From Entertaining to Disturbing

I was asked yesterday what was the most entertaining or disturbing thing I’ve seen at a race.  That question really spurred a few vivid memories of races gone by – and the things, both amusing and some revolting, sprang to mind.

Events that we compete in tend to be a cornucopia of sights, smells and tastes.  And trust me, over the years I have seen some doozies!

Take, for example, those triathletes that run out of transition without their shoes – only to turn around and run back in to get them.  I’ve seen that happen at least three times.  What about the triathletes that put on their helmet backwards in transition.  I’ve actually done that before, even though I didn’t leave transition with the helmet on backwards.  I’ve seen people singing to themselves on the run, people skipping, and people bent so far over at the waist that it was amazing they were still (somewhat) vertical.  I’ve witnessed athletes sounding like a motorboat due to flatulence with every step.

I’ll never forget the lady at a local race here in Jacksonville that tied a helium-filled balloon to her handlebars so she could find her bike in transition.  Novel idea, I suppose.  I can only imagine if she were to leave transition with the balloon still tied to her bike, trailing her like a balloon follows a four-year old at the circus.  The same lady was equipped with a 5-gallon bucket of water so she could wash her feet of after the run up the beach following the swim leg.

I’ve seen crazy costumes at races.  I’ve run with a pink-clad Spiderman, been whipped by spectators dressed in S&M outfits, and accosted by a guy in a hot dog costume.  I’ve run by people literally tailgating – cooking out and drinking beers.  During a few marathons, I’ve seen people partaking in mimosas while they watched runners pass.

I have seen pictures, as you may have as well, of an athlete who was so focused on finishing his Ironman race that he defecated on himself and ran I don’t know how many miles with his…um…poop running down his legs.  While getting a Kona spot is a big deal, I frankly can’t imagine what a poopy run would be like.  For the runner or for the runners/spectators near him!

We’ve all likely witnessed our share of vomiting athletes.  Maybe we’ve done it ourselves.  While I haven’t thrown up at a race, one time I did blow a snot rocket right into some other guys face (on accident, of course).

Of course, we’ve seen our share of disturbing images at races.  Images that haunt us or bring back bad memories.  Crash victims, full of road rash and blood.  Cracked helmets.  Broken bones.  I once rode with a guy who did an endo and landed square on his face.  He broke his jaw and lost several teeth.  It was one of the grossest things I’ve ever seen.  I’ve seen a rider at a criterium suffer a compound fracture of his femur.

The fact of the matter, though, is that every race has some element of hilarity and some element of disgustingness or disturbingness.  It’s a matter of perspective.  Do you notice the amusing things and tend to not “see” the other stuff, or do you focus on the grime, slime, and vomit?  As a people watcher, I’m drawn to all of it.  I observe, make mental notes, and either smile or say a prayer.  The comforting thing for me is that as a back-of-the-pack athlete, I’m often on a course so long that I get to see lots of things!

What about you?  What are some of the things that you’ve seen at races?  What are your lasting memories?

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Topics You Won’t See on Triathlon Websites

So, you’ve been a triathlete for a while.  Or maybe you’re brand new to the sport.  Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve heard of, visited, or maybe participated on some of the popular tri-related websites.  The two “biggies” for folks in the US are Slowtwitch and Beginner Triathlete.  Of course, there are others out there, too. I’m sure that there are others worldwide.

These sites are often very informative, giving tips for training, equipment, or race locations.  They also present an opportunity for bragging about personal accomplishments, ranting about perceived (or real) issues with races or products, and a unique forum for equipment vendors and race directors to interact directly with their customers.

As with many things on the internet, these sites also offer up a bevy of humor and other off-color topics.  You’ll find threads about how to deal with big boobs while running, how much leg a guy should shave, how much triathlon training impacts our marriages, how to pick up and date other triathletes, and many, many more.

But what you won’t find (but should) are discussion topics like these:

  • GUYS ONLY:  I’ve got lots of “junk”.  How to keep that under control while running
  • Normal things that I’ve seen on a run/bike
  • What do I have to do if I need to poop in the middle of a race?
  • Belly hair – if I shave it will I be more aerodynamic?
  • Triathlon lube – safe for internal use?
  • 700 or 701, whatever it takes – a primer on wheel diameter
  • Body fairings – critical advancements in how to optimize personal aerodynamics
  • Is dog paddling my IM swim OK?
  • My nose always runs when I’m cycling when it’s cold.  Why?
  • The runner hat versus visor conundrum
  • Yes!  I aged up!
  • Beer mile strategies – how to not barf
  • Traveling to a race – tips for packing your clothes
  • Races in Florida – drafting is legal there, right?
  • I killed a squirrel today on my bike ride!
  • Flying mounts (or how not to rack yourself)
  • Guess the number of times I’ll walk in my race!
  • Help!  How do I do a snot rocket?
  • Best workouts to keep me from qualifying for AG Nats!
  • Tri kit & bike color coordination tips
  • PSA – Car drivers hate cyclists
  • Why doesn’t my OWS have a black line to follow?
  • Bike speed: Need tips to increase from 20.1 MPH to 20.2 MPH
  • Battle scars – show me your road rash

Surely there are some other topics that you likely won’t see, but should.  What are your thoughts?

