Is it just me or is triathlon starting to feel a little…..soft?
I realize we live in a world of risk management, an overzealously litigious world with plenty of situations ripe for legal action and liability. But push all of that aside and you start to think….come on…what is going on around here?
I’ve been an athlete most of my life. Even as a child my mother involved us in sport; soccer, tennis, dance (yes, I had tap shoes), gymnastics. We tried just about everything. In high school I turned to the one sport that required no skills and no tryouts – running. Perfect for me since I was starting to learn that anything with a ball or complex movement was not for me. But one thing I always learned in every sport situation was that sport is filled with risk. There are balls flying at high speeds, high dives into deep water, throwing your body over itself on two hands, bats, bars, wind, bugs, holes and then there’s just the crazy kid that likes to kick you instead of the ball.
Sport is filled with risk.
After working with children for over 12 years, I realized that one of the most frustrating things that parents do for children is manage all of their risks. Part of my job was coordinating a summer camp for 6 years. During that time I got complaints that in the outdoor world there were too many risks – bugs, pouring rain, hot sun, tall grasses, open bodies of waters, insect-borne viruses, sticks that jump out on the trail, bullies, dumpsters, and my all time favorite – nuts on the trees. Here, let me go pull all of the nuts off the trees for you. Who needs nuts. And for that matter, who needs trees.
Anyways, kids would show up for summer camp looking like they were dressed for war – hats, sunglasses, long pants, long sleeves, sunscreen, bug spray, plastic wrap covering their body as a protective shield. Poor kid would be sitting in my office with heatstroke under 20 pounds of clothes carrying a 20 pound backpack filled with assorted protective lotions on a 95 degree day - but hey at least they didn't come into contact with any leaves. Of course I don’t have kids but do plan on putting plastic covers on them to protect them like grandma’s couch when I do have them - but in overprotecting kids, even adults, from risks are we taking away the opportunity for them to think for themselves, learn from natural consequences and make choices – all skills that will eventually help them become better adults? Or are we taking away all of the potential for risks – so what are we left with is really safe kids (or adults) who don’t know what to do when they do happen to stumble upon a risk?
And, is this what is happening in triathlon?
Sometimes I frequent a certain tri-related forum. I almost lost my coffee on my computer a few weeks ago when I read a discussion speculating that a half Ironman run might be cut short because it was going to be “hot”. The RD might cut the course in half, they said. Because you know what happens when you run in the heat, right…..right?
Unless it is something other than sweat yourself silly, I don’t know either. I mean – it’s hot. It’s summer. It’s sport. Slow down, take your salt tabs - deal with it. I remember a few years ago I did a half Ironman in Arkansas in August. Yes, I was suffering from a little crazy that year. At the pre-race meeting, the race director said that only if the heat index exceeds the military standards of 112 would the run be cut short – and with that only in half. You know why – because if the military can handle being out there running in fatigues, boots and combat gear then a bunch of half naked triathletes should be able to harden the f*ck up and run in it too. Turns out the heat index hit 107 while the temperature read around 97 degrees. Was it hot? Hell yes. Hotter than hell in fact. It was like breathing cotton balls in your mouth and running while wrapped in a wool blanket. Did I survive? Yes through smart hydration and electrolyte replacement. In other words, I was prepared.
I am often surprised how little people know about preparation for sport. But I don’t blame it on them being ignorant – I blame it on not taking the time to be prepared and not acknowledging that a lack of preparation is failure to acknowledge that sport is a risk. Why do people assume you can do an Ironman or any race and guts and will but not with fuel or preparation? I don’t get it. Why don’t people take the sport more seriously?
Why – sometimes I think because it takes personal responsibility. Something our society continues to lose. Plus who has time. Listen, we have jobs, kids, e-mails, we are busy. There is no time to think things through. Let’s just do it and get the shirt. And the tattoo. We live in a very snappy, quick society where you can put what you want on credit and blame someone else when something goes wrong. You don’t have to take things seriously anymore. You can opt out, you can return it no questions asked, you can get a quick fix….heck you can fix any mistake you make. After all, you – the customer – is always right. In a way, you never have to take responsibility for being wrong nor for yourself.
