Monday, July 30, 2007

cheating (part 2) : doping, drugs, and deception

Note: This is part 2 of a multi-part series i'm writing to cover my thoughts on doping. you can check out Part 1. There'll be more parts, although i'm not sure how many.

The previous post dealt with the apparent prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and discussed the possible motivations that drive people to use them. It was spurred by this year's Tour de France, which had a rash of new revelations about cheating by current and past tour riders, including names such as:
While these names are all from cycling, I should point out that performance drugs are also a problem in other sports, including triathlon. You can check my thoughts on the apparent sordid situation: Cheating (Part 1): The Easy Way.

To better understand the nature of the beast, I wanted this post to deal more with the ways athletes can cheat, and the various options there are for doping. It's not a secret in the sports world, and something that most serious athletes and coaches know about as a matter of educating themselves and warning each other. But it is something that most amateur athletes and spectators do not know about, and something which I figured would be enlightening. I think it goes a long way to helping people understand the scale of the problem, and just how much effort has been put into cheating in sports. It's equal parts sad, alarming, disappointing, and outrageous.

I should note that cheating, in the form of performance-enhancing substances, are not new to sports. It's been something that's accompanied sports history, and so not something unique to the modern era. You can compare the following references:

The doping and the drugs

I won't go down all the specific substances used for cheating in sports in this post. Regarding the larger array of drugs for cheating, I'll include at the end of the list below a couple of summaries that cover the litany of ways to cheat. For the sake of discussion, the list here presents the major ones that have made the news: EPO, blood doping, human growth hormone, and steroids (including testosterone). I'll also provide some links to each for references.

EPO's full title is erythropoetin. It regulates the production of red blood cells in the body, and is naturally produced by the human body. Boosting EPO in the body boosts red blood cell count, and so enables greater intake and processing of oxygen to fuel muscle activity. In sports, this allows athletes to process oxygen in higher quantities, thereby allowing them to sustain higher intensities of performance for longer periods of time. EPO tests involve taking urine or blood samples and measuring the concentration of red blood cells (i.e., the hematocrit levels) against a standard deemed to be normal--a hematocrit level above the standard is taken as a positive sign of injected EPO, a level within the standard is taken as a negative sign of EPO use. Useful references:

Blood doping
Blood doping is the process by which an athlete receives a transfusion of blood. The transfused blood (i.e., the blood being put into the athlete) has a high red blood cell count, meaning it carries a higher concentration of oxygen. Following the same theory driving the use of EPO, the extra oxygen allows an athlete's muscles to sustain higher intensities of output for longer periods of time. There are 2 methods of transfusion: homologous, where the transfusion comes from blood provided by a compatible donor, and autologous, where the transfusion comes from blood the patient previously extracted and stored. Cheating involving transfusions has increasingly involved autologous transfusions, because 1) homologous transfusions carry the risk of contamination, and 2) while tests exist for homologous transfusions (by detecting foreign cells in a person's body), there are no tests for autologous transfusions. Useful references:

Human growth hormone
Human growth hormone (HGH) is pretty summarized by the title: it is the hormone (or set of hormones) responsible for growth of tissue (muscle, bone, etc.) in the human body. As a result, it is used in sport to spur muscle growth and accelerate recovery to allow additional training and performance. While tests for synthetic HGH are available and relatively easy to identify, natural HGH is a major challenge for sports.This is because HGH is a natural product of the human body, and as a result it is not something that yields a productive test showing abuse (i.e., a positive test only confirms a natural process ongoing in all humans). Trying to measure HGH concentrations to a standard isn't effective, since the production of growth hormone in the body naturally varies widely depending on age, environment, diet, exercise, and stress. Recently, however, new tests (i.e., tests separate from those that detect synthetic growth hormone) have been developed that test for hormone-triggered protein markers that are not so susceptible to variation. Reference:

Steroids serve the function of helping athletes recover faster from workouts, letting them train harder and more frequently so that they generate greater improvements in performance. Steroids have historically not been popular in endurance sports, although testosterone (a type of steroid) has started to make a greater appearance. Testing for steroids involves taking urine samples and measuring the concentration of steroids relative to what is thought to be a normal level for the athlete's population. Useful references:

Other drugs
There are other performance-enhancing substances used for cheating in sports, such as androstenedione (boosts muscle mass), nandralone (builds muscle mass), stanozolol (increases muscle mass), clenbuterol (increases muscle mass), ephedrine (alleviates fatigue), amphetamines (mitigates fatigue and enhances recovery), and insulin (eases fatigue). A couple of good summaries listing them are available:

The deception

All of the above substances are amoral. By themselves, they have no innate good or evil nature, but are simply chemical compounds with certain properties that produce certain results in the human body. In many ways, they actually have valuable uses, since most of them are utilized for medical purposes--or at least, were developed for such purposes. Within a medical context, they serve a function in terms of treatment.

