Forearm muscles feel lactate burn sanding Red Recursion.
Photo by David Shackleton.
We got our TV at
Christmas when I was almost 10
years old, there just one channel, and I don’t
remember at all of it before the 1952 winter Olympics
in Oslo, Norway, my introduction to world-class athletics other
than boxing matches and baseball games on the radio. I became
totally absorbed in what the Olympians were doing. I was surprised
and embarrassed to discover that superb performances in individual
events like skiing could bring me to tears. That realization influenced
many aspects of my life, including that biographies, even fictional
biographies that might have been real, became my
favourite reading material and I read
any of it that I could find.
When Stein Eriksen
won the giant slalom in perfect
1950s style, he instantly became my hero
and athletic role model. I felt profound emotional
and intellectual responses that stayed with me for years.
The feeling of what happened then is still with me now and
continues to inform how I look at things, respond to situations,
and think about them. Gradually, as I felt those feelings again
and again in different situations, I realized that my strong
responses I were not at all limited to athletics. Far from
it, high-level individual performance in anything
fascinated me. I wanted to understand it and
still do. The Olympics programmed me,
however voyeuristically, to respect
world-class standards and
reach for them.
jumpers still dominated
that event with their classic, arms
forward form. Some teams experimented
with the new, aerodynamically superior arms back
form that still prevails, but with little success. The real
ski jumping hero at Oslo, to my mind, was a man who
did almost everything wrong. His run down the approach
started wrong and ended worse, he jumped after his skis
passed the lip, pushed down on air, landed high where
the hill wasn’t steep and landed bad, tumbled,
slid to a stop, bowed to the crowds and
cameras and strutted
I laughed so hard I cried again!
I was a good enough
skier to train with the team in college,
but not nearly good enough to compete in any
event. As I hinted above, I was an awful ski jumper
and had neither the strength nor the endurance to compete in
cross country. Downhill was my favourite alpine event, but I
never once completed a downhill course with a clock on me
without falling. I made it through the hairiest, scariest,
most dangerous parts of downhills, where I was
most likely to break my neck, then fell
before the finish line where it
was safe and easy.
Here’s how I learned why I fell.
It has everything to do with lactate burn.
They kept me
on the team for nothing to do
with my skiing ability but because there
were no portable video cameras back then and
I was a good substitute. I could watch you come down
a slalom course then tell the run back to you as a story.
“You came through the first gate just right but got a bit
low in the second, lost time getting to the third and more
on the next turn. See what I’m saying? OK. Now. You
tell me what did you did next, I’ll tell you if that’s what
I saw, and you’ll tell me whether you remember
doing it.” I loved being a human video camera
with instant playback, commentary
and analysis. It kept me on
the team for a while.
Years later, former
teammate Peder Anderson asked
me to watch him come down a slalom course.
He came down the course, skidded to a stop, and
I told him what he’d done as we’d done before, then
asked why he made a loud Pahhhhh! sound when
he turned. “Oh that, he said, that’s so I’ll remember
to breathe.” All of a sudden I knew why I had
always fallen near the end of down-
hills if they were clocking me.
I just knew it.
The hairiest, scariest
most dangerous sections of courses,
those my teammates called ‘interesting’
and talked about with pride and enthusiasm,
scared the daylights out of me and I got so
scared I held my breath! By the bottom of
the mountain I was out of breath, out
of oxygen, my legs burned so bad
from lactate they would no
longer support me,
and I fell. Full
Lactate burn to the max!
You know the feeling.
Legs sting like fire on long flights
of stairs. Situps too fast, hill too steep,
run too fast, et cetera. When she was a
student in a course called The Sizes of
Things, Nancy Martin had a brilliant
idea about lactate burn. Nancy was a
long distance runner who wanted
to understand something about
running she had wondered
about for years.
On average, long
races are slower than short
ones. Why? That’s obvious and every
kid knows it, but she wanted to understand
it on deeper levels. How much slower do
they run in how much longer races?
What makes it happen
She predicted that world
record running speeds and distances
at all distances would follow a function called a
power law. Her analysis revealed different power
laws for short, middle, and long distance races
and different for men and women racers.
Three things stand out about
The data were
exceptionally well described
by the power laws. Plots were clean,
tight, and straight on log-log graphs, just
as she predicted. Scientists call that beautiful,
not just because the graphs are pretty, but
because strong relationships promise
Nancy’s discovery was new to science.
She failed to find anything like her research
in athletic or physiological literature
or find even one other scientist
who had asked the question
the way she had asked it
or imagined anything
like her power laws,
remarkable for an
and even her
She answered it
with a combination of her
desire to understand something
important to her in her life, imagining
what might be going on, analytical
tools, and simple, readily available
information from the
The third thing
that stands out is harder to describe
and I can only sketch it for you here. Nancy
expected power laws because she expected running
speed to be governed systematically by physiological
processes that she expected to be governed by power
laws and her arguments and expectations made sense,
so why so many power laws? Different power laws for
men and women was not surprising. But three sets
of laws over the range of distances suggested
different processes govern average speed
over the three ranges of distance.
