“If you get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner out of it.”
While wandering around Tokyo this past February I felt hungry and decided it was time to eat some authentic ramen noodles. It was Saturday night and I was near Shibuya Crossing:
After leaving the lights and crowds I began exploring dark alleys and foreboding side streets in hopes of finding, not a hole in the wall, but a culinary crevice (Tokyo is a very compact city) that only a local could discover. The night before I had visited a “hole in the wall bar” suggested by my lonely planet tour book, and to my chagrin saw groups of well-dressed white people huddled over pricey cocktails and conversing in English. Na. This time around I would wander until I found a place where the staff and patrons looked at me with either dull suspicion or obvious disgust. “Koko ni gaijin wa nan desu ka?” (What is that dirty foreigner doing here?) Yes, much better. Kon ban wa! (Good evening!)
My stomach was grumbling. I turned a corner and there it was: a ramen place that was the most inconspicuous, smallest restaurant I had ever seen. There were 4 chairs inside jammed against a crumbling wall, a flimsy counter, a narrow hallway behind the chairs, then an open kitchen without a door. I would learn later that there was only one worker present who was the host, chef, waiter, bus boy, and dishwasher. There was also only one customer; a woman sitting by herself on the middle chair.
As I set down my lucky backpack on the floor near the chair the host/chef/waiter/busboy/dishwasher gesticulated towards the entrance. The woman turned and said in perfect English, “You have to use the machine.” Next to the door was a vending machine with pictures of food on plastic squares. I learned later that many restaurants in Tokyo utilize this vending machine system: you order and pay right when you arrive, then wait for the food to be served. The pictures were blurry and did not resemble any sustenance I could recognize, so I picked the one with best mix of colors and sat down.
While reading a book on Jack Ma I furtively inhaled the beef-spice-broth smell of the woman’s ramen bowl next to me and thought, “Yes, this is going to kick the shit out of those ramen-dime-blocks back home.”
Then I put the book down and struck up a conversation with the woman. For this essay, and the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Matsuri. You may be wondering what this all has to do with the tragic death of a Japanese Olympian…
I asked Matsuri how she found this place. “My mother recommended it to me. She says this restaurant has the best ramen in all of Tokyo.” Even though Matsuri’s English was very good with only a slight accent, I could see via her facial expressions that her mind was in overdrive before each sentence. Nonetheless, the conversation went smoothly. I told her that I was in Tokyo for a week, by myself, and staying in 6 different AirBnB locations throughout the city. She wrote down on a napkin the name of a shrine (Meiji Jingu Shrine with a “quiet and refreshing” park)…
…and a place called Kappabashi Dougu Street (merchants have been gathering there since 1912 selling everything from hardware to restaurant supplies):
While she wrote on the napkin I noticed slight scars on Matsuri’s wrists and hands. Before she left, I learned that she was a plastic surgeon. Immediately after revealing her occupation Matsuri assured me that it’s not like being a plastic surgeon in the United States. “It’s much easier to become a plastic surgeon here. Much less school. It’s very easy.” This was a theme throughout our conversation, her constant humility and downplay of my compliments. But I could tell she was very intelligent. She gave me her business card and I gave her mine. She left and my ramen meal arrived. Matsuri’s mother was right: it was delicious.
The next day I woke up in my $20/night AirBnB cubbyhole near the prostitute district and checked me email. Matsuri had sent me a long message:
Good morning. Here is a long list of interesting or my favorite places in Tokyo. Enjoy your trip. :D.
Below were 32 places (streets, shrines, restaurants, and museums), some with links, all with symbols next to them. At the bottom of the email was a key for the symbols: star = my favorite. * = good for people-looking. Circle = good for knowing Japanese culture. Square = funny.
Matsuri was intense, kind, and thorough…and I liked it. I emailed back asking if she wanted to have dinner that night. She said yes.
We met at Ueno park. I had just checked out the museums by there, and waited near teenage boys arm wrestling, feeling tempted to challenge one of them:
We walked to the restaurant district nearby. It was a cool, pleasant night and we threaded the bustling crowds. I almost purchased this Godzilla shirt…
…but decided I needed to start making better buying decisions, especially now that I was embarking on the path of an impoverished journalist. Matsuri led me to a busy restaurant off a side street, pushed aside some plastic curtains, and we sat down.
The dinner was relaxing and fun. We learned more about each other’s lives. Matsuri was living at home with her mother. Her parents had been divorced for 20 years and lived in separate apartments, but her grandparents still believed their children were married and living together. Despite this hidden separation, Matsuri’s parents were still pressuring her to marry. Japanese culture can be excessively polite, strict, and repressive.
