Born to run (and ride): what cyclists can learn from runners

September 29, 2014

Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall ((New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)

Born to Run

Born to Run

Although I am a cyclist not a runner (my running experience was mostly high school cross country), I occasionally read books by runners. Belatedly, I’ve been reading Born to Run, a best seller, out since 2010, and it’s giving me much to think about!

Why does my foot hurt when I run? This was the question that pushed Christopher McDougall to write this book. Is it because human beings aren’t built to run? Or because we do it wrong? Or because running is fine for a while but we inevitably wear out or hurt ourselves and have to stop. He could not be satisfied with these conclusions, however, because there were anomalies that kept bothering him.

One was that new developments in sports medicine and running equipment were not improving the well-being and performance of runners but instead seemed to be making things worse. McDougall was attracted to evidence in the evolutionary history of human anatomy that the ability to run was one of the characteristics that distinguished our kind of hominids from others and gave us a decided edge over other species. It didn’t seem reasonable that one of our initial advantages should in these later years become a sore point in our physical ability.

Perhaps most unsettling was the fact that a few people, including an obscure tribe in an almost impenetrable canyon in Mexico, could still run even to the point of running down wild game. Added to their number were a few people in recent American life who ran for the sheer joy of running, people who didn’t know the rules now laid down for proper running, who had no special shoes or other equipment, whose training was erratic and eccentric, but who could run fast and set records that even a generation later are hard to equal.

Determined to find an answer to the immediate question about his sore foot and to the broader question of how running fits into the history of humankind, McDougall pressed forward. He talked with other runners, consulted doctors and therapists, read studies and other reports, and interviewed people who designed and marketed fancy shoes, orthotics, and other equipment designed to help people run longer, faster, and safer. Summaries of these investigations make up much of his book, but McDougall presents them in a circuitous manner.

His career as war correspondent and writer for magazines like The New York Times Magazine and Esquire taught him to write separate pieces that related to his search. He links them together loosely rather than in systematic, academic fashion, piece by piece drawing readers more fully into the exploration. The plot line to McDougall’s book consists of two intertwined stories that are named in the book’s subtitle: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.

The hidden tribe of exceptional runners is the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyon who have preserved the ability to run that McDougall believes to be inherent in humankind but largely forgotten by everyone. In addition, there are a few people, especially a man known as Caballo Blanco—the White Cowboy—from conventional society who have slipped out of the patterns now practiced as the norm in order to recover distinctive features of the Tarahumara way of life.

The “greatest race” is one that McDougall, Caballo, and a few others were able to create in the Canyon, a race that pitted marathoners from developed societies against Tarahumara runners. McDougall constructs an adventure story that keeps people reading, and in the process he also answers some of his questions. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that he provides a body of narrative and conjecture and invites readers to infer answers.

My inferences can be stated briefly. Running was one of the unique and distinguishing evolutionary developments that helped our kind of hominids become what we are. While the capability of running was inherent in the anatomy, it was combined with social factors that helped to maintain groups of human beings who worked (and ran) together in order to gather and catch food and do everything else that people do. Running is a natural capacity that people love to do and learn to do by being with others who run.

In most societies we gradually adopt habits and attitudes that discourage us from running and we forget how to do it. When we try to do it again, we develop practices and attitudes that are potentially injury-causing. In order to run the way that we were born to do, we have to unlearn some of our later practices and recover another way to run, a way more like that of the Tarahumara in Mexico and Bushmen in Southern Africa. If there’s a rule on how to run this way, Caballo defined it: “Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast” (111).

Now I have a question: Why does my left leg hurt when I do long rides? With McDougall as my guide, I’m looking for an answer.

Three death rites that boggled my mind

September 23, 2014

Tribute Center

Funerals – Receptions – Cremations

I closed the previous column in this series with the assertion that old religious patterns for marking death are disappearing and new ways of commemorating the ending of life are coming into use. The character of these changes became evident to me in a period beginning in 1999 when I served as interim minister in four churches in Oregon.

