Aliens Are Weird: Solaris Reviewed

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. San Diego: Harcourt, 1987.

I have to make one admission here up front: I have been reading late at night to help my brain calm down so I can get to sleep. That isn’t really even a problem, and I’m sure a lot of people do this—see Joyce’s quip about how Finnegans Wake‘s ideal reader was the “ideal insomniac”[1]. But when you have a book like Solaris that is sort of moderately hard scifi, it does mean that I’m not super well equipped to give you an evaluation of the science-y aspects of the plot. I mean, not that I could really evaluate partical physics—or what passed for that in 1961 when the book was first written—on my best days, my published work notwithstanding. But I’ve noticed that when reading late, when I see something that would normally look off to me (some of the myriad mentions of neutrinos, for example, which I believe are uncharged charged particles that come from radioactive decay), I am just really accepting of what the author is telling me. Neutrinos? Sure, sounds good.

Don’t let my reference to the classiest subatomic particle of the 1960s frighten you away from Solaris, though. This book is not primarily a hard science one. Instead, it’s an attempt to construct an anthropology of a life form that would be completely alien to human beings.

Kris Kelvin arrives on the Solaris station to conduct research on the planet the station hovers above: a rather peculiar place called Solaris. It circles two suns, a red one and a blue one, but despite what physics would dictate, something is modifying its orbital trajectory to prevent it from crashing into either one. The planet is covered almost entirely by an ocean that appears to be alive, some sort of vast brain that is studying the researchers as they study it. On Kelvin’s arrival, he meets another researcher named Snow, who tells him that his mentor, Gibarian, has recently committed suicide. The ocean, it seems, has begun digging through the subconscious minds of the researchers to produce copies of loved ones from their pasts; it is unclear if the copies exist as a, perhaps hostile, response to an x-ray bombardment experiment, or if they are part of some sort of sophisticated research being conducted by the ocean, or if there is some other explanation entirely. For Kelvin, the only researcher whose “copy person” we see, the copy is of his deceased wife, Rheya, who committed suicide ten years before the mission began. The book alternates with Kelvin coping with the reality of having his former partner returned to him and with giving us a summary of research done concerning the planet.

This book was originally published in 1961 (in Polish), and there are certain aspects of it that remain highly rooted in the past. The characters contact each other as often through written letters or notes as by video phone, for example. The character of Rheya exists in the sort of gauzy, out-of-focus light that always seemed to me to accompany women in scifi in the sixties—she’s not a researcher, though clearly not dumb (she becomes aware of her own doubleness quite early on). Yet for the most part, her opinions on her doubleness, on Kris’s behavior, or on any other aspect of the situation are not given; Kelvin’s internal journey is what is important. (Well, he is the narrator, but for how much he professes to love her, he’s remarkably uninterested in her.) Like Uhura and other women in scifi of that era (and even still today to an extent), she’s very much in the background, existing primarily to give Kelvin someone to moon over, but also to prompt his failed hero’s journey. Which is to say, Joseph Campbell sees the hero’s journey as first interior, requiring the defeat of inner demons before facing down the outer ones; here, Kelvin’s inner journey taking precedence over anything the exterior world could offer. He is, in effect, a stunted hero, unwilling to complete the first stage of the journey to begin the second. In this respect, Snow is the real hero who, having conquered a similar visitor from his past (who is never seen), is willing to stay and try to make contact with the ocean.

Many of the film adaptations have focused on the Rheya–Kris relationship, much to Lem’s apparent displeasure. The real subject here is the alienness of the planet,how humanity is to approach such an object, how contact might possibly be able to take place (or might not). But at the same time, it’s difficult to blame the filmmakers entirely for the shift—despite Kris’s real lack of attention to Rheya, at the end, after she has left him again, his attention is still focused entirely on her and the possibility of her return.

The book makes an excellent point about the presumed humanness of alien lifeforms—looking at popular culture, we have always seemed to hope that we were going to meet Time Lords, or Vulcans, or Klingons, all of whom look largely human. Even Wookies and Ewoks are humanoid, as are the various species in the Cantina in Mos Eisley, and the most bug-eyed of bug-eyed monster, the Dalek, is descended from the human-looking Kaled, with their divergence from the human form serving as a shorthand for their descent into evilness. If we ever actually go into space and meet life, Lim says, will it be in a recognizeable form? It has been suggested that there could be fish, or fish-like lifeforms on Europa.[2] Suppose they’re intelligent—would we be able to recognize them as such? The answer is no. Perhaps because we’re too caught up in ourselves, as Lim suggests, unable to describe the behavior of non-humans without anthropomorphizing. Or our lens, our expectations, are just too strong.

Concerning the translation: Apparently, Lem was fluent in English and didn’t like the Kilmartin–Cox translation. I had never really felt like there were any deficiencies with it, but I have not compared it to the French edition, and of course I don’t read Polish. As I write this, I’m listening to a sample of a new (well, newer) edition translated directly from the Polish by Bill Johnston. Perhaps this is just because it is an audio book, but it feels very different. Rheya is called Harey, and some of the details are quite different from the edition I read. All in all I will probably not have time to go back and read or listen to the Johnston edition right now, and clearly I don’t have enough information about the original or the French version to really make a comparison, but I will note that it seems like it is a well-regarded edition.

One other note concerning the film adaptations: There have been three major film adaptations—one directed by Nirenberg and Ishimbayeva (1968), one by Tartovsky (1972), and one by Soderbergh (2002). For some reason, I thought that Event Horizon, one of the scariest and least comprehensible films of the mid-1990s, was also an adaptation of the text—I even told this to a friend at a party. It turns out that, although Event Horizon was clearly influenced by Solaris, they’re not related. However, going into the book believing this made it actually pretty tense; the first few chapters are already full of tension because of Kelvin’s arrival on the station, his immediate suspicions about Snow, the revelation of the death of Gibarian, and so on. Waiting for the characters to start ripping their eyeballs out just made that worse.


[1] This is attested in Herschel Farbman, The Other Night: Dreaming, Writing, and Restlessness in Twentieth-Century Literature, Fordham University Press, 2008, p. 91, but the page with the references isn’t shown on Google Books, and tracking it down this far is about as much as I’m willing to do for a book review. However, it looks like it came out of Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, which is kind of a warmup for the Wake in the same way The Crying of Lot 49 was a warmup for Gravity’s Rainbow . . . or possibly in a totally different way. As an aside, I highly recommend the letter of protest written by “Vladimir Dixon.” (Actually, that may be the only one that’s a warmup. It’s the only one I actually read.) Or, looking more closely at the quote in The Other Night, it may actually be in the Wake itself. I don’t know and I’m tired of chasing this down. Sorry. This is the longest failed footnote ever.

