Usama Malik: Non Zero

  There's an interesting debate taking place in some corners of academia these days that is trying to either prove or refute the genetic basis of art, music, aesthetic and the like.  One school finds expression through music and art as an extention of our genetic basis for language, or a social evolution.  The other finds deep biological linkages and evolutionary reasons for music and art.  They both have plausible arguments today, but nascent ones as well, it's a new school and the foundational knowledge is still being accumulated.  Regardless, whatever school you fall into, and whatever your individual preferences for each may be, for me music is the closest thing to spiritual and metaphysical that I have experienced, and to the extent that entire moments, even hours have flashed by with nothing but a vague taste of ecstacy remaining on the proverbial soul, the only fleeting evidence.

It's almost 24 hours before my flight to Amman and less than 72 hours before the race begins.  I am less anxious than last time, although I never really quite get that anxious till right before an event.  My bags are pseudo packed, I am procrastinating as I normally do, I will most likely rush to complete everything the hour before I leave tommorrow.  I know this, and yet I will do nothing about it.  It's the same way I swore that I would not slumber to the last minute to sort out my gear, my bagpack, my food and other sundry items this time like I did in September 2011.  And yet, it was only this past weekend that I got my house in order, and even then I am not sure if I have everything.  The panic checks will be occuring sometime within the next 24 hours.  Right now I am busy salad-loading, and thinking about what music I should have on my iPod - last time my iPod lasted for two days and my solar charger refused to cooperate, so the last four of the six marathons were run only to the rhythm of my stomping feet and exhausted, sometimes exacerbated pants.  Last night I downloaded a whole bunch of old Jay Z from the 90's, I have to think about a variety and I need some novelty, I've been listening to the same shuffle of 300+ songs that my sisters' put on a Nano for me eight months ago.  Everytime I'm shuffling ...

A friend of mine, the only person I know running this race with me, an ex-colleague reunited at my current job, landed in Amman today - with all of his luggage missing, lost by the airline.  All of his luggage including 6 days of supplies for the race - shoes, sleeping bag, food, first aid, etc.  He's scrambling to pull all his stuff together again, I will do a run to buy several things for him tomorrow.  But that's definitely anxiety-inducing, especially given my schedule, i.e. I land less than 20 hours prior to leaving for the desert.  I will attemp to carry everything onboard, but in the absence of that I will be ladden with unnecessary stress till I land with all my luggage in hand.  And shortly after that, the real pre-race anxiety should kick in.  So maybe it's a good thing that I am spending my time on iTunes and not packing or weighing my bags.  My bagpack should be around 20 lbs, maybe I'll get around to weighing it tomorrow.

Music and long-distance running have provided me with both ethereal experiences and painful ones too.  It's a powerfully magnetic relationship at times, and an entirely tenuous one at others.  My normal running pace now ranges between 7.10 - 7.30 minute miles, closer to 8.30 - 8.45 with a 20 lbs bagpack on normal terrain.  About a month ago, on a 50 degree spring weekend morning, I ran my normal route, with the usual familiarity of the landmarks and the nooks and crannies and the dark spot where a dead racoon lay for a month.  I had my music with me today (which I carry about 25-30% of the time), and at mile two, listening to the soundtrack of an Indian movie, I ran through the doors of a worm hole ... swooosh ... and 12 minutes and two miles later, I popped out on the other side as if flung by a catapult, wondering where I was and what had just happened.  I had hit some stride, some runner's high presumably, and with 20 lbs on my back, I had paced at 6 minute miles for a couple of miles and then entered back into reality in slow motion, feeling an enormous kinship, affection and connection to everything around me.  Less than a handful of times I had experienced that "high" in 28 months of running, 12 of which have been consumed by very long distances. Another time, not so long ago, earlier this year, also on a weekend run, this time in the afternoon in much colder tempratures in the late winter months, I was returning back from a 16 mile run, and at around mile 13, a song, some song came on that transitioned me into that fuzzy, flickering, television world, and this time I started to weep, and I cried with giant-sized tears, a cry that came from deep within and felt so good, so real, and so cleansing that the world was reborn and everything around me was pure, essential, and optimistic - there wasn't an ounce of cynicism or loathing, evil had been eradicated.  It was a cry not of pain or sorrow, but a cry of hope, of universal truths, of beauty, and of freedom.  It lasted about the same duration, over the course of a couple of miles, and when I came out the other side, the earth embraced me and we rejoiced life together.