I quickly came to realize how different practices were in the Pacific Northwest from those I had known in Indiana. The visitation a day or two before the funeral did not take place. The body was never present at the service. Whether held in a church or in some other location, the death-related event was a memorial service rather than a funeral and it focused upon remembering the deceased rather than upon a religious interpretation of the meaning of life in the face of death.

A prominent feature was a series of comments or interpretations, often during an open mic session. A video with pictures from the life of the deceased was sometimes displayed as the climax to the service.

Three celebrations during my years as an interim pastor were especially forceful in helping me recognize how different practices were in Oregon compared with those in other parts of the country where I had previous experience.

The first took place following the death of a 90-year-old woman who had been an active member of the congregation since childhood. She had sung in the sanctuary choir for many years and had saved the texts of anthems she liked. She also had made lists of words and phrases she liked—all kinds of twists and turns of language that conveyed glimpses of how the world struck her.

Her daughters met the church staff one morning and presented these lists and texts. They hoped that the church’s choir, augmented by other singers whom they would enlist, would sing several of the anthems. They also wanted their mother’s lists to be read. The staff added two or three psalms and prayers. The celebration was unconventional but it seemed suitable both to the family and to the pastoral staff.

The family also asked that it take place late in the afternoon on a weekday and be followed by a potluck dinner in the church’s community room. People sat around for a long time around the tables remembering their lives in the light of the life of the person who had died.

A second service at this same church was for a man in his early 40s who had died in his car at the side of a city street. Apparently he suddenly had felt bad and pulled over, and then died of a cerebral accident. The family had no church ties other than the fact that the couple had been married at the church as part of the church’s practice of serving as a wedding venue.

When I talked with the family, it was clear that they had little interest in a religious service. Rather, they had a list of people whom they wanted to comment on the life, spirit, and character of the deceased. They hoped that I would serve as moderator and they agreed that it would be OK for me to say a prayer. It was a church, after all. There was a large attendance, and from all that I could tell, most people went away to a banquet facility afterwards content that they had done right by their friend.

The third service was in a church in a small county seat town. The deceased and his widow had been active members for most of their married lives. The man had been in a nursing facility during my brief interim and I had visited him there at least weekly. A day after his death, someone from the local funeral home—which had renamed itself “tribute center”—phoned on the family’s behalf, to invite me to participate in the celebration of life. Everything was done at the funeral home’s chapel, presided over by a “celebrant” on its staff. I was permitted to make a brief statement and say a prayer. The celebration ended with a video of the deceased’s life in pictures.

Later, the owner of the tribute center told me that three-fourths of the people who came to him had no church connection and no interest in a religious service. He had reshaped his business, training both himself and several others (at a school in Oklahoma) to be “celebrants.” He was also set up to cater the celebratory banquets right there in his establishment.

One other factor also has affected my thinking about rites and ceremonies at the time of death: the insufficiency of some of the more conventional funerals and memorial services that I have attended in churches. I sometimes go away, discouraged because the event seemed not to be worthy of the person who had died.

So what are we as leaders of churches supposed to do?

What happens to village death rituals when people move to town?

September 16, 2014
My Family's Ancestral Burial Gound

My Family’s Ancestral Burial Gound

The severely simple funeral ritual that I described in an earlier column was part of a complex system of community practices that surrounded dying persons, their families, and close friends with highly personalized expressions of love and support. This full set of activities allowed the community as a whole to respond to the breach that a death caused and draw together for healing and health.

My first experiences with funerals were in a rural community in northern Indiana during my three years as a seminary student. Older members of the congregation lived on farms their grandparents, some of whom remembered the Civil War, had homesteaded. Most families were still geographically concentrated, within easy driving distance of the old family farm, church, and cemetery. Families had been intertwined through at least three generations.

