsciously (at least it was subconscious before I wrote this sentence), I make a deal with my body, extend yourself for x number of miles or minutes or hours and then I’ll stop, promise.  That night, post run, no sedentary person on the planet could appreciate as much as I did the joy of sitting perfectly still, drinking water, watching the NewsHour.  Similarly, neither could they relate to how amazing it feels to collapse in the grass in front of Enumclaw High School after cycling up, down, and around Mount Rainer. 

When it comes to fitness, as I’ve written previously, people focus too narrowly on weight loss.  For me, there’s a spiritual component to it. I feel more alive as a result of knowing my body.  As in Yakima, I regularly push my body to the point of uncomfortableness; as a result, I’m a happier, more complete person. 

Free Zimbabwe 2

I had some time today so I started the redesign way ahead of schedule.  There’s more to do, but what you see is a start.  New name, same plan, post on Mondays. As always, I value your input whether in person, via email, or a blog comment.

Back to Zimbabwe.  In April, in Norway, I attended a talk by Namibia’s ambassador to Scandinavia (her office is in Stockholm and she travels regularly to Finland and Norway).  There were probably forty of us gathered to listen to the ambassador in the small Namibian non-profit cooperative that sold Namibian goods and raised money for development projects.  The ambassador summarized recent Namibian history, highlighted the progress made since Independence, and then explained Namibia’s ongoing challenges.  Afterwards, she encouraged us to ask anything that was on our minds. 

So after waiting for a few Namibia-specific questions to be posed, I asked, “What, if anything, can your neighboring countries and your government do to pressure Mugabe to respect his citizens’ basic human rights and reverse Zimbabwe’s tragic downward spiral?”  I don’t remember every word of her response, but I vividly recall the analogy she used to explain Southern Africa’s passivity.  She smiled and said, “It’s like my husband and me.  We might not always get along perfectly, but when we argue we want to do so in the privacy of our home.”  Most in the audience viewed that as an imminently reasonable response, but her analogy begs important questions.  Is the right to personal, group, and national privacy unlimited?  Or does one earn the right to privacy by upholding agreed upon international human rights?  The alternative is to say it’s the rule of the jungle within our houses and the survival of the most heavily armed within our political borders and to hell with interventionist neighbors on our streets and just over our borders. 

Just as our first amendment rights to freedom of expression aren’t unlimited, neither are our rights to privacy.  I can’t grow marijuana in my house nor can I excuse physical abuse based upon my “right to privacy.”  Mugabe has been physically abusing his citizens for a decade.  Or maybe, if we extend the ambassador’s analogy, he’s just exercising his right to privacy on a national scale.  Intervention obviously raises a host of challenging questions with probable complications, but we need to urgently raise the questions and confront the probable complications before more people die from starvation and political violence.  How would WWII have turned out if Germany’s neighbors had upheld the German’s right to “national privacy?”  How many more Rwanda’s would there have been and how many more will there be?  

The most important political insight is “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  We make a mistake when we think differences in human nature explain why some nations are dysfunctional and we’re so together.  We’re relatively together for one overarching reason: our constitutional system of checks and balances that limits power and minimizes corruption. Recently, a Wall Street Journal writer made a case for military intervention in Sudan, Burma, Tibet, and Zimbabwe.  If I was grading his commentary, I would have assigned an “Incomplete” because he didn’t address the dilemma of what foreign military powers can do, if anything, to create conditions which will give rise to governmental institutions—specifically substantive checks and balances—that will increase the odds of troubled countries creating positive momentum.  Without checks and balances, a new group of oppressors will begin surfacing as soon as the western militaries return home. Five plus years later, I do not believe Iraq has turned the corner in this regard despite a tremendous loss of American and Iraqi lives and the continuous and unsustainable expenditure of military and financial resources.