Outside of a medical context, however, they become tools for questionable activities--including enhancing performance in sports. In medical treatment, these substances are largely used in a controlled manner as a component of a program intended to restore physical function approaching a patient's existing or original capabilities. In contrast, in sports these substances are used to exaggerate physical function beyond an athlete's capabilities, effectively letting them exceed their pre-existing limits. Moreover, it does so in a way that bypasses the typical demands of time, energy, or dedication involved in improving athletic performance. This is what is seen in the sports world as cheating. As a result, it's not necessarily the drugs that are the problem; it's the purpose of their use and the way they are used that are the problems.

In terms of how athletes use any of the above methods to deceive anti-doping efforts, there's a number of methods used in relation to the above substances:

  • food--adjusting food intake (by reducing calories, fasting completely, or radically altering diet) can produce dramatic changes in biochemical composition. Manipulating food intake allows athletes to modify their biochemistry in time to pass drug tests, while still allowing them to retain the benefits of their drug regimen
  • diuretics--diuretics encourage the flushing of the body's waste products via urine, and so can be used to reduce the concentration of performance-enhancing substances in the athlete's body. Taken in sufficient dosages, they can remove enough of the peformance drugs or their associated markers that their concentrations fall within drug test limits
  • masking agents--drug tests sometimes observe performance drugs indirectly by measuring chemical markers connected to the presence of those drugs in the body. These markers can be masked by other chemicals that dilute the concentrations of the markers or mitigate their activity, so that they appear to have lower concentrations that pass drug test standards
  • cocktails--drug tests frequently measure for concentrations of banned substances individually. Athletes can still get the benefit of higher concentration doses by using drug cocktails composed of multiple drugs, where each drug in the cocktail is taken in low (and legal) concentrations. Measured individually, the concentration of each drug in the cocktail still passes drug test standards, but the total effect of all the drugs taken in legal concentrations together sums to the same potency as an individual drug taken in illegal concentrations.
  • scheduling--drug tests can be predicted, either from the nature of competition season (e.g., an athlete will know every race in their season calendar will have a drug test) or from informant tip-offs (e.g., sources connected with anti-doping agencies can leak advance notice of drug tests to athletes). In which case, an athlete can halt use of illegal performance-enhancing substances in time to let their body flush the drugs out, bringing biochemical concentrations to levels sufficient to pass drug tests. This way, an athlete can still get the benefit of drugs during training, and rely on the gains made in training to give them a competitive edge in racing.

Some links referring to these methods:

In terms of how athletes hide their drug use from the observation of friends, family, fans, and strangers in their daily lives, it should be pretty easy to imagine how performance-enhancing substances are smuggled and used outside of public view or institutional testing (e.g., someone who is intent on cheating isn't going to take a blood transfusion in public, or have vials and syringes delivered openly to their hotel room door). Any athlete who is cheating is likely to use the stealthiest approaches possible (e.g., anonymous deliveries in the night, unmarked bags smuggled to remote locations, etc.). Moreover, cheating athletes are often assisted by the help of enablers--doctors, team-mates, sponsors, acquaintances, even family & friends--willing to engage in escapades to help in the cheating. Illustrative examples abound in newspaper and literary accounts of controversial athletes (notable ones being those involving Tour de France riders). In terms of succinct, general internet references, there are a few useful sources:

For the future, the next frontier in performance-enhancement is genetic technology, either in the form of manipulating genes during gestation or at birth, or in the form of gene therapy in living subjects. This poses a host of ethical and medical issues, none of which appear to be resolved. To see the nature of this, check out the following sample of sources:

Given the history of performance-enhancing substances in cheating in sports, the current armada of ways to cheat, and the future threats looming on the horizon, it's pretty clear this is a problem that's thriving. I won't call it an institution; the more accurate term is a black market, and one which has many connections into the legitimate one, to an extent that any evolution or changes in the legitimate sports community is matched by evolution or change in the cheating community. It's essentially an arms race, with every new advancement in testing, detection, and elimination being countered by another advancement in cheating.

And unfortunately, as long as we have sports, this race will never end.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

cheating (part 1) : the easy way (and why athletes are doping)

note: i'm writing this as part 1 of several--how many parts, i don't know, since the topic is proving quite a bit larger than i'd expected. but i'll try to get all the parts in a timely matter with this one...

we seem to be inundated with a rash of cheating in sports as of late, with athletes in various sports by various turns under various circumstances admitting use of performance-enhancing substances, being suspected of using performance-enhancing substances, or being caught with performance-enhancing substances. call it what you will (performance drugs, doping, cheating, shortcuts, etc.) it's quite something for those of who follow sports, especially for those of us who also participate in it.

the most recent, of course, is Michael Rasmussen, who was kicked out of the Tour de France and fired by his team Robobank while leading the race. you can reference some well-written articles:
he isn't the only one at this year's Tour. Alexander Vinokourov, Patrick Sinkewitz, and Cristian Moreni also failed their doping tests.

and it wasn't just this year. cyclists from past Tours have been incriminated with--or even admitted--use of performance-enhancing drugs: Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Laurent Roux, Tyler Hamilton, and (allegedly) Floyd Landis.