Nancy did identify
three separate mechanisms, each
governed by power laws, and each relating
to lactic acid and lactate burn. It would be far
beyond our scope here to explore her explan-
ation in detail, but there is a longer version
in Architects of Their Own Education,
along with stories about other
students in the same
The point here
is simply that lactate burn
comes with the territory when we
push physical limits, whether climbing
long flights of stairs, expending extreme
effort for several minutes in a downhill
races, or sustaining three weeks of
sustained effort in the Tour de
France bicycle race.
Or carving rocks.
All aspects of creating stone
sculptures is supremely enjoyable and
no walk in the park in terms of physical effort.
It’s a lot of work, from early stages of shaping with
hammer and chisel, pneumatic hammer, or heavy
electric saw to the final stages of sanding and
polishing and any professional sculptor
who needs to finish one piece and
get on to the next knows lactate
burn and knows how
important it is to
Here I am on the last day of sanding Red Recursion,
after weeks of all-day-every-day sanding
with coarser abrasives.
Earlier stages are
about form, not yet the quality
of surfaces at all, resolving, integrating form,
bringing it to rest, perceptually, smoothing and
guiding curvature by taking off bumps. Later stages
are more about surfaces than form, especially texture,
by making smaller and smaller scratches in already
formed surfaces until scratches are invisible and
polishing goes far beyond there to
something else again.
Abrading stone takes
both pressure and speed, so
the harder you press into the stone and
the faster you slide the abrasive along it, the
deeper the scratches and the more stone you remove
in a day. If you can keep it up that long. Generating
forces to do that takes energy and oxygen and generates
lactic acid, which, if enough of it accumulates enough in
muscles, generates painful enough burn to stop you. All
muscles suffer lactate burn if you work them hard and fast
enough. To sustain strenuous effort we must manage
lactate burn. Since lactic acid accumulates in muscles
working hard enough to run out of oxygen, two ways
to manage burn are clear: breathe harder or work
slower. Everyone knows there’s a limit and
when you can’t breathe any harder
you work slower automatically.
Lactate burn makes
you do it.
But, I imagined,
I could manage lactate burn and
keep up the pace if I spread effort over
more muscles. It was a “Well, duhh!” experience,
because my body had been doing that for me for years
without my consciously ‘getting’ that lactate burn tells
me to stop doing one thing and do something else for
a while. I could have performed the action in the
images upright using only wrists, for
example, but that would have
been a killer.
It would have been
a killer because the burn that action
generated would be concentrated in a few small
muscles in my forearm and build up quickly. If I pushed
too far into the pain, I might ruin both the sculpture and
my elbow. But I sanded in a way that gave more
control, engaged my arms, shoulders, back,
legs, and neck in the motions, and
afforded a better view.
Spreading effort out
like that kept the burn tolerable in
any one muscle, let me work longer, harder,
and faster and sand more stone, with less effort and
less stress on my body over the long haul of a workday.
My bench goes up and down one centimeter per revolution,
I can shift the workpiece on its sandbags, blocks or wedges,
I can stand on a pallet or whatever. Every time I change
how I do it the more I move the lactate around
and the more I accomplish in a day.
1952 Winter Olympics while
editing reminded me how strongly
that and similar vicarious experiences
reinforced my love of biographies
and biographical novels, mainly
sports and adventure heroes.
That, in turn, reminded
me of something about my Mother.
For several years, after she was librarian
at a community college 18 miles from home,
she became librarian at the elementary school
in the same community, Weed, which was
crazy sports-mad in those days.
Mom knew boys would
read anything as long as it was about
sports, so she bought every sport book she could
find and boys checked them out like crazy. She
got them hooked on books, and girls got
hooked on whatever girls liked
to read at the time.
For the boys, there were
at least Joe Louis, Babe Ruth, Lou
Gehrig, Mohammed Ali, Joe DiMaggio,
Jackie Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Jack
Johnson, Jesse Owens, and maybe Stein
Eriksen by then. If it was about sports,
they read it, talked about it, and
came back for more.
The teachers didn’t
like it. They thought kids should
read ‘real literature’, not just sports, and be
serious about it. For Mom it was about getting kids
hooked on books, no matter what they read, and
as long as they loved it she didn’t care what
they read. She also knew the kids
were serious about it.
She didn’t care what
I read either, though she did caution
me sometimes about whether I was
‘ready’ to read something.
as an athletic event
A few years ago
I did something stupid with a
big tool for too many days in a row,
damaged a small muscle in my back, and
it cost me several months away from sculpting.
I’ll tell the full story separately, but it’s worth mention-
ing here that a key aspect of my complete recovery was
a visit to the UBC Sports Medicine Clinic. My GP said she
wanted to send me to the clinic, but would have to justify
it by arguing that sculpting is an athletic event. She
wanted my opinion on that. It didn’t take much
talking to make the case, and when I got to
the clinic the doctor laughed and
said “Of course!”
First published in the Vancouver Observer
Edited January 2019