Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Adventure and Competence

Roni Horn once told me
that one of the Antarctic explorers said
To be having an adventure

is a sign of incompetence.

When I am feeling
at my most incompetent
as i do in Stykkisholmur
many a dark morning
walking into the wind

I try to conjure in mind
something that is the opposite of incompetence.
For example the egg.

This perfect form.
perfect content.
Perfect food.

In your dreams
said a more recent explorer (Anna Freud)
you can have your eggs cooked as perfectly as you want

but you cannot eat them.

Sometimes at night
when I can't sleep

because of the wind
I go and stand
in the library of glaciers.

I stand in another world.
Not the past not the future.
Not paradise not reality not

a dream.
An other competence.
Wild and constant.

From 'Wildly Constant' by Anne Carson.

There are differing meanings for the word adventure. I use it fairly loosely to describe a long run, cycle, or hike, or even just putting myself in a slightly challenging environment. Mostly my adventures are mild and the risk of serious danger is limited. However for an Antarctic explorer an adventure is something life threatening , something where the deepest reserves of energy and courage have to be summoned just to reach safety. I lack the courage or faith in my own resources to do things that are extreme, however I am prone to incompetence and that can expose me a bit more than is absolutely necessary.

When I read this poem I think back to a cycle journey my friend and I took along the Ridgeway. It was planned as a full day's ride, a loop including Wantage and Avebury. Something not too extreme except… Except that we decided to do it in February, when days are short and the weather is not the finest, and we set out late so we had too few hours of daylight. Such simple, basic, bad planning.

Nevertheless the first part of the ride was fun, the scenery was good and we had hopes that the challenge could be character building. But as the day wore on the wind blew harder and it took all our strength just to keep moving forward. At the top of Barbury castle our strength was sapped but no worries it was mostly downhill to Avebury but instead of getting there for lunch, it was mid afternoon and we knew we were going to struggle to get back in time. We tried to hurry as much as possible but our legs were not fresh and anyway off-road cycling is comparatively slow. Gradually the night drew in and we could see less and less in front of our wheels, which slowed us down even more as we tried to pick a safe path amid slippery clay, lumpy chalk and deep ruts caused by 4x4s. Eventually we could see nothing - it was pitch dark, without even the moon, and we of course had no lights. We could cycle no further- there might be people who can bike over rough terrain guided only by extrasensory perception, but that was not us. We had to trudge back, pushing our bikes, walking in cleats, stumbling over the uneven land and not knowing where the hell we were and not being able to see where we were going. It was the longest 10 miles I have ever walked and when we arrived at the car we were both totally exhausted, completely weak and I have no idea how I drove home. Even now, many years later I can feel how tired and beaten I was that night.

(I can now use the memory when things get bad in long runs or a marathon. I just tell myself that if I could got back then I can surely finish now).

But when we planned our ride it was not meant to be like that, it was a good day out. "In your dreams you can have your eggs cooked as perfectly as you want but cannot eat them." That is the problem when I plan runs or rides I mostly dream. I imagine what things could or should be like, I create pictures and see myself striding out, but might just as well be floating on a cloud. I do not think about what happens when you push yourself. I do not feel the tiredness, the way muscles weaken, the body aches, and thinking slows down.

It can be good to ignore these things when planning, after all you want to focus on the life-enhancing and it is always comforting to imagine yourself as stronger and faster than you really are. But when you dream it is too easy to be too hopeful about your abilities and as a result find yourself in situations beyond your competence. Perhaps that is what the Antarctic explorer means by an adventure - something that leaves you exposed. 

When planning trips or races I want to do things that will extend me by degrees, push things but not break them, balance dreams with my abilities. I do not want to be exposed I want to find another world... an other competence, wild and constant. 

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