[2] Attempt no landing there.

After Emma Carlin, some single track.

Doing Something Stupid at the Kettle Morraine 100

My training cycle for this race was an exercise in restraint. Or laziness. I ran 20 miles only once, and did only a few runs in the 16–18 mile range. Instead, I focused on keeping my overall volume high (about 50 mi/week, with my peak weeks hitting 60+) and doing longer runs on both Saturday and Sunday, trying to get 25–30 miles across two days. Since the KM 100 is a trail race, I also tried to get out and do trails at least once per week if not more frequently, and I did my hill work on trails at a park near my house. It was kind of an experiment—in the past, I’ve experienced injury when running a lot of runs over 18–20 miles, so I wondered if there were a way to avoid that. If only there were a way to do such an experiment without, you know, actually putting down all the money for the entry fee and training for and running the race. But at least my point has now been empirically proven. Sort of, anyway.

I should note that I did a two-week taper for this race. I usually hate tapering, and this time was no different. Somewhat amusingly, I decided to use my extra time from running less to go to aikido three times in the week before the race. By Friday night I was wondering why I was so sore. Oops.

Fruitless Pre-Race Nattering

Okay, so the morning of the race, I got up late and kind of hung around, reading and having a cup of coffee. The race actually started at 14:00, but I had to arrive at the Nordic parking lot (the finish line) by 12:15 in order to get a bus to the start. I had toast with butter, peanut butter, and a banana a bit late in the morning, then dithered around for a while before finally leaving a bit before 11. When I arrived in La Grange, one of the two race directors recognized me, which was really nice. Seriously, if you ever want to flatter/impress someone who is face-blind (and while I’m not as bad as some, I’m pretty bad), just recognize them.

From the bus ride into the Scuppernong trail head.
From the bus ride into the Scuppernong trail head.

The bus to the start was a good chance to rediscover how school buses have no shocks. I sat quietly, listening to the guy next to me talk about how he treated his plantar fasciitis, his knee issues, how he had never run farther than a marathon but was expecting to finish the 50K in time to run the 38-mile fun run or at least pace a friend doing the 100 miler. He had brought with him, among other things, salt caps filled with Himalayan sea salt, pills filled with hydrolized collagen[1], pickles, smoothies, and venison sausage. I had brought: five salt tabs in a small plastic baggie and a Clif bar (as well as some sunscreen and bugspray I wasn’t bringing on the run).

The starting line was at the 31.6 mile aid station, which marked the turn-around/halfway point for the 100K runners and the almost one-third of the distance complete point for the 100-mile runners. We were starting eight hours after they were, and a lot of the middle-of-the-packers were trickling in. Actually, it looks like most of the people who finished the 100K finished in 13–15 hours, so these would have been the back-pack 100K people and the mid-pack for the 100 miler. I was both nervous about the race and kind of unsure of how to time my pre-race eating for such a late start. I had brought a bag with sunscreen, bug spray, body glide, and other similar sundries with me to the starting line; I put my race shirt in and tied the top. I was told that it would be treated as a drop bag and taken to the Emma Carlin aid station (at mile 15.9) and then to the finish line provided that I remembered to move it to the “done” pile at Emma Carlin. Okay, well. Mental note.

Cooling my heels before the race. I think my phone did something funny to this picture--my arms aren't that skinny.
Cooling my heels before the race. I think my phone did something funny to this picture–my arms aren’t that skinny.

After all the sunscreening and bugspraying was taken care of, I still had an hour to wait, so I ate my Clif bar and read a short story by Salman Rushdie that was in last week’s New Yorker. Highly recommend it.

Clif bar and Salman Rushdie.
Clif bar and Salman Rushdie.

Shortly before we took off, the aid station played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” which was pretty awesome.

The First Half

At 2pm (plus a few seconds) we took off. I had discovered a few minutes before the start that my watch was claiming it was low on batteries (despite being charged for a full 24 hours before the start!). I decided to use the stopwatch setting on my cell phone to time my progress between aid stations. This meant that while I had a general idea of my pace, I didn’t really know from moment to moment how fast I was running or how far I had gone, which is an interesting position to be in when you’re running 31 miles. Probably as a result, I took off going quite fast. After a while I fell into step with a woman from northern Illinois named Shelly, who was using the race as her last long run before Western States in three weeks. Wow! She was really moving, and pulled me along and provided awesome conversation for almost the first 20K. We hit the first aid station (mile 5) after 48 minutes, a 9:41 pace (it felt much faster than that). I was pretty aware that I was paying a lot up front that I might not be happy about later, but I really wanted company, so I pushed. It was probably a good idea, because after some rolling hills, the race headed out over some meadows, which were 1) grassy 2) beautiful 3) humid 4) unshaded and hot. Getting through those as quickly as we did (I lost Shelly right toward the end, before the Antique Lane aid station, which was mile 12ish) probably helped me a lot in the long run; left alone, the monotony and heat would probably have reduced me to a walk.

The meadows. Pretty to look at.
The meadows. Pretty to look at.

Antique Lane was an unmanned aid station, meaning there was just water jugs and some other necessities, like ice and a big tub of Vaseline I used on some chafing spots. It was only three miles from Antique Lane to Emma Carlin, but it felt like more, especially because I was beginning to develop some hot spots on my feet.

Kismet!

There were a ton of people at Emma Carlin—it was a big trail head with good access roads, so there was a little party going on. I ate some (M&Ms and boiled potatoes dipped in salt, I think) and found my drop bag. Originally I’d been just intending to move it to the “done” pile so it would get back to Nordic in time for me to leave, but I remembered I had body glide in it and put some on my feet. Amazing. I didn’t have problems with them the rest of the race, and when I got home and took off my shoes and socks, I found only one blister.

I spent a good nine minutes at Emma (I got there at 16:46, left at 16:55 or so), just trying to get as situated as possible. Up until this point, in an attempt to control my body temperature I’d been putting ice down my sports bra, and here I rolled some up in a wet bandana and tied it around my neck too. On the whole, ice down the bra cools one much faster, but it also melts faster. Ice in the banana lasts a surprisingly long time.[2]

The Second Half

After Emma Carlin, some single track.
After Emma Carlin, some single track.

