Last week I celebrated working my way back to what I regard as my peak fitness, measured by completing two full runs, being 14 laps of the park, including a full complement of 8 uphill sprints. I was last at this level consistently about a year ago. A couple of minor health episodes back then meant momentum was lost and working had to maintain the habit, I have had to build back, gradually adding laps and then sprints.
I have always pursued my running from the perspective of sustainability rather than performance – so I do not keep track of lap times, and have not entered distance events etc. – I just keep going back week in, week out. About 15 years ago the doctor observed my blood pressure tending to the high side of normal, despite my regular regime of walking and bike riding established in the decade before that. So I started jogging.
And start from the very beginning it was, jog a quarter lap of the field, walk a quarter and so on and managed to cover maybe a couple of full laps this way to start. Eventually I built up my endurance to run 14 laps of the park twice a week where we now run (after initially running with my teenage son, I have been joined in recent years by my wife).
Then a few years ago, at a work-sponsored health check, an advisor suggested perhaps adding some higher intensity elements to the run. I agreed to try, despite misgivings about possible injury – I am not going to bore you with the litany of minor exercise-related aches and issues that I have dealt with over the last couple of decades!
And you know what!? I really liked it … who knew? I only started jogging to manage my blood pressure, and couldn’t really say I like it much, but it worked and I kept at it. But as I took off, running as fast as I could up the (not too steep) hills in the park, I found a very rewarding sense of momentum and energy. It is difficult to convey what a contrast all this is to my youth, when I dislike exercise, loathing running in particular, and would go to considerable lengths to avoid it.
My friend Ward and I would walk around the field as others ran, usually conveniently out of earshot of the PE teacher, who basically gave up on us. Most memorably we worked out that we could walk one lap of the yearly school cross-country in the roughly the same time as it took all the others to run the required two – we narrowly escaped the embarrassment of being featured among the place-getters, which would have brought our subterfuge undone!
As we walked we would talk, and seek to unravel the mysteries of adolescence and the world – it was time spent exercising our intellects. In fact our observation of a particular cumulus formation that resembled the fateful mushroom cloud informed my creation of the following poem some time later. It is a narrative piece rather than a cry from the heart – a hyper-compressed science fiction story. That said, on reflection I suspect it also captures the impact of living with the more-or-less immediate threat of nuclear war current in the mid-sixties, a sense similarly conveyed by this detail from a collage I made shortly after arriving in Sydney in the late seventies. Perhaps the poem also unconsciously references the sense of a dangerous adult world awaiting outside the school environment, as confining as it may have felt at the time.
A Freak of Nature
Two boys play on a field.
On the road, separated from
The school by a tall fence,
A restless spectre stalks.
Tall, gaunt, this haggard creature
Of insistent gait paces,
Purposeful yet of arbitrary intent,
Bent to its fatal task.
It looks to the sky,
And a gleam fills its eyeless socket,
The reflection of awesome powers
Manifest in one excruciating flash.
Opaque with energy, the sun explodes,
Time collapses inwards, dragging the threads
Of reality into its firestorm,
Tearing warp from weft.
Beyond sharing this as a non-running reminiscence, partially in memoriam to Ward, who sadly I heard died a couple of years ago, I was moved to do so by a sense of technological wonderment. Having remembered the poem, I located a slightly scrappy type-written copy in the depths of my front-room filing cabinet. I was then delighted to be able to take a photo of the page, do an optical character (OCR) scan to easily and quite accurately translate it to editable text, all on my phone!
Now I already knew about OCR, perhaps better than many because I was part of an OCR experiment at the Royal Blind Society when I worked there in the eighties.
We took one of the first commercially available OCR scanners and hooked it up to an equally novel device called the DECTalk from Digital Equipment Corp, supplier of our VAX minicomputer (shown with cat for scale!)
Combining these two boxes gave us a crude text to voice machine – unheard of in 1985 and with obvious application in the world of the visually impaired, but clunky and hugely expensive. And now all that functionality is combined into a general-purpose device in the palm of my hand, achievable as a complete by-product of its primary purpose – I stand amazed!
The scanner was based on the work of Ray Kurzweil, the principal inventor of the first omni-font optical character recognition flatbed scanner, who went on to develop a dedicated text to speech device for the blind. Kurzweil has also built a career as a futurist and latterly Google executive. For some time he has championed the concept of a technological singularity, which is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. A further digression, but an interesting fit with the idea of Big History referenced in my previous blog ‘The narrative necessity’ – a conjunction which may bear further exploration in this space …
Anyhooo … we have indeed run a long way here! The bottom line is that running fast can be exhilarating and rewarding in its own right, but that time spent wandering with friends can also be rewarding and productive. Do both and enjoy the future history that emerges!