Matsuri mentioned that she checked out my website. Her favorite story was, “The Aspiring Actress.” She asked me questions about the piece and I could tell that, to put it crudely, she “got it.” I was further impressed when I learned that she had never lived in an English-speaking country, although she had visited Thailand 10 times. Her speaking and reading skills were the result of school and self-study. Our first course arrived, Oden:
Oden is Japan’s “pot winter” dish and contains an assortment of boiled eggs, daikon (raddish), konjac (yam cake), and processed fishcakes stewed in a light, soy-flavored dashi broth. It’s like the “shephard’s pie” of The East.
While eating our food and crushing bottles of Sake, we also discussed books. I showed her the other book I was reading:
Matsuri had read it before, and we discussed the differences in the translation. Matsuri was very disappointed in the title. In Japanese the book is called Sasameyuki, which means Light Snow. The book centers around the character named Yuki, who is one of four sisters, who drifts aimlessly and carelessly through life and is unable to find a husband, despite the pressure of her family to marry. In Japanese, there are numerous ways to describe snow, here are six different ways, and it’s meaningful that the author named his book Light Snow rather than the Makioka Sisters. We wondered about what else was lost in the English translation, and I told Matsuri about my plan to teach myself Japanese.
Matsuri asked if I did any sports back in American, and I told her I was a runner. She asked if I knew about the Japanese runner, Kokichi Tsuburaya. No, I did not. Kokichi was famous, in the athletics world and in Japan’s literary world. He had won the bronze medal in the marathon in the Tokyo 1964 Olympics. Then he wrote-
“Hold on, I have to go the bathroom (I was drunk).” Here’s a crappy picture I snapped on my way back from the bathroom:
The conversation moved on from Kokichi Tsuburaya and we ordered desert. I tried to pay, but Matsuri insisted that she treat me to the dinner. Then we left the restaurant…
On my last day in Tokyo I emailed Matsuri asking if she wanted to hang out again. I was drinking beer with Wolfgang (a physicist who I met my first day who was studying at Keio University) and we decided to get some late-night snacks. Tokyo is not a late-night town. The subways close at midnight and most of the restaurants close too. We began wandering around Shimbashi and I snapped this picture of a drunkenly “salary man” passed out against a pole:
Finally, we found a place that was open and selling Takoyaki, or fried balls. Tako means octopus and yaki (which sounds similar to ‘yucky’) means fried. Here they are:
Matsuri met us there after work and we drank, eat Takoyaki, and talked. We stood at a table near the street and the chilly breeze complemented the hot balls I kept impatiently scorching the roof of my mouth with. We had a good time. I told them how much I had enjoyed my trip and swore that I WOULD RETURN SPEAKING JAPANESE. Matsuri gave me a book of poems:
I can’t read them yet, but someday I will.
As I hugged Matsuri goodbye, I thought she looked preoccupied and sad. I even thought there were tears in her eyes, but that could have been the street-lamp reflections and the wind. She said, “I forgot to tell you the story of Kokichi Tsuburya!”
“It’s alright, I’ll look him up later.”
“Goodbye. It was nice meeting you!”
“It was nice meeting you too. Goodbye Matsuri!” She left.
On the plane back to New York City I looked up Kokichi Tsuburya. Over the next couple months I sporadically researched his life. Here is his tragic story:
Kokichi was born in Sukagawa, Fukushima in 1940. He was 1/7 children:
The family planted rice and raised livestock. When each child reached the age of 10 they were put to work. The father, Koshichi Tsuburya, was extremely strict and believed his children required extra discipline to ensure they did their chores. Like a drill Sargent, he ordered them around yelling, “Go Forward!” “Right Face!” and, “Attention!” On top of cooking, cleaning, and planting, he trained them to use bayonets and hit them whenever they were not obedient.
As a young boy Kokichi loved to run, especially with the family dog. At the age of 5, though, he felt acute pain in his legs and back. Koshichi noticed that his son’s left leg was shorter than his right. When they brought him to hospital to confirm the diagnosis, they also learned that Kokich had tuberculosis arthritis, which causes pain in the weigh-bearing joints of the ankles, knees, and hips. Kokichi felt pain whenever he ran.
Despite this pain, Kokichi kept on running. He looked up to his older brother, Kikuzo, who ran in competitions. They ran together and even though Koichi was 7 years younger, he kept up. The brothers would go on runs late at night. Their father did not approve. “You can’t earn a living off of running,” he said. So the sons would sneak out to run when their father was taking his evening bath.