Between Emma Carlin and the finish line, there were three aid stations: Horseriders, Bluff, and Tamarack, with legs of 3.1 miles, 5 miles, and 2.7 miles. The section between Emma Carlin and Horseriders was not too difficult to run; it was nice to be out of the meadows and on to some shaded single track. I have actually started to quite enjoy running morraines, which are both pretty and runnable if you’re in pretty good hill condition. The sun was starting to sink here, so I wound up taking off my sunglasses and stowing them. I knew that there were three women ahead of me, and I hadn’t seen anyone in a while coming up behind me—and also, on such a hot, humid day, you don’t make a move at mile 18. Thus it was with some shock that when I stopped to take off my shoe and clear some brush out of it, a woman in a pink shirt doing the 50K passed me by. No fair!

I put my shoe back on and sped after her. It didn’t take long before I caught and passed her.[3] Then I had to put a gap in between us to prevent her passing me back, so I started to run up the smaller hills and run/walk the bigger ones. Every few minutes, I’d hear something and think it was footsteps, or look behind me and think I saw pink, but after a while I decided I was hearing/seeing things. At any rate, you can’t run at mile 18 like you’re sprinting for the finish, so eventually I reconciled myself to possibly getting passed by her. I passed some people in here (mostly 100K runners), and made it to Horseriders 48 minutes later. I had been running for 3:34, making it just after 5:30pm.

The Tough Bit

I knew that the section between Horseriders and Bluff was going to be the hardest of the race. I have run it before as part of the Ice Age 50K, and it involves some stuff that is technical (i.e., roots and rocks you have to watch out for), some stuff that is sandy and unpleasant to run in, and a long hike up Star Mountain (also called Bald Bluff), which has somewhat old, rocky, difficult to descend stairs on the other side of it. Initially I figured I was just going to take my time with this section and that the 5.2 miles would take me an hour. Although the technical sections were not as bad as I’d thought they were the first time I ran this section during my first trail 50K (I have learned something about trail running!), it was still pretty slow going in parts. A guy in a yellow shirt cheered me on briefly as he passed me. Actually, I leapfrogged with Mr. Yellow several times during the second half of the race; other than him, no one passed me after I left behind the lady in pink. And he somehow passed me three or four times.

Sandy horse path from between Horseriders and Bluff. Not good running.
Sandy horse path from between Horseriders and Bluff. Not good running.

It took me 1:10 to get from Horseriders to Bluff, and I was so stunned and excited to be there. I came around a corner to be greeted by a pink lawn flamingo, and then walked into a party. The song “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage was playing when I came in, which seems entirely appropriate for an ultramarathon. Before I left, the song “Sister Golden Hair” by America came on, which would stay in my head for most of the rest of the race. I got yelled at for grabbing the ice here (“We’re trying to keep it clean!” the lady said). Maybe she was actually speaking quite reasonably, but I felt like that time in the second grade when I tried to touch a sculpture at the Art Institute and got caught by a docent. Yikes.
Bluff was actually a pretty intense aid station to be at because there were a bunch of 100-mile and 100K runners trying to collect themselves. The 100K people had as far as I did left, while the 100 mile people had nearly 50 miles to go. While I thought I was suffering here—my hip flexors were sore, my core had gone entirely to hell, my back hurt, and my quads were just done—seeing them reminded me that while my suffering might feel like a lot in subjective terms, it was probably objectively not that bad, comparatively speaking. I don’t know, maybe most people don’t find it necessary to remind themselves in the middle of a race that they’re not doing that much, but it kind of put things in perspective. Anyway, I should note that in a race like this, where I was pretty tired and out of it, having actual people and music and so on at an aid station made a big difference in psychological terms. If you ever decide to volunteer at an aid station for an ultra, know that you can really make a big difference in psychological terms to the runners. (This is probably true for long-distance tris too, like the half or full IM.)

The top of the hill just before Bluff.
The top of the hill just before Bluff.

The Last Bit

The Nordic trail--a big difference from the Ice Age stuff.
The Nordic trail–a big difference from the Ice Age stuff.

Bluff was mile 24, meaning I had about 7.6 miles to go. The first leg, Bluff to Tamarak, was 2.5 miles. Here we finally got off the Ice Age Trail and onto the wide, piney trails of the Nordic Trail, basically the same area I ran in a month ago when I did the Ice Age Trail half marathon. But nothing looked too familiar, either because it was starting to get dark or because we were running it backwards from the direction I did at Ice Age. Or we were on different trails, I don’t know. At this point, I was focused entirely on just running the distance to the next aid station. I pushed up a lot of the hills, passed some more runners doing the longer races, and eventually made it to Tamarak in 34:08, or at 7:21pm. I had originally hoped to be finishing the race at 7:30pm (and Shelly, my companion from earlier, actually did!). Oh well. I was still pretty confident that as long as I held my place, I was going to finish in the top 10 (my overall goal). I also really wanted to finish before 20:30, because that was when the sun set, and I didn’t have a lamp except the flashlight on my phone.

I was a bit dismayed to see at Tamarak that I still had 5 miles to go. My grasp on time and distance were pretty ephemeral here, even though I was sort of ostensibly tracking both. A mile outside the aid station, I passed a number “4” written in marker on a little ground sign. Four miles to go? I was excited. I started to run faster. (Or, really, “faster.”) This section had a good number of rolling hills that I had to walk all or parts of, but I still made good time. I had reached a point where stopping running and then starting again was much more painful than just running straight through, so that is what I did.

Coming into Tamarak. You can see it was starting to get to be twilight.
Coming into Tamarak. You can see it was starting to get to be twilight, so the exposure was blurry.

The signs seemed way farther apart than I thought they should be, so I tried to forget about distance and just focus on how pleasant it was to be running in a pine forest in the gathering twilight. The temperature was finally dropping, and I didn’t feel terrible except for the pain. I crossed the finish line to a gigantic cheer at 8:17pm, after 6:17:03 of running, and shook hands with the RD.

Somewhat amusingly, I stopped just past the finish line to stop my phone timer and try to take a screenshot, and while I was standing there, the woman who tracks results came over and said, “Emily, you were the first woman in the Masters division” (masters: ages 40–49). I was baffled, because I’m not 40, and told her so. Then I looked at the plaque she was holding out. “That says ‘open division’ ” (open: 39 and under). After some confusion, she confirmed that I had actually won the Womens Open division. This was a shock—remember I knew that there were at least three women ahead of me, so I figured at least one of them was young. As it turns out, there were actually four women ahead of me. One of them won the race overall (her name was also Emily![4]), and she was slightly younger than I am. The other three women were all Masters. Races typically don’t double up on prizes (you win either overall OR your age group, not both), so I got the Open award. Nice!

I won.
I won.

