Week of June 9, 2017

“Moon Landing”: Sacramento Rock Climber Alex Honnold Just Did The Unthinkable

Do you remember the first time you drove through Yosemite Valley? I do (and if you haven’t been, then let me know. I’ll gladly take you there). It’s awesome, and not in the colloquial way. The beauty is spiritual. The monolith walls of granite form almost a right angle with the valley, towering so severely that you have to stick your head out of the car window to see the top. The scale and power and art of it all seem impossible, and yet there you stand, craning your neck to the heavens saying to yourself, ‘My god…”.

At the center of it all is El Capitan. It is one giant piece of granite extending 3,000 feet straight up from the valley. Alex Honnold, a Cal dropout from Sacramento and the goofy, unassuming face of rock climbing just climbed it with no ropes. Free solo. 

Mark Synnott of National Geographic classified it as perhaps “the greatest feat of pure rock climbing in the history of the sport.”

One world class climber referred to it as “the ‘moon landing’ of free soloing”, and another said “I really don’t see what’s next.”

Honnold is an incredibly skilled climber, world class to be sure, but that’s not what separates him from every other climber. “[N]o one else has matched [Honnold’s] ability to control fear. His tolerance for scary situations is so remarkable that neuroscientists have studied the parts of his brain related to fear to see how they might differ from the norm.”

By all accounts, Alex Honnold just achieved the rarest of accomplishments: He took something that was impossible and made it possible by himself. So why am I so conflicted to admire it?

I brought this up with Natalie the other day on our drive to dinner. We talked about the moon landing comparison. They had no idea what would happen when they got out there. What would the landing be like, what would happen when they set foot on the moons? A new frontier. I don’t think Honnold’s free solo of El Cap is the moon landing. El Cap has been climbed after all. Many elite climbers have completed his route, just with ropes in case something happened – be it the climber being overmatched or something completely out of the climbers control. 

Is it like Roger Bannister’s 4 minute mile? I don’t think so. While a pulled hamstring or a headwind out of nowhere would keep him from running a fast time, the loss was a new benchmark, not a life.

The best comparison I can come up with is Philippe Petit. He’s the guy who tightrope walked between the Twin Towers in 1974 (there’s a fantastic documentary on Petit – Man on Wire). His response when asked why: “There is no why.”

In many of us there is a fear of average. In a few of us there is a competition to be great. Then there is the rarest of all: Those that must do something that’s never been done. To them, dying suddenly in pursuit of what’s never been done is better than dying gradually doing anything less.

We are captivated by Honnold for one primary reason. If he falls, then he dies. That says a hell of a lot more about us than it does about him. Or is there something more to it? I don’t know. I really don’t. I would bet that Honnold’s response to that would be similar to Petit: There is no why.

One last interesting tidbit. I once met Honnold. I’m novice climber, and I like to boulder at lunch. One day, about four or five years back I was at Dogpatch Boulders. Super quiet day at the gym, and one section is blocked off. I didn’t know who it was at the time, but Honnold was being filmed for an interview. I went off to climb in another part of the gym, and after a while he’s climbing a route near me. I realized who it is at that moment. We’re pretty much the only people climbing. On the ground, he appears scrawny, and then he gets on the wall and you can see his shoulders and biceps. But most of all, you see his hands. I’ve never seen muscular hands before. At least that’s how I remember them. For a moment I consider asking him for a climbing tip, and it felt comically wrong.

I told a buddy it was like testing out a guitar at a shop – doing your best little riff – only to find Jimi Hendrix plug into an amp next to you. What do you do? You don’t ask for an autograph, because you’re not nine years old. Here’s what you do: You acknowledge that what you do and what he does is in not in any way similar, so there’s no tip to ask for. – PAL

Source: Climber Completes the Most Dangerous Rope-Free Ascent Ever”, Mark Synnott, National Geographic (6/3/17)

TOB: I have to admit I was taken aback when I read Phil’s slightly unimpressed take on Honnold’s feat. In comparing what Honnold did to a moon landing, I actually think what he did was more impressive in challenging what seems humanly possible. This may be showing my age – when I was born, we had long since landed on the moon, and doing so had even become boring. My parents, for example, may strongly disagree with this opinion: I think the astronauts themselves get way too much credit here (yes, I’m splitting hairs). But, before the Apollo 11 landing, we sent plenty of craft up to space, unmanned and then manned, orbited the moon, and came relatively close to a landing. The Apollo 11 astronauts flew a largely automated craft farther from earth than anyone ever had, and then landed it some place no one had been. That’s cool. But, thousands of others did the math/engineering to make it happen, and we had run plenty of tests to understand what would happen.

Conversely, Honnold did this climb solo. Like Phil, I’ve been to Yosemite and I’ve seen El Capitan. What Honnold did is just not fathomable to me. Any mistake and he’s dead. There is zero room for error. And he did this QUICKLY. In less than four hours. He sorta made it look easy, which it of course is not.