Koshichi finally confronted his son and asked, “If you run, will you take this all the way?” Kokichi replied, “Yes,” and the father added, “If you decide to do this, do not stop halfway.”
Kokichi dedicated himself completely and in high school he qualified for the National 5000 meter race. He did not win. Without anyone urging him to do so, he shaved his head to publicly account for his defeat.
After graduating from high school Kokichi joined the Ground Self-Defense Force, following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a soldier. He became a 1st lieutenant.
At the age of 24 he qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in the 10,000 meters and the marathon. He also fell in love with a girl named Eiko, who he planned to marry after the games.
The Tokyo Olympics was historic in various ways: it was the first Olympics held in Asia, it was the first time South Africa was barred from taking part due to its apartheid system, and they were the first games to be telecast internationally without the need for tapes to be flown overseas. They were the first Olympic games to have color telecasts and of the 5,151 participants 4,473 were men and 678 were women. In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics there will be nearly an equal ratio of men/women competitors and there will be mixed events (men and women competing in the same relay, such as the 4×400 meters). We’ve come a long way.
The competitions were held in October to avoid the city’s midsummer heat and humidity. On the 14th of October, Kokichi raced the 10,000 meters and placed 6th. This would be the last time the Olympics used a traditional cinder track for the track events, as a smooth synthetic all-weather track would be used for the first time at the 1968 games.
The last event of the games was the marathon. Kokichi was entered in the competition with his friend and teammate Kenji Kimihara. No doubt they discussed that Japan had not won a single track medal during the entire Olympic games, and this marathon would be the last chance for them to win one for their country.
Abede Bikila won the gold, becoming the first and only man to win the gold in the marathon in two, consecutive Olympics (he won gold in 1960 running barefoot). Here’s good amateur video of his finish, where immediately upon crossing the finish line he began doing calisthenics. Great athletes never stop.
Here’s a video with great footage:
When Kokichi entered the Olympic stadium he was in second place and greeted by a roar from the crowd. But right behind him was Basil Heatley, who would pass him in the last 200 meters (13:59). Kokichi was devastated that he would let a competitor pass him in front of so many Japanese people, and there was a collective groan when he lost. Later, Kokichi would tell his friend Kenji Kimihara (who was 23 years old during the race and placed 8th):
“I committed an inexcusable blunder in front of the Japanese people. I have to beg their pardon by running and hoisting the Hinomaru [national flag] in Mexico [the next Olympics.]
After the games, Kokichi began training hard. He was a national hero and vowed to do better in 1968. He also wanted to marry Eiko. Kokichi’s coach at the Self-Defense Forces Athletics school, Hiro Hatano, supported the marriage, and so did Kokichi’s parents.
But Hiro Hatano’s boss did not approve of the marriage. In 1966, coach Hatano’s boss declared that Kokichi needed to focus 100% on his training and that a marriage would distract him from his goals. In Japan, there are rigid hierarchies, and this system is even more strict in the military.
Hatano’s boss brought Hatano, Eiko, and Eiko’s mother together to discuss how the marriage would have to wait until after the Olympic Games. That way Kokichi could focus solely on his training. Kokichi was not at the meeting.
Hatano protest this decision, but was left with the task of telling Kokichi that he couldn’t marry Eiko. Hatano refused and ended up being demoted and removed from his coaching position.
Eiko was devoted to Kokichi and still wanted to marry him, but Eiko’s mother was not supportive any longer. Eiko’s mother was anxious that a marriage to a famous, bronze-medalist with the whole country counting on him would add a burden to his wife. She also wasn’t confident that a marriage in 2 years was certain. And since Eiko was 22 years old, she could lose her chance to marry well.
The marriage was broken off. Since Kokichi didn’t have a coach anymore, he began training on his own. He became plagued with injuries. He felt intense pain in a slipped disk that he had hurt years ago. In 1967, an injury to his Achilles tendon required surgery.
At the end of 1967 Kokichi returned home for a New Year’s holiday break. His father was distraught with news that he did not want to tell his son. But he thought it was best to tell his son the news before he found out on his own. He told him that Eiko had married someone else. Kokichi’s response was, “Oh, Eiko-san is married. That’s good for her.”
