Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tri As I May

I recently completed the Marshman Sprint Triathlon. If you're doubled over with laughter (as my students were when I told them this), have chosen to quietly wait for a better punchline, or assume that I must be lying, please allow me to first define these terms--in reverse order, if you don't mind.

Triathlon - Technically, any collection of three sports could be called a triathlon--perhaps tennis, backgammon, and rock climbing. In the Winter Olympics they have something called the biathlon, where you cross-country ski and shoot a rifle (not at the same time; though that would be pretty interesting). Therefore, triathlons could conceivably involve skis and guns, plus ice dancing or something else entirely. Duathlon is actually totally different than biathlon, in that it is a variation on triathlons invented by bicyclist/runners who really hated the swim--more on that a bit later. All of that said, triathlon pretty much refers to swim-bike-run events. The reason you're so suspicious of my opening sentence is that you're picturing an Ironman (not to be confused with Ironman). This was not that.

 Sprint - Unlike the Ironman, the Marshman is only a 1/4 mile swim, a 12.5 mile bike, and a 2 mile run. I think it's called "sprint" not because the pace is always so speedy--even the winner took almost an hour (not exactly a sprint, in the normal sense of the word) and the last people to finish took more like 2 1/2. Rather, I think they wanted a euphemism for very short that wasn't to...uhm...diminutive. Sprint sounds much better than mini, tiny, puny, or micro. Athletes can be a little touchy about such things.

Marshman - Seems to be sorta like wedding anniversaries, where there's a sliding scale at work. For weddings its Diamond, Gold, Silver, Wood, and so on all the way to Paper. Go ahead and check the link; I'm not kidding. For triathlons, it goes in descending order of  hardness--Iron, Bronze, Nickel, Glass, Ice, Grain, and finally Marsh. At least we were ahead of the Marshmallowman Triathlon and the Creampuff Triathlon.

