Run For your Life: Can you get lost on a cross country course?

First of all, to answer the question: of course not. Just follow the pack. But not so fast.

Martin was an unusual new member of my high school cross country team. He was black, thin with the build of a runner. In the first week of training he demonstrated his speed. So quickly, in fact, the football coach showed interest, until he discovered that Martin was not so good at catching the ball.

It was also unique in that his mother came to cross country practices held on the quarter mile track behind the school. It was rare for parents to go to races and not show up for training. Still, she was there, watching silently and confident that her Martin was going to be a star.

The cross country coaching qualifications in my high school were minimal. Football was the fall sport, and cross country was, well, just for academics who walked the two-mile course. In this culture, running a mile was considered remarkable, similar to today’s ultra-marathons. In contrast, Shelter Island has decades of excellent cross-country teams and racing tradition, where coaches identify, nurture and develop talent. It was different in Akron, Ohio. So my trainer, Mr. Buhas, was not the best person to identify talent in his cross country ranks.

I will never forget Martin’s first race. I got on the team bus listening to Martin’s lingering questioning of Coach Buhas on the exact course – not a crazy concern. The course was complex and folded into itself in a relatively small city park. The start was the only easy part: a long line of runners faced a colossal oak tree a quarter of a mile from the start. The course rounded the tree and made a 270 ° (three-quarter) turn to continue. The next was a sharp right turn at the far corner of the park that led to a prominent hill. At its summit, it was then descended and a second loop was ascended. In other words, the course was far too complex to describe.

Still, Martin persisted in his questions. Exasperated, Coach made the logical assumption, “Martin, listen, just follow the runner in front of you, and you’ll be fine. It would definitely work for me, but not for Martin.

After that first turn around the big oak, Martin had a 20-meter lead and was desperately unsure of where to go next. Coach made a heroic effort to stay ahead of him. It cut angles around the course directing it to the next turn. Showing good sportsmanship, the other coaches on the team helped. Martin won the race and provided me with an unforgettable example of how logical deductions can lead to bad decisions.

Martin turned out to be one of the best runners in the state. In his college or post-graduate career, Martin held the NCAA record for the quarter mile. His mother was right.

The most important lesson is the danger of mistaken assumptions. This can happen when the assumption is wrongly logical, as Coach Buhas discovered. It can also be when the premise is very practical, personally. Soldiers enter the military knowing the risks, but never relate the danger to themselves. Study after study, people in general are unable to measure the risks.

People drive because they are afraid of flying, ignoring the statistical reality that driving has 10 times the exposure-weighted fatality rate. This inability also works the other way, for example, increasing optimism for good results. When winning lottery prizes skyrocket, ticket sales explode despite the odds of winning dropping to absurdly low levels.

And now we have this vaccine problem. Why do people resist? Who knows? Classic mistakes in risk assessment, the feeling that if the government wants us to do it, it must be a mistake, or sheer selfishness. While collective immunity is essential, some think, “I’ll let the others herd.

The only problem with selfishness is that it rarely works. If you stand in a stadium to improve your eyesight, you are blocking the view of those behind you. When they get up… when everyone else gets up… you don’t have a better view, and everyone is uncomfortable. If you think skipping the vaccine is good risk management, think about whether everyone made that choice (early on). If so, then the 600,000 dead would be a sad testimony to their bad judgment.

Interestingly, 600,000 is roughly the same death toll in the Civil War. I wish a program for Americans who don’t want to get vaccinated could direct their free vaccines to those who desperately want them

About Ethel Partin

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