My Nerdy Little Secret
October 14, 2011 3 Comments
You may have noticed I changed my blog’s name. Here’s part of the reason. Also, I apologize for how narcissistic the article came out. I do take to heart criticisms of how arrogant or solipsistic my tone is – full of private jokes and inner monologue. Maybe there’s something salvagable in this article that I hope you take as a push to embrace your inner ape.
Dear reader. I am going to ask a lot of you later on down there in that sea of letters, so I apologize. Rest assured, I am a nerd, but I have a dirty secret. Please wait to discover it. Don’t skip to the end. I ask you please treat me gently, though I do not think my sin is so great.
Maybe first I can convince you that I am a nerd. As nerdy things go, I think we have to start with a disclaimer. At the risk of breaking into troll-laden taboos, I ask for only two distinctions. Throw out the whole nerd/geek distinction. Yesterday I saw a dude on steroids with a rebel alliance tattoo and who am I to judge how much he rejects entries I-III like a good catholic nerd ought to. The prequels are for reformed nerds and what vile air they must breathe. Also, please chill out about orthodox nerd stuff (getting beat up, skinny and worthless or fat and sweaty, etc). I think that whole genre of nerd-dom stems from something heavily infused in 80s teen movie culture. It certainly has nothing to do with my nerdy youth.
Am I making inroads? Do you believe me yet? Ok let’s bring the nukes right out. Deep breath. Until recently my Vampire Counts army stood assembled at the right of my computer monitor. As in, Warhammer Fantasy Vampire Counts, with animated dead, zombies, witches and wraiths and only one vampire who doesn’t. Fucking. Glitter.
I’m currently working on a biology degree and plan on going to grad school for microbiology/cell biology research. Why? I’m sure you’ve heard of Carl Sagan, a patron saint of science if we ever needed one. Well, I graduated with a history and journalism degree a year ago and what you’re reading right now is pretty much the only example of utilizing that degree. You be the judge of how smart that decision was.
Also, as a last injection of credentials before I ask quite a lot of my audience: video games will never cheat on you. These words of wisdom I take from my brother. Generally, this is how we handle women and relationships. De-prioritizing sex in favor of purer stuff: slaying orcs, collecting loot, headshots, savagely pretending to be Han Solo. We also include board games like Axis vs. Allies or Settlers in this category. If your heart rate gets above a certain point on non-monetary dice rolls (WHFB) there’s a good chance you’re a nerd. Besides girls are scary and they smell nice. That last sentence is probably too Lenny from Of Mice and Men.
Now as I said, I am going to ask quite a lot of you. Bare with me, I promise it makes sense. Like all good nerd pandering, we transition from Warhammer and video games into the canon of J.R.R. Tolkien. At the beginning of The Two Towers (novel), Boromir dies, Merry and Pippin are captured by Uruk-hai, and are carried off towards Isengard. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas chase after them across the plains of Rohan. This is all familiar territory. But for those who’ve only seen the films or couldn’t bring themselves to Google “leagues,” our heroic trio runs about 135 miles across the hilly plains of the Wilderland in pursuit of the hobbits. The films get a lot of shit for basically depicting a lot of running and walking. I’m unsure why this counts as legitimate critique. But that’s what happens here. AGL chase the Uruks on foot for four days before encountering Eomer and getting outfitted with horses. What’s really cool about this, is Tolkien accidentally harkens to our biological inheritance as homo sapiens. This type of expansive hunt – running for leagues (three miles = one league) to hunt for food – defines our early homo ancestors.
Some anthropologists speculate early humans – still of the genus homo – utilized this type of technique to actively hunt before the development of more complex hunting tools and techniques (specifically the spear thrower, bow and arrow and domestication of dogs). This distinction in time means humans had hundreds of thousands of years to develop this persistence running capability. By which, Liebenberg defines persistence hunting as chasing an animal during the hottest time of the day and running it until it collapses from exhaustion and the animal basically allows you to kill it with bare hands, a rock, a stick, etc.