Soon after Kokichi returned to his Self-Defense Force base to train. But he couldn’t run a step because he suffered from lumbago. On Janurary 8th, 1968, teammates of Koichi entered his dorm room to find that he had slit his wrists and killed himself. He left behind a suicide note:
The suicide note is consider by the Japanese literary world as a masterpiece for its simplicity and banality. Yukio Mishima (who ended up killing himself 12 years later during a military coup through seppuku) described it as beautiful, honest and sad. Kensaburo Oe, the Nobel Prize winner in 1994, believed it was a cultural marker of the 1960s Japanese ethos. Here it is:
My dear Father, my dear Mother: I thank you for the three-day pickled yam. It was delicious. Thank you for the dried persimmons. And the rice cakes. They were delicious, too.
My dear Brother Toshio, and my dear Sister: I thank you for the sushi. It was delicious.
My dear Brother Katsumi, and my dear Sister: The wine and apples were delicious. I thank you.
My dear Brother Iwao, and my dear Sister: I thank you. The basil-flavored rice, and the Nanban pickles were delicious.
My dear Brother Kikuzo, and my dear Sister: The grape juice and Yomeishu were delicious. I thank you. And thank you, my dear Sister, for the laundry you always did for me.
My dear Brother Kozo and my dear Sister: I thank you for the rides you gave me in your car, to and fro. The mongo-cuttlefish was delicious. I thank you.
My dear Brother Masao, and my dear sister: I am very sorry for all the worries I caused you.
Yukio-kun, Hideo-kun, Mikio-kun, Toshiko-chan, Hideko-chan, Ryosuke-kun, Takahisa-kun, Miyoko-chan, Yukie-chan, Mitsue-chan, Akira-kun, Yoshiyukikun, Keiko-chan, Koei-kun, Yu-chan, Kii-chan, Shoji-kun: May you grow up to be fine people.
My dear Father and my dear Mother, Kokichi is too tired to run anymore. I beg you to forgive me. Your hearts must never have rested worrying and caring for me.
My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to live by your side.
When Kokichi Tsuburaya was found dead in his dorm room he was holding on to his bronze medal.
For months I’ve planned to end this essay with Kokichi dead in his dorm room and holding on to his bronze medal…next to a suicide note about delicious food. But due to various life circumstances and additional research, there’s another part of the story I want to tell:
Kenji was Kokichi’s teammate and friend at the 1964 Olympics, whom Kokichi confessed, “I made an inexcusable blunder…” Two years after the 1964 Olympics Kenji won the Boston Marathon. Then, in the 1968 Olympics, 9 months after Kokichi’s suicide, Kenji would win the silver medal in the marathon by 14 seconds. No doubt he felt redemption for Kokichi, winning the medal that Kokichi missed by 3.6 seconds.
In 2016 Kenji Kimihara ran the Boston marthon, 50 years after his victory. He was 75 years old and ran the marathon in 4 hours 53 minutes and 14 seconds. There was little press given to this accomplishment.
We are all surrounded by sadness and lost opportunities. But we’re all, also, headed to the same, dark place. What’s tragic to me about Kokichi’s death was not his suicide or what caused him to take his life, but what he missed. Kenji, while he’s an old man, is still living, breathing, learning, and running. He is a reminder to me that life, with all its pain, confusion, glory, and hope, will always move on, past all tragedy and defeat. He is a reminder that life is only out there, waiting, for the living.
Snowboarders, as a class of people, are notorious for being rebels. They party hard, break multiple bones, roll perfect joints in 10-15 seconds, wear strange patchworks of tattered clothes, prefer energy drinks over water (according to their sponsors), prank each other incessantly, are partial to toilet humor, don’t mind shitting outdoors in sub degree temperatures, and throw their battered bodies off of abandoned buildings to land on a rail and capture a SIIIIIIICK. Where did this lifestyle originate and where is it going? Are snowboarders entitled, goofy, self-centered idiots or epic, artistic, purpose-driven heroes? And before we get to Marco Siffredi (the first man to snowboard continuously down Mount Everest) and his place in this powdery microcosm of awwweessomee brooo, who was the first person who stood on the summit of a snowy mountain, icy wind lashing through dirty dreads, and spake: “I will tie my feet to this wooden plank…and shred this gnar”?
It all began with Sherman Poppen. He was a surfer/engineer who in 1964 bolted two kids skiis together as a Christmas gift for his daughter. Then, in 1965, a bowling ball manufacturer took this idea and manufactured the snurfer:
It cost $15 and 1 million snurfers were sold in the next decade. But this was just a silly toy.
