Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ultramarathons on Mars

Among the time-wasting diversions that parade daily through my virtual life are updates from a site called "Trail Porn."  TP serves up big glossy high-res images not of naked people doing naughty things on trails but of impossibly gorgeous locations around the world for running or hiking.  People, naked or otherwise, are beside the point.  Typically they are lost in the landscape like figures in Chinese paintings of terraced mountainsides.  Sometimes the landscapes are empty, human presence implied only by thin ribbons of single-track snaking into the wild.
Most TP images depict mountains or deserts.  Space, solitude, and a red ochre color palate are recurring themes. Western States figure prominently--dunes in Oregon, canyons in Arizona, mountains in Colorado.

Other locations are, for a North American viewer, more exotic.  A curving passage through the Razorback in the Australian Victorian Alps.  Or this photo of the Spanish La Palma, jutting into space like the prow of a ship.  Were it not for the blue sky and sparse pines clinging to one side, this could be a shot taken from the landscape of Mars. 

If the name is just a little too cute, "Trailporn" is an apt enough description for the visceral longing for the Wild these images evoke for some of us.   A desire so piercing it is almost a taste in the mouth, something sharp and tangy, a stirring sensation in the lower belly and an excited flutter in the chest.  Wild fever.

As all of us of certain age realize, these kinds of feelings invariably lead to trouble.

Years ago, I remember driving on a broiling summer day through the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, thinking--idly at first, then almost a little afraid of myself--about what would happen if I stopped the car and wandered out into the maze of that strange, rugged landscape.  I've felt it, too, running alone up the side of Scout Mountain near Pocatello, Idaho, pausing at threshold of a trail I hadn't seen before, then plunging forward and up despite the unfamiliar route and despite the long low shadows of a late autumn afternoon (an extremely poor decision, by the way, and it's only through sheer luck I'm here now to write about the experience).  Most recently, I've felt it at the start of the Grindstone 100, heading into the twilight start of the race and into the unknown.

I recognize the same tug of the Wild in some of the ever-improving images from a place I will never go, the Martian landscape.  Like this recent image from the approach to Mount Sharp showing angled strata and a series of rises that apparently have areologists very excited, as they "did not expect" to see anything like this.   What is just over the last rise, I wonder?

Decades ago, Kim Stanley Robinson imagined it all on a grand scale.  In his Martian trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, a character named Nirgal covers vast distances alone and on foot across the terraformed, and by then habitable, landscape.  His runs grow progressively longer, culminating in a competitive event known as the "round the worlder," which he manages to dominate for a decade, beating much younger runners year after year.  In this Martian ultramarathon, participants are able to choose their own course, heading east or west, with the goal of circumnavigating the planet and covering some 21000 kilometers.  Navigational devices are not allowed, and satellites track participants to ensure they do not stray from the equatorial zone.  

Robinson's fantasy of a terraformed and runnable Martian landscape is centuries away--or will never come at all.  (Although if the Mars One project turns out not to be as completely mad as it seems, the first human footprint on the Red Planet may come as early as 2023.)  For decades after we landed on the moon, the desire for exploration seemed to go into a strange abeyance.  Reaching the red planet began to look doubtful.   But over the past few years, there has been a shift.  Duplicating a trip to the moon, or tooling about in low-earth orbit is no longer enough.  Human travel to the red planet sometime in the next few decades again seems a possibility.

Mars fever is back.  A novel plan for getting to Mars is hatched seemingly every year.  Some of the ideas for getting there are either wildly creative or desperate.  Like the one-way-ticket approach of the Mars One Project: go there, settle down, wait for supplies to be shipped up periodically, but don't expect to ever return home yourself.

Yet I doubt the Mars One organizers will have trouble finding volunteers.  As ultramarathoners know, hundreds of people will want to sign up for the most fantastically ill-advised adventures.  Unlikely as it sounds, it is no coincidence, I sense, that the push for Mars and the growth of ultra trail running are contemporaneous.  Mars fever and Wild fever are born of similar impulses.  Something about the overly complex, overly connnected age we live in generates both.   "Trailporn" and bold thinking about flights to Mars are signs of the times.

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