And I think it’s certainly better than Philippe Petit’s tightrope between the the World Trade Center towers. In the same way Honnold somehow turns off the fear center of his brain, certainly Petit’s walk is impressive. But, on some level, a tightrope over 20 feet is the same as over 1,350 feet, as Petit’s was. Consider – Petit performed up there for 45 minutes. He freaking danced. This was easy for him.

But Honnold’s 2,900 foot climb is not the same as a 2,900 foot climb elsewhere. It’s not just the fear of death – I’ve seen pictures of his climb and I can’t even fathom how it’s possible. Granted, people have done it. But with ropes, you have the courage to make a move that might fail and know you will (probably) be ok. WIthout them? It’s hard to get my brain around. Phil posits that we are captivated by Honnold because if he falls, he dies. I don’t agree, at least not with the implication we are excited by the fact that life and death is on the line. For me, at least, I like seeing things that challenge my understanding of human capability. Honnold absolutely did that.

One last thing: My favorite tidbit I read about Honnold’s climb (and maybe this undercuts my point, but whatever): After he finished, Honold said he was planning to work out because he’d only had “four hours of light exercise” but definitely needed lunch first.

But look at his face. I suppose he’s not wrong. That dude is not wired like the rest of us.

The Uninspiring Greatness of Real Madrid

This week, Real Madrid won its second straight Champions League title, its third in four years, and wrapped the La Liga title, as well. Objectively, it is one of the greatest runs in soccer history. If you don’t pay attention to European soccer, you may not know, though, that Madrid’s run has been met with yawns. I don’t watch enough to truly know why, but i’ve had my theories. I am, admittedly, biased. In the Great Soccer Debate of the last decade – Messi or Ronaldo – I am firmly in Camp Nou – the stadium that plays home to FC Barcelona and the greatest soccer player of all time, Lionel Messi. I like Messi because he’s little (5’6”?) and he does incredible things on the field. He’s a true soccer genius – dribbling, passing, moving without the ball, and scoring – and even a novice can see this if you sit down for a game and focus on him. His counterpart, Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, does things with brute force. It’s not as pretty, but it is effective. He’s always a threat to score, but it’s not as inspiring. Also, he comes off as a real asshole. This does not help his case.

But there must be more, and Deadspin’s Billy Haisley makes a convincing argument. Over the course of soccer history, there have been teams that implemented tactical innovation that changed the understanding of the sport – from the Dutch “Total Football” to Barcelona’s “Tiki-Taka”, and more. These innovations make fans think, “Holy crap, why didn’t anyone think of this before?”

Madrid is not innovative. Madrid was faced with a problem: Lionel Messi, the greatest player of all-time, and needed to figure out how to beat him. So, they threw money at the problem. Gobs of it. They bought everyone they possibly could, even if it meant stashing that player on the bench. Players like Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez are some of the greatest in the world, and out of 29 games, they started only 17 and 13 games, respectively, for Madrid this season. Just sittin’ there, wondering when they get to go in. This is like when the Miami Heat signed LeBron and Bosh to go with Wade, but then if they ALSO signed Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Kevin Durant, and the majority of them played only a few minutes a game, because there weren’t enough minutes to go around.

As Haisley puts it:

When looked at through this lens, it makes a little more sense why this recent-vintage Real Madrid group don’t feel like the era-defining bunch their titles would seem to imply. Their strategy of signing great players and letting them play well doesn’t appear to add much to our understanding of what soccer can be. The only principle Real’s success stands for is that incalculable (and to all but four or five top-top-top clubs, impossibly expensive) greatness of talent begets great success. Which is a fine and self-evidently true principle, but it doesn’t point one way or the other to where the sport might advance. Real aren’t in conversation with the sport, they are a statement on it, and the statement is tautological: being good means you win, and winning means you’re good.

While reading this story, I couldn’t help contrast this with the Golden State Warriors, who as I write this are up 3 games to 0 on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, one win away from SWEEPING THROUGH THE PLAYOFFS, something I cannot even fathom. I say contrast, of course, because the beauty of the Warriors is that they are a story of so much more than talent. They are great scouting, a lot of luck, and that undefinable quality all great teams must have: chemistry. If you’re not a Warriors fan, you’re rolling your eyes because Warriors fans are sooooooo annoying. I know. I live and work amongst them. But watching the Warriors play is beautiful.

During Game 3 on Wednesday night, it looked like the Cavs might pull it off (it being win a single game in the series). Up six with just over two minutes left to go. LeBron and Kyrie Irving had played spectacularly. Kyrie, especially, had some amazing finishes at the rim. But they each burned so much energy to get those buckets. The Warriors, on the other hand, implement the concept of “pace and space” – move quickly, and stretch the defense by spacing the floor with dangerous shooters and smart/willing passers. Unlike the Cavaliers, they were relatively fresh, and they closed out the game on an 11-0 run that, in hindsight, somehow seems like it was inevitable.