Of course, many had moved to the cities—Kokomo, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis—but even there the traditional patterns of village and country life persisted. My seminary professor, O. L. Shelton, had experienced similarly coherent ways of life in Oklahoma and Kansas City prior to coming to Indianapolis in mid career. Because the system for community action at the time of death was firmly in place, he could teach his students how to do their part.

People usually died at home, surrounded by family and close friends for whom the process of caring for loved ones as they died was part of what it meant to be family. The medicalization and hospitalization of dying and death had not yet developed.

It was assumed that the deceased would be embalmed, a process that took place in a local funeral home, some of which were still closely connected to furniture stores, by local people whom the community knew.

A day or two later, the visitation occurred, usually at the funeral home. The deceased lay in state, surrounded by flowers, the scene bathed in warm light that softened the pallor of death. Members of the family would gather in a comfortable room to greet friends and many people from the community at large.

Part of the process was to escort those who “came to pay their respects” to the casket to look at the corpse. Often visitors would reach down to clasp the hands, and often they would murmur how “natural” she or he looked. Tears were common, because for many of the grievers, the ties had been long and strong.

Newark Cemetery 2

A day or two later, the funeral took place at church, with coffin present. Here the immediacy of death as experienced at the visitation was compressed into the tight form of the religious ritual that was the formal, public rite of passage from this world to the next. Everyone knew who had died and who remained to grieve and names seemed hardly to be necessary.

Following this service, the coffin was wheeled to the church door where pall bearers carried it to the funeral coach that led many of the worshipers to the graveyard where the community had gathered many times to lay their own beloved dead into the grave. The committal was brief and direct: “dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”

The family then returned to the church where their friends in the congregation served them lunch as a sign of friendship and support as they began the process of turning their attention to reconstructing a new normal for their lives.

As these villagers moved west, they took these customs with them and they became established in towns everywhere. Two of the most vivid replications of village funeral practices that I have seen occurred in later years with the deaths of aged persons in Fresno, California followed by burial in the family cemetery up in the Sierra foothills village of Toll House, and Portland, Oregon, with final rites 150 miles to the south in the village of Creswell.

Several changes have occurred in American life that make this traditional pattern untenable: the medicalization of dying and death; the wide geographical spread of families; the commercialization of the funeral industry; the disappearance of the village and small town culture of solidarity; and the abandonment of coherent and agreed understandings of life that include reasonable expectations that life continues beyond the grave.

The results are twofold. First, the old ways, with clergy and churches at the center, are disappearing. Second, new patterns of remembrance and celebration are emerging, often with little sense of coherence or of the deeper meanings of life, especially of the life of the person who has died.

The challenge—and opportunity—for ministers today is to regain their work as ritualizers for communities that are increasingly in need of ceremonial systems that give coherence and meaning to dying and death.

Traveling Through

Traveling Through

Do urban bikeways make you safer?

September 15, 2014
Second Avenue Bikeway, Seattle

Second Avenue Bikeway, Seattle

Road testing Seattle’s new Second Avenue protected bike lane

In cities all across the country, traffic engineers are developing bikeways that separate cyclists from motorized vehicles. Their purposes are laudable: to increase the actual safety of cyclists and thereby encourage more people to use bicycles for some of their short trips.

With 40 years of experience cycling in cities—Indianapolis, Phoenix, Tucson, Portland, and Seattle—I have developed strong, road-tested opinions about these specialized facilities. The more important opinion is this: Just as well designed and well-marked traffic lanes and signaling make it easier and safer to drive cars in complex urban environments, so good bike lanes assist cyclists and drivers share these same streets.

The second opinion, however, is one that is shared by many experienced cyclists: Some bikeways, especially those that separate cyclists from motorized traffic, provide only the veneer of safety while actually increasing the danger for cyclists.

One of the major difficulties with highly engineered bikeways is that they create more complicated intersections and thus multiply the risks at the very points where risks are already the highest. Another is that some of these protected bike lanes obscure vision so that drivers can’t see cyclists and cyclists can’t see motor vehicles.

