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

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