Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Risky Business

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.


Bob Mitera said...

BRAVO! This is the best blog entry I have ever seen!

In my race career:
1st half IM: 101 F at 6AM...heat index went up to 115 (Lubbock)
1st Ironman: 75 mph winds on the bike and heat index in the low 105s
1st ultra swim (9.2 miles): 3 foot white caps

That's why they call this stuff IRON...man.

Bob Mitera said...

1999 Chicago Triathlon...shortened the swim to the sprint distance because of "waves" in the harbor. It was bad but geez its a race.

I missed Kona by 11 seconds. The guy in front of me who got the Kona slot...I throttled him (and most others) in the swim.

Danni said...

Awesome post Liz!
Once again, you nailed it.

Alicia Parr said...

Nothing better than a race where I'm wondering, CRAP, CAN I DO THIS? What have I gotten myself into? Then, I go out and do it because I was tough and prepared. That's the ultimate, character-shaping, memorable, most wonderful kind of victory there is.

Anonymous said...

Yeah...I think you have gotten all my thoughts on this topic via our emails back and forth about all of this...but THIS is what I am talking about. Triathlon is NOT sexy, but people want it that way. The sport has changed a ton and it is getting SOFT. Everytime I turn around something is cancelled, swim shortened, Tris made into Dus. I mean...besides a few major issues (Lightening, etc, National disastors)...come on! Jen H.

Flatman said...

Awesome post...I especially like this part:

" If you can’t handle the conditions that might make you broken, perhaps seek a safer, gentler sport. Like putt-putt."


Wes said...

Most people think the perfect race has conditions that allow you to PR. They are so focused on time, time, and time. For me, the perfect race is when I do my best under the conditions I am given. Pushing the bubble past previous breaking points is a risk I'm willing to take...

E.L.F. said...

Wes - YES YES YES. This is what I'm getting at. So many people get so caught up in time - they compeltely sabotage their race experience because they didn't get the time they wanted. They become their own worst enemy and lose sight of everything that went right or everything they mastered because BOO HOO they didn't get a time. It is so hard when you deal with OUTDOOR variable conditions to measure yourself and youre performance from race to race. Even though a race is the same distance, even the same venue - the course used, the wind, the temperature - these are all conditions that influence your time. So, time is irrelevant and it is so hard to convince athletes of that and so hard to help them get past them to just focus on their mastery of the process of teh race and not what place they were or how fast they went at the race.

Robyn said...

This is a GREAT post! I'm in my third year of tris, inching my way from the middle of the AG pack. Had a very tough bike in a sprint on Saturday that then led to a SLOOOOOOOW 5K -- but you know what? It was incredibly motivating. At the end, I thought, well, I was out there, doing it, taking it on -- a special adventure, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Amen! I love your blog for so many reasons and this must be tops.
I see those ppl - so so so underprepared and still with expectations?!?! This is why kids need summer camp. Bugs. Lake water. Late nights. Being scared. It's part of life and it makes you an adult who can deal...with LIFE.

Great blog, great racing, keep it up - you're a huge inspiration!

Erin in WI
(got to you through alicia parr, read both of you :) )

Anonymous said...

Excellent! This needed to be said, and couldn't have been said any better. Seems like every race report starts these days with "the sun was hot that day", or "I could hear the wind..." Hey, it's an outdoor sport - if you don't want waves or cold water, stay in the pool. The trainer is always open if you don't like riding in the wind, and so is the treadmill. Bring on the heat, wind, cold, rain, or whatever, and weed out the wannabe's! thanks for such an honest, blunt post.

Bob Mitera said...

You know...just thinking again about your blog entry.

I would have been really pissed off if I went to Kona and got good conditions. The fact that I finished in a year that has been called "one of the hardest ever" is a badge of honor.

Screw the time. It is the challenge.

Stacey said...

Given the topic at hand I thought you would love this quote:

"Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses: people have become woolly mice. They still have bodies that can walk for five days and four nights through a desert of snow, without food, but they accept praise for having taken a one-hour bicycle ride. 'Good for you.' Instead of expressing their gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards

Ashley said...