add this to the list of athletes from other sports charged or suspected with cheating: most recently in U.S. baseball--Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi; as well as in world track and field--Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Jerome Young, Kelli White, Javier Sotomayor, Cathal Lombard, Lyubov Denisova, Olga Yegorova, Jason Ngugi; and even in triathlon--Nina Kraft, Brigitte McMahon Huber, Katja Schumacher.

these are just the known users, or at least the ones who've been caught. given the nature of probability, it is statistically likely that the actual number of athletes cheating is much higher.

looking at the accumulation of names and notable figures, it's too passe' to say this is alarming; it's been going on long enough and on wide enough a scale in living memory that very few people can honestly claim to be surprised or shocked by it anymore. it's even spreading outside of professional and elite ranks to children and recreational sports:
despite the jaded reaction to performance-enhancing substances, it can still be said that it is disappointing, and it is a sad statement on our times. particularly so given human tendency to idolize athletes as paragons of human achievement, human will, and personal character. there is little human achievement or human will exercised by those athletes who choose to boost their skills not by their own labor or own effort but instead by artificial enhancement. moreover, performance-enhancing substances do not indicate strength of personal character (e.g., the value we associate with sports: commitment, concentration, self-discipline, diligence, self-improvement, selflessness) but rather weakness (e.g., arrogance, desire, obsession, lack of diligence, lack of control, conceit, selfishness).

the apparent prevalence of abuse in current sports raises the question as to why it is so: what is it that motivates athletes to abuse performance-enhancing drugs? and is it only associated with the current era in sports, or really a phenomenon that has existed for awhile and we are just disclosing (or finding) it more often now?

there are several good, reflective sources that deal with the modern prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs, two (the Slate and Observer articles) are more general and the other (Slowtwitch) is more triathlon-specific. you can read them at the following:
regarding performance-enhancing drugs in triathlon, the latter article argues that cheating in terms of doping are less likely to occur in triathlon than in cycling, claiming a number of reasons (which i question...see below):
  1. triathlon originated in America, which culturally tends to have a negative view of using drugs to aid performance
  2. top triathletes come from swimming and running, which have a much lower incidence of drug use than cycling
  3. triathlon is not a team sport, meaning that are no peers or team-mates to ask for information about acquiring performance drugs
  4. triathlon is an individual sport, which provides much poorer economics for performance drug distributors, who instead prefer the team-environment of cycling, where a single distributor can easily access an entire team of potential customers
personally, i see some issues with all of these arguments, and as a result tend to discount the argument that triathlon is more immune to the presence of performance-enhancing drugs. in particular, i can see the following rebuttals to the above:
  1. it is doubtful that American culture views performance drug use any more (or less) than any other culture...if this were the case, then why are there so many American athletes suspected or convicted of using performance-enhancing drugs?
  2. it is also doubtful that swimming or running are as bereft of performance drugs as might be believed. in particular, an article in Runnersweb (reference: Runners Web) cites a survey taken of 100 runners asking them if they would use performance drugs that posed no side effects--to which more than half (!!!) said yes (compare this to the same survey of 198 athletes, of which 103 said yes: BioMedCentral). i would also point to the commentaries of sports commentators that directly contradict the arguments that swimmers and runners don't use performance drugs (reference: CBC, Coach Science, Run Washington, Let's Run, Steve Sailer).
  3. triathlon may not be a team sport, and so less full of peers to provide information on how to acquire performance drugs, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. triathletes, being athletes, are still surrounded by medical professionals, athletes, friends, and groupies, any of whom can just as readily provide help in gaining performance-enhancing substances
  4. triathlon, as an individual sport, may offer poor economics for a distributor, but it's entirely plausible that a triathlete--just like any athlete--who is desperate enough will pay a sufficient amount of money to make the sale worthwhile to the dealer...and a dealer is likely unwilling to refuse a sale.
whether or not performance-enhancing substances are a problem (or are becoming a problem) in triathlon, steps thankfully are being taken, and the community is becoming aware of it. you can sense it in the statements of athletes, commentators, and official organizations in the following sample of articles:
all commentaries, editorials, interviews, research, and news articles aside, it is still a mystery to me as to what would drive an individual athlete (much less any triathlete) to use performance-enhancing substances. i'm not talking about their competitive level (i.e., elite v. mediocre talent or skill) or their culture (i.e., socio-economic, sport, or otherwise) or environment (i.e., peers, family, etc.). i'm talking about their motivations internally as individuals and the factors that lead them to make the decision to start doping. i'm talking about the things which change human nature.

i've heard a number of plausible explanations, which i suppose can work individually or in combination with each other. the ones i've heard include the following:
  • sloth--more simply termed laziness, it's an unwillingness to put in the required time, energy, and resources to achieve the desired athletic result. it's all too easy, given the level of sacrifice that athletes have to make to improve themselves, that they want to do what so much of the rest of modern society does and just take things easy. and performance drugs offers the ability to achieve better results in less time