Does this happen all of the time? No – but it happens. We like it here, now and we don’t want to wait. We want it fixed, we want it perfect and we don’t want to deal with all of the risks. Make it safe, make it nice, please make it sport “lite” – give me all the same vanity, fitness benefits and bragging rights as true sport but can you please take out all of the risk for me and replace it with…splenda? Brings me back to my job with kids and camp; I remember someone telling me we should get rid of the bugs at camp. All right, let me do a conference call with god and nature to see what they can do. Are you kidding me? It’s outdoor camp, there are bugs, deal with it or don’t sign up at all. That’s the point – you don’t have to sign up. You made this choice. So if you do sign up, don’t expect me to destroy all the bugs or wrap your kid in netting. Same with sport. Just assume there is a risk. One that you cannot always control for. One of the things our world is losing sight of is that you cannot control for everything and sometimes you just have to…deal.
Lately there have been some changes and cancellations made to races because of weather and other conditions. I realize every situation is a judgment call and safety is key but at a certain point I think we just need to admit that it is sport and it is risky. I think we need to get back to the idea of choosing your own adventure at your own risk.
Isn’t that what sport is about?
It is dangerous to climb Mt. Everest. That’s a risk I’m not willing to take. It’s dangerous to do aerial tricks on a motorcross bike. That’s a risk I also have no interest in taking. Dangerous to mount and try to ride a bull. I don’t do that. Do you see what I’m getting at? I put myself into risky situations that seem manageable to me. I don’t expect a course to change, a race to shutdown or the water to be warm enough for me to take on those risks. That’s because the entire event/sport is a risk. But one that seems ok with me. If I choose to participate I take on those risks. If the risk seems too risky, I bow out. I’m honest about my preparation and my abilities. I realize no matter how bad I want to do something – some things in a race might not be suitable for me. I can make those decisions myself. I don’t expect someone else to cater the course or control conditions for me.
Of course lightning is a different story. That’s serious shit. And 6 foot white caps in the water – that’s another risk. There are also days when you come prepared but still something happens. You get pulled from the water, you crash, you have a meltdown. But, there is a line. A very fine line but are we taking that line and removing it all together saying that any chance of things not going exactly the 100 percent perfect way that we will simply call things off all together and call it a day?
I don’t know.
I have only been in the sport for 9 years. I realize I’m new at the sport compared to those that have competed since the 70’s but even in my time things have changed. I have swam in cold ass water. In case you are wondering, cold ass water is about 54 degrees. I have swam in water that probably should have been considered a biohazard it was so eutrophied. I survived. I have ridden in 35 mph headwinds. I didn’t blow off my bike. I have raced in 35 degrees. I put on arm warmers. It’s the world, the earth, it changes, it’s ok, I slow down, I put on extra clothes, I took a deep breath, I made it through. I responded to what I was thrown on race day.
My first half Ironman was back in 2001. I had a race map that gave me an idea that the course would be hard because the words “wicked downhill” were written in several places on the map. Race morning it was 35 degrees. I showed up in a two piece bathing suit and said game on. Got on my bike and know what – it was – well, darn cold. But I pedaled along. I got to one of the wicked downhills and my stomach dropped. Literally. Got off my bike and thought – what to do - both with the stomach and that hill. I had no idea how I was going to get down something that steep without crashing or freezing or soiling myself. Looked around and noticed a driveway. Knocked on the door and asked them for two things; a toilet and some cold weather gear because by this time I was cccccccold. They equipped me with a wind jacket and a pair of gardening gloves. Got back on my bike, descended the hill and for the rest of the ride tried to figure out how to eat frozen power bars with what felt like oven mitts on my hands. The race threw a variety of challenging things at me, I found ways to deal and figured it out. It was truly an adventure. So much so that I decided I couldn’t wait to do it again.
In a sense, what kept me coming back to the sport were experiences like that. So many of us chase after the perfect race – we think everything needs to go exactly right, conditions need to be sunny, 70 degrees and calm on a flat course with a negative grade for us to have our best race day. But when I look back into my race archives, often the most proud races with the biggest sense of accomplishment are those in which I overcame challenges. Challenges like flat tires, realizing someone stepped on my gels leaving my race belt covered in ants, crashing at Muncie a few years ago only to run 13.1 miles with road rash, my bike not arriving in Buffalo Springs, pouring rain on the Beast – conditions like this that prove to me that when things get tough I can focus, follow my plan and still succeed. Over time you realize the perfect race is often not perfect at all; rather it is your perfect execution of responses to imperfect conditions that allow you to have the best race you can.
