Friday, April 14, 2006

Written for the USC Triathlon Newsletter 04-14-06

In studies of Japanese society, scholars are repeatedly taken by the dichotomy between the nature of Japanese media content and the behavior of Japanese society. Japanese media is often observed as being rife with violent imagery, particularly the youth-oriented manga and anime, which feature graphic expressions that would blanche the constitution of the typical Western censor. In contrast, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians have noted that modern Japanese society itself is surprisingly bereft of violence or sociopathic behavior, with international indices consistently ranking Japan below the United States and Western European countries in terms of the incidence of violent crime.

This schism between art and reality has posed a challenge to Western (particularly American) figures who have argued that violent crime is directly attributable to violent art, and that violence in media is responsible for inciting violence in the public.

People of various cultures have speculated as to the capacity of Japanese culture to maintain order despite the chaotic nature of their media, and in what ways American culture fails to suppress violence while Japanese culture succeeds.
Some have argued that Japanese art is simply a publicly condoned peaceful release of subconscious emotions suppressed by a society centered around public order, while American art suffers from a Puritan code that accepts public freedom but stifles media expression so far as to create a pent-up cauldron of suppressed emotions that must still vent into society.

Others have pointed out to a fundamental difference in philosophical orientation made in grade school. In Japan, children are taught that there is a benefit to order and a cost to chaos, and that conformity of individuals to a social code ensures the maintenance of order and avoidance of chaos. In the U.S., scholars argue that children are taught the principles of a free democratic society and the importance of the individual, and that chaos is an inherent component of a free society. For such scholars, Japanese society perceives rules as having absolute benefits and so call upon compliance to rules to propagate those benefits, whereas American society perceives rules as having benefits only to the degree that they do not impinge upon the individual and so call upon violations of rules if necessary to protect the individual.

In short, the issue here is rules. Rules that hold society together. Rules that hold an organization together. Rules that hold a sport together.

Do we as athletes, as individuals, as citizens follow those rules?

In triathlon, there are rules to follow. Race officials--from the collegiate to professional--have recently begun issuing declarations regarding the enforcement of rules. This is in response to the growing number of rule infractions that are being witnessed on race courses. Whether a product of the growing popularity of triathlon, or a product of a culture that perceives rules as arbitrary, these infractions have become epidemic enough to warrant admonishment from triathlon organizations (including the WCCTC, USAT, and WTC).

Following some public statements (and not so subtly veiled e-mails) from these organizations, we're going to review some basic rules:
1) Drafting: allowed on the swim, NOT ALLOWED on the bike (unless you are in the Professional division of an ITU-rules race). drafting is defined as staying within 3 bike lengths of the rider in front of you.
2) Passing: on the bike, pass ON THE LEFT, and do so WITHIN 15-20 seconds--otherwise, drop back out of the drafting zone. it is an infraction to pass on the right. on the swim and bike, pass on either side with courtesy (i.e., don't trip or push, don't ball your hand into a fist and smack the person across the jaw)
3) Blocking: if someone is passing you (on the bike or run), STAY ON THE RIGHT and allow them 15-20 seconds to pass. it is otherwise an infraction to impede someone from passing. on the swim, allow people who are trying to pass to do so. again, show courtesy (i.e., don't trip or push, don't punch somebody with an uppercut to the jaw or a roundhouse to the kidney).
4) NO LITTERING. littering is defined as discarding anything off your person, including gel packets, tubes, tissues, or bottles outside a safe discard zone (which is usually marked around an aid station or transition).
5) Helmets: chin straps must be strapped at all times while on the bike
6) Behavior to volunteers and race officials: believe it or not, this is considered an infraction. generally, it's up to the receiving party to determine if an athlete's behavior is considered abusive, but nevertheless it is considered an infraction. sometimes you're going to get a race official on a very bad day and he's going to make your local speed-trap CHP officer look like your grandmother's teddy bear.

Penalties for infractions vary, and may consist of time (extra minutes added to your ride), penalty laps (as in go to a designated area and keep swimming/biking/running for a fixed amount of time before continuing on the race course), or disqualification and termination of the race.