This technique requires highly developed tracking skills and advanced planning capabilities. Of the modern persistence hunts recorded by Liebenberg, they were performed by men in their mid-to-late 30s, took between two hours and six-and-a-half hours and covered between 17 and 35 km (10 and 21 miles). These are not the speeds you see on television when some Kenyan breaks the world record for a marathon (which occurred just last month at 2:03:38) for 26.2 miles. So fret not.
Here’s where I abandon my Lord of the Rings distinction at the risk of sounding like a cheese dick and making some awful argument that, “well… look…. See these super awesome characters in this book did this thing that you are capable of doing too, so maybe you should. Do it too. You know. Run.”
No one thinks that’s a compelling argument. So… what about some science?
Evolution’s a funny thing. We all like our science rocket car decals (or FSM, or Cthulu, I really think they’re the same thing) and “Carl Sagan is my home boy” t-shirts. We name our dogs Darwin, preferably a beagle. We have caffeinated soap and baconated caffeine (much like Oppenheimer and Einstein, I think we are waiting too long after we’ve done science to ask if we should do it). We dream about the robot uprising and speculate on the arrival of the singularity. And yet, here we are, highly evolved apes. Running machines, according to Liebenberg, who argues: “endurance running may be a derived capability of the genus Homo and may have been instrumental in the evolution of the human body form.” Let’s ponder on that.
How many bi-pedal mammals are there? Us and kangaroos? We lack body hair so we sweat better than anything, period, the end. Bonus points for our bi-pedalism, which gives us a reduced sun profile. Our head hair protects the sensitive ears, neck and back from sun damage. Bi-pedalism also substantially reduces the energy required to run. At almost any running speed, humans are burning the same amount of calories. Compare this with a horse, for example, that once it leaves an optimal efficiency zone within each speed category (gallop, trot, camber) the horse becomes woefully inefficient in terms of heat loss and calorie usage. At a certain point almost all other mammals either breathe or run, they can no longer do both – hence, persistence hunting. Our species stands out. Homo can run, breathe and sweat. The only tool we needed was a device to carry water
Our obsession with technology stems in some part from how critical that development was to our evolution and distinction among the genus Homo and ultimately our domination of much of the land mass of the planet. Yet, there’s something sinful about the conjunction of these terms, the nerd and the runner. And please don’t get started on, well, there’s sports nerds, that are basically statistics dorks. You know, they play fantasy football and obsess over baseball figures. That’s not at all what I’m talking about. Those habits are vehicles and extensions of the drinking and socializing culture and as group activities serve a proto-nationalistic function. This is about individualism and evolution.
In the same individualist vein, for example, I love the chemical depictions of caffeine on my coffee mug or the famous photo of Earth from the surface of the moon. You know, things that inspire an outward gaze. A cosmic perspective (as opposed to the inward focus directed by group-think sports activities).
I submit that every one physically able ought to run. Weight lifting as self-improvement is masturbatory, as Tyler Durden put it so well. Ultimately it will alter your form to reflect a strength you do not actually have, e.g. you’ll be really good at, say pushing something away from your chest at a perpendicular angle, but deviate from that angle just a little and all those big creatine fed muscles are totally useless. What appears to be the strongest person out there, I wager, you could smack in the mouth and he’d tire out chasing you after only a mile or so. Pathetic, isn’t it? (Mea culpa) The inheritance of prolific endurance biology used to develop horribly inefficient muscles in terms of size-to-strength yielded.