An easy victory – whatever your victory may be – to me is empty. I don't want a PR on a flat fast course on a mild day with a 20 mph tailwind at my back. The real victory is in overcoming an obstacle (or two) often one that is myself fretting about the obstacle ahead. Experiences like that build my confidence, make me realize I am made of more than I think I am. I think back to short course duathlon worlds in 2006 in Canada. It was pouring rain and 50 degrees. There was a giant hill to be descended and climbed 4 times. This was dangerous and risky. The race organizers did not flatten the course nor turn off the rain. The race took place. And I survived. Even brought home a medal. To this day, any time I ride in the rain I think about that course. I picture myself mastering the downhills, the turns, riding through puddles of pouring rain. I am more confident because of that. The medal was that much sweeter because of that – I earned it, I proved that I had more than the legs, I had the head to focus, push and succeed.
Maybe it’s because triathlon is growing. It’s attracting more of the masses and with that comes a flock of both experienced and unexperienced athletes. Maybe it’s because of legal risk. Maybe it’s become of global warming. Maybe I’m the idiot for speaking my mind. I don’t know. But what I’m thinking is that everyone needs to take the sport for what it is – a personal choice to participate in an event filled with unknowns and risks. Like summer camp, there are bugs, high winds, potential storms, rogue sticks, hills, holes in the ground, and sometimes kids that just want to kick you over and over again. It’s just a risk you take.
So come prepared – know the basics of swim, bike and run and be sure you can do them for the race course distance. Come prepared with your fuel. Have a mindset that you are going to engage yourself in a very risky, painful and sometimes dangerous thing. For crying out loud take the sport seriously. Sport gets ugly. Sport gets tough. People sweat, bleed and cry in sport. So will you. Respect the preparations that need to be made to cross the finish line. Don’t expect to write the check, rely on someone else, or return your item without a receipt at any triathlon. Know what you’re doing. Buck up. Act like an adult – think and take responsibility for yourself.
You make choices in life – some are filled with risk. Sport is filled with risk. If you didn’t participate in sports as a child, go to a child’s soccer game and watch some kid get kicked in the shin or hit in the head with a ball. Are they wearing helmets? Do they call the game? No way – it’s just the risk you take when you play soccer. Now put that mentality in open water, on a two wheeled piece of equipment capable of descending hills at very fast speeds, then head out on to a road to run…….lots of risks. It’s a wonder that any of us participate at all – think of all that could go wrong. Maybe when we participate in races or sports we should assume anything and everything could go wrong. But also be comforted by the thought that all can go "right" when you are prepared both mentally and skillfully. That perfect union of preparation, opportunity and response to reach the finish line - isn’t that why we do sport in the first place?
It is interesting to me to hear the reasons why people get involved in sport. Sometimes I think people have unrealistic expectations – those that seek vanity, assurance, validation or personality change in sport are here for the wrong reasons. Sport builds you up by breaking you down. If you can’t handle the conditions that might make you broken, perhaps seek a safer, gentler sport. Like putt-putt. But then again – have you ever been hit by a club? Don’t expect sport to feel sorry for you. Don’t expect sport to always hand you water at the right interval on a course. Don’t expect sport to take chop out of a swim because you are scared. Overcome it, face it and prepare for it. Take responsibility that anything can happen on race day. True, a race director and organization has responsibility – but so do you as an athlete. Assume that in an outdoor sport involving water and land things can and will go wrong. In other words, there are….risks. That’s part of the fun of sport and what keeps many of us coming back; the adventure, the challenge, the things that go wrong that you find a way to right – overcoming the risk of ourselves and our own failure - that is what makes truly amazing athletes and exciting memories. This is what brings most of us back.
But maybe that's it - seeing ourselves not as participants but athletes. What does it mean to be an athlete? It's more than getting the race t-shirt, buying the 140.6 sticker, it's more than the training, the stories or sexy equipment. It's a mindset. An approach. A way of thinking on race day. You wouldn't show up to a baseball game to just catch a ball - you would show up to be a player. You would show up to take on any role that was needed on the team. So play the game. Know the rules. Assume the risks. And understand that the business of being an athlete is a very risky thing.