Aftermath

At the point I crossed the finish line, the drop bags had not yet returned from Emma Carlin. I wandered around a bit, felt dizzy, had a cup of Coke, and then realized I was freezing (all the ice down my bra all day had left everything I was wearing wet, and when I get done running my body abruptly stops generating heat). Luckily, I had my warmups in the car, so I changed and went back to the Nordic aid station for a cup of coffee with hot cocoa mix in it. There were at this point a lot of 50K finishers (as well as some 100K folks and a really chipper guy who had dropped from the 100 mile after 100K) who were all milling around, looking for their drop bags. The aid station actually closed at 8:40pm (so about 20 min after I finished), and a truck with the various supplies came back around 9pm—but no drop bags! Rather than hang around complaining, I got up and asked him if I could help unload the truck. Movement helped the shivering die down.

The finish area after dark.
The finish area after dark.

Finally, around 9:30pm, the drop bags arrived, so I helped unload those too, then headed out around 9:45pm. Yikes, what a long day. I called B to say hello, and he was a little worried that I would run into trouble driving when I was so tired, but I had The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett by the Eels to blare as I went. And the dogs were happy to see me when I got here. The cat also wanted to be fed.

This is already way too long, but to summarize, a few notes:

  1. Moving steadily in the later stages of an ultra is important. Even slow jogging is superior to hiking it in.
  2. You are passing a lot of people who may be having a rough time, so try to be happy and cheerful—tell them they’re doing a good job and looking good, even if they’re not. Also, be nice to the volunteers. They’re so important.
  3. Helping is better than sitting around when you’re freezing your arse off, even if you’re sore. I would not have thought to jump in and help if I hadn’t spent some time volunteering at races earlier this spring, but I’m glad I did.
  4. Gear: I had a 1-liter hydration pack, which proved to be a good size, and there were enough pockets to carry everything I needed to carry. I eventually got really sick of water though. I didn’t carry any food and probably didn’t eat enough.
  5. Food: This is what I ate: one-half a Hoho, some potato chips, one-quarter of a pbj, a handful of M&Ms, two or three boiled potatoes dipped in salt, possibly a piece of peanut butter cookie (I remember looking at them but not eating any), a cup of Coke, a small piece of watermelon. I think that’s it. Rather unusually, I drank a ton of water (probably three liters). In retrospect, I wish I would have started drinking calories as fluid earlier, because I wasn’t really hungry and I would have gotten some more in. (Post-race, despite how sick of fluids I was: a cup of Coke, a cup of coffee with cocoa mix, another cocoa from a gas station.)
  6. Clothes: I had only a little chafing and didn’t feel too warm. Didn’t get sunburned either. Probably would have chosen a different pair of socks in retrospect, but I survived fine, no big foot damage.
  7. I need to plank more. My core was a mess after 24 miles.
Post-race (pre-shower) selfie.
Post-race (pre-shower) selfie. I’m exhausted.

[1] He claimed that his chiropractor, who was also into ultrarunning, had recommended the collagen pills and that he take a bunch hourly during the race (he had settled on two per hour, which he said was a lower number). I didn’t lean over and tell him what I thought of the whole idea, which smacks of pseudoscience, but I’m hoping he learned something about that during the race. Hydrolyzed collagen, also known as “gelatine,” is the “active ingredient” in marshmallows.

[2] The downside is that it’s hard to gauge one’s perspiration level with all the ice melting all over. I was taking one salt cap per hour, and eating some salty things in each aid station, and that seemed to be enough. Although I had a headache when I finished, it was from caffeine withdrawal, not hyponatremia, despite having drunk probably three liters of fluid over the course of the race.

[3] I am almost totally sure this incident occurred between Emma Carlin and Horseriders rather than Horseriders and Bluff, just because the terrain of the second leg is so much harder to run. But I want to admit, in the spirit of transparency, that I was in a little zone and don’t quite remember.

[4] A total of three Emilys finished the 50K. Only one of the three of us was young enough to have been named during the whopping fifteen years (1993 to 2008) that the name spent on the “Top Five American Names for Girls” list. Actually, my suspicion is the woman in pink who nearly passed me was also named Emily. Or at least, the next woman to finish was also an Emily and was about 45 minutes behind me. Late edit: The next woman to finish was not the woman in pink–I couldn’t find her when looking through the race photos. She may have dropped; although 96 people signed up, it looks like only 76 finished. Or I suppose I could have hallucinated her.

The finish line taken by a professional photographer (credit to Focal Flame Photography

Pacing the Madison Half Marathon

Recently I was asked to pace the Madison Half Marathon. This means, for those unfamiliar with the running world, that in exchange for free entry to the race and a free singlet from the store that sponsored the pace groups, I was asked to run at a specific pace (2:30, or 11:27 minutes/mile) for the entire race. By running even splits, we both help people trying to run a specific goal time achieve that goal and serve as a moving time mark for other runners to gauge their times off of. I also heard spectators pointing to us as a way of figuring out where the runner they were waiting for might be.[1]

Many people asked me what my strategy was going into this, since my normal pace for a race like this would be something like 1:50–2:00 (8:24–9:10 min/mi).[2] It’s not a bad question—when you are used to running at a pace at least 30 min faster, it can feel very strange to slow down so much. In order to ensure that my legs were tired enough, I accidentally ran every day during the past week, culminating in 14.73 miles on Saturday. Then I accidentally stayed up until midnight, so I only got about five hours of sleep the night before the race.

I say “accidentally” because I’m aware that these behaviors are kind of risky in terms of injury; at this point in my running life, I almost always take Mondays and Fridays off. But this week there were things that came up—running with B, running with my fellow pacer—and I couldn’t skip out on them. I also wanted to get a hard weekend ahead of the KM 50K in two weeks. So now I’ve officially peaked, having run 63 miles this week and 28 in the last two days, and will do a little taper. I am actually really excited to taper. I’m tired.

So let’s see what I have some photos of. First off, here is my carb-packed dinner from the night before. Thanks to Costco, from which I purchased approximately five pounds of five-cheese ravioli. Unfortunately, they’re not super amazing—the texture is fine, but the flavor is not strong. Still, it was a pretty good dinner. I cooked the ravioli up with some mushrooms and onions and a white sauce with a little pesto in it. Next time, I will fry the ravioli in butter after boiling them,[3] and maybe throw some blue cheese in the white sauce rather than cream cheese. The salad was your standard Cesar with spinach instead of romaine. When Bryan came home from gaming, he brought me a piece of tiramisu, too.

Carb loading. I'm not a food photographer, sorry.
Carb loading. I’m not a food photographer, sorry.

