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posted on February 13, 2010 | Sculpture and Art, Science and Nature
Lactate Burn

Forearms feel lactate burn sanding Red Recursion.
hoto by David Shackleton.


Lactate Burn

We got our
TV at Christmas when
I was almost 10 years old
and there was just one

I don’t
remember any of it
before the 1952 winter Olympics.
Except for boxing matches and baseball
games on the radio, that was
introduction to world-class

I became
totally absorbed in
what Olympians did. 
It surprised
and embarrassed me 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
ones that only might have been real, became
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,
informing how I look at things, respond to
situations, and think about them.

Gradually, feeling
those feelings and thinking those
thoughts, over and over in different events,
I realized something important.  My strong
responses were not limited to athletics.
igh-level individual performance
in anything fascinated me. 

I wanted to understand
and still

Nordic ski
jumpers still dominated
that event with their classic, arms
forward form, and some teams tried the new,
aerodynamically superior arms back
form that still prevails, but
with little success.

The real ski
jumping hero at Oslo, to my
started wrong and ended worse.
He jumped after his skis passed the lip, pushed
down only on air, landed bad too high on the hill,
tumbled and cartwheeled to a stop, then
bowed repeatedly to crowds and
cameras, and strutted off

I laughed so hard that
I cried again!

I was good
enough to train with the
ski team in college, but not nearly
good enough to compete in any event.
I was an awful ski jumper and had
neither strength nor endurance
to compete in cross country. 

was my favourite alpine
event, b
ut 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 downhill courses,
where I was most likely to have broken
my neck, then fell before the finish
line where it was safe and
slow and easy. 

how I found out
why I fell.
It has every-
thing to do with
lactate burn.

Why they
kept me on the team had
nothing to do with my skiing.  But that
was before portable video cameras
and I was a good substitute.

I was better than
a camera in some important ways,
actually.  I could
watch you come down
a slalom course, then tell your run
back to you in a story.

“Overall,” I’d say,
ou started strong and
the first gate just right,
but came out of it low and lost
time before the second and
more more getting
through it…..”

Now, back up
to your approach to the
first gate.  You tell me what hap-
pened in the next few seconds,
tell you what I saw, and then you
tell me whether you remem-
ber doing it that way.”

I was a
human video camera
with running commentary and
analysis and instant, slow-motion,
playback. It was amazing, and it
kept me on the team for
a while.

Years later,
former teammate Peder
Anderson asked me to watch him
come down a slalom and I did. 
At the
bottom, I told him back his run as we’d
done before and discussed how his time
might be improved.  Then I asked him
about something in his skiing that
I hadn’t noticed before. 


did you make
that loud Pahhhhh! sound
when you turned,

Oh that,” he
that’s so I’ll
remember to

Remember to breathe!

Suddenly I
understood why I had
fallen near the ends of downhill
courses when I was being

The hairiest, scariest
most dangerous sections of courses,
those my teammates referred to as ‘interesting’
and spoke of with pride and enthusiasm,
scared the daylights out of me. 

I got so scared
I held my breath! 

By the time
I got to the bottom of
the hill I was out of breath,
out of oxygen, my lactate-burned
legs wouldn’t support me,
anymore, and I fell.

Lactate burn to
the max!

You know the
feeling. Legs sting like
fire on long flights of stairs.
Too many situps too fast,
hill too steep, run
too fast. 


What Nancy Martin
wanted to know
about that.

Nancy Martin was a
student in a course called
The Sizes of Things, she had
a brilliant idea about lactate
She was a long
distance runner.

She’d wondered
for years about something

On average, long
races are slower than short
ones.  Why?  That’s obvious and every-
one 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
that way? 

She thought world
record running speeds at all
distances would follow one simple
function called a power law, but she
found six.  Six power laws, each clean
and clear, for short, middle, and
long distance races, differing
for male and female


Three things stand out
that result.

Nancy’s data were
exceptionally well described
by the power laws, statistically. 
plots were clean, tight, and straight
on log-log graphs, just as she’d
predicted, but there
were six of them. 

call it beautiful when
it comes out like that, not
just because of pretty graphs
but because strong results
need strong explanations.

second aspect
of Nancy’s
discovery is
harder to describe, and I
can only sketch it for
you here. 

She expected
power laws because she
thought running speed would be
governed by physiological processes
she thought would be governed by power
laws.  H
er arguments and predictions
made sense and she did find power
laws.  But why she find
so many of them? 

Different power
laws for men and women
was not surprising.  B
ut three sets
of laws over three ranges of distances
implied different processes governing
running speed for the three
ranges of distance. 

That was
interesting and exciting

It was also
perplexing news for
Nancy because h
er strong result
begged a strong explanation

and she had to imagine
what it might be.

Nancy did identify 3
separate mechanisms, each
governed by power laws and each
related to lactic acid production
and lactate burn.

