A few thoughts on suffering, human and otherwise …


Mike Baker,


North Face Endurance Challenge, Washington DC: 06/02/12

A note: Keith Gates and I went up to Virginia to race in the North Face Endurance Challenge. He was racing in the 50 miler and I was doing a leg of the marathon relay with Neil Stout who, along with Stephanie née Barraco, was moving to DC in June. Keith, by the way, ran a Western States qualifying sub 10 hour race.)

Keith and I were sitting in the back of Keith’s rented Dodge Avenger and I was drunk. Keith had just finished running a 50 mile race in under 10 hours and then had a big dinner with beers. He wasn’t so much drunk as exhausted. Somewhere along the way, between one DC suburb and the next, I looked over at Keith who was now asleep except that he looked waxy and too still. I thought, Keith might just be dead. You know, like one of those famous pedestrian runners who leaned against a tree to take a nap mid epic run, put a hanky over his face and that’s where they found him three days later. Dead like that. I thought, I’m pretty tired and then nodded off myself. There is some precedent for this though. One night I woke up with horrible chest pain. I thought, I must be having a heart attack but then I thought, I’m too tired to deal with this. I’ll deal with it in the morning if I wake up. Don’t feel bad Keith. I’m kind of lazy with my own mortality. So there’s that.

A few days later I’m in the Holocaust museum. It was all too much. I mean, imagine a super rich chocolate cake where instead of chocolate its misery and suffering. One mouthful is too much. The only thing that my mind could hold onto was some film footage of a man getting dragged away. I watch his feet kicking out from under him and I could see his terror. It wasn’t wild and flailing. It was a cold helpless panic where you just let go enough to let yourself fall. Like, he knew how dead he was and so couldn’t barely muster a fight but put one up as if he might be ashamed not to fight. No one helped him. I wonder if he would have wanted that knowing that it would have doomed them as well. So there’s that.

Lastly, this morning there was a broken contorted dead squirrel in the road. Someone killed him with their car. I felt like I might as well have done that. I decided on the spot that I had to find a way to give up meat, to give up my share of that suffering being made and tossed into the world. So there is that.

I saw this movie once where a former slave trader goes to the place he gathered slaves and makes himself a slave to man who had himself been enslaved. The former slave makes the former slave trader carry this enormous burden up a mountain. It’s a herculean task. It almost kills him. They, the former slave trader and the man, the former slave, get to the top of the mountain and the former slave takes the burden and throws it off the mountain. The former slave trader goes to retrieve it and bring it back up the mountain even though, by their agreement, his debt was paid because in his eyes, the slave trader, it might never be repaid.

Running is like that for me. It is the puny measure of payment I offer back to life for the bad I have done. And there was Keith, asleep or dead next to me and I thought, “Well if he’s dead then he’s at peace with his sins and all life’s burden but if he’s just sleeping, waking him will only bring it all back to light and I would not want to see that light at the end of 50 miles of trying to pay back my debt.”