A Labor of Love

Marx

My apologies in advance, but I want to talk philosophy. Not about the historically well-endowed Socrates, but instead of one bearded old German guy whose ramblings did justice to the feelings I share but have failed to articulate so profoundly. When I say his name, I expect the hypothetical room to go silent, ready? Karl Marx. I know. Unfortunately, as history would have it, most people think he just went on and on about communism and inspired everyone that America has ever hated [for some people, that’s our own President]. But I don’t want to turn this into a McCarthy-esque witch-hunt, and hope that I will not be misinterpreted as someone who thinks poor people deserve medical care too, because that’s just asinine! To the surprise of many, he had some good ideas and one in particular encapsulates everything I love about running, and that’s his theory of alienation.

“And this life activity [the worker] sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. … He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another.” -Karl Marx

Individuals used to be independent. Within the nuclei of our family, we would roam the land eating berries, stealing nuts from squirrels, and maybe even killing the occasional woolly mammoth. But at a certain point in time we discovered the benefits of not doing that, because that sounds hard. So we learned that if we settled within the comfort of a village, threw up some walls, and distributed the necessary tasks of survival, we’d have more time to play the newest video game consoles. This is specialization, and it was among the greatest achievements until sliced bread. But there is a nasty side effect of living in a socially stratified society [besides tax breaks for the rich], and that is because the estrangement of labor is real.

Inspired by the meatpacking district of Chicago in the mid-19th century, Henry Ford popularized the assembly line technique for the completion of the Model-T. Workers would stand next to the conveyor belt, focusing solely on one task, and upon its completion, would pass it along, and repeat the mind-numbing job. Between the first punch in and the last punch out, factory men remain unchallenged and replaceable while on the clock. There is a distance that exists between the worker and the product. His monotonous labor lacks any form of stimulation and he fails to see how his specific role contributes to the final result. An entire day is spent putting two pieces together, but never seeing the finished puzzle. That disconnect between the subject and the object is neglectful to the human spirit’s need to feel purposeful. This is why people are miserable.

For Marx, this problem could be solved by communism. But good luck enjoying your job when America hears you like sharing. Instead, I believe in an input-output model. When my passion for running began, it was addicting. Thinking back to the exhaustion from those first runs at the dawn of my career, it’s amazing I ever fell in love with the sport. I remember stopping to walk for a few minutes with a couple teammates when coach wasn’t looking. But as the miles passed by, I experienced small bouts of success daily. There was no more walking. A two-mile run felt about as hard as one-mile once was. And before long, I was running three and four daily. My paces were getting faster, and my personal bests were being lowered. I wanted more. And it was so simple; if I worked hard and smart, then I would run faster than before. For a confused kid wandering the labyrinth of a middle school’s hallways, I cherished the straightforwardness that came after the final bell. The correlation was direct, and the results were tangible. Motivation stemmed intrinsically, and I prided myself in what I was doing. And many miles and minutes of running later, the same phenomenon still exists. The more I put in, the more I get out.

In running, your labor is not replaceable. You cannot run a mile for a friend, or skip a day and make it up. But you can say that the times you run, and the races you win are all yours. That is because, in the end, your work is the final product.

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The past two weeks I have been on the road a bit as I spent a week working at 5 Star Cross-Country Camp, and then a week staying at a cabin in Maine. Déjà vu. I came home inspired, and hungry. Additionally, I had the chance to do a motivational talk of my own at Westwood XC Camp. I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a few different camps, and it is always a fun way to get some kids excited about running. Those weeks away were motivating and fortunately, I have returned a bit more fit than when I left.

I have written before [on this blog] about the ‘Juice Theory,’ which values the added benefits of the gradual build up, so I will stay true to that, as I believe it has done me a lot of good so far during this summer. Under the guidance of Gags, I have been made patient, and in my 10th week, hit 60 miles in 6 runs. I will continue to climb a bit higher the next month, and I will slowly integrate some [very] easy workouts into the routine.

Additionally, I have been experiencing what I call the ‘Balloon Theory,’ which in short states: Fitness is like a balloon. It is much harder to blow up the balloon as it expands to a point that it has never been before. But once the air is let out, and an attempt to blow up the balloon again is made, it is much easier to achieve levels of expansion previously reached.

Now that I am home I have to figure out my apartment situation, and finding a job that is content to let me come in late everyday and have the freedom of traveling regularly. Ideally it’s not on an assembly line.

(I am currently in the midst of a competition with my brother to see who can get published by the popular website, ‘McSweeney’s,’ first. The entries are that are successfully posted are normally short and funny blurbs. And I am expecting many more rejections.)

Dear Passenger Sitting in Seat 14C,

Why did you do this to me? To us? Things were going so well. I know we had our differences about the rights to the armrest and the allocation of elbowroom. But after dancing around your passive aggressive moans, and seeing you bang your funny bone, I gave in. It is all yours, and I am ok with that. Am I shocked you disregarded the universal law of airplanes that would forfeit the rights to me, the middle seat? Yes. And when you first sat down and complimented my choice of literature, I thought to myself, ‘Now this is a guy who I can have a conversation with!’ I am an arms crossed kind of guy anyway.