To review USAT rules, you may reference:

Sunday, April 09, 2006

eddie would go

originally written for the USC Triathlon Newsletter 04-09-06

In the winter of 1967, the legendary North Shore of Waimea Bay experienced one of the greatest seasons in big wave surfing. At the start of the annual big wave season, a unknown boy by the name of Eddie Aikau appeared and asked to be allowed to join the other surfers. He proceeded to stun the assembled crowd of professionals by charging fearlessly down the 40-foot waves. That day, the story of Eddie began.

Eddie Aikau was a native Hawaiian who had learned to surf using a heavy redwood board with his father. A high school dropout, he had been known in the local community as an aimless itinerant with no apparent sense of direction.

With that day in 1967, however, he appeared to find his calling. He quickly earned a reputation as one of the hardest chargers in big wave surfing, earning a string of big wave championships, including the 1977 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational. Eventually, his reputation solidified as he became the first lifeguard of Hawaii's North Shore, and in 1971 was named Lifeguard of the Year.

As Eddie matured, he began to seek some resolution of his identity, and sought to find some meaning in his life through an understanding of his Hawaiian heritage. As part of this, he sought to act as a peace-broker among surfers, hoping to see the North Shore become a haven for the aloha spirit among big-wave surfers. Following the death of his brother Gerald following Vietnam, Eddie also began to explore the spiritual roots of Hawaiian culture, and became a leader in the Hawaiian Renaissance movement.

In 1978, Eddie joined the Polynesian Voyaging Society expedition, which sought to assert Hawaii's heritage of seafaring navigation by launching a traditional 2-hull canoe and sailing 2,500 miles to Tahiti using traditional Hawaiian navigation techniques and ancient Polynesian sailing routes. However, a freak Northwesterly arose, and in the storm the boat capsized approximately 12 miles south of Molokai. Crew members found themselves clinging to a capsized canoe, miles from the nearest sea lane.

Eddie, recognizing the situation, volunteered to unleash his surfboard from the canoe and paddle to Lanai to find help. Believing himself to have the strength to make the distance, also believing in his own spiritual connection to the ocean, he volunteered 3 times. On his 3rd request, the expedition's leader relented. Eddie promptly mounted his surfboard and began paddling through the storm.

He was never heard from again.

Hours later, the boat crew was rescued when a passing plane spotted them in the water. Immediately after, Hawaii launched the largest air and sea rescue effort in its history to find Eddie. But he had been lost to the sea.

His family, along with the native Hawaiian community, later said that consistent with his spiritual beliefs, Eddie had been called by elements of nature, and his heart had been returned to the sea and his soul restored to the mana of the earth. In the years following his disappearance, his name became legend, and the legend grew into myth.

Now, throughout Hawaii, whenever a challenge arises, whenever someone finds themself facing dire conditions, whenever a person is seized by the sudden paroxysm of fear produced by the sight of the awesome face of danger, people will look at each other, and nod in determination, and say: EDDIE WOULD GO.

Triathlon traces part of its origins to Hawaii. Ironman began in Oahu, and grew on the Kona Coast of Hawai'i. In honor of its Hawaiian roots, and in honor of Eddie Aikau, we call upon Eddie's memory and tell you as well: EDDIE WOULD GO. Whenever you're seized by fear at the start of a swim wave. Remember: EDDIE WOULD GO. Whenever you're numb pondering the prospect of the bike ride. Remember: EDDIE WOULD GO. Whenever you're staggering, and wondering if you should even begin the run. Remember: EDDIE WOULD GO. No matter what the conditions, no matter how tough the terrain. Remember: EDDIE WOULD GO. No matter how tough things get. Remember: EDDIE WOULD GO. No matter what chaos, what challenge, what storm is upon you: EDDIE WOULD GO.

In the nam
e of Ironman: EDDIE WOULD GO.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Triathlon is a sport driven by rhythm. From the stroke rate during the swim, the pedal rate riding the bike, to the turnover rate during the run, the sport at its most basic level is composed of rhythm following a pace as steady as a metronome. This rhythm seeps into the collateral aspects of the sport: eating at defined intervals, sleeping according to a plan, workouts following a cyclically progressive schedule. The cadence is crucial, as it holds the competitor on a continuous build phase in training and a steady progression towards the finish during a race.

By the nature of the competition, the cadence follows a very fine line: too high and the athlete is pushed into anaerobic mode which accumulates lactic acid and induces premature muscle fatigue; too low and the athlete is unable to maximize muscular production in the velocity vector. The perfect cadence is one which keeps the athlete in aerobic mode that forestalls muscle fatigue but which is high enough to sustain a competitive performance.

