Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Runner

Pheidippides. The famous Herald and professionally trained long distance runner of ancient Athens. Mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus as the runner sent by the Athenian generals  to the Spartans to request their assistance in fighting off the coming onslaught of the Persians. The story goes that he ran 240 km in 2 days over the incredibly steep terrain of Greece to deliver the request. 

The reason I started to think about him was because of my involvement with Transition Joshua Tree. I'm reading a great deal about peak oil, climate change and the current economic crisis that indicate that the hard core hour is at hand to begin the ambitious transition to a sustainable future if we are going to have any kind of future at all. I've been visualizing my community's world without access to cheap fossil fuels. Here's a scenario - gasoline becomes increasingly unaffordable and scarce. Let's also say, in the not too distant future, all things petroleum based become unattainable for the average person. Let's go one step further and say the grid just plain goes down, maybe periodically, maybe for good. In all cases of emergency, if we don't want to descend into pandemonium, people have to pull together. That's best done with a plan in place. In order to pull together we will need effective lines of communication. Joshua tree is rural with good distances between peoples' homes and the town center. This is where Pheidippides came to mind. In the ages prior to fossil fuels this is one way that tribes/communities sent urgent info across distance. Suddenly the persona of the runner took on new meaning and depth.

I think the archetype of the runner is a profoundly important one. Today the marathon runner is considered a spectacular if somewhat OCD athlete but frankly always seemed to me like a hunter with nothing left to hunt; a personality type whose job has become obsolete. I've also noticed that the extreme runners that I've met tend to be highly intelligent people. The story of Pheidippides is only briefly mentioned by Herodotus but like all great stories the real meat is in between the lines. There are many permutations of the story but Herodotus wrote his account 30 to 40 years after the event so we can be fairly certain that our man was an historical figure.

What kind of man was he? I don't suppose the generals would have picked any old great runner to do the job. I'm imagining that they handed their written or oral request to Pheidippides in particular for a reason. We're talking about a life or death outcome. I'm thinking that the runner charged with such a task would have had to be intelligent with considerable powers of persuasion, one who could plead a case passionately in the event that the delivered request was denied . Considering that the demands of the run (life or death mission paired with extreme physical exertion) were very likely to have put the Herald into an altered state of consciousness, it would be best if the runner were comfortable with delirium. Squarely in The Zone, is my thinking on this. And in fact, that's another fascinating aspect of the story. 

The Spartans turned Pheidippides down. They had a religious event scheduled that didn't work with the time frame of the impending battle. But all was not lost. Upon his return to Athens he told the generals that on his way to Sparta, the god Pan appeared to him on a mountain top with a message to deliver to the Athenians. Talk about being in The Zone. Pan said that he was miffed because the Athenians had ignored him but if they would build him a temple he would help them to win the battle. They built the temple and they won against enormous odds.

And here we have many roles for the herald/runner: extreme athlete, possible orator, ambassador, man-to-whom-the-gods speak, psychologist (I mean, did he really talk to Pan??). What I like about my idea of the persona of the runner is that it begins to tie a particular primal human activity into the Permaculture idea of stacking functions. A human being who can fluidly and effectively move between many roles is a resilient human being. The more resilient the individuals, the more resilient the community.

A few hours ago, I was eating dinner out with my friend Travis, fellow Transition JT steering group member. We were talking the talk, catching up, sharing stories when I remembered all these ideas I was having. I said "Hey, I've been reading the Transition Handbook and thinking about the idea of running". Before I could launch into the story, he said "You know, I've been thinking too...if the shit hits the fan, what would my role be? What would I do? I think I'd be the runner". It was a great moment. A story in my mind had come full circle and landed firmly in the present. Of course. Travis WOULD be the runner for many of the reasons mentioned above. To live well in the coming descent off of fossil fuels we each need to re-skill to become more resilient. We will need to become fluent about some very basic things like growing food, harvesting water, fixing things, building our physical stamina to transport ourselves locally, reconnecting with our community and nature (note to self - Pan doesn't like to be ignored). And, like Pheidippides, we'll need to learn the art of telling a highly motivating story when Plan A fails.

Blog post illustration by Burne Hogarth from Dynamic Anatomy.