But you put your headphones in. It was a little loud, but you’re lucky I am a sucker for spoiled 16-year-old pop icons with a mastery of the auto-tune. I actually kind of enjoyed it. I respected your refusal to oblige by the flight attendants incessant warnings to shut off all electronics. How stealthy you were! I know wearing that hoodie today was not a coincidence. That’s the type of craftiness I would expect from you, and you had never failed to disappointment me.

I drank too much lemonade from that pretzel stand. I knew the risks going in, and I accepted the potential consequences. On a three-hour flight, I could be pardoned one bathroom break, yet we were only 30 minutes in when the rush came. I did not want to excuse myself so early, and burden you with the task of moving for me. And what if I had to go again? How embarrassing that would be. You looked so peaceful as your eyes flickered to fight off the stream of cool air blowing from the vent. But I could only hold it in for so long. The time had come. I had contemplated all possible escape routes. The climb over, the squeeze by, even the sneak under. However, the fear of you waking up with a grown man’s ass in your face scared me straight. So I nudged. And you complied considerately, without any hesitation.

As you unbuckled your seatbelt, and stood up I could feel the bladder relief just moments away. But then you curiously began to walk to the back of the plane. I was struck by awe, shocked by such actions. And when you walked into the bathroom, and stole that seat from me, I cursed you in anger. I looked ahead; there was a vacant lavatory at the front! I rushed forward. And my pace quickened. But the flight attendant stopped my momentum, and shut me out with the pull of those pretentious shades. ‘First class passengers only,’ she smirked. I hate her.

So I spun around, and once again returned to the rear. The light was off. You were done. How unforgivable you were to steal that spot before me. If it weren’t for me, you’d still be asleep with a belly full of pee. Though at last, it was over. I turned the knob, anticipating my victory. And there you were. Starring back at me, with your jaw dropped in disgust, and your hand held behind you wrapped in a protective glove of tissue paper. You yelled in anger, “Shut the door!” As if I were the one at fault.

And now we sit here, for two more hours. A vision of the worst half of your naked body plagues my memory. This could have been prevented. If only you had been more responsible. So now I put my headphones in as well, and shut my eyes. I can’t even look at you! We shall never speak of this, and I will try to fall asleep. But I can’t. I still have to pee. Damn lemonade.

Sincerely,

Passenger 14B

The Summer Running Convention

Before the close of my sophomore year of high school, my coach approached me at practice with a brochure. On the printed cover there was an eclectic group of boys and girls, strategically picked to mirror the diversity of the United Nations, running down a trail. I was skeptical. He opened up the pamphlet and pointed at one of the pictures, “Look! This camp brings you to where this year’s state meet is going to be. Go.” I did not have the fortune to matriculate into a high school powerhouse. Instead I came into a program of sprinters, and under the guidance of a soccer coach. But despite having limited experience with distance running, he was smart and willing to learn. So together through my high school years we read books, talked to other coaches and athletes, and developed a program that would work. For what he lacked in knowledge of lactate thresholds he made up in wisdom. And sending me to cross-country camp was one of his best moves.

 

There was no way I was going to camp alone though. I was a social butterfly of prodigious standards, but I wasn’t going to show up without a backup plan. I convinced my teammate Leroy to tag along, who was more a wrestler than he was a runner, but he was always down to make new friends. We pulled up to the campgrounds, and we were baffled. Cross-country camp was nothing like we had imagined. Everyone was having a good time playing basketball, but the kids were a bit bigger than we imagined. I looked at Leroy who sat beside me in the back seat to see if he was equally confused. His initial concern about camp had been resolved, “It looks like I’m not going to be the only black kid.” We rolled up in our car and spoke to one of the counselors. It turned out that the cross-country camp was a bit further down the dirt road. We followed the path and crested the hill only to see dozens of shirtless kids tossing a Frisbee across the field. That’s more like it, I thought.

 

Coming from a high school without a real running tradition, I was regularly mocked for sporting short-shorts to practice. In the most stereotypical fashion, the football players would call out and whistle as I ran around their field. This was flattering. But at camp, I was no longer the lone soldier. Within a couple hours of being there, and before even heading out for a run, I had been accepted solely by the condition of being a fellow runner. In that one week of camp, I listened and absorbed the lessons from such runners as Dick Beardsley, John Gregorek, Henry Rono and others like my running group counselor who was a former Footlocker National champion. I left camp with a new sense of pride to be a runner. As an athlete who was participating in one of the less popular sports in school, it was comforting to see that I was not alone. Somewhere out there were running nerds, just like me. But I didn’t find them until I went to camp.

 

Eight years later and I am headed back to camp again, yet now I return in a different role. Now it’s my turn to motivate some kids, share some wisdom, and make them laugh on the longest runs of their lives. However, at the end of the week when I am exhausted from waking up for early morning runs, playing Frisbee, putting on skits, swimming in the lake, and teaching clinics, I will come away with a spark of inspiration myself. As I am doing my best to eclipse my personal bests, and make a splash on the elite scene in the upcoming year, it is easy to be consumed by the business-like side of racing. But spending a week with kids who enjoy running for its purity is a refreshing look back to where I started, and to appreciate where I have ended up, so far.

 

Since cross-country runners have more camp pride than a wizard and their Hogwarts house, I’ll plug and say next week I will be up in Rockhill, NY at 5 Star XC Camp (www.5starxc.com). There’s still time to sign up and drink the ambiguously flavored red drank.

One Cam Levins Week

One Cam Levins Week

The Ladder to Infinity

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