Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer Heat Reveals Artifact of Marathon Man

Following a summer training run, a brief nap etched the runner’s outline in sweat on a concrete slab. The drawing reveals a tiny head and scarcely any feet at all. Hardly archaeology, you say. Yet one clearly sees a grotesque artifact of Marathon Man, his self-portrait of sorts. The figure, at once somber and absurd, lies quietly waiting in the shade. From the Running Journal, August, 2009.


He looks out from a prison of concrete and sweat like one of the ancient petroglyphs etched into the red-rock wall of a Utah canyon. Unlike those enduring portraits, Marathon Man is doomed and ephemeral, fleeting and soon to depart, just like those ghostly Utah figures say the Anasazi, their creators, did.

We rush forward while we can, and wonder: Are we doomed, too? Does Marathon Man say that? If not, what does he say to us? And what shall we in turn say about him?

Gazing at the concrete, its dappled-gray, sweat-receptive porosity, we see a piercing coolness beckoning from beyond, a comfortable firmness that like bedrock can be counted upon, even if we aren’t sure upon for what. “Lie here,” the figure says. “Let the weariness drain away.” The waves of heat rolling over the cold surface are thus soothed and quieted, like a sweet red sunset. And he speaks again:

“Do you see now…do you see what a marathon is?”

Paradox: In order to contest a marathon in the cool air of autumn one must train through the withering heat of summer.

Run 12 miles in July. Rest on concrete. Dream of October’s race. Increase understanding. Produce a portrait.

A portrait in mixed media, to be sure, an image rendered in sweat and concrete. Every artist must know his materials.

We shall address that topic now. Let us consider concrete’s properties: its density, specific heat and porosity, its modulus of elasticity, its twenty-eight day compressive strength and so on. The properties of sweat must not be neglected either, especially the viscosity and surface tension, quantities blithely ignored by apparel makers, thus leaving runners with blistered toes and bloodied nipples despite the millions those makers spend developing advertising claims.

But artists have little interest in materials science, seeking instead an intuitive, more transcendental (they would say) kind of knowledge. Very well, we shall eschew technical handbooks and their dreary data-filled tables. Experience is the artist’s best teacher, says the empiricist.

To know sweat, he advises following this procedure: Run 15 miles in August. After stretching, sit in a wooden chair on a deck under the sun. Note the sweat-saturated shorts and how the liquid runs from them onto the chair bottom and drips from there steadily onto the wooden floor planking below.

Sit very still. Note the growing puddle size underneath, how it resembles a glistening low dome, the beveled edges bulging with a curvature shaped by the forces of surface tension and gravity working in concert with the fluid’s viscosity and density. Each force plays its part in exquisite and elegant harmony, obeying precisely the commanding baton of Sir Isaac Newton.

It is best if, for drainage purposes, the planking has a sight slope. Puddle diameter is thereby limited. Soon, once the puddle becomes hand-sized perhaps, gravity overpowers the ability of surface tension to corral all the fluid. A bulge forms on the puddle’s downhill side and gradually takes the shape of a tongue creeping forward like molasses. While sweat continually drips into the reservoir, the tongue—one-and-a-half-inch in width now—grows ever so slowly outward from the puddle, like an amoeba dividing.

A new phase thus begins, the problem passing from one of quasi-statics to the case of fluid dynamics. Engineers, no doubt, will insist on computing a Reynolds’ number. But we shall not. No, we remain faithful to empiricism, content to observe the tongue crawling forward, fascinated by its growing length, reminded of the blob oozing under the door in the old Steve McQueen classic.

To eight inches it grows, to a foot, to two feet…

Finally, at a tongue length of 32 inches we conclude our exercise in sweat flow and wander off in search of a cold drink, having developed a powerful thirst.

An explanation, if not outright apology, may now be in order, we realize. During our rather tedious discussion of the chosen materials—in which, of course, we only scratched the surface and barely included enough data to suggest the complexities of material selection—during this, the reader may well have concluded that we had forgotten altogether about the image that began this discussion. But, no, like a good story plot, we shall now return to the beginning, to the image of Marathon Man itself.

The perceptive reader may well object to the grandiose name given to our image, claiming, after all, to see nothing more than a sweat angel. But we reject that simple slander, noting a distinct lack of “angelic” qualities in the image and detecting in their place a trace of sinister overtone. If “sinister” is too strong a word, then at the very least, could one grant, say, “a severely stern austerity?”

Very well then. Consider first the feet of M.M.—nonexistent, owing to the head-on perspective, perhaps. Turn your attention to the calves, however. Note, in the rendering, how huge they are. A marathoner needs strong calves for a vigorous push off and for hill climbing. Our running man exhibits calves to envy.

Ascending further, we encounter a small mystery: The over-developed hamstrings that give the legs of most runners their evocatively curved taper are nearly absent in Marathon Man. Why, one wonders? Moving a bit higher, the riddle solves itself. We realize the cause of the imperfect impression: the hamstrings were held high by the lofting effect of the powerfully developed gluteus maximus muscles, a muscular trait often prized in mate selection rituals.

Without doubt, the most astonishing feature of M.M. must surely be the absence of forearms and hands. But of course!—those appendages being totally useless for running. All the runner needs in their place are swinging counterweights. M.M. meets that requirement with his adaptation of massive upper arms, a mass quite sufficient for counterweight purposes, it seems.

Kindly accept, if you will, the tiny head of Marathon Man. He needs only a small portion of a normal brain, the part concerned with speech that repeats over and over in a continuous loop the stupefying phrase familiar to marathoners everywhere: “Keep going forward, keep going forward, keep going forward…”

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