Meanwhile, in glorious upstate New York, Dimitrije Milovich was sliding around on cafeteria trays in the snow. What a beast. He began to develop snowboards following the example of the new short surf boards. He experimented with laminating glass and gravel on the board and also used nylon straps. In 1975, he created a company called “Winterstick” which is considered the first snowboard company:
They were mentioned by Playboy and Newsweek in 1976, and by 1980 they were broke.
Meanwhile, Jake Burton Carpenter, a 23 year old student in 1977, was obsessed with the Snurfer. He was snurfing all day and snurfing all night. He kept on improving the toy: foot straps for better control, fins for more stability. He started his own company in 1977. It still exists today:
Throughout this birthing decade, snurfers and such were not allowed on ski resorts. (Those pompous, tight-ass skiers probably had a sense that their arch-enemies were rising from the rad depths of gnarly hell.) The first snowboarders would go to resorts at night, walk up the trails, and ride down secretly in order to avoid a penalty. Even back then, snowboarders were rebels.
And while all this was going on, a little boy was born in a manger on May 22, 1979 in Chamonix, France. Chamonix is the extreme mountain sports capital of the world. The town was the host of first Winter Olympics in 1924 and is located in a valley 3,810 meters below the highest summit in Western Europe: Mount Blanc. The snowboarding messiah was the fourth child of a climbing family. His father was a mountain guide and his older brother would die in an avalanche. The “boy who liked to live” was named was Marco Siffredi:
Fast forward through unruly childhood (in which he cut up his teeth multiple times which gave him his gap toothed smile):
In 1996, only a year after learning how to snowboard, Marco accomplished one of the valley’s “test pieces”: the Mallory on the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi, a 1,000 meter exposed rock garden with passages close to 55 degrees:
To end that season, Marco became the first snowboarder to descend Chardonnet (sustained 55 degrees) with his best friend, Philippe Forte. Phillipe would die the next year in an avalanche on Chamonix’s Grands Montets ski area.
But what put Marco on the map was in 1999, at the age of 20, when after snowboarding for only 4 years he rode the Nant Blanc on the Aiggille. This mountain face had been skied only once before (1989) and is a 3,300 meter descent which averages 55 degrees in steepness, with sections of 60 and 65 degrees. To put these angles in perspective, Chamonix writer Trey Cook wrote: “…a blown edge, a miscalculated turn, or a momentary lapse of concentration and the rider might as well have jumped from an airplane without a parachute.” Here is Marco on the mountain:
That fall, Marco went to Nepal and descended Dorje Lhakpa, a 22,854 foot peak in the Himalaya. On his return from Dorje Lhakpa, Marco contacted Russell Brice of Himalayan Expeditions, a commercial guiding operation specializing in fully-equipped expeditions to 8,000 meter peaks. Brice advised the blossoming daredevil to attempt other 8,000 peaks (8/14 are in Nepal) before trying Everest. Why? To see if Marco’s body could even adapt to the extreme altitude. They made plans for the Himalayan giant: Cho Oyu:
The next year Marco descended Cho Oyu, the world’s six-highest peak, a big step towards his ultimate goal, the Holy Grail of descents: Mt. Everest. Yes, he was ready. Older snowboarders attempted to dissuade Marco against attempting Everest at such a tender age. Marco’s reply: “If we don’t do stuff that is a bit crazy at 20, we’re not going to start at 50, yours is the philosophy of an old fart.”
In spring of 2001, Marco journeyed with Himalayan Expeditions for Everest. Marco’s hope was to summit and descend by the Horbein Couloir, the most direct of the 15 established routes:
But when they arrived there was hardly any snow on the summit. Most people (99%) attempt to climb Everest in the spring because of the lack of snow and lighter conditions. But these lighter, more “climbing favorable” conditions are not conducive to shredding. Marco had to go with plan B, shredding the Norton Couloir. Here he is, on his 22nd birthday, the day before he summited Everest for the first time:
Soon after leaving the summit, Marco’s binding broke due to the extreme high-altitude cold. One of the sherpas was able to fix it with bailing wire, and Marco entered the Norton Couloir, shredding 1,800 meters of slopes of 40-45 degrees. He arrived at base camp less than 4 hours after leaving the summit. Another snowboarder (Dr. Stephan Gatt) had summited Everest less than 24 hours before Marco, but had taken off his board and down-climbed past 100 meters of the steepest terrain. Because Marco rode all the way back to Advanced Base Camp (ABC), he is credited with the first continuous snowboard descent of the world’s highest mountain.
Most people would call it a day after this accomplishment. But Marco wasn’t satisfied. The next summer he made plans to return to Everest in the fall and attempt the Horbein Couloir.