This isn’t an exclusive offer. Couch-to-5k works incredibly well at motivating people to get in shape. I know prolific drinkers that do marathons and triathalons. Such is the nature of our biological inheritance. Eat shit, get drunk and you can still run pretty well. Not a lithe, elf-like creature? No problem. So long as you aren’t carting around ankle-shattering amounts of weight, you can probably run or jog pretty well. Think you need to sprint? No way. Work slowly. The beauty of your physique will cultivate whatever life you lead. Push yourself, and new capillary pathways will branch through your lungs, boosting your oxygen efficiency. It’s a slow process, but you can start at any time. At the races I attend, 60-something grandmas and grandpas kick my ass, and at the last major 5k I ran, a 15-year-old ruined thousands of runners with a 14 minute 5k. How is this possible? How do the young and old alike do so well at something without suffering tremendous injuries? Maybe, just maybe, all these bad knees and bad backs have less to do with taxing the body with a hard life and more to do with the consequence of deviating from biology – sitting or laying down for 8 hours straight, holding your hands in a stiff position at a keyboard; the sedentary lifestyle. For so short a span of time in our history have we lived this cushy lifestyle, that our backs get weak, our knees sore, our hands stiff, that if we just grasped our sword. Perhaps these bones would remember their strength of old. Out of evolutionary time.
Not only will your body respond to running by boosting your oxygen efficiency and endurance, but specific endorphins kick in to respond to the running experience. After a while, the runner’s high becomes its own addiction and running transforms from something you have to do to something you get to do. And if you’re trying to tamp down anxiety attacks and depression like yours truly, I recommend giving it a try. After a mile, your brain shuts off and you begin to meditate.
At least, I imagine this is what meditation is. You get to choose what to think, how to think. All the categories of contention lose their emotional trappings. Whatever event or bio-chemical imbalance causing the paralyzing specter of worry to trap you inside your mind lifts for a little while and you can work through these problems mid-stride. Imagine, your left leg kicks out, the ball of your foot strikes the ground and sweeps back to lift you off the ground again, the convection of air around you creates a surprising coolness, the sensation of your feet in the grass or sand gives constant feedback of your environment and hundreds of micro-corrections all occur effortlessly as you move through the world in the same way your biology has moved for hundreds of thousands of years. After the false alarm panic siren in your brain shuts off, you enter a permanent calm that only gets disturbed when you choose to disturb it. The emotional barriers of your mind melt away and there you are, stripped down to machine parts. A form moving. Something Platonic and uninhibited. As a runner, a nerd, pumped full of willing anxiety, searching for jars to fill and checkboxes to mark, being broken down to your composite parts and getting the inescapable reminder that you are an ape. A monkey with a mind.
You won’t find freedom anywhere but there, in your legs, your hips and knees. The meat known as Dave’s legs or Tina’s legs. That’s your vessel, the ship that will carry you willingly to the undying lands. “A far green country, under a swift sunrise.” Or something inspiring like that.
 Which, I’m not fucking shitting you. As I’m editing this immediately before emailing, an episode of Nova Science NOW comes on behind me and they talk about how Primates do not have any endurance for running, but for some reason humans do. They go into slow-twitch muscle vs. fast-twitch muscle and the ability of humans to develop endurance akin to birds and such.
 Liebenberg, Louis “Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers” Current Anthropology, Vol. 47, Number 6, December 2006
 (Eichna et al,. 1950; Schmidt-Nelson 1964; Newman 1970) via Liebenberg, Louis “Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers” Current Anthropology, Vol. 47, Number 6, December 2006
 (Boje 1944; Margaria et al. 1963; Cavagna and Kaneko 1977) via Liebenberg, Louis “Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers” Current Anthropology, Vol. 47, Number 6, December 2006
 (Hoyt and Taylor 1981) via Liebenberg, Louis “Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers” Current Anthropology, Vol. 47, Number 6, December 2006
 Might be talking about myself a little bit here. Sigh. Shit.
 Bonus facts: Remember that Nova episode I said was going on in the background. Well they mentioned that 10 days of bed rest, like in a hospital, can have the effect of adding years of age to your life. e.g. don’t so much as stand or sit for 10 days and you’ll start acting like a geriatric because it’s so foreign to your biology that it figures (your body does) well, don’t need these muscles anymore I guess, might as well convert that stored protein into food. And it promptly does.
 Your heart rate has unexpectedly just spiked, after all.
 I will sacrifice evolutionary accurancy in favor of alliteration. Also, look I’m not perfect. I bet there are other inaccuracies in this article. I apologize. My sword is drawn and I’m leaning heavily onto it. Should I take the plunge for your satisfaction? Jesus.