The Most Human Sport

Running is a very human sport. It is naked—you could even say it’s the birthday suit of sports—bereft of the bells and whistles adorning more elaborate activities. It is existentially ergonomic, elemental by nature. It is fundamentally inclusive, transcending time, age, ability, gender, nationality, ethnicity, politics, and socioeconomics. You don’t play running; you simply run. It is not a game; it is an experience. Yes, running is a very human sport. And it is for very human humans.

“Hey, Amy! Are we going hot or cold today?” Randall, a barista who prefers to wear a tie beneath his green apron, turned away from the drive-through window and greeted me, black marker in hand.

“Let’s do hot today.”

Randall grabbed the appropriate venti cup and began writing my drink order sans direction. He has it memorized. While I don’t discriminate against Starbucks locations, there are two stores in particular that I frequent enough to feel warranted in deeming “my Starbucks.” One is the Starbucks near my house (the one with Bill and Larry and Lois). The other is on my way to work. Randall works at the latter.

“How is married life treating you?” I inquired. (Randall got married last Saturday.)

“Married life is wonderful!” He beamed as he pulled shots from a steaming behemoth of an espresso machine.

“Are you guys going on a honeymoon?”

“We’re hoping to go somewhere in April. Probably someplace warm. She likes the beach. I kinda like the mountains.”

“You could do California—a bit of both.”

“Yeah.” He looked up and smiled, the newlywed glow apparent. “I want to go wherever she wants to go. As long as she’s happy, I’m happy.”

I returned the smile. “That sounds like a plan.”

Just then, a man with a beard, a barista who also prefers a tie, appeared from the back.

“Sam!” I called from the cream and sugar station by the door. “The light of my Wednesday.” (Sam is the light of Mondays and Thursdays as well. He is extremely versatile.)

“Well, I do what I can,” he said with a modest bow of his head. “So, guess what? Remember our conversation about vinyl the other day?”

I did remember. We had talked at length about our affinity for music on vinyl—a rare passion these days—and our own fledgling collections.

As it turned out, Sam has a friend who was giving away—giving away—a massive collection of vinyl records. Sam made out like a bandit.

“Including,” here he paused for dramatic effect, “a stack of Supertramp albums.”

“What? Noooo! That’s awesome!”

I grew up listening to my dad’s 70’s-rock vinyl records. Needless to say, Supertramp was a major part of my childhood.

“Did you get ‘Crime of the Century,’ the one with the picture of the prison bars in outer space?” I asked, referring to the album cover art. “What about the one with the guy sunbathing on the roof? Or the scissors cutting the tightrope?” [For visual effect, please google Supertramp album covers.]

Sure, I could have used the album titles, but the pictures on the elaborate vinyl tri-folds had left an indelible imprint on my memory.

Sam and I talked a bit more, and then I left. I’m never in the store longer than a few minutes, but no matter the weather, no matter the hurry, I always go into the store itself. The drive-through just isn’t an option for me. There’s something about the experience of walking through the door and smelling the freshly brewed libations and hearing the coffee grinders buzzing and chatting with the baristas that I don’t want to forfeit.

I think it’s the experience.

In the intriguingly titled book, The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive, author Brian Christian examines the topic of “what it means to be human,” documenting his own preparation for the controversial Turing test, which was created to answer the question, “Can computers think?” In the Turing test, human judges (“interrogators”) converse with both real people (“confederates”) and computers (“chatbots”). The chatbot that fools the most judges is deemed “The Most Human Computer,” and the person that is tagged most often as an actual human wins the title of “The Most Human Human.”

In 2008, “The Most Human Computer” fooled almost 30% of the judges.

But the issue isn’t that the chatbot won nearly 30% of the time, argues Christian. It’s that nearly 30% of the time, real humans lost. As David Leavitt wrote in his New York Times review of the book, “What Christian learns along the way is that if machines win the imitation game as often as they do, it’s not because they are getting better at acting human; it’s because we’re getting worse.” In other words, the computers aren’t acting more like us; we’re acting more like computers.

A sobering thought, to say the least.

Anyone who has ever been dragged down a customer service line has experienced the exasperating non-personalization of daily interaction. Assuming you survive the numeric and verbal acrobatics demanded by bossy automated prompts, you then become the unwitting spud in a game of hot potato, tossed from one customer service representative to another. And if you’re lucky enough to survive a succession of transfers without getting dropped, by the time you reach someone whose abilities match your needs, you’ve already told your story 1,745 times and devolved into a raving (or sobbing) lunatic. Or both.

I bet cable companies could go head-to-head with 911 operators in the use of the phrase, “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to calm down.”

That’s one reason I like vinyl so much. It’s real. It’s three-dimensional. Digital downloads are awesome, but the depth of vinyl—the cracks, the scratches, the turntable and the needle, the pure tangibility—it’s real, physical music. You don’t just listen to vinyl. You experience it.

In a world of digitalized, autocorrected, one-click convenience, running reminds me what it means to be human. Running is the opposite of a digital download. It is not quick. It is not easy. You can’t push a button and expect results. It is imperfect and unpredictable. It can hurt. It is messy. And it takes a lot more than the last four digits of your social security number to get through the final miles of a race.

Running is personal because running is human. We are very real out there on the roads. We are very exposed. We can’t Instagram our emotions. We can’t sift through ten million bizarre-angle iPhone “selfies” to find the one that makes us look the thinnest or the hippest. When we run, we can’t project any carefully filtered image to the person running next to us. We’re not glamorous. We’re not too-cool-for-school. When we run, we’re not fooling anybody. When we run, we are who we are.

Human.

As much as I love the things that make our modern world what it is—from texting to Twitter to Keurig machines to Monday Night Football—there’s something comforting in knowing that should all of our modern familiarities fade away, running will still be there. As long as there are humans, there will be running because, well, that’s all you need to run.

We are, after all, the human race.


Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious RunnerHer second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Storywill be released in 2014.

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