Triathlon: Is it a Race or an Event?

Common sense tells you that a triathlon is a race, right?  After all, there’s an overall winner, and there are people who win their age groups.  There are national championships, race series championships, and even world championships.  Some races offer prize money or goods for the folks who come in first.  There are trophies or plaques given to the people who cross the tape first.  All of that is evidence that triathlon is, indeed, a race.

Given the popularity of our sport, however, one might deduce that the sport is less about racing than it is about the event.

Race companies put on huge spectacles at their finish lines.  Race expos are huge.  There are events leading up to race-day for families to participate in.  In some cases, race festivities happen for a full week prior to the event.  Races, in and of themselves, are events.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  I love a great finish experience as much as the next guy does.  Personally, I think that many of the events and hoopla that accompany races make our sport more enticing and entertaining.  Many new athletes are drawn to our sport because of these very events, and so they are unquestionably good.

On top of the “event” nature of races, for lots of folks, triathlon isn’t about winning.  It isn’t about getting a Kona spot.  The reality is that the vast majority of us will never win an age group, let alone an entire race.  Lots of folks are quite genuinly happy with just finishing.

The Wall Street Journal recently printed an article that posited that younger athletes appear to be slower and less competitive than older athletes.  The author didn’t claim that we more mature athletes are defying the aging process and getting faster; rather the argument was that younger athletes just don’t have the competitive drive to make a race out of an event.

As evidence, the author mentioned some endurance type races where there is literally no timing done (the Color Me Rad type races and even some of the Tough Mudder type races were examples).  People participate just for the experience.  The fun.  But not to win.  The author then shared the fact that even though he finished in the top 15% of his Chicago Triathlon age group, that he finished in the overall top 11% for the entire race.  This bolstered his opinion that youngsters are slower than the oldies among us.  He claimed that his fact portends a major forthcoming slippage in our global competitiveness in sports in the future.

Bunk, I say.

First of all, what does it matter that older athletes seemingly are outperforming younger athletes?  Could it instead be a sign that we’ve learned how to better take care of our bodies?  That we’ve adapted training such that we can maintain high intensity well into our 40’s or even 50’s?  I just don’t buy it that there aren’t fast people who are younger than me.  I’m not worried that future U.S. athletes will be at a disadvantage down the road.

Secondly, I think that swimming, running, and biking are fun – and likely so do you.  Others, perhaps, aren’t quite as sure of that.  Maybe they find entering a “race” a little daunting or overwhelming.  It could be that an event that is “just” for fun might drive someone to get off the couch and stay off the couch.  Given the obese state of the majority of the country (alas, the world), turning a couch potato into a budding athlete is an exceptional thing.

Finally, it’s in a race organizer’s best interest to make their race compelling – not just for the person racing, but for their family and friends too.  People have to want to go to a race.  A boring race experience likely won’t invite returning competitors.  On the other hand, a super race environment might compel a non-participant in one year to actually sign up to race in the following year.

At the end of the day, triathlon (and other events be they running, cycling, swimming, stand up paddle boarding, kayyaking, etc) should be both a race and an event!

Are You a Competer? Or a Completer?

It’s a relatively new-found question, but one that is really becoming more and more common in endurance sports.  The difference between competing and completing may be a blurry line for some; for other’s there’s a clear line of demarkation.  The unequivocal fact is that the number of people who compete in endurance events has increased significantly over the last several years. With this growth in participation, the pendulum may be switching more towards those that describe themselves as “completers” versus those who are “competing”.

At some point, perhaps when we each started our journey of becoming an endurance athlete, we potentially were all “completers”.  Perhaps that qualifier shouldn’t be “all” but rather “many”.  Regardless, we started with a 5k or 10k.  We may have decided that our goal was to run a marathon before we were 30 years old.  Maybe the goal was just to get off the couch and lose a few pounds.  Chances are that our target for that first event…heck, maybe all of our events…was to finish.

You see this played out all the time.  Every day, people sign up for the Beginner Triathlete website and introduce themselves as a “newbie”.  People start blogs to capture their journey from couch potato to marathoner.  People take much joy in finishing that race.  There’s a huge population of folks whose only goal is to finish an Ironman event prior to the cut-off at midnight.

On the other hand, you also see lots of dialogue about how the vast migration of new participants to endurance events has watered down our sport to such a point that accomplishing 140.6 miles isn’t even that much of a big deal anymore.  This cohort would contend that if you can’t average 22mph on the bike for 100 miles or run a marathon faster than 3.5 hours, then you shouldn’t even bother.  “You can walk a marathon in that time….that’s not racing!” people would argue.  Folks would say that time limits should be shorter.  Events should be more selective in terms of qualification standards.  If you’re not winning an age group, qualifying for the USAT Nationals, or earning a Kona spot, then it’s not worth doing.