The next morning, I struggled out of bed at 5:15, having had weird dreams all night about making hard-boiled eggs in tea. I don’t get it either. I got my stuff together (more of an achievement than it sounds like), told the dogs to go back to bed, and scrambled out of the house. I was supposed to meet the other pacers at a hotel on capital square at 6:20 to be ready to get in the corrals at 6:30, so I ran from where I parked (about half a mile away) to get there on time. Instead, this turned into hanging around the lobby waiting and asking each other, “Where is [whoever we noticed is missing]?” Around 6:40 we took a group photo and then dispersed to line up.

At this point, walking down the hill to where the back of the pack will be, things were starting to feel kind of intense. I got the feeling—and I don’t know if this is legitimately what was happening or not—that the runners on the sidewalks were watching us. When we got into the corrals, that would be their signal that it was time to line up. Such pressure.

Pre-race selfie.
Pre-race selfie. My hair is amazing.
Looking up the empty corral at the pacers.
Looking up the empty corral at the pacers.

At 7:00 precisely we took off. Prior to the gun, my pacing partner (also named Emily) and I sort of looked around to see if anyone was willing to declare they were sticking with us, but aside from one shy, noncommital wave, no one was. I don’t know if this means that a lot of people were unsure of what time they might finish in, if they were all planning to run with their iPods (I saw a lot of this), or if they were just shy. We tried hard to be happy and approachable, and as the miles ticked past a few people tried talking to us. One fellow, who I thought might be from India or Bangladesh, stuck with us the whole way; although he seemed to be working pretty hard, he was happy enough to chat when we talked to him:

Em: So, where are you from?
Him: [Something I didn’t really catch]
Em: Where is that?
Him: On the east side of the city.
Other Emily: Wait, did you say “Sun Prairie”?
Em: To be fair, I live near Middleton and never go over to the east side.

Did I look like an ass? I don’t know, maybe. I laughed, he laughed. We high-fived after the race, so I think there were no hard feelings.

Skipping around in time, after about a mile and a half, it started to rain, which was actually not terrible. The rain never got strong enough to really soak us, so my feet stayed dry, and it kept us cool and kept the heat down.

The corner by Camp Randall where the route turned onto Monroe Street was the first place we really started to encounter a bunch of people cheering for us. Some of the people the other Emily and I run with were out to spectate, so it was fun to hear the occasional “Go Emilys!,” but there were just a lot of people who would shout “Go 2:30 group!” Things got quieter as we turned into the Arb, and then as we went up the hill near Edgewood it got crazy again. I was starting to feel like a rock star. Probably the best part of this was when we came past the Berkeley orange stand (just past mile 12, I think); since Berkeley organized the pace groups, they gave us a real good cheer. And from there it was just a few blocks up Dayton (past my old haunt, Ofek Shalom Co-op), then up to State Street and the finish at the capital.

Running through the Arb with Other Emily.
Running through the Arb with Other Emily.

In the aftermath of all this running, I went home and brunched it up with B, then passed out for a solid two and a half hours. Now (writing this the day after), I feel pretty good—my right calf has been a bit sore, but no worse than one would expect from strenuous exercise. Why only the right one? Don’t know. Let’s not dwell on it too much.

So, to finish this thing up, what advice for future pacers? There is some law of nature that states that although your Garmin may work perfectly every time you step out the door, when you really need it to be accurate for a race, it will fail. My watch was off at almost every mile marker by up to 15 seconds or more. I hit the lap button as we passed the markers to try and compensate. Although I had it set up to give a current pace, an average pace, and a lap pace, the most useful way of telling where we were was the total time elapsed plus knowing that we were supposed to be running 11:27s (round to 11:30 for ease of math-doing). If you are running weird splits, like 6:52 or something, write your split times on your arm.

Finally, if you are a spectator and want to have a boombox playing some music to encourage the runners, let’s go with the Foo Fighters rather than Miley Cyrus. (I heard both yesterday, but I just want to make my preferences clear.)

The finish line taken by a professional photographer (credit to Focal Flame Photography
The finish line taken by a professional photographer. Credit to Focal Flame Photography.
A picture of me looking much more uncomfortable than I felt at the finish.
A picture of me looking much more uncomfortable than I felt at the finish. Credit to Focal Flame Photography

[1] In addition to pacing, or pace groups, being a thing that is provided at many major marathons, there’s another role for pacesetters—rabbiting. Rabbiting, often used for world record attempts, involves a fast runner who is typically paid to set a hard pace and act as a wind-break for the frontrunners and then drop out halfway through. There are, to my understanding, some pretty specific rules about what events can use rabbits and who can rabbit for what race (men can’t rabbit for women’s events, e.g.). This kind of pacing also has some ethical issues, because it moves the focus of a race to breaking a record rather than actually having an entertaining (competitive) race. On the other hand, rabbits do count as official entrants, and occasionally when the elite runners don’t follow them, they don’t drop and just go on to win. (Here’s an entertaining video of that from 1981.) But since the race was won in 1:13 for the men and 1:26 for the women, these questions don’t really apply to our 2:30 group.

[2] Since I did a 2:03 at the Ice Age half marathon two weeks ago, I think I could go sub-2 in a road half right now, except for all the various things I did to myself this week, as detailed above.

[3] Postscript: I tried frying the ravioli in a combination of avocado oil and butter. They were awesome.

Post-race.
Post-race, back at my car. My hair has calmed down due to rain.
Red trail, green grass.

Ice Age 50 half marathon, take three

One of my favorite spots on the trail.
One of my favorite spots on the trail.

This was my third time running the half marathon here. My times have been very closely clustered:

  • 2012: 2:00:59, 2nd in AG
  • 2014: 1:56:50, 5th in AG
  • 2015: 2:03:51, 10th in AG

Some race is always going to be your personal worst time. That’s just how it works. Interestingly, while I haven’t always gotten slower, I’ve consistently placed lower in my AG. Also, my AG has changed; I do get the feeling that for the half marathon distance, the women’s 30–34 age group is more competitive than the 25–29.