Holding to a rhythm can be a challenge. Athletes spend hours in training developing a feel for their cadence, with the goal of gaining an intuitive sense of the perfect cadence for their bodies. Some athletes utilize technical devices that measure turnover rate and pacing. There are limitations to this, however, since for all the effort of training there is still the tendency for intuition to follow distraction, and for technology to ignore the peculiarities of the individual--that, and sometimes it is illegal (they don't allow music during races, as it is considered a road hazard).

Ultimately, however, despite all the efforts to develop an intuition or deploy technology, cadence is at its core nothing more than a connection to the deeper rhythms underlying the universe: the passage of the seasons, the daily rise and setting of the moon, the motion of the tides, the breathing of the lungs and the beating of the human heart. Cadence follows the order of nature and builds upon it as music to a measure to fashion the structure of performance. Anything else is a mere substitute for the fundamental truths of existence.

It's conceivable that maintaining cadence could be achieved by following the musical analogy to its end and using melody to help hold a steady count. The reality, however, is somewhat different, as it can be difficult to sustain a memory of a melody against the myriad distractions that inevitably arise during the course of a race: the competitors, the noise, the obstacles, the weather, the cold or heat, the ache of joints and the enervation of fatigue, the monitoring of nutrition and fluids, the observation of race rules and course changes and time splits in between the conscious awareness of proper form and transition times and passage through crowded aid stations.

Given these problems, I've taken to using some esoteric tools: remembering songs, counting numbers in intervals from 1 to 100, visualizing aspects of nature with steady time. My favorite, however, and my tool of first and last resort, is poetry.

I've found it helps to turn to poetry, since to me poets are inherently masters of rhythm. Poets use words to manipulate cadence in the course of conveying a message. Poetry, being composed of words fit to rhythm, creates a story easily remembered by the mind while simultaneously offering a steady pace to measure cadence. I consider poets to be as expert with rhythm every bit as much as musicians, with the words being the equivalent of notes as the building blocks of melodies, with the major difference being that words are more concrete and pronouncable by the conscious mind, as well as more conducive to visual imagery and the power it has in motivating the spirit, and so are more vivid in the face of distraction.

I recite poetry at times during a race when I feel myself struggling to continue moving. It helps me find the cadence again, and to hold to a constant pace, which in turn helps me maintain forward motion. Each race, I choose a different set of poems. Kind of like a dedication to the day.

For Ironman, I think I'm going to go with some favorites:

I sing the body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves;
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead
And if the body does not do as much as the Soul?
And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?
--Walt Whitman, I Sing the Body Electric (Leaves of Grass)

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
--e e cummings, 92 (95 poems)

and of course, there's the old standby:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan

Sunday, April 02, 2006

audrey hepburn

I have a book of Audrey Hepburn. Plain white cover, text in Italian and English, discreetly marked by the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo. It's one of the prize books in my library. Not for anything in it that's profound, and not for its significance to other aspects in my life, nor for any sentimental reasons or memories or connotations to moments in time. I just like it, that's all. Its simplicity, its elegance, the feel of the pages underneath my fingers, the smell of the paper curving into the binding. I like its text, that lays out the course of a life in simultaneous languages, reflecting the reach and fame and universal appeal of its subject. Most of all, though, I like its pictures.

The pictures lie in patterns intertwined with the text so that each takes turns pre-occupying the viewer and each other. But the pictures, unlike the text, flow with a power of imagery and vividness of life, becoming more than the mere chronicle posed by words to instead bring the proof of the visual, and the immediacy of truth that rings in the realization that they reflect moments in time that were real and not just momentary fragments of a lost imagination.
I find myself in quiet moments occasionally drifting through its pages. Just looking at the pictures, and seeing how they show the course of her life from her first moments in the public eye to her last days campaigning around the world.

My mother first introduced me to her at some time in my childhood, remarking on her work with UNICEF and how she had somehow managed to grow so gracefully with age. I think my mother mentioned something about how she wished she could do the same. I remember, once, my mother pointing out the cover of Vogue, with Audrey Hepburn, then in her 70s, posed next to a very young and very well dressed and very made up anonymous fashion model still very much likely just reaching her 20s. My mother commented how remarkable it was that Audrey Hepburn still dominated the picture, even as old as she was and in stark contrast to the young woman next to her. She was right: the model was very pretty; Audrey Hepburn was very much more.