For Marco’s second, Everest attempt he did not have a sponsor. He raised the 45,000 Euros (about $47,000) needed for the trip himself.
On August 22, 2002, Marco and his crew arrive at base camp and their gear is loaded on their backs for the trip to ABC.
The next day the crew sees that 30 centimeters of fresh snow had fallen overnight. While Marco looks at the North Face, which has been ripped clean, exposing the rock below, he describes the face as, “a festival of avalanches.”
Over the next few days the sherpas begin fixing ropes and carrying gear to Camp 1, approaching the “Death Zone” of 8,000 meters. Even at this place (6,000 meters) Marco is experiencing frequent headaches. Simples tasks such as tying boots, eating, and sleeping become struggles.
Due to storms and bad weather, the crew ascends and descends with fits and starts. But their meteorologist (Yann) informs them that Sunday, September 8, should be clear. Sunday will be the summit day. Marco records himself on camera saying, “The hardest is yet to come, little man. Don’t be too happy just yet.”
On Friday the push towards the summit begins. At one point Marco stands outside in his shirtsleeves and makes calls to his loved ones. He fills his friends in on his true progress, but tells his parents that he’s still at base camp: so they don’t worry.
On Saturday they make their way to Camp 3, officially entering the Death Zone. Here the human body can no longer regenerate. Marco calls Yann for the forecast. Yann tells Marco not to stay too late on Sunday because the wind will kick up in the late afternoon. “You won’t have many chances,” Yann says.
“Okay,” Marco replies. “Adieu, Yann.”
“Yeah, we’ll talk tomorrow, Marco. Call me when you’re down.”
“Yes, but adieu, Yann. Adieu.”
In French, there are two ways to say goodbye. Au Revoir is the typical “goodbye” between friends when you expect to see them again. Adieu is used only when the person never expects to see the person again. Yann is scared and nervous after Marco’s call. Soon after, Marco’s phone battery dies.
On Sunday, summit day, the crew has left Camp 3 by 1:30pm. They begin breaking trail through chest deep snow. At 2:10pm, after 12.5 hours in the Death Zone, the team reaches 8,848 meters (29,028 feet), the highest point on Earth, the summit of Chomolungma (“the abode of the gods”), the Mother Goddess, Mount Everest. The ascent took 3x longer than Marco’s first Everest ascent in 2001.
At the summit, Phurba Sherpa is the first to arrive.
When Marco arrives, Phurba greets him with, “Where are we?”
“At the summit, but tired,” replies Marco. Phurba does a dance.
“Summit! Summit!” he yells.
“Tired. Tired,” Marco says. “Too much snow. Too much climbing.”
The clouds have begun to build from below. The sherpas are worried about the conditions and the late hour. They try to convince Marco not to go. But he’s worked 1.5 years for this. No, he’s worked his whole life for this. This chance may not come around again. At 3pm, Marco replaces his empty bottle of oxygen with a fresh one and straps in. “Take care, Marco,” says Phurba.
“Okay, Phurba. See you tomorrow.”
Marco drops and snowboards away. At 3:15pm, the sherpas watch Marco disappear down the mountain.
Marco Siffredi was never seen again. His body was never found.
Did Marco die dancing in one of those “festival of avalanches,” like his brother and best friend? Did he fall down a bergschrund (mountain crevice)? Did he collapse from fatigue and freeze to death (what his friends believe)? Nobody knows. And we’ll likely never find out.
What I like to think about, though, is Marco standing on the summit of Mount Everest for the second time, moments before plummeting into oblivion. Utterly exhausted, muscles twitching, burning, gasping for oxygen, the freezing winds biting through his jacket, his body rapidly breaking down, 23 years of recklessness and defiance behind him…and like Jake Burton Carpenter on a snurfer, or Dimitrije Milovich on a cafeteria tray, or any other self-centered, entitled, goofy idiot that has come before and will come after…stepping on to that wooden plank, staring down at a treacherous descent, risking a broken bone or death, and through the simple art of carving a slope never feeling more alive.
This past Olympics Usain Bolt pulled off a triple-triple, winning 3 gold medals in 3 events (100 meter, 200 meter, 4×100 meter relay) in the past 3 Olympics, a feat that will go down in athletic history and will not likely be repeated during our lives. In track races that are often determined by 100ths of a second, in a sport where the body takes a particular kind of beating and where injuries lurk around the bend of the track (more so than swimming), in an environment where performance enhancing drugs are being furtively abused, it is extremely impressive that Bolt has maintained a #1 status for 3 consecutive Olympics. How did he do it?