The flip side is of the more average day of running with music, where those aforementioned highs normally don't occur, but music serves the purpose of keeping the mind engaged, adding another dimension to the physicality of the movement and the monotony of the common observation - large white colonial house coming up on the right, beautiful water view over that bridge, long solitary mile just yonder- as you're running along, first focusing on stabalizing your breathing and heart rate, then finding a good stride and pace to normalize to, and then letting the mind wander for the next hour and a half.  The mind can be consumed either by one or two a priori thoughts that you brought along with you that you mull over in one way and then another, you turn them on and then off, you go deep and you carress them on the surface, but ultimately you don't really do anything with them, they are distractions at best, but distractions that somehow, someway at some point during the run or days after it, provide a moment of eureka-like clarity on the subject(s); or the mind can be consumed by randomness, thoughts triggered by live observations, random flashes of history that play before your eyes, counting trees or spotting Audi S5's, or sneaking peaks inside slow moving cars and creating fiction out of the non-fiction.  Other times the mind is numb, turned off, the body is struggling, the only focus is to get over the finish line, and all the energy that one summons goes to serve that only purpose.  And during all of the cacophony of ideas and numbness and pain, there's the beat of a drum, the drums in your ears.  And because music is consuming and possessive, and because it can disengage your prefrontal cortex and shift all the power solely to the limbic system, inevitably you hit these after-moments when you are entirely exhausted, out of breath, tired and in pain, because without knowing it you've been running at an obscene pace for miles, pacing to the music and not to the distance, and there's still 10 miles or 15 miles ahead of you - oh how am I going to make it back home?

And in spite of these average moments, the predictible manner in which music destroys my pace and breaks my body to pieces in the final stretches, I want to carry it with me.  In the lone and solitary environment, in the middle of a desert, hundreds of miles away from civilization, with no sense of location, and an enormous sense of the infinitesimality of the self, with momentous or monotonous views ahead and to the sides, and stretches of pain and exhaustion, or moments of euphoria or hysteria, the only familiar remnants of a prior life are the words and chants and notes flowing directly from a tiny device into your ears - sometimes providing comfort, other times distracting from the difficulty at hand, and yet at other times fusing one's existence into the broader universe through laughter or boundless tears.  I think it's worth it, I don't have it on all the time, mostly towards the final 5-10 mile stretch when things start to fall apart.

I have trained better this time I think, but my body is more tired than the last time.  It's been a year of pretty exhausting training that has started to take some affect on the mind and the body.  I am looking forward to crossing the finish line and having a few months of "normalcy" whatever that means - I was talking to my sister about a post-race depression period which she compared to postpartum, regardless I will have lots to sort out, with my free time, and with the next thing that consumes me.  Although I think I am signed up to run a marathon on my birthday in Montreal, a birthday present from a friend, these old legs gotta keep working.  My right knee started to feel awkward about six weeks ago and since has deteriorated and degenerated.  My left knee followed suit but is in less bad shape.  I will have to run with a brace or a pair of them, it's nearly impossible to run without one on my right knee at this point, the pain is pretty severe.  But I have to make do, I have to run smart, I have to drug smart, and I have to brace smart.  And post-race medicated massages should help.  Food rations should be good I think, but you just never know what your body is going to demand in these conditions - I am excited about eating my M&M pretzels everyday, my treat to myself.  Still debating on weather to take the air mattress, it's an extra pound and a lot of space.  I am 70-30% in favor of leaving it behind right now.  Final decision to come whenever I pack.

That's it folks.  It's been another incredible period of connecting with family, friends and my global community.  The love, the care, the affection, and the support has been inspiring.  We have raised $47K of our $50K goal, and I have no doubt we'll surpass the goal.  In total, between the two races, between October 2011 and May 2012, we would have collectively raised ~$80K for TYO!  That's pretty special, a great accomplishment for all of us, and a wonderful opportunity for the TYO leaders to expand their programs, empower and engage more women, and educate the leaders of tomorrow.  And a special thanks to my sisters who have not only been my great caretakers, but have also embarked on an adventure of their own, inspired by our collective efforts for TYO, in the form of  This is the beginning of a vision that I hope they will pursue to contribute their great talents to the world in the coming years and decades.  If you have a moment, send me notice from the real world, let me know how you are doing, and give me something to think about, to hang on to, while we're in the middle of our desert journey.  And then, I will see you on the other side ... playing non-zero sum games.

-Usama Usama Malik is a committed and longtime supporter of Tomorrow’s Youth Organization