Thursday, May 8, 2014

"The Tartar Steppe" -- A great read for athletes and beyond

No one will be surprised to learn I read a fair amount about endurance sports.  Sure, there are lots of "Get Psyched Up!" ghost-written biographies out there that amount to, "Me train hard go fast.  You no go fast; that ok."  Some of them are decent, but they do tend to blend together.

The thing is, I'm only modestly interested in hearing tales of glory recounted.  I'm more intrigued by the psychological side, specifically, why endurance athletes are driven to be weirdos.  They do objectively unreasonable things at great expense along every relevant dimension -- physical, financial, and interpersonal. And, when you ask many of them, they'll have a hard time telling you why; they'll often admit that training can dominate their lives and races are often stressful, but somehow putting those two negatives together creates a positive, and an addictive one at that.  Why?

Endurance athletes' biographies are largely unhelpful in answering this question, although it's really the reason that their books exist.  Behind the hand-waving, mostly it seems to boil down to (i) proving something to oneself or others, (ii) the desire to set and meet goals, and (iii) the search for meaning that's so often missing from life in a cubicle.  Fair enough, but it sort of begs the central question: When the point is proved and the goal is met, does that lead to happiness over the long term?  Is the searched-for meaning ever found?  I suspect that, for many people, it might be painful to think honestly about the answers to those questions.

I've struggled a great deal with this stuff, sometimes publicly.  My posts here, here, and here ruminate explicitly about it.

In the past few months, I've been pleased to discover a few books that are helpful in thinking about why endurance athletes do what we do.  The thing is, the most insightful books on endurance sports I've found haven't been about endurance sports at all -- at least not literally.

Here's one of them.


Although it's a bit obscure, several creditable lists identify The Tartar Steppe, written originally in Italian, as one of the best novels of the last century.  The dust jacket accurately describes it as "a meditation on the human thirst for glory."  A young military officer, Giovanni Drago, is posted to a remote fort in mountains that overlook a vast desert.  He intends to leave as soon as possible, but gradually becomes entranced by the romantic notion that an invading army will someday materialize in the mist-shrouded distance to allow him to achieve glory on the battlefield, and his life will then be purposeful.  Drogo dedicates himself and his life to visions of this distant dream, only to find in times of doubt that he no longer has any choice but to continue, as his years in the fort have rendered him lost anywhere else.  When at last the enemies amass at the gate, Drogo is old and infirm, and he is transported from the fort in preparation for the dreamt-of battle.  Having dedicated his life to the pursuit of a vision, he finds that it has materialized too late.

A "meditation" is the right description here: The Tartar Steppe is a novel that compels one to think.  It's an enigma.  For most of it, almost nothing happens, but that "nothing happening" is largely the point.  In literal terms, the book has nothing to whatever to do with running or riding a bicycle, but I think on some level it has everything to do with those things.  How often do we, as endurance athletes, sacrifice aspects of our lives in pursuit of a distant vision of glory?  How often do foresake opportunities to do memorable things, all because we're "training with dedication"?

So once more Drogo is climbing up the valley to the Fort and he has fifteen years fewer to live.  Yet he does not feel that he has changed particularly; time has slipped by so quickly that his heart has not had a chance to grow old.  And although the mysterious tumult of the passing hours grows with each day, Drogo perseveres in his illusion that the really important things of life are still before him.  Giovanni patiently awaits his hour, the hour which has never come; he does not see that the future has grown terribly short, that it is no longer like in the days when time to come could seem an immense period, an inexhaustible fund of riches to be squandered without risk.

Will we be faster next year?  Will we go farther?  The year after that?  Then what?