Cyclist on Second Avenue Bikeway

Cyclist on Second Avenue Bikeway

A weekend in Seattle, has given me the opportunity to ride on this city’s newest venture in developing a protected bikeway less than a week after its September 8, 2014, opening: the Second Avenue protected bike lane that runs ten blocks between Pike and Yesler. Most of my limited Seattle cycling (and driving) has been in the University District north of downtown and on Beacon Hill and along Lake Washington on the south side.

I understand why cyclists are easily unnerved by the complexity of Seattle’s downtown: the geometrical street grid has two tilts and a combination of one-way and two-way streets. From Elliott Bay on the west, streets go uphill, with short, steep grades between the north-south avenues. Public transit includes rails and overhead electrical conduits that force all vehicular traffic to adjust to the limited mobility of coaches and cars. Traffic is heavy, and the system of left and right turns multiplies hazards at many of the intersections.

Everyone is in a hurry and it is hard not to be impatient, especially when other drivers hesitate or act in a confused manner. Judging by news reports Second Avenue has been especially challenging to cyclists, with the result that many of them have abandoned this major southbound street through the heart of the city. Even more challenging is Fourth Avenue, the paired oneway street running north. The traffic is more intense than on Second, and it goes uphill!

My first ride on the new bikeway was on Friday afternoon, September 12, when I biked from my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill to her new office at Sixth and Stewart. After inspecting her working space , I cycled down to Second and turned left (south) two blocks before the new bikeway begins. I rode the ten blocks and three more blocks before heading back to Beacon Hill.

Here are my first impressions following one ride in the middle of a business day when cyclists are exposed to the full blast of downtown traffic.

  1. Limited Loading Zones

    Limited Loading Zones

    The bright green blocks of paint and flexible bollards (posts) clearly distinguish the bike lane from the rest of the street.

  2. The traffic signals include green and red lights specifically for cyclists and large green arrows, both straight ahead and left turn for main traffic lanes. Everyone has to pay attention, and cyclists still have to be vigilant. Even good signals can be overlooked, misunderstood, or disobeyed.
  3. Cyclists can ride at a reasonable downtown clip, but some are slower than others (like the guy who obstructed my way for several blocks) and there’s not much room to pass.
  4. It’s good that the bike lane is on the left side of the street because cyclists next to the vehicular lane are traveling the same direction as are automobiles. Cyclists on the lane going against the traffic ride between the sidewalk and face only cyclists going the opposite direction.

Is this protected lane for all cyclists on Second Avenue? Maybe not for a few. In a Seattle Times report, Mike Lindblom writes that “the city expects and actually hopes that bicyclists who can match car speeds in the general lanes of Second will continue to do so.”

If I were a commuter in downtown Seattle, would I use this bike lane? Going north, in all probability. Going south on work days? I’d try it out for a while before deciding, but my first impressions make me think that I would use it regularly.

Conclusion: The best example of a protected bike lane that I’ve seen. I hope traffic engineers use it as an example that actually makes cycling safer. [Photos by Marilyn Watkins]

What's He Doing Here?



Funerals the way I learned them 60 years ago

September 11, 2014

Second in a series on rituals at the time of death

Funeral Liturgy in "Christian Worship: A Service Book," 1953

Funeral Liturgy in “Christian Worship: A Service Book,” 1953

My first instructions on doing funerals came in 1954 early in my theological studies at the School of Religion, Butler University. My teacher was O. L. Shelton, dean and professor of church administration. Prior to coming to his faculty position, Shelton had been pastor of a Kansas City church with 2,500 members. His instruction was firmly grounded in practical experience.

Although I was barely into my 20s, about half of the class were returning to school on the G.I. bill. Some had been pastors prior to serving in World War II and already had been doing funerals. Others were like me, with virtually no experience with death and little knowledge of what should take place in the rituals with which the church marked the passing of people from this life into the next.