It would be
far beyond our scope
here to explore her explan-
ation in detail.  There’s a longer
version of the story in
of Their Own Education

The third
aspect of Nancy’s work
is that as far as we were able to tell,
no scientist had ever asked her question
in a way that could be answered by
what she found and how she
explained it.

It is beside
the point of this story
for me to tell you that, but
it’s something worth


The main point
here is 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 downhill
races, or sustaining three weeks of
effort in the Tour de France
bicycle race all up and
down the place.

Or carving rocks.

Carving rocks is
both supremely enjoyable and
a lot of work.  Every step of the way,
from ropughing out with hammer and
chisel, pneumatic hammer, or grinder
to final
sanding and polishing,
is work.

Even moving rocks is work.

When physicists
say “work”,
what they are
talking about is simple: 
energy to apply forces that make
things happen in the world,
and that’s what I’m
talking about

who need to finish one
piece and get on to the next one
know lactate burn.  They also know
how important it is to
manage it.

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
always about form, not surface,
about r
esolving forms, integrating
them, bringing them to rest perceptually.
moothing rough curvature – – taking
away high parts until low
parts are gone. 

Later, carving
is more about the texture
of surfaces than their form.  At the
finest scale, finer and finer s
smooth the surfaces of stones
and polish them.

The harder you
press the abrasive into
a stone and the faster you
slide it along, the deeper
scratches it make and the
more stone you
in a day. 

If, which is
what Nancy Martin
wondered about running,
you can keep doing it
that long. 

Generating the
forces to do all that takes
energy and oxygen, and it generates
lactic acid if you work hard enough.  If it
builds up enough
in your muscles, its
burn will be enough to stop you,
literally, in your tracks.

In that situation,
he only choices are to
breathe  deeper and faster, if
you can, and/or
work slower.  That
is a law of nature and there’s
no getting out of it.

But maybe
a way of getting
around it,
I wondered.

knows there’s a limit.
At some point
you work
slower automatically, whether
you want to or not, and
burn makes you do it.

when more muscles
do the same amount of work,
especially when work floats among
them as it happens, muscles don’t run out
of oxgen, little lactic acid gets formed,
more energy is available for the
work, and we can keep up
the pace.

That’s simple
and obvious, and every
little kid with a bike knows
it well.  It was a real “Aha!”
experience to rediscover
it in sculpting.

Without really “seeing”
what I’d been doing all my life, I’d been
managing lactate burn.  All that time, the
burn been telling me to stop doing one
thing for a while and do some-
thing else
. That was the
law and I obeyed

In the image,
I am bent over my hand, arm,
shoulder and back are engaged in a
coordinated set of motions that
slide the abrasive over exactly
the curvature I was sanding.


I might have
standing up with my arm
straight, and used only only
my wrist and my
shoulder to produce the action.  That would
have been a killer.  So would
samding sitting down. 

The burn
would be concentrated
in a few small muscles in my forearm,
build up quickly, and scream at me.  If I pushed
too far into the pain, I could
ruin the sculpture
and my arm. Lactate burn keeps me
from doing things like that.

Instead, I
sanded in ways that
gave more control, engaged
arms, shoulders, back, legs,
and neck in the motions,
and afforded a much
better view. 

Spreading effort
around like that kept the burn
tolerable in any one muscle, let me work
harder, faster, longer,
and sand more stone.
spent less energy to do more work, and
suffered less stress on my body
over the workday.

My bench
goes up and down.
I shift workpieces on sandbags,
blocks and wedges.  I carve left-
handed for a while.  I stand on a
pallet.  Whatever. 

The more I change
how I do it, the more I move
lactic acid around and the more
I accomplish in a day.

perri painting VOsmall

In this pastel painting by Perrin Sparks
I am spreading the effort around
in sanding
Heart of Anima.

Remembering the
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.

And 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,
Mom was 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 sports book she could
and boys checked them out like crazy. She
got them hooked on books, and got girls
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, Yogi Berra, Rocky Marciano,
Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Jesse Owens, and
maybe Stein Eriksen by then.
If it was
about sports, boys read it, talked
about it, and came back
for more. 

The teachers didn’t
like that. 
They thought kids
should read “real
literature”, not
just sports, and be serious about it. 
Mom it wasn’t about real literature, whatever
that means.  It was about getting kids
hooked on
, no matter what they were about.  As long
as they loved it,
she didn’t care what they
She also knew those kids were
serious about their reading.  It
was all they could talk

She didn’t care what
I read when I was little, either,
though she did sometimes caution me
about whether I was ‘ready’
to read something.  I usually
took that as a challeng
and usually she
was right.

Stone sculpting
  as an athletic event

A few years ago
I did something stupid with a
big tool for too many days in a row,
and damaged my back and it cost
me a few months away from

I’ll tell the
full story later, but it’s
worth mentioning 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, and wanted my
When I got to the clinic, Dr. Jack
Taunton laughed and said “Well of course
sculpting is an athletic event!”

He cured me
forever with a simple

First published in the Vancouver Observer

Edited July 2021

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