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

First, 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, lean with a runner’s build. During the first practice week, he demonstrated his speed. So fast, in fact, the football coach showed interest, until discovering that Martin was not equally skilled in catching the ball.

He was also unique in that his mother came to the cross country practices held on the quarter-mile track behind the school. It was rare for parents to go to the races and unheard of to show up for the practices. Yet, there she was, silently watching and confident that her Martin was going to be a star. 

The coaching qualifications for cross country in my high school were minimal. Football was the fall sport, and cross country was, well, just for those academic types who would run the two-mile course. In that culture, running a mile was considered remarkable, akin to ultra marathons today. In contrast, Shelter Island has decades of great cross country teams and running tradition, where coaches identify, encourage and perfect talent. It differed in Akron, Ohio. So, my coach, Mr. Buhas, was not the best person at identifying talent in his cross country ranks.

I will never forget Martin’s first race. I rode in the team bus listening to Martin’s persistent quizzing of Coach Buhas on the exact race course — not a crazy concern. The course was complex and doubled back on itself in a relatively small city park. The start was the only simple part: A long line of runners faced a colossal oak tree a quarter-mile from the start. The course rounded the tree and made a 270° (three-quarters) turn to continue.  The next was a tight right-hand turn at the park’s far corner that led to a significant hill. At its top, it was then back down and a second loop up. In other words, the course was far too complex to describe. 

Yet, Martin persisted with his questions. Exasperated, Coach made the logical assumption: “Martin — listen, just follow the runner in front of you, and you won’t have any trouble.”  That would certainly work for me, but not for Martin. 

After that first turn around the large oak tree, Martin had a 20-yard lead and was desperately ignorant about where to go next. Coach made a heroic effort to keep in front of him. He was cutting off angles around the course directing him to the next turn. Showing good sportsmanship, the other team coaches assisted.  Martin won the race and provided me an unforgettable example of how logical deductions can lead to bad decisions.

It turned out that Martin became one of the best runners in the state. In his college or post-college career, Martin held the NCAA record for the quarter-mile. His mom was right.

The more significant lesson is the danger of failed assumptions. That can happen when the assumption is deceptively logical, as Coach Buhas found. It can also be when the premise is very convenient, personally. Soldiers go into the army knowing the risks, but never connect the danger to themselves. Study after study show that people in general are poor at measuring risks.

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

And now we have this vaccine issue. Why are people resisting?  Who knows?  Classic errors in risk assessment, a sense that if the government wants us to do it, it must be wrong, or simple selfishness. If herd immunity is essential, some people think: “I’ll let the others be the herd.”

The only problem with selfishness is it rarely works. If you stand up at a ballpark to improve your view, then you block the view of those behind you. When they stand up … when everyone stands up … you have no better view, and everyone is uncomfortable. If you think skipping the vaccine is good risk management, think if everyone made that choice (from the start). If so, then the 600,000 dead would be sorry testimony to their bad judgment.

Interesting, 600,000 is about the same number of fatalities in the Civil War. I wish a program for Americans who do not want to be vaccinated could direct their free shots to those who desperately want them.