I feel like I’ve recapped this race before (here; looks like B was with me that year—the photos suggest I didn’t have a GPS watch yet, and I had a lot less definition in my shoulders…). Anyway, to avoid boring you, I’ll just hit the highlights this time:

  1. The first loop, I thought most of the hills were not as gnarly as in previous years. Also, unlike 2014, my legs weren’t trashed when I finished the first loop. Perhaps I am becoming a stronger hill runner?
  2. Unfortunately, I did notice I was pretty tired on the second loop (I stopped picking up my feet as well and stumbled a few times, almost falling). And the hills were a lot more pronounced.
  3. I felt like I pushed myself all the way through. This and last week’s race confirm that I’m probably in about 4:10 marathon shape.
  4. After a while, I fell behind all the fast people and was ahead of the slow people, and I found it quite hard to maintain my pace/focus. I knew I wouldn’t win, and I didn’t really want to go into the “pain cave.”
  5. Toward the end of the race, I passed a woman with some Thai tattooed on the backs of her arms. Ungrammatically, I shouted “คนพูดภาษาไทบได้” at her as I came up behind her. She was startled, and responded, “I have eighteen miles to go” (she was in the 50K) before realizing what I’d actually said. Too bad I didn’t get a chance to talk to her.
  6. My bad ankle hurt almost all the way through, which is weird because it didn’t hurt Thursday or Friday before the race and it doesn’t hurt now today (Sunday). Just one of those annoying things, I guess.
  7. I finished 10th in my age group. I’d been hoping I could still pull off a top-10 AG finish, so I guess that’s okay. Disappointed I couldn’t go sub-2, but it wasn’t my day. The weather was cool enough, but very humid. I miss being fast enough to pull off a sub-1:50 half marathon. I wonder if there’s a way to get back there without injuring myself doing speedwork.
  8. Probably not.
Grassy meadows, rather unpleasant when it's sunny.
Grassy meadows, rather unpleasant when it’s sunny.
Red trail, green grass.
Red trail, green grass.

As a warm-up for my 50K that is coming up in . . . four now three weeks and is also held on these very trails, it was reasonably good. I brought my hydration pack along and wore the clothes I thought I would wear for the upcoming race (about halfway through the race, the shorts, which are new, started to chafe, so those are off the menu. Good thing I tried them out.).

  • How annoyed were you with your performance, on a scale of 0–10 with 0 being totally fine and 10 being pretty hacked off? 2.
  • What mid-90s song was stuck in your head almost the entire run? “Gangsta’s Paradise,” by Coolio.
  • Last year, you got disoriented leaving the park, drove to Fort Atkinson, then later started to crash and had to stop at a random gas station outside of Edgerton and buy chocolate milk and potato chips in order to make it home. Did you experience those problems this time? Nope. I had a mini-sized energy bar before/during the race (pro tip: not a great choice of snack if your nose is stuffed up while running, like mine was). After the race, I grabbed a salt cap and some pieces of fruit before I headed out. When I got home, I had some peanut noodles, then later went out for (veggie) sushi with my family.
  • Did you accomplish anything after the race? I slept on the sofa for 90 minutes.
Post-run selfie (post-runfie?).
Post-run selfie (post-runfie?).

Next week, I am co-pacing the 2:30 group at the Madison half marathon, something I’ve never done before. (I’ve never even made it all the way through a race with a pace group, so it should be an interesting time.) I’ll be hanging out at the expo on Saturday around noon, so come say hello if you see me, or catch me at the starting line. Unless you’re going to be weird and awkward and make both of us feel uncomfortable, in which case feel free to continue stalking me quietly from a distance.

Also, speaking of quietly stalking me, if you missed it (and I don’t know why you would have seen this, since I didn’t announce it or anything), I’ve blogged a bit about ultrarunning over at Technically Running. It’s at least slightly humorous and has a picture of a skull I found attached to it for some reason.

One of the better photos from the race.

LMR 20K: Fifth Time’s the…Something

TL;DR:Good 8K, slightly painful 8K, rough final 4K.

I’ve run the Lake Monona 20K (LMR) almost every year since 2009. Along the way I’ve watched it change from a fairly small race to a large one, with all the attendant problems that change could be expected to produce.

For fun, here are my results:

Year Time Pace
2009 1:53:39 9:09
2010 1:41:24 8:10
2011
2012
2013 1:56:41 9:23
2014 1:45:53 8:31
2015 1:50:45 8:53

Holy cow, I was fast in 2010! I ran my half marathon PR that year too, apparently—1:46:02 at the Madison Mini-Marathon. (I have just discovered that there’s a website, Athlinks, which I am probably the last person to find and which displays all my race results ever going back to my first-ever 5K in 2005 in which I finished in 38:05. Holy shit.) So this year was either my third fastest or third slowest, depending on how you look at it.

Okay, where was I? So this race always takes place the first weekend in May, and that means you never know what you’re going to get in terms of weather. Some years it has been quite warm, some years it has been cool and pleasant. This year it was warm.

The course is a nice one; it begins at the Monona Public Library, runs through some hills in the first 5K, has about 10K through downtown Madison/the Near East Side that’s quite flat, and then a few more hills as you come back into Monona. Most of my running group is getting ready to run a 4-hr (ish) marathon at Green Bay in two weeks, so the training pace was set for 8:59 min/mi. Well, good luck. The race now has 1,225 runners, which makes the start quite congested. After shuffling forward for (what felt like) a couple of minutes after the gun (in reality maybe 90 seconds), we crossed the timing mat and took off at an easy jog. At one point, hitting about 9:30, I joked to my friends, “This is the training pace, right?”

One of the better photos from the race.
One of the better photos from the race.

There was a lot of weaving and throwing of elbows through the first two miles. Eventually we managed to find enough open space to really get up to race pace, and to make up time we wound up running a little faster than 8:59 (miles 4–7 were 8:4x, so were 9 and 10). Ironically, the people I was running most with are not doing Green Bay, and neither am I. What the heck. We came through the 10K in about 55:08, which is fine, and hit the 15K in 1:22:25. Then a combination of heat, lack of water, and fatigue started dragging me back, and I slowed to a 9:xx pace. But at that point,we were almost to the finish, so it almost didn’t matter. With about two miles left, we met a guy named Jud from SLC who was having a pretty hard time of it. He was fun to chat with for a little while before he slowed down to walk, and my friend and I kicked it in to the finish.

At this point, I made a critical mistake, which was chugging three quarters of the bottle of water I got handed and then eating a granola bar and half an apple. The sudden entry of food and lots of water into my stomach when I had been moving so hard in the heat undid me. I had to sit down for a few minutes because I felt woozy, and then I slowly shlepped the half mile back to my car to drive home, grimacing from some unpleasant stomach cramps. When I got home, I had a shower and a nap, and then I took a salt tablet with my lunch, which made a pretty big difference in how I was feeling. So, pro tip: if you run really hard, don’t eat directly after you stop running. Give it a moment. Add fluids gradually. You will feel much better. Also, if you’re on a course with infrequent water stops and it’s the warmest day of the year so far, bring both salt tabs and your hydration system. I neglected to bring both, and regretted it.

