Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 73: A Purposeful Hallucination

The 544-mile Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon – held annually from 1983 till 1991 – was, in its time, one of the most challenging if least heralded footraces in the world.

The inaugural event was won by Cliff Young, perhaps the unlikeliest competitor imaginable. A farmer by trade – and not exactly in his athletic peak, either, at the tender age of 61 – Cliff's strategy was breathtakingly simple if equally unorthodox. Instead of running for sixteen hours, sleeping for six, carbo-loading, and then doing it all again like everyone else, Cliff walked. For five days and fifteen hours. Straight. Without sleeping.

The average walking speed of a human adult is three miles per hour. Cliff Young managed a little over four. He lagged behind the leaders for nine tenths of the race, then passed them all during the final night before finishing a staggering ten full hours ahead of his nearest opponent. Has there ever been a more appropriate or literal personification of the tortoise versus the hare story in human history? Rhetorical question. This was, most assuredly, a triumph of stamina over speed.

Or maybe it was psychology. Cliff would admit later to having been motivated by lucid hallucinations that a storm was coming, and that he had to round up his sheep before it hit. He wasn't driven by the promise of prize money or athletic glory; there was no finish line to him, just his farm, imperiled.

Professional athletes – and, indeed, people in all walks of life – have long used such "purposeful hallucinations" to motivate them through tasks great and small. How many times has the phrase "nobody believed in us" been uttered in defiance in the winning team's locker room after a close, hard-fought victory? And how many times has it been true? Most athletes relish the opportunity to use any sign of disrespect – real or imagined – as fuel for their competitive fires. However, these "purposeful hallucinations" are not relevant only in the world of sports.

For instance, take the character of Fox Mulder from the TV show The X-Files. Mulder believes that aliens abducted his little sister – and that there is a sinister government conspiracy to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate his investigation into the matter – and steadfastly refuses to believe all evidence to the contrary, even when it is presented to him by his level-headed partner, Dana Scully. Because to give up on this dream – to give up on the notion that aliens exist and that the truth is out there – would be to give up hope of ever seeing his sister again. And it is that foolish hope upon which has driven his every action in life. His every choice has been predicated upon it. To admit that aliens weren't real, and that there was no conspiracy, would be to admit that his life's work – his life – was a sham. Empty and meaningless. 

Another, more tangible and perhaps timely example of a "purposeful hallucination" could be my ambition to adapt this journal into a book, get it published, and thereby become a famous best-selling author. With a lucrative side career as a motivation speaker and underwear model. I need to believe all that is possible, or else I might lose hope and never finish.

One last concrete example without delving into the controversial or the absurd: when I rode my bike on the Farmington Canal Path in high school, I used to imagine I'd pass the girl I liked along the way, or that she'd be waiting for me at the end. Somehow, I fooled myself into believing – truly believing – that not only would she find my bike-riding talents sexy, but that, well, she'd find my bike-riding talents sexy. And also that she lived or worked nearby, and so might easily see me or hear me, and would be sorely tempted to run out to me every time I passed.

Of course, I would later find out that she lived nowhere near the trail, but in a completely different part of town. And that she wouldn't have ran out to me even if she had. No matter how many sickeningly saccharine poems I e-mailed her, or flirtatious notes I typed out to her on our graphing calculators in math class. Plus she already had a boyfriend. In college. Who presumably could drive a car, which is a much sexier skill than knowing how to ride a bike. But I digress. My point here isn't that teenagers, or teenage boys – and me, in particular – are stupid, pitiable little animals, or that vaguely stalker-ish behavior is wrong and doesn't work. No, my point here is that this blatant fantasy kept me going. 

I never would have gone so far or pushed myself as hard if not for that idea, that fleeting daydream that she'd be there, waiting for me at the end.

On the trail, we would invent silly goals for ourselves like this all the time. I often found myself thinking, I have to get to X before Y in order for Z to happen, or I need to finish by A or else B and C won't be able to drive up to meet me. Sometimes it might have been, If we make it to such and such a place, and so and so is there, we'll get trail magic! And for the most part, like for Cliff Young, this practice worked, even if our fantasies were so rarely rewarded.

But on this day, they were. After saying goodbye to Shenandoah National Park – and Nature and Bandito, who took a side trail to a hostel – Caveman, Hobbes and myself rolled into the Jim and Molly Denton Shelter to find a family already camped there, out for the weekend. And they had s'mores, which they insisted on sharing with us as we all huddled around the fire in the damp and cold of the night. 

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