Saturday, May 1, 2010

Survival of the Fittest: the New Space Race -- How Runners Can Finally Catch up with Golfers

Which group of athletes moves faster—runners or golfers? You'd think the answer would be obvious, since during a typical golf game play often seems to slow to the point where no one is moving at all. But we should not rush runner-like to judgment either. With a four-day Masters Tournament behind us and the Boston Marathon (where four days would be an exceptionally poor time) happening today, it may even be the moment to ask just what kind of race would pit runners against golfers in the first place.

Well, sports fans, there is one. In the race to have the most equipment, or "stuff," that has to be reevaluated and updated on a regular basis, runners have long been struggling to catch up. In fact, the substantial lead golfers enjoy in the technology race has made them pretty confident that, in spite of the pedometer/watches, heart rate monitors and even (I am not kidding) parachutes with which runners can now train, golf will be the first sport to land a player on the moon.

It is hard to compete with a leisure activity where a "vector pro video launch system" is even an option. When I first read about this, I had visions of country club pros being captured on film as they were shot into space. Naturally, I wanted to buy one right away, and I do not even play golf. Alas, running still offers no equivalent propulsive device for overly demanding track coaches or fellow runners who clock your pace and then cheerfully point out that it has taken you nine minutes to do your "six-minute mile."

There is a lot of other golf equipment that sounds so cool I wouldn't be surprised if non-golfers are buying it. Who wouldn't want a "whip swing trainer" or a motorized club-and-shoe brush in their life? The latter would presumably work as well on ordinary household clubs (and possibly whips) as on the more specialized ones used in golf.

The same goes for the Machspeed driver. For those still struggling to master the terminology, "Machspeed" is a physics term referring to the velocity at which a launched golf pro will travel in his or her vector before returning to earth. I have been told but have not been able to verify that, with some of the newer systems, it can approach warp speed. A "driver," on the other hand, is all too often a middle-aged person who finds him- or herself chauffeuring kids from one activity to another. The primitive ones in my house rarely exceed 30 or 40 mph.

The last thing, it may be objected, that we need to do is to arm runners with their own launchers, though the fact that some of them are now training with parachutes somehow makes this seem safer. One point, however, is clear. If running is ever going to rival golf as an outlet for consumers seeking new ways to set fire to their money, a major change in the sport will have to take place: runners are going to need caddies.

"Jeeves, the titanium-based, soft-terrain sneakers!" I imagine myself calling out as my morning run takes me to the gravel path recently installed near the Duck Pond. A car that has been moving alongside me stops, and a man bearing shoes in one hand and a strange upper garment neatly draped across his arm steps out.

"Wind is picking up, boss. Do you want the air-deflecting, self-monitoring thermal parka you got for Christmas?"

"Just the shoes, Jeeves. Don't you remember," I ask, pointing to the parka I have on, "that, in addition to providing me with unnecessary data on my biorhythms, this has an automatically activating sail feature?"

I change my shoes, giving my caddy the ones that have allowed me to run on mere concrete with ease since they were designed with the sides of the Great Pyramid of Giza in mind. Then, parka billowing in the wind, I continue on my way.

But if runners' caddies are going to have far-out stuff to lug around, someone is going to have to invent it. Runners are therefore going to need to lure away all those Nobel Prize-winning chemists and physicists on whom golf has long relied. Once determined to unravel the mysteries of the universe, they now spend their days carrying out mysterious "product tests" on the putting greens of Golf Labs, a large geodesic dome that I would imagine is located somewhere near Florida's Disney World.

Having left their putters behind and now wearing Boston- and New York-marathon T-shirts under their cobalt-blue lab coats, these researchers would have roughly the same role as" Q" does in all the James Bond movies.

"This looks," I say to the trim scientist showing me around the underground factory that represents the future of running, "like an ordinary visor. It's even advertising the name of a popular beer."

"Very lightly test its outermost edge with your finger."

I do and quickly realize that this edge is sharp and metallic. My new visor is some kind of a sword.

"Let's say," "Q" continues, "you're running along lost in your thoughts and you don't see that you're about to crash into the branch of a tree. What will happen is that the edge of the visor will shear through the branch, lopping it off, and allow you to complete your workout without even realizing the branch was there."

"Wow. You people are amazing. I guess we don't want this falling into the wrong hands, though."

All of a sudden the face of the scientist standing next to me becomes solemn. "That's how we lost 004."

You would think that golf, with all its complicated power tools, would have had its own share of tragic losses. (You might also think that a "golf drill" is something to create holes with, but it is not. It is the same thing as a "drill" in any other sport: a series of repetitive motions designed to induce boredom.) But statistically golf is a safe sport, and most of its "accidents" are not accidents at all but are only made to look that way. For example, somebody—oops!—tees into a group of golfers who are holding things up at the next hole. Still, all this may change as Machspeed drivers become more common on the streets of suburbs like South Orange and, along with club-and-shoe brushes, "switchblade divot tools" start becoming motorized too.

At this point some runners may feel, "What's the use? They're too far ahead for us to ever catch up." It is important, though, not to panic. Never mind the annual "equipment issue" of Golf Digest and the likelihood that the human race will someday use this equipment to travel to other parts of the universe. We can all remember a 5k race where at the top of each hill we were struggling to climb, the same runner appeared almost like a mirage, goading us onward by seeming to be forever out of reach. But at some point we passed them. And as the mirage became a flesh-and-blood person, someone's mom or favorite uncle, we wondered how we had ever mistaken them for a high-school track star instead of another weekend athlete like ourselves.

The same holds true for golfers. They look invincible in their plaids and pastels. But don't worry. They're not track stars. We can take them.

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