Shelton was a skillful teacher whose pastoral experience infused his classroom instruction. Whatever our previous practices might have been, we were inclined to listen carefully to his practical and sensitive guidance. My work as pastor and my early years of teaching as Shelton’s successor (twice removed) were influenced by his counsel. Five of the principles he taught have remained in my memory.

First, base your funeral practice on one of the patterns you find in a published book of worship. Since many of my classmates were Methodist, that meant they should use the funeral materials in the Methodist Ritual. For the majority of us in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ tradition, the book he recommended was the recently published Christian Worship: A Service Book, edited by G. Edwin Osborn. My copy, which I bought on November 16, 1955,, still bears the marks of the many times that I used it during my years of pastoral service.

Second, the sermon in the service should lift up one of the classic themes of life and death as proclaimed by the Christian faith rather than be a eulogy describing the life of the person whose funeral is being conducted.

Third, and this point is a direct follow-up of the second idea, the service should consist of scripture readings, music, sermon, and prayers. In fact, and this was an idea that surprised me but which I was willing to accept on his authority, it is unnecessary even to mention the name of the deceased in the service. As I remember his explanation, funerals had become events in which “people were being preached into heaven” and this was not their purpose.

The purpose of funerals, and this is the fourth point as I remember Shelton’s class, was twofold: to remember the deceased and to comfort the bereaved. This, he believed, could best be done by offering carefully composed, standardized prayers; hence the emphasis upon rituals in the recommended books of worship.

Fifth, funerals should be brief, never more than half an hour in length. This word of advice seemed to be consistent with what people mentioned to me when we would talk about a funeral for a loved one had died. One of the few requests they would make was, “Keep it brief.”

Normal practice for the funerals I conducted and others that I attended was for the casket to be present in the front of the congregation. When the funeral itself was over, the pastor would go to the head of the casket and the congregation would file past for their last viewing of the deceased. Then, the family and some others would drive in procession to the cemetery for a brief committal service and the first part of the actual burial.

One of the few items that students would discuss vigorously was whether the procession past the open casket in the church should be allowed. The preferred opinion was that the open casket and procession should be suppressed, on the grounds that their primary purpose was to display the embalmer’s skill.

At one of my first funerals, I came to a different point of view. The deceased was a village legend because of his mildly raucous ways. During the procession, his longtime buddy, stopped and with tear-filled eyes grasped and held the hands of his friend. It was one of the tenderest gestures I have ever seen in all of my pastoral experience.

Dr. Shelton was a persuasive teacher, and I continue to affirm part of what he taught me so long ago—especially his emphasis upon the funeral as a time to express a classic Christian theme about the meaning of life.

Almost from the beginning, however, I found myself demurring from the aggressive impersonalization of funeral services. Something more personal, it seemed to me, was needed.







Rituals at the time of death: Introducing a new series

September 2, 2014
Flowers at a Fresh Grave

Flowers at a Fresh Grave

No part of Christian liturgical practice in the United States has changed as radically as rituals when people die. As pastor, seminary professor, and family member I have given careful attention to this topic, gradually coming to significant changes of mind.

The death of my wife, Billie Lee Caton Watkins, on August 12, 2014, after 62 years of marriage and eight years with metastatic breast cancer, made it necessary to cut through conflicting ideas and practices in order to solemnize and celebrate her life in this world and to proclaim our faith that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

As summer draws to a close, I intend to resume regular postings on my blog with a series of columns in which I explore the changing patterns concerning funerals in ecumenical Protestant churches, outline the conclusions that I am reaching, raise questions for discussion, and suggest ideas for pastoral practice among liberal Christians in our time.

The first step in this process will be to repost previous blogs on this topic. In this way, I will refresh my own remembrance of what I have been thinking in the past two or three years. I will continue my reading of current literature that bears upon this subject and report on this material.

I welcome contributions to this ongoing series from readers of this blog. By reflecting upon our personal and pastoral experience, theological reflection, and liturgical practice, we can help our churches and their members come to renewed and healthful practices at the time that death comes.