I 2nd the Amen. And, if I ever have kids... I'm sending them to HTFU Camp, children's edition.

Stef said...

Boy I hear ya! Some of the RDs around here are a bit too skittish of water conditions, in my opinion.

In St. George it was MY DECISION to get out of the water -- and I was fine with it in the end. It's another step in my learning to master heavier chop.

But to cancel all waves after mine I did think was a bit extreme. The vast majority of the athletes made that swim, albiet with slower times than they were probably used to.

The morning of the 2006 Silverman Lake Mead had some of the worst chop I've ever seen and the wind was howling for most of the day. But the race went on. And I did not see many athletes come out of the water early. A couple did not make the cutoff but they sure as hell swam the entire course.

Great Post!!!!

Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...

Bravo Liz, very very well said. And its not only in races - but practice as well. Big Girl/Big Boy pants are needed more often. I really agree with the "mindset" philosopy of "athlete" v "participant". Do we simply tackle one challenge, buy the sticker, and then move on. Or do we approach it a completely different way. I know what I do.

And you are right - it is the struggle, the tough moments that I remember the most. And that I'm the most proud. Like climbing Soledad in the middle ring or climbing for 1:27 up Palomar. I will never forget that.

Thanks for this - very though provoking.

Anonymous said...

OK, I admit to being a lurker on your blog (got to you through Jen H.) but this post just made me want to speak out. The first thing that came to mind when I read this was last year's Chicago marathon (obviously everyone knows this story)...the whole thing really still floors me. How anyone could blame the race director for not being prepared for the conditions of the race. In my opinion, all of the people who complained likely HAD NO BUSINESS running a marathon on that day. These sports have become such a playground for the masses, i.e. "anyone can do it", that anything less than ideal conditions is a cause for complaint. So what did I, a veteran of 20 plus marathons do that day? One, I adjusted my pace accordingly. Two, I drank AND dumped water over my head at every aid station (yes, I am probably one of the reasons that some slower runner supposedly did not have any water). Was I upset that I did not run the PR that I planned for? A little bit, but when I found out they "canceled" the race I was dumbfounded. Bravo for this post!

Joy said...

Very well said. The marathon is another issue, and I think there are even more people underprepared going into those than most triathlons. I think some of the athletes at the Chicago marathon last fall would whole heartedly agree with you.

Colleen S said...

Great post Liz- I couldn't agree more. Thanks for putting it all down. The hardest won battles are always the sweetest!

Erin said...

So, so well put...all of it. This is an outstanding post.

For my first marathon it was 98 degrees after never having climbed over 70 in the days and months beforehand (my pace team leader even passed out and dropped out), but I adjusted and finished because I had researched and was prepared. For my second marathon, it was 38 degrees at the start, in May, and never climbed above 42. And how about the Dairyland Dare last year? Rain, tornado warnings, lightning, then extreme heat and humidity. But looking back, I wouldn't have changed any of those experiences for the world, because they're all about telling you what you can do -- not what you THINK you can do.

Mike said...

Great post and I think pretty much right on, the masses (often meaning a lot of undertrained or ill-prepared people) often create these problems or concerns for race directors but we should also be careful what we wish for. Without the masses footing the bill is there a Ford Ironman Series or Ford 1/2 Ironman series? They're not going to sponsor races for just the hardcore triathletes. Is there any prize money for the Pros? I'm guessing everyone still wants these well run sponsored races that cost a good amount of cash to put on because if you didn't you'd just pick the crappiest day you could find and do an Ironman on your own just to say you did it.

Amber and Eric Rydholm said...

I've done a lot of cross country ski races, but one of the most memorable ones was when it was too cold to have an official race (limit was -4 F), so we went out and had a time trial instead. Maybe that's where Marit got her toughness from.

And if you really want weather risks while racing, check out the Mt. Talyor Quad in February in New Mexico. Some ice on the roads for the bike up last year, blizzard conditions on the snowshoe a few years ago, and strong winds on the bike down (always). I'm sure some year we will be caught on the bike down in a blizzard or ice storm.