Most articles on this topic will highlight Bolt’s superior genes and unique, physical build. While most sprinters are short or of medium height (5’5”-5’10”) Bolt is “freakishly tall:” 6’5.” This means that he has longer legs and a longer stride, which leads to him taking less steps, less contact with the ground, more time in the air, all contributing to less “ground resistance” and faster times. Here’s the breakdown:
Steps taken during a 100 meter race:
Amateur sprinter: 50
Elite sprinter: 45
Percentage of time spent in the air during a 100 meter race:
Elite sprinter 60%
Time spent in contact with the ground during a 100 meter race:
Amateur sprinter top speed: 24 mph
Elite sprinter top speed: 26 mph
Bolt top speed: 27.8 mph
So why don’t we see more tall sprinters with long legs? Because tall runners cannot explode like Bolt. His explosion out of the blocks and acceleration is just as amazing as his long legged speed. Someone who is 6’5” with such long legs shouldn’t accelerate as fast as someone who is 5’5” with short legs, but Bolt does, stays even with his competitors for the first 25 meters, then in the last 25 meters leaves them in the dust.
Lesson: Sometimes an early disadvantage someone faces, which may prevent them from entering the ranks of the elite, is the exact thing which pushes them beyond the elite once they have reached that high level.
Here’s his world record 100 meter run:
So what allows Bolt to explode just as much as other elite sprinters? If we continue down the physical vein:
Fast-twitch muscle fibers. Bolt has a high quantity of these muscle fibers, like all elite sprinters, and has trained them to burst when the gun goes off:
Where did Bolt get these muscles fibers?
In the lab they recently discovered…forget science…Jamaica! (“You can take the boy out of Jamaica, but not the Jamaica out of the boy,”-Bolt’s mom).
Bolt was born in Trelawny Parish, in a primitive town with no street lights, limited running water, and old men riding donkeys. Bolt was a hyper active child, playing cricket with his brother, Sadiki, using a banana tree stump and an orange. His parents owned a grocery store and his father was strict.
Interesting tangent theory:
Woman in Jamaica regularly eat yams from aluminum rich soil, which is believed to help development of fast twitch muscle fibers.
Also: Sprinting gene (ACTN3), 75% of Jamaicans carry this gene. Compared to 70% of US international standard athletes.
But most important: culture! Sprinting is at the heart of Jamaican life. Ever since Arthur Wint won the 400 meter gold in the 1948 Olympics, Jamaica has loved and nourished sprinting.
Growing up, Bolt was a stand-out cricket player and was noticed by Pablo O’Neill, a former Olympic sprint athlete. A mentor was established early on and pushed him towards sprinting, without telling him how good he really was. This was key. Bolt won his high school championships. Bolt said that as a child, “All I thought about was sports.” His coach was often frustrated by his lack of dedication to training and his penchant for pranks. But this flippant attitude meant that Bolt didn’t burn out.
At the age of 15, Bolt participated in the World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica. Before the race he was so nervous he put his shoes on the wrong feet. He still won the 200 meters, making him the youngest 200 meter winner ever. He vowed to never be influenced by pre-race nerves again. The International association of Athletics gave him a rising star award and nicknamed him the Lightening Bolt. Seven years before his first Olympics, Bolt was being told he was the greatest in the world at his age, celebrated in the capital of his country, which idolized sprinting.
In 2004, at the age of 18, Bolt participated in the Athens Olympics, but was eliminated in the first round due to a hamstring injury. He gains experience with an Olympics and the hunger grows. In 2005 and 2006 more injuries prevent him from completing a full season. The hunger keeps growing.
In 2007 he broke the Jamaican national 200 meter record held for 30 years by Donald Quarrie. Success! (Today he holds the 13 fastest 200 meters ever run.) At the 2007 world championships he won two silver medals. Relative Failure. Then in May 2008 he sets a world record in the 100 meters (9.72) at Icahn stadium in NYC. Success! Bolt’s early career is a back and forth between being the greatest and being just beneath the greatest…a recipe for continued improvement and rising confidence.
Dominates Beijing Olympics (despite eating McNuggets before the 100 meter final)
Dominates London Olympics
Dominates Rio Olympics
How did he stay on top?