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Em oi! #406: Why I Am Still Awake

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Hat tip, as ever, to XKCD for panel 6.

About panel 5: My cat is in late middle age (she’s 12 this year) and she is fine. She has a bladder stone, but other than that she’s in good health. It’s just that after the sudden death of a loved one, I have developed the neurotic idea that anyone I love can die at any time, so I tend to be a little weird about her. At least I’ve finally recognized that my neuroses are what’s getting in the way, rather than anything in particular about her.

I bought a new sketchbook (from what is apparently the kids’ aisle at Target, because why would adults want art supplies?), and it has both watercolor paper and regular pen and ink paper in it. I accidentally grabbed some pages out of the watercolor section for this comic, so I decided to pull out my brush and sit down with a bottle of India ink and make them pretty. I think I succeeded–a few of the panels are some of my favorites I’ve ever done. It was less time-consuming than I thought it would be, too, taking just a little more than one episode of QI. The uploading was a bit fussier–it’s harder to edit watercolor paper things because of the texture of the paper and whatnot–but all in all I’m pleased.

Anyway, life around here is mildly chaotic. B’s leg is recovering well. And this week we’ve had workmen removing all the insulation from our attics in order to air seal the house. When it gets done, it will be great, because our drafty old house will finally be actually warm (and cool, in the summer). Unfortunately, it was about 40 degrees yesterday with a few flakes of snow, and today the high is 49. Thanks, Wisconsin. I’m wearing four shirts right now.

The other thing is that we decided on Sunday to start letting the dogs sleep with their crate doors open, for a number of reasons but mostly that they’re adults and unlikely to destroy the house without our direct supervision. And it turns out that our neighbor leaves for work at about 5:30 in the morning–I know this because Monday morning and Tuesday morning he woke up (and woke us up) barking very loudly at just about exactly 5:34. When I went down to comfort him, he decided he wanted to go out, and so by the time I got back to bed I was wide, wide awake and had a hard time falling asleep again. This was especially icky since I’ve been getting over a bout of stomach flu and really, really wanted to be asleep and not vertical. Then today, I figured I’d just get up to run early-early (I thought we had to leave the house at oh-my-G-d o’clock so some of the work could take place). I figured Edgar would wake me up, but I set a backup alarm for 6:00 anyway.

You can guess what happened, can’t you? Edgar did not wake up at 5:30. But I did.

I think there’s something in the Geneva Convention about this, Edgar.

We’ll file this comic under RC548 .L86 2015, for Internal medicine–Neurosciences. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry–Psychiatry–Neuroses–Sleep disorders–Insomnia–General works.

Edgar relaxing on his new bed.
Edgar relaxing on his new bed.
Cave in Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam

Are You Afraid of the Dark (Damp, Tight, Dangerous, Rocky, Cold…): Blind Descent Reviewed

Note to readers: I wrote most of this review whilst sitting in B’s room in the outpatient surgery clinic, waiting for his surgery to be over. So if it seems for whatever reason to be more than unusually disjointed, that’s why. He’s fine, by the way, and recovering well.–Ed.

Tabor, James M. Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth. New York: Random House, 2010. 978-1-4000-6767-1.

There is a whole genre of books about people accomplishing difficult feats in incredibly dangerous environments. Jon Krakauer, for example, has made a living writing this kind of book for some time—first Into the Wild, about an independent or insane (depending on your point of view) kid from a wealthy East Coast family who starves to death in the Alaskan wilderness, and then Into Thin Air, about a disaster on Mt. Everest (one he personally witnessed). In some of the book, the feat accomplished is more subtle; a good example is Peter Matthiessen’s[1] masterful The Snow Leopard, the diary of a trek he made through Nepal with the naturalist George Schaller. And then there’s Blind Descent, James M. Tabor’s book of two speleologists racing to find the deepest cave.

Cave in Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam
The only photo from the only cave I’ve ever walked through, in Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam.

Caving—the type these guys are into, at least—is basically a crazy occupation; I think if you’re not already into it when you start the book, you’re not going to be tempted to pick it up. I have walked through a few caves that were fitted out for tourists, but real caving involves all the fun (and dangers) of rock climbing and scuba diving, except done in pitch black and often with freezing cold water running over you, with wind gusts as loud as a 747 rushing past. Sound like fun? Caving is cold, wet, dirty, hard, exhausting work, and the only thing that relieves the monotony is that cavers sometimes go crazy and get what’s called “the Rapture,” which is like a panic attack except with hallucinations and other terrible things. Also, if you get stuck on Mt. Everest, sometimes they can land a helicopter and bring you down. If you make a mistake and hurt yourself in a cave, you’re pretty much fucked unless your friends can carry you back to the surface—a journey that can involve vertical climbs (or if you’re incapacitated, hoists) of 500 feet or more. And that’s not even going into cave diving, which is basically a quick way to wish for death, as far as I can tell. Seriously, about half the named cave divers in this book died.

The book chronicles several expeditions launched by two men, American Bill (William C.) Stone and Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk. Stone works in a group of caves in Oaxaca, Mexico called Cheve (Chay-vay, not like the cheese; a New Yorker article spells it as Chevé), while Klimchouk works in Krubera Cave in the Arabika Massif in the Western Caucasus, located in what is either the country of Abkhazia or the Abkhazia region of Georgia.[2] In the book, their expeditions are set up as a sort of race to the bottom to discover the deepest cave.

Here I have to pause. In order to draw the reader in, Tabor to some extent skips explaining a lot of his terminology. By “deepest cave,” he doesn’t mean the deepest point on Earth (which would be in the Marianas Trench) or even the deepest point on land (which could be, I suppose, the bottom of the TauTona Mine in Carletonville, South Africa or the Kola superdeep borehole, or potentially the valley under Byrd Glacier[3]), but the deepest depth reachable when descending from the mouth of the cave. To put it another way, Krubera Cave’s entrance is in the mountains, approximately 6,500 feet up (159), so when these cavers descend 7,208 (plus or minus 66) feet, they’re not going 7,208 +/- 66 feet below sea level. Tabor also glosses over what the actual science being done here is—although both Stone and Klimchouk are PhD-holding scientists, it’s unclear what either of them is hoping to get out of the caves beyond just messing around in caves for some reason. Stone does develop technology for use in caves (for example, a rebreather for diving, and a sonar machine for mapping), but he does that to support his caving habit and make caving better rather than doing some sort of cave-based research.