For IM Arizona in April, I was upset that the awards breakfastwas out in the sun rather than that the fact that race was hot.


Anonymous said...

Great Post Elizabeth....I was just at IM Kansas 70.3.....just finished when they decided to call the race.....okay there might have been a tiny bit of lightening but it all blew over in about 10 minutes and back to being nice out....or hot. So many disappointed people. Thanks!!! Katie

Rob Chance said...

Bob said he would be really pissed if he went to Kona and the conditions weren't that bad. Well, in 2006 it rained on the Lava fields and we had a tailwind back into town. I was a bit pissed about that. I wanted the heat and the wind. In 2007 I got it and was pleased.
I agree with the post.However, I think RD's cancel these races with the weakest athletes in mind. No doubt a lot of us train and race in anything. Some folks don't and they come in totally unprepared. This could result in some bad outcomes. Nobody wants to be sued.

IronChick said...

I'm with Katie - also at IM KS when they called the race. Difficult course, caught a lot of people off guard, but I couldn't agree more about the hardest battles won being the sweetest and reminding you what you're really made of :). A person is never in the same place forever - we're all either moving forward and growing in some respect or regressing. - Catherine

Ryan said...

I'm with you!

Mine is the only kid to show up to afternoon swim practice not wearing a solar body suit. Sunscreen Yes, body suit No.

I raced at CATS in AR last year, the RD is still giving the same speech. Good for him!

KodaFit said...

Excellent Post!!

"That which does not kill me makes me stronger!"

This is one for the motivation file.


Erik said...

HTFU is my motto of the year. So many people want to be able to buy fitness, speed on credit because they can have it NOW NOW NOW. I got an enormous amount of satisfaction out of racing Alcatraz this year using my old, really thick orca wetsuit and smoking people in shiny new suits... rocking the next leg on my $1000 road bike and screaming past $10000 pinarellos on 808's...

the run was a different story, it sucked. but the rest was great! :)

I think that people focus so much on time because it's the easiest metric to use... it doesn't require any analysis or discipline to know if your time was "better than last years". I take great satisfaction in knowing that my RHR is <70, that I can sprint at 40mph after a 30 minute criterium, that I can run a 9:00 mile and still think straight. This is what people should be focusing on, but they need to come to terms with the fact that discipline, focus, and a full understanding of what the hell they're actually doing is required.

triclancy said...

Bravo on (another) extremely well written post. This one should be submitted to a magazine Liz. Seriously!

Oh, but if you think I'm giving up my SPF 100 so that my skin looks like leather by the time I'm 50, you are wrong. I'd still like to be "soft" in some areas yah know? ;-)

Anonymous said...

"Respect the preparations that need to be made to cross the finish line." Best line ever! Too many people are not prepared both physically AND mentally - sometimes the mental is more important than the physical.

KK said...

This is one of my all time favorite posts of any blog, thank you!

This was my favorite part:
"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."

I couldn't agree more.

alison said...

I totally agree with you, but I also think that alot of the race organizations are more about the money than the sport...hence they encourage less than well-prepared people to participate. If the conditions are something outrageously unusual maybe they could offer money back to those people that want to back out. It's too bad our society is so litiginous.
btw..found your blog thru bree's.

Kathy said...

Great post Liz. We had a race here in NZ a couple of years back where the lead male crossed the centre line to pass - humungous NO NO - he crashed into an innocent athlete coming the other way, they both ended up in hopsital, and all the discussion threads blamed the race directors for having a tight bike course!! BULL CRAP - I had my say that day too, and it was along the lines of this post.

It is something that really pisses me off - we are adults; take the responsibilty of being an athlete seriously, or bugger off!

Cindy Jo said...

GREAT POST! The kids at my son's (he's 10) swim team practice swim when its 50 degrees outside, but I know a lot of triathletes who wouldn't!!!

I just saw that they might shorten the swim at IM Japan b/c of water temps! What a shame. No one has to swim in the water if its too cold for them. I have a new perspective on HTFU after swimming in the lake at Triple T this year!