Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Lose Myself

I was thinking yesterday about this Ironman madness, which inevitably leads to waxing philosophical in general. I've indicated some of this before, but I make the following generalized observations about amateur (that is, our livelihood doesn't depend on our performance) Ironman triathletes:

1. We are an obsessive compulsive lot. My evidence for this is purely anecdotal, but if you just walk through a transition area sometime, you'll see what I mean. We tend to, in micro and macro ways, want things to be just so; and not just for arbitrary aesthetics, but because any aversions from our "norms" make us uncomfortable, and discomfort + triathlon is a hopeless equation. For me these OCD tendencies demonstrate themselves in weird ways. There are certain brands that I trust and wear, for training and racing. I'm reluctant - even unwilling - to try others, even though it might be in my best interests to. It's not a brand loyalty thing, and it's not just a this-is-what-I-like kind of thing. It's a - what? who took my stuff and how can I possibly be expected to carry on? kind of thing. Also: once in awhile when I go for a run, I forget to wear a hat. Totally throws off my mojo. Might as well be running backwards and barefoot. I have to wear my sunglasses when I run or ride my bike. This goes beyond the obvious safety advantages of wearing them. If I'm without the sensation of them on my face, the brim of my hat pulled low against them, I'm somehow incomplete. I can, in the course of the run, take the glasses off if I want to - but they need to be there. I spend for. ever. adjusting the tension of my bungee shoelaces until they're just right. And then they need to be cut to a length that's pleasing to me - too short and I feel suffocated, and too long and I feel all floppy. Even if it's millimeters in the difference. And don't even get me started on my transition area. It's surgical. Certainly because I have to get in and out quickly, so things need to be presented and prepared in a highly efficient way. But also because a transition area that isn't neat just screams at me. A freakshow, I know. But I'm guessing that the majority of triathletes out there are more like me than not. I'd certainly be interested in hearing.

2. We are haunted. There is something, or some combination of things, that underly our ambitions and spirit and motivations in this game. It's generally indescribable and sometimes transient, but there exists some kind of unrest within us. It needn't be tragic - though I actually suspect it often is - and it needn't be the calibre of the carnage I've crawled out of. But there is something that is the stuff of therapists' geeky dreams. Revenge, retribution, redemption. Something. Maybe you were made fun of as a fat kid, or maybe you didn't make the high school volleyball team or maybe you got beat up by a kid nicknamed Buttcheek. I think of how it never left Michael Jordan, even after all, that he didn't make his 10th grade basketball team. There's something beyond paychecks and accolades that drives an athlete like that to work as hard as he did, as meticulously, to play like he did. I don't claim to tap into that well at all, but I at least have a passing familiarity that it takes more than the scorecard to drive a person at day's end. I don't know, whatever, but there's something deep inside that keeps us pedaling past 4 hours. Because physical fitness is not enough. Nobody does this, puts themselves through this, just for the hell of it. You're trying to prove something. What and to whom is your business alone, but it is THAT thing that gets you through miles 20-26.2 of the marathon.

I didn't know any of this stuff when I signed up. I was thinking yesterday about how much my life has changed since 2004, either as a direct result of triathlon, or that triathlon has been the soundtrack to. Mostly great things. Some stumbles along the way. I don't know if the quality of my life in general has any relationship to triathlon, though I suspect it does. But I was thinking that in a lot of ways, I think triathlon kind of chose me. It began just as a way to encourage discipline in going to the gym to workout, to directly oppose the genetic bullet I stare down. None of this other stuff, this stuff of Iron, was part of the equation at all. And I looked for other avenues - competitive basketball, football, even considered roller-blading and cross-country skiing. It's when I saw a poster for the Lifetime Fitness triathlon that I thought - and why? - that looks hard as hell. I'll do that. I'd never enjoyed swimming in my life, and was sucking air so bad after my first 25 yards that any rational person would've leaped the hell out of the pool and went to Jazzercise or something. I had no idea about any of the "stuff" - I remember actually taking my flat tire to the bikeshop because I didn't know how to take the tire off, and once off, I didn't understand how this tube was supposed to fit in that tire. I mean, nobody's born knowing this stuff, but I was as clueless as they come.

I don't know exactly when it happened, but sometime in the course of a long cold winter run or a rainy spring ride or lap number 100 my life changed. People say, "what do you think about out there for 5 hours?", and the answer is - nothing. I obsess about pace and nutrition and gearing. On the run, it's about stamina and endurance and hydration and physical upkeep. In the water it's about form and breathing and catch and stroke. There's no point where I just kind of drift off into problem-solving land, or contemplate the great issues of my existence. But somehow those things get managed, and if I start a workout feeling stressed I inevitably feel much better afterwards. And I tell you, it's been a long time since I've gone to workout for my physical fitness. A long time since my motivation was primarily to "be in shape". They've flipped now, and being in shape is a secondary symptom of being a triathlete.

To the point, which you'll simply have to navigate the roundabout thought process yourself, as I presented it to you mostly in real time: I don't want to leave anything out there come September. When this started, my goal was just to finish. An assessment of my abilities at the time made that a significant goal to reach. The goal has changed. Of course it's always to finish, and within 17 hours. But the goal has become to leave nothing on the course. If I do everything right, I shouldn't be one of those people who literally crawls with his last ounce of energy across the finish line, and nor should I be one of those people that come in at 16:59. Not to say I won't be one of them, but I'll have done everything I can to NOT be. But there's something to be said for those that do have a race like that, because you know they left every ounce of themselves on the course. While I clearly have strategies for saving energy, calories, and hydration throughout the day so that at mile 20 of the marathon I can finish strong, I don't want to leave Ironman feeling like I could have given a single thing more. If I was one of those people who ran hard to the finish line only to collapse or puke his guts out, that'd be okay with me (not saying I aspire to that. You get my meaning). Because I'm not spending this time training to casually stroll across the finish line. And I'm not putting myself through this exercism and exorcism to not have outrun my ghosts.

Catch me if you can.

I'm walking down the line
That divides me somewhere in my mind
On the borderline of the edge
and where I walk alone

Read between the lines:
What's fucked up and everything's alright
Check my vital signs and know I'm still alive
and I walk alone


Todd said...

Right on, right on...

In the words of Tupac Shakur, "It's just me against the World.."

PS, 10 days and counting.

Michael Anderson said...

And I was just thinking that I'd like to hear more about your history, your path to this endeavor, your madness, your motivation - Some of what brings you here. Becoming Ironman: The Prequel. It gives a broader picture, but narrows one's ability to describe, and comment. You have much breadth and width, divided or no.