Although I think the book has a number of deficiencies, I first want to say that the writing is good and clear and the book is very engaging. For someone with no knowledge of caving, mountaineering, or diving, I understood the objectives each man was trying to achieve and was able to follow—with excitement—the progress through each cave. The major issues were these:

  1. Women: Although there were women along on both expeditions, Tabor is largely uninterested in them and women in caving generally unless they are 1) sleeping with Bill Stone, 2) the discoverer of Cheve Cave (unavoidable), or 3) I can’t think of a third category. Two of Stone’s girlfriends are involved in the expeditions he leads, and both are mostly described as beautiful—although Tabor is forced to admit that both are experienced cavers, he seems surprised when they actually pitch in and take part in the expeditions. Stone’s girlfriends’ appearances are mentioned both the first time they appear, and then again if they come along on a subsequent expedition, as though we might have forgotten that they are “beautiful,” “tall,” “striking,” etc. Another woman, involved in the Ukrainian expedition, is described as “as strong and brave as she was pretty” (231). Spare me. Needless to say, the men’s physical appearances aren’t really touched on, at least not in such obnoxious detail. In the American expeditions, the presence of women seems to be a point of friction between the male members of the team, but Tabor is uninterested in exploring the roots of this sexism, or discussing at all the history of women in caving; he’s equally uninterested in exploring why the Ukrainian teams seemed to include more women and have fewer problems with sexism. His writing style, though striving for some type of objectivity, doesn’t ever escape from these issues—for example, he mentions a woman getting her hair caught in a rappel rack during a descent—“what every female (and long-haired male) dreaded” (218). Why not just say “what every long-haired caver fears”? Does every female caver wearher hair long?
  2. Communism versus capitalism. Of course, Klimchouk grew up and learned to cave in the USSR, and his view of caving as a cooperative venture between a lot of highly trained people, each of whom takes on specific responsibilities, is in many respects radically different from Bill Stone’s strong-leader-tells-people-what-to-do mindset. Interestingly, Klimchouk’s expeditions seem to be more comfortable in some respects for the cavers (e.g., atmosphere—no sex in the camps; better rations) as well as safer (lots of people die on Stone’s trips, though Tabor absolves Stone of all the deaths). But rather than exploring the complexities of this difference, Tabor seems inherently suspicious of communism in a weirdly 1950s Better Dead Than Red sort of way (maybe I’ve just been hanging around far-leftist academics/radicals for too long?) and is uninterested in the political differences between leadership styles.
  3. Stone versus Klimchouk. While the book is framed in terms of two caves, the book is really written in terms of Stone versus Klimchouk, with the first half serving as a biography of Stone and an account of several expeditions to Cheve and the second half serving as a biography/account of Klimchouk and his expeditions. Except—this is kind of weird, and I’ll warn for a spoiler—while Klimchouk wins, he gets barely ten chapters to himself, plus a few more in the “Game Over” section, while the first thirty-one chapters cover Stone and Cheve, plus more in the “Game Over” section.
  4. A few off-color jokes in the endnotes. To be honest I don’t really care enough to list them here. They were off-color, though.
  5. As, I assume, part of the aforementioned attempt to reduce the science to make everything more readable, many questions about caves, caving, and the rules of the competition are left unspoken and thus confusing. For example, Stone’s group proved via a dye test that Cheve is much longer than its current terminus would suggest—the river that flows into its mouth has an outflow several miles and 8,500 feet down. If the cave went all the way through the distance betweeen the entrances and exits, Cheve would be the deepest cave. Yet clearly the water goes all the way through—why does the cave have to be traverseable by humans in order to take that distinction? Krubera has been dug out and widened in many places by its explorers—why is this legal? (Of course most of the time they’re removing breakdown—piles of rubble left by water—but I’m still curious what the stance on digging is.)[4] Why is cave diving so dangerous? Why do divers have to physically hold on to a line with one hand rather than clipping onto it like a mountaineer?
  6. Somewhat annoyingly, while there is a section of photographs, none of them are actually referenced in the text (as someone in publishing, I see this as poor form, though it does happen). Further, while there are lots of attempts to draw a picture using words of a specific cave feature, a photograph would have been instructive. Maddeningly, in a few spots photographs are actually described, but not reprinted.
  7. Finally, there is the weird desire for completion. As understandable as it is, I have to say that it seems a little bit weird to recount the finding of Krubera’s bottom in 2004 as “game over, end of the line, the last great terrestrial discovery has been made.” There are a couple of reasons for this—for one, that actually wasn’t the lowest point in Krubera—a diver has since pushed the bottom down by another 52 meters (although this happened after the book’s publication, so I don’t blame Tabor for missing it). But that’s the thing—as Bilger puts it in the article I linked to earlier, Everest was Everest before Norgay and Hillary got to the top of it, but you don’t really know how deep a cave is until you’ve gone all the way to its bottom. So not only can there deeper points in the same cave, there could easily be deeper caves elsewhere in the world—something Bilger points out, but Tabor seems loathe to admit. While I understand the desire to tie things up, this seems factually inaccurate.

So there are those things. On the whole, though, while I found them annoying and perplexing—and while I would have made different choices in many places had I been writing/editing the book, I found it, as I said, largely engaging, easy to read, and informative on at least the main points of caves, diving, and the bizarre phenomenon known as supercaves.


[1] I am saddened to see, writing this, that Peter Matthiessen died almost a year ago, on 5 April 2014. If you are looking for a good read, I heartily recommend The Snow Leopard. He wrote a lot of other books, too.

[2] Tabor seems uncommitted on this point, but in fact there’s a lot of geopolitical mess going on in this region—Abkhazia wants to be a country of its own, but it’s recognized by only a few other countries, so it exists in a weird sort of limbo at the moment.

[3] Unlike determining the highest point on Earth, these lowest points seem to have a lot of asterisks: the Kola superdeep borehole is the deepest, but it’s man-made and not human accessible—I think the Kola superdeep borehole was specifically conceived as a project to see how deep a hole could be drilled. The TauTona Mine is human-accessible but, again, man-made. The sub-glacier spot is covered with ice (for a while longer, anyway). There are also caves that are bigger than either Cheve or Krubera (such as Sơn Đoòng Cave in Viet Nam, although Wikipedia doesn’t explain in what respect it is the biggest). So as with so many things, it depends on how you’re asking the questions.

By the way—the Wikipedia page for the Kola superdeep borehole gives in two paragraphs more scientific explanation for why anyone should care about going deep into caves/drilling a deep hole in the ground than Tabor gives in his entire book.

[4] This question and some others that have come up for me were answered at least partially in the New Yorker article linked to earlier: Bilger, Burkhard. “In Deep: The Dark and Dangerous World of Extreme Cavers.” New Yorker, 21 April 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/21/in-deep-2.