As so often happens to me with Big Events (see also: here, here, and here), this experience has yielded a few thoughts. Here are some: 
  •  On motivation -The worst thing about triathlons is riding your bike in a wet swimsuit. The second worst thing is the fact that the person doing the work and the person demanding the work are the same person. I think the 5k and the baby sprint triathlon have become so popular because running (and biking, and swimming) for exercise is pretty lonely and boring business. When you're your own coach, the coach and the athlete may both be Slackers. If so, having a long term goal and some standard by which to measure your progress can be helpful. Even in the race itself there is a moment where you ask yourself "am I doing all that I can," and you answer yourself "yes." And you're lying. I'm not talking about literally going to your limits and beyond, or any such nonsense, but even with a timing chip strapped to your ankle it can be very difficult to determine if you're doing your best.
  • On eating - Diet and exercise are two things that are very often conjoined, and usually in a sentence that will attempt to ruin your fun: "You can avoid type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, bad posture, a saggy lower lip, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, poor self esteem, and whatever else through dietandexercise." Truth is, I took on exercise because I didn't want to do anything about my diet. I enjoy ice cream, and doughnuts, and steak, and french fries, and beer--sometimes in wonderful and sinister combinations. The circular logic goes like this:it might have been to my competitive advantage if I'd dropped some of the two and a half stone that I'd packed on since college, but I got into exercise so that I wouldn't have to do it through diet.
  • On adult beginners - I started playing the guitar at age 26 and the violin at 30. I took my first tennis lesson at 40, and I started doing triathlons (see also: definitions above) at 42. Starting new things as an adult is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes highly embarrassing. Still, if you don't do this, you're pretty much limiting yourself to the things you learned to do when you were a kid and were still allowed to start something new.
  • On teams - Many of the participants were part of teams, identifiable by the jerseys that were barely legible as they went zooming past on their bikes. I wasn't part of a team. In fact, I've never been on a team of any kind, unless you count swim team--which isn't so much a team as a group of individuals whose scores get added up at the end. However, my brother also competed in this event. By "also competed" I mean that he pretty much saved my sorry hide at numerous opportunities, from when I fouled up my registration and had to sneak in at the last minute, to finding a place to park that didn't require that we stand around in the wet grass for an extra hour at the end waiting for the last of the contestants to cross the finish line. I don't really know what the other teams do for one another, but I can tell you that I was very fortunate to have mine.
  •  On specialization - I'm not a bad swimmer (among bicyclists). I'm an okay cyclist (among runners). I'm a pretty good runner (among people who are sitting on their couch). In fact, I've made my living by being a pretty good singer among pianists, and a pretty good pianist among school teachers. In other words, if you're not going to be especially good at any one thing, try to surround yourself with people who are very good at one thing, but not your "specialty." If this isn't working, change specialties--I was a bass drummer my junior year in college, in part because J. Thomas Seddon was a better trumpet player.  
  • On time invested - The next logical step in all of this is an Olympic-distance tri, followed by a half-Ironman distance, followed by a full Ironman. No it's not. One of the biggest obstacles to this pursuit, and things like it, is time. Cramming enough workouts in the three discipline into an already full life, even to do just the wussy sprint distance, involves shirking lots of responsibilities. I have a friend who played golf until he had kids, when he switched to tennis. I think of golf as an older guy's sport compared to tennis, but he found that he could get his fill of tennis in a couple of hours, while golf took the whole morning. My bike rides take +-45 minutes, where an Iromnan-distance ride would take at least ten times that, even at my 10-mile pace.
  • On swimming - The swim in this particular race isn't exactly like a swim as I would have thought; it's more like a bar fight in the water. About 120 (out of the 400 people who finished the race) guys got into the water for the first group, and all spread out nicely along the wide starting line. In the first stretch of the swim, everyone was to swim around a pylon and then angle back toward shore. This meant that the entire field was battling for the same position, immediately next to the pylon. I was never really interested in contact sports, and I was never especially curious about what it might be like to be part of a Shark Week feeding frenzy. The swim provided me with both perspectives anyway.
  • On biking - There were guys who passed me riding $8,000 bikes. We own four cars, the sum total value of which isn't much more than $8,000. A significant portion of what you're buying at that level is a reduction in weight. As mentioned above, I'm pretty sure that I could more quickly shed a few pounds of me than earn enough money to shed the equivalent weight in bikes. One bit of solace, though: each guy who flew by me outfitted for a Tour de France time trial was a guy who swam slower than I did--see also: "specialization" (above).
  • On running - I did a brief stint as a runner when I was in, like, 8th grade. Why? Well, I had gone halvsies with my parents for the hottest pair of shoes going at the time: KangaROOS. These sneakers weren't only the coolest fashion choice available, they also happened to be fairly serious running shoes. Since I had also recently acquired the other very important status symbol for my demographic at the time--a Sony Walkman--becoming a runner was the logical next step. It was going okay, with fairly steady improvement, and a few minor aches and pains until I read somewhere that running ruined your knees and hips and other joints. Continuing to do something that was ostensibly healthy, which also hurt a little, and which was going to forever wreck my body was something that not even nice shoes and a Walkman could overcome. Like so much medical, dietandexercise, and relationship advice this running-is-bad advice was only a passing fad. I still have plenty of room for improvement in this portion of the race, but I did manage to hobble to the finish.
I had a great time doing this, and certainly plan to do it again. I'm not, though, ready to become a true evangelist for this activity and those like it. I spent a few days after the event pretty sore, and spent part of the race itself in some real pain--it was one of those mornings following overnight temperatures in the 40s, and older muscles and tendons really don't like being pushed to their limits in the cold. I've suffered no lasting damage from this, but the whole idea of taking up competitive athletics in one's forties is tricky business. If I had actually injured myself, and maybe pushed through an injury, I might have been forced to give up exercise for an extended time, which would be highly counterproductive.

On the other hand, having something to work towards--other than earning visits to Twin Kiss and Fresh Doughnuts--puts you out there on days when you don't feel like doing it, and encourages you to take the longer route when you could as easily take the shortcut with no one but you knowing the difference. Still, I'm much more ambivalent about the newer and more trendy ways that older people are attempting to permanently injure themselves--i.e. mud runs and other military boot camp styled events. In order for exercise to be effective, some degree of suffering must be endured. In order to keep doing it into even more advanced age, this suffering must be reasonable. As evidenced by the link above (and again: here), I'm not the only one putting serious thought to this question. It's all a matter of small choices--"which gear to downshift to before attempting a hill?"; medium choices--"do I even want to go out today and do this?"; and big choices--"maybe bariatric surgery and be done with it?" Sometimes making the right choice can be helped along by having something to work for, which in my case was the particular distinction of becoming a Marshman. Not to be confused with a Marshman.

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