Don’t get me wrong. The Warriors are extremely talented. But, as opposed to Real Madrid, to me their story great talent producing great success. The Warriors have fundamentally changed the way basketball is played. Even if the Cavs had a couple more great players and won this series, in twenty years, people would remember this era as the time when the Warriors changed our understanding of what basketball can be and where it might go. -TOB

Source: Real Madrid Won Everything and Don’t Have Much to Show For It”, Billy Haisley, Deadspin (06/05/2017)

PAL: It was the next logical step in the big business of sports. To a lesser degree, this has been happening for a little while now (Yankees and Heat are the first to come to mind), but it could be most problematic for basketball and soccer. Kevin Durant has made it perfectly clear in this playoffs the impact of adding one great player to a sport where only 5 guys are on the court for each team. And there’s even money in soccer “over there”. With no salary cap, Real Madrid – the Yankees of organizations – can spend just that much more money.

I overheard the PTI guys talking the other day about whether or not dynasties are good for sports. They both said yes, and referenced the Celtics, UCLA, the Lakers, the Patriots. Dynasties are interesting as archives. We talk about the Yankees of the 20s (and 30s and 40s and 50s) or the Celtics of the 60s as some of the greatest teams of all-time, but we didn’t see it – we’re just counting championships and regurgitating stats. Dynasties can also be interesting when there is a real rival. Lakers had the Celtics in the 80s. The rivalry is what made it legendary, not the amount of rings.

Super interesting read and cool context to consider the Warriors as they approach history. Great writing, too. 

Dream Job: Going Deep

This, by far, is the best writing assignment I’ve ever come across. Writer Michael McKnight was paid by Sports Illustrated to try to hit a homerun out of a major league ball park. Tough gig.

Turns out, it was tough, but one man’s home run odyssey makes for a super fun read. Here are just some of his challenges:

  1. He needed to learn how to hit.
  2. He needed someone to pitch to him (pitching machine homers don’t count)
  3. He needed to do it with with a wood bat, which meant he needed (a lot) of wood bats
  4. He needed a Major League ballpark to allow him to take BP
  5. He needed to get into shape

Let’s start with the swing. It starts brutal, and it didn’t get much better looking along the way, but the local batting cage owner pointed out, “We’re not trying to make you a .300 hitter. All you need is one.”

I give McKnight a lot of credit. He worked on his swing every day for a long time (we’ll get to just how long in a moment). At the cage, off a tee in his driveway, and at the local high school fields. It was cool to hear about some relatively advanced technical hitting concepts being applied to an average dude. And the dude put in work.

His odyssey also took him to Baton Rouge to visit the bat makers of Marucci bats. They gave him a tutorial on what separates a pro bat from a bat we buy at a local sporting good shop, and sent him home with 20(!) bats. Wood bats are unforgiving, and McKnight found this out quickly. You hit a ball off the end of the bat or up the handle – just a couple inches from the sweet spot – and a wood bat is breaking. He was going through $300 Marucci’s like snack size Snickers.

And he needed a ballpark. The Dodgers said no, because they are snobs and, in the words of Clark W. Griswold, wouldn’t know a good time if it came up and bit them.

The A’s said yes, because of course the A’s would (and it’s not like anything else is going on at O.Co Coliseum).

He came up short, but then got another chance when the Astros gave him a date. Short porch in left at Minute Maid, but also a higher wall.

After 15 months, 384 days, and over 30,000 swings, McKnight did it. That SOB did it, and now I’m very jealous that this guy, with that swing, got to take BP at not one, but two big league ballparks and hit a homerun. Nice work, Michael.

This wasn’t about me as much as it was about what’s possible for any of us. Those athletic feats we watch the pros execute effortlessly: How hard are they for a layperson to pull off? How much work is required to even come close to landing a triple Axel? If your tax-attorney neighbor trained hard enough, could she hit a contested three in a WNBA game? Could she hit five? Would she raise “three goggles” to her eyes and jaw at her defender as she backpedaled on defense?

But more than any other demographic, this Home Run Project was for overwhelmed, under-rested parents such as myself who wonder, What could I have accomplished had I chosen a more athletic path? It’s for those among us who yell at our TV screens—You can’t take that pitch! You gotta crush that!—forgetting how impossible it is to swing a round bat and strike a round ball snaking by at 90 mph.

Now that I think about it, and wonder who’s feat was more improbable: Alex Honnold free soloing El Cap, or Michael McKnight hitting a homerun. – PAL

Source: How to Homer”, Michael McKnight, Sports Illustrated (no date given)

TOB: As Phil said, this was super fun, and I urge you to read it. But know this: that epic troll-job at the end did not go unnoticed, PHIL.

PAL: Whatever it takes to get new readers.

Video of the Week: Elton John releases video for ‘Tiny Dancer’ 40 years later. I loved it. TOB liked it. 

PAL Song of the Week: Charlie Rich – ‘Behind Closed Doors’

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“You must not fall.”

-P. Petit (tightrope walker)

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