Hard, grueling work (of course) but maintaining a distance of easy humility. People get caught up in his poses and showmanship…
But Bolt as been described by family and close friends as laid back and relaxed. He describes himself as lazy. His headmaster said that all the poses after races wasn’t arrogance, it was just him being who he was. He likes to party and dance. He doesn’t let things bother him past a certain point. But behind all the laid back humour is a fire, an intensity, a steady desire…
Being able to relax and control yourself before a race (especially one that lasts 9-10 seconds) while maintaining an inner intensity is paramount for success in sprinting. Here’s a video of Bolt I took 1.5 years ago when I saw him run in NYC (Icahn stadium):
Look how relaxed he is! One reporter called him “hammily cool.” You must have this attitude if you are to remain on top. Also, at the stadium I noticed more Jamaicans than any other group of people…Bolt has always had his country enthusiastically behind him.
Bolt is also a catholic. He crosses himself before each race.
“I want to thank God for everything he has done for me because without him none of this wouldn’t [sic] be possible.”-Bolt
Bolt displays gratitude. Right after his last Olympic gold he thanked all his fans on Twitter.
I don’t think anything great can be accomplished without an underlying sense of gratitude.
Meet Dick Fosbury…1968 gold medalist in the high jump:
While growing up, Dick Fosbury was a mediocre athlete. He failed to make it on to his school’s football and basketball teams, so he became a high jumper on the track team. At the time (early 1960s) high jumpers were clearing bars using methods such as the scissors jump:
The Western Roll
And the straddle technique:
In his sophomore year of high school, Dick failed to complete jumps of 5 feet (the qualifying height for many high school track meets) using the straddle technique.
So he began to experiment with other forms of high jumping.
But even while practicing high jump seriously and using the upright scissors technique, he was not particularly good. He was only able to clear a height of 5 foot 4, well below an Olympic standard.
At a Rotary meet they raised the bar to 5 feet 6 inches. Dick was frustrated and nervous. He’d knew he’d have to do something different. He attempted a variation of the scissors technique, lifting his hips up and pulling his shoulders back. That day he cleared 5’10. But he looked strange.
Because he looked so strange, coaches wondered if he was breaking some rule. But they discovered that high jump rules stipulate only that competitors may only jump off one foot at takeoff: there is no rule governing how a competitor crosses the bar, so long as he or she goes over it.
A revolution was born.
So Dick gradually adapted his technique to make himself more comfortable with his jumps and to get more height out of them. He began leaping over the bar by pushing himself back first, a bizarre technique that necessitated landing on his neck, looking like a corpse pushed out a window.
Of course there were doubters and haters. Spectators referred to Fosbury’s early attempts as an airborne seizure. Newspapers ran semi-disdainful headlines: “World’s Laziest High Jumper” “Fosbury Flops over the bar” (name origin), and comments concerning how he looked like a fish flopping in a boat.
Even when Dick began college, his coach, Berny Wagner, believed that Fosbury would eventually achieve greater results using the western roll (see above) and convinced him to continue practicing the old technique through his freshman year.
It is difficult to break tradition. Teachers sometimes don’t know what’s best for their students.
However, in his first meet of the season his sophomore year, Dick cleared 6 feet 10 inches using his flop method, shattering the school record. The superior results were too much for tradition. The coach let Dick continue with his flop.
Over the next few years Dick continued to refine his technique (developing a curved, J-shaped approach, adjusting point of take-off as the bar was raised, etc.) In 1968 he won the gold medal and set an Olympic and American Record (7 ft 4¼ in.) Now all elite high-jumpers use the Fosbury Flop. Here it is:
The “secret” behind Fosbury’s technique (which even he didn’t know at the time) was a physics idea known as “the center of mass.”
For every object we can locate the average position for all of its mass by taking into account how the mass is spread around the object.
With the old methods of jumping, the jumper’s center of mass was located on their body, so they had to make sure they applied enough upward force to have this center of mass clear the bar.
But with the Fosbury Flop, the jumper’s center of mass is located below their body, so they don’t need to apply as much upward force to clear the bar.
What’s important to know is that Fosbury didn’t know the physics. He just wanted to clear the bar. The physics explanation was an after-thought.
Lesson applied to Art and Business:
Clarify in your mind the end-goal: the emotion you want to convey, the product you want to create, the experience you want to communicate, the service you want to offer…then within a framework of rules…do whatever you can, harness your frustration and experiment, forget the doubters, remember that even your mentors can be stuck in a stagnating groove, adapt yourself and do what feels comfortable…as long as you clear the bar.
Life is a game filled with games. Don’t take for granted how people, even the ones you look up to, are playing it.
Because sometimes you gotta be willing to look like a corpse falling out a window to get what you want.