Sunday, 19 February 2012

Running fears, real and imaginary

Warning: this topic degenerates into talk about zombies.

As frequently as I run, I have almost never run scared. Not that I want to run with the fear of god in me, but it occurred to me that most people, including pros, set out to run distance X with effort Y and pain level Z and usually follow through to a tee. Race winners work hard but look relaxed. My idle thought was to imagine how often runners use their skills -however unexpectedly- to save their very lives?

Real fear (actual dangers)

I don't just mean avoiding an oncoming car (unfortunately common at intersections); I'm thinking more like the situation of being actively chased by something. Most of the time we run guided by calm, soothing thoughts; less commonly does anyone run by pure fear and adrenaline. I am not eager to be in such a situation. But, by definition, this is my open question: how close do we ever get to that feeling of pure fear coupled with the flight instinct? There have been a few moments jogging in the dark when I imagined someone chasing me. The feeling passed so quickly I don't know what I would feel were it sustained. I've been in a game of paintball where instinct meant as much as conscious effort, though I spent most of the time crouched behind trees (you can't outrun ammo). Years ago I met a very skilled refugee/runner in Ottawa who had escaped the genocide in Burundi. He was not eager to tell people about his experiences but he also ran faster than anyone else living in the province.

For anyone blessed with good running skills and a comfortable life, would the fear take over and they run worse, or would the extra kick give them a boost? Clearly many of us are wondering the same thing: 'How would I fare in a survival situation?' In Taleb's book Black Swan, as an example of our tendency to over-specialize, he highlights gym rats who bench press 200+ pounds yet would fail to lift an equivalent heavy stone. Perhaps we've trained our absolute running skills but not our running instincts. Might we run anywhere near our potential at the drop of a hat?

Imaginary fear (zombies etc

To answer our morbid curiosity, movies have played the survival scenario. Especially with zombies. Recently (movie) zombies have been given sprinting-level speeds, i.e. the Dawn of the Dead remake and the much better 28 Days Later. [Alternatively we chase each other, i.e. The Most Dangerous Game. The trailer to the upcoming Hunger Games actually got me started on this whole train of thought (though I haven't read the books yet) and also its earlier counterpart: the Japanese production Battle Royale]. But zombies somehow occupy a special place in our psyche; you can't reason with them and you will always try to outrun them. Like Falstaff said, "He who fights and runs away, may live to fight another day".

What's the real-world connection to all this? There is, for instance, this new zombie game app looking to change your daily run to something Walking Dead style. Intriguing, though I don't understand how it would work in traffic (I'd try it on the steppes of Mont Royal first).

Zombies and cardio: courtesy of Zombieland, good running skills are essential,

The closest point of intersection between real and imagined dangers might be Pamplona's Running of the Bulls (only a handful of people have ever actually been gored). Then again when you enter at your own peril that seems like cheating, like skydiving and bungee jumping. I also found this zombie race/chase making its rounds in the US. No idea how I'd fare but given my apparent curiosity it could be worth a try.


  1. Lifting a rock would be more like a dead lift or something than a bench press.

    1. I paraphrased. The exact quote is "Organized competitive fighting trains the athlete to focus on the game and, in order not to dissipate his concentration, to ignore the possibility of what is not specifically allowed by the rules, such as kicks to the groin, a surprise knife, etc. So those who win the gold medal might be precisely those who will be most vulnerable in real life. Likewise, you see people with huge muscles (in black T-shirts) who can impress you in the artificial environment of the gym but are unable to lift a stone".

      No right answer to this, but probably worth pointing out.

    2. But yes, to properly lift a stone you'd need a strong set of arms, legs, back, hands and good balance. Watching the strongmen competition, lifting awkward shapes seems to give the contestants no end of frustrations.