I'm somewhat partial to the young Audrey Hepburn. The Roman Holiday-Love in the Afternoon-Funny Face Audrey Hepburn, face fresh and eyes open, new to the world with the enthusiastic energy of youth and the carefree curiousity of the unknown. You can see it in the pictures: the sense of anticipation and excitement of a mind eager to venture forth, uncowed by any sense of trepidation or fear. Her images speak of a time not knowing an understanding of the world. A life that saw the world as full of possibilities.

Those times, of course, didn't last. She matured past the ingenue. She became the Breakfast at Tiffany's and Wait Untill Dark and Robin and Marian Audrey Hepburn. The woman who became married and divorced and married again. The mother who struggled to have children. The adult who was mobbed by paparazzi and was regularly featured on magazine covers. The celebrity caught by fame and scandal and rumors and who struggled with the vices of anorexia and nicotine. The mature Audrey. The sophisticate. The pictures show as much. They show a face drawn increasingly wan by the exposure to the elements of life, shaded eyes filled in by the experiences of passing years. They tell of a life that was being lived within the world enforcing limited possibilities, and which struggled to find an understanding to make something of it.

The most intriguing pictures to me, however, are the ones of the aged Audrey Hepburn. The one past the days of film. The one who left the public eye. The one who left her former life as Hollywood star and became a representative for UNICEF, traveling the world to advance a cause on behalf of children impoverished and abused. The pictures of her then reflect a very changed person. The face is drawn, but out of the richness of experience. The eyes are filled with years, but glow unhooded in the serenity of time. The images present a life that had reached an understanding of the world, and an acceptance for what it was and the wisdom to know what could be changed.

What is most interesting in the pictures from this time is the return to the vigor of youth. The spirit in the eyes, the twinkle in the smile, the radiance in the face. They all return the visage of her when she was young, with the freshness of a mind that could see the world in light once again, and as a place of so many things to see and so many things as possible. In these pictures, she became herself once again...the person she once was and always had been.

I think of Audrey Hepburn sometimes in a race. Not her, specifically. But her pictures. They strike me in how they bring together the whole of a life within the briefest handful of pages. It always fascinates me how in summary, all of a person's life can be seen in a single arc made simple, following clearly the stages from childhood to maturity to old age. All of life in a microcosm made perceivable by the comprehension of a single span.

It's so much like a race, which is in itself its own microcosm of life and living. We begin the day in the early morning darkness, and take off from the starting line in the giddy enthusiasm and excitement of spirits eager to venture into the unknown, faces alight in the energy of minds filled with curiousity, eyes open to the limitless possibilities of the rising dawn. The world is open to impossibilities, and it is whatever we can imagine of it.

Then, once on the bike, we face the assault of reality by the elements of life that come at us as wind and rain and heat and dust and hills and sun, and which temper our aspirations into the confines of a world through which we struggle to make our way, faces made wan and eyes filled with the experience of passing miles. It is during this time that our perception changes, and our understanding is of a world limited by possibilities immutable to our efforts to make something of it.

But somehow we make our way to the last stage of the run, and find ourselves at the end of the day alone with our past, shuffling with our memories and our thoughts steeped in the hours we have lived. We lose ourselves, identities lost to the miles, and gradually all we are is distilled in the progression of the distance that filters our spirits through the realization of understanding and the serenity of time, until we are empty of everything except for that which we truly are and always were. And then, in the wisdom acquired by eternity, we near the finish and come to know what it is we truly are: alive, and vibrant, and fresh, and able to understand the world so as to see the it in light despite itself. A world of so many things to see and so many things as possible.

It's funny. We journey so far only to bring ourselves back to the beginning. We learn so much, live through so many things, only to return to the truths we had when we first started. The only difference is the experience of the distances over which we have travelled, and the enlightenment it brings and the grace it offers in knowing the value of the qualities we had as children, when we accepted life and the universe about us.

I remember my mother, looking at the cover of Vogue, told me she was amazed at how Audrey Hepburn looked the way she did in her old age. My mother said "She was remarkable, yes?"

Looking at the picture, I disagreed. "No," I said, "She was beautiful."