Sports Illustrated magazine features a good article about the state of endurance events in the US.  The article, written by Austin Murphy, calls out the growth of all sorts of events – like the Rock n Roll Marathon series, Tough Mudder, Color Me Rad 5k’s, and relates that overall growth to the explosion of “completers” in the ranks of participants.

So here’s my take.  Be a competitor if you have the ability.  Be a completer if you have the desire.  It doesn’t matter to me, because – quite frankly, I’m not racing you.  I’m racing myself.  I want to challenge myself to get better.  To be faster.  And if I happen to beat you, while I might be happy a little on the inside, I’m going to celebrate your accomplishment with you, too.

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I did find one quote in the article a little interesting, though, and thought I’d call it out for you to ponder and perhaps render your thoughts/feedback.  In the article, Murphy interviewed Andrew Messick (the CEO of WTC, the company who puts on the Ironman branded races).  Messick claimed, “We sit at the pinnacle” of endurance sports.  His claim was that “eventually you notice that you’re racing next to or in a training group with someone wearing an Ironman hat or an Ironman finisher shirt, and you look at them and size them up and think to yourself, wow, I wonder if I could do that?”  Part of me understands his points, but they seem wholly arrogant to me.  Ironman isn’t the only show in town.  It may be the “biggest” show in town – especially in terms of offering sheer number of 140.6 races and brand recognition, but I would not posit that size and scale equals “pinnacle”.  My thinking is that the distance and not the brand makes iron-distance races the pointy end of endurance sports.  Besides, I can think of at least one other race company that puts on a superior product than WTC.

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If you’re a Sports Illustrated subscriber or a reader of the magazine in general, look for Murphy’s article, “Mud, Sweat, and Beers” in this week’s edition.  You can follow Murphy on Twitter (@si_austinmurphy).

A Terrorist’s Impact on Endurance Events

Exactly seven days ago we were struck by a horrific terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon.  The deaths and injuries were horrific and full of gore, as we all know.  By week’s end the terrorists were dead or apprehended, bringing one chapter of the event to a close.  Certainly the story will have more and more chapters for those who were impacted directly or indirectly.  Bodies will heal.  People will cope with the stress and mental trauma.  Perhaps law enforcement will find out what motivated the attack.

In some regard, life will begin to return to normal.  (That could be a blog post in and of itself…whether or how we could return to normal after a horrific and tragic event like last Monday’s.)  Our sport, on the other hand, while physically the same – we’ll still swim, bike and run – likely will change in many ways both large and small.

Imagine the life of a race director now, post-Boston.  While I’m sure that RD’s already had a multitude of considerations at play, now they need to worry so many more things.  Among their concerns could be having to worry about having cameras on the course (or at least if buildings along the course have cameras).  Do they need to have hazmat teams available?  Should patrons and spectators in finish line areas be expected to go through security screening?  How do you contain an entire course (upwards of 140 miles) such that a would-be terrorist can’t harm an athlete?  Can you even contain a full course?  Should RD’s employ undercover police officers to monitor race expos?  What degree of background checking of volunteers should the race organization do?  How can they guard against food-borne terrorism? 

Any person with even scant imagination could dream up untold scenarios where athletes in endurance events could be at risk.  Frankly, all the potential concerns are a little overwhelming to me.  I’m glad that is not my day-job.  Truth be told, I’m even more appreciative of the hard work that race directors and race companies do now that I’m beginning to think about all of this stuff.

Here’s my perspective.  I really hope that endurance events don’t change.  Certainly RD’s and race companies owe us a duty to make sure that we’re safe…and that hasn’t changed just because of Boston.  I hope that just because of last week that race experiences don’t pale.  I hope that Rev3 continues to have a great finish line experience.  I hope thousands of spectators line up along marathon routes.  I hope people continue to flock to places like New York, London, Kona, Los Angeles, Cedar Point and Boston so that they can compete in big marquis events.  I also hope that athletes and spectators alike continue to go to races in Greensboro, Boise, Fort Wayne, Knoxville or Jacksonville. 

Surely there are some things that will change as a result of Boston.  Perhaps there will be tightened security.  Maybe there will be bomb-sniffing dogs or more surveillance cameras.  There could even be armed competitors (think air marshalls in aero :-)).  Lord knows, registration costs could go up.  But so what?  You and I – we’ll continue to do events.  We will keep running.  Biking.  Going to triathlons.  Marathons.  And if we’re lucky, more and more people will also.  In fact, I predict that demand for the 2014 Boston marathon will be higher than ever.  Perhaps all marathons will be like that.

People will be concerned about safety, but at the end of the day we will not allow ourselves to become paralyzed in fear.  We will run for those hurt or killed in Boston.  We’ll continue to have completing an iron-distance race on our bucket list.  New athletes will do their “couch to 5k” plans. 

And that is a GREAT thing!