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Vitamin X.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom Demerly in Arizona Desert

When outsiders look at our sport the most common question they ask is, “Why do you do this?”

The reasons, as has been said many times before, are as numerous and varied as the participants. The reasons we participate in endurance sports are dynamic also- they change as our lives change. And if we’re smart, we change with them.

But I want to propose one reason we do this, and I think it’s a good one:

Our lives are boring as hell.

Our species, like every species, has a preoccupation with survival. It’s our number one priority. Security, sustenance, safety, survival. Between the time you get up in the morning and you go to bed at night the bulk of your activities are centered around our highly developed pursuit of those values.

Problem is, we’re too darn smart.

Being the “dominant species” on this planet we have become masters of survival. So much so, there are too many of us and we have irreparably wrecked the planet. We are so good at staying alive we take survival for granted.

That isn’t all good.

In the pursuit of this most primitive of desires (the only one before reproduction) we have so effectively isolated ourselves from danger that our life will likely be claimed by a rogue cell reproducing unnoticed in a vital organ while we piss ourselves in a hospital bed. Not a pretty picture.

So good for us. As a species, we beat the odds. We are tops on the food chain and, provided you stay out of the woods and on the beach, our only natural enemies are the weirdo in the cubicle next to you who keeps to himself, collects guns and has issues with the management.

Problem is, humans aren’t build for boring. They’re built for action: Survival, adaptation and most of all, this species is built for figuring its way out of a jam.

We have huge brains, opposable thumbs, move quickly and use tools. These things are for solving problems. But it seems that, as a species, we’ve become utterly adverse to problems. The bulk of our population- certainly not including you or I though- is weak, slow, fat, pale, dumb and vulnerable; not to mention lazy and disingenuous. That isn’t how we were intended or evolved to be. It’s just what we’ve slipped into.

Like the vitamins we can’t live without, vitamins A, B, B12, C, D and E if we go without the vitamin of action, let’s call it “Vitamin X” because it sounds cool, we will actually die: We’ll die of obesity, clogged arteries, cancer or that most lethal malignancy of all- boredom.

Our species needs more “Vitamin X”. I think a big part of the reason you and I do what we do is we need more Vitamin X in our lives.

We are so insulated from action in our lives that we accept artificial Vitamin X in a synthetic and virtual form through movies, television, X-Boxes and PS2’s. For those whose mental metabolism is slow enough to require very little Vitamin X these things suffice. But for others, it is like the pusher giving you your first hit free to get you addicted.

Here is an example. A customer recently sent me a link to a video of a year in the life of an extreme athlete who practices BASE jumping. BASE jumping is the sport of parachuting off fixed objects, Building, Aerial, Span or Earth, at low altitude. The sport is illegal in some countries and lethal in all. Here’s the video:

Now, getting this video wasn’t good for me. I’ve jumped from helicopters, prop planes and jets. I’ve jumped at night, during the day and in a thunder storm. I’ve landed in the woods, the snow, the desert, a mud bog, an airport runway and the water. In my previous vocation with the U.S. Army and the Michigan National Guard as a member of a Long Range Surveillance Unit our commute to work was occasionally at the end of a parachute. But I got a Vitamin X overdose on one jump and haven’t jumped since.

Every time I stepped out the door of an aircraft I felt a brief pang of abject terror. That’s Vitamin X. I fooled myself into doing it by convincing myself I would die anyway, resolve that I was as good as dead, try to fool myself into accepting it and then stepping out the door. At about the three count (of the four count they taught us in Airborne school at Fort Benning) the parachute was pretty much deployed and it was always a pleasant surprise. Then I just had to deal with getting my feet on the ground in one piece, usually another set of problems in a sky filled with parachutes, big airplanes and all kinds of hazards on the ground.

Now, when you watch this video clip, you may have any number of reactions, or no reaction at all. But when I watch it I have a log jam of reactions. It makes me crave Vitamin X.

I noticed that when one of my cats is sitting in the window and sees a bird just outside, beyond the glass, out of reach- she makes odd noises and her body shakes involuntarily. Her tail quivers and she hunches down in a predatory posture- knowing full well that there is an impenetrable barrier between her and her unattainable prey. But being a cat, a predator by nature no matter how domestic she may be, she is hard wired with that behavior. In her cognitive world, what little there is for a domestic cat, she understands things like tacos are good, she gets treats when I come home, and warm towels just out of the dryer are good to lay on. If she thinks, that is what she thinks about. In her subconscious she still feels she must hunt birds. It is embedded deep into the simple psyche of a house cat.

We are like that too. And my reaction to that video is a lot like my cat’s to the bird outside the window. I see the man falling- falling. He is as good as dead. He misses the buildings and cliff walls by inches at over a hundred miles per hour. And it is oddly arousing. Not in an amorous sense, but in a way where your awareness is heightened, you become more alert and you (or at least I) become hyper perceptive.

When we are confronted with the visual stimulus of Ironman on TV it sometimes causes us to shake and tremble, our metaphorical tail to shake involuntarily. And for a lot of us it translates into tangible behavior. We enter the race, train for the race and do the race. Because we need Vitamin X. Because everything else is so damn boring.

Like the day to day life of my cat, ours is horribly boring. Nothing threatens our survival. We’re surrounded by sturdy walls and roofs, warm clothing, clean water, air bags and seat belts. We may entertain ourselves with the human equivalent of chasing the laser pointer across the floor or mutilating a catnip filled mouse for the thousandth time, but for the most part, it is a pretty pail simulation or vicarious experience.

So we occasionally suffer the Vitamin X deficiency and do something about it to spice up our lives: Enter Ironman, jump out of an airplane, go skiing above our ability limit, whatever.

If you are about to dismiss this little notion as folly then I offer Evan Wright’s best selling book, “Generation Kill” as evidence to the contrary.

Evan Wright followed an elite Marine Corps Force Recon unit in the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom. He observed a new phenomenon in society, culture and war. He observed the reaction of a generation raised on synthetic, phony “Vitamin X” and what happens to them when they are injected with the real thing in volumes- as in, a real war.

Wright discovered a generation fortified with bravado and disenfranchised from empathy- until forced to come to grips with its ugly reality. It would seem that, according to Wright’s masterful, pulse pounding account, killing terrorists for real in the back alleys of an Iraqi neighborhood isn’t all that different from killing them in the virtual realm while playing Tom Clancy’s “Ghost Recon” on X-Box.

Until, that is, you have to face the reality up close. You just don’t turn off the X-Box and go to bed when the body count maxes out.

An entire generation, Wright’s “Generation Kill”, was so deficient in real vitamin X and so juiced on synthetic X that they went into battle ready to kill- just like on their Playstation or X-Box, but with only a fumbling notion of what to do with the real thing. As a result of this disparity between real and synthetic Vitamin X I think we will have a lot of fine, courageous young men and women coming home with a lot of thinking to do. And I think eventually Playstation and X Box sales will suffer.

Being juiced on artificial Vitamin X is not the same as the real thing. The lessons, and the ramifications, are not the same.

That’s why we need the real thing. The real Vitamin X. That is one reason we do this sport.

If you don’t feed your need for Vitamin X you suffer from the deficiency. Tightrope walker Carl Wallenda once said it best,

“All of life is walking the wire. Everything else is simply waiting…”

And when you consider Wallenda’s insight, it is so irrefutably true. We may cherish our warm beds and our safe, comfortable homes, but the degree to which we cherish them is reciprocal to the hardship and danger we have endured.

Will someone who has never finished Ironman every understand the incredible luxury of a massage on spent muscles? Will someone who has never done a race on a hot day ever understand how truly valuable a Dixie cup filed with ice is? Will someone who hasn’t put their entire physical, mental and emotional being into racing their heart out for 12, 13 or 14 hours at Ironman ever understand the incredible opulence of just sitting down.

No, they take these things for granted. And sooner or later, surrounded by manufactured safety and false security they get cranky and dull and fat and sick. They complain about all the things missing from their lives. Perhaps if they just gave up some of what they have all the wonder would return. Perhaps if they interjected some real risk into their lives then they would truly live.

Maybe if they went out and got a dose of Vitamin X they might not be so bored.

-Thanks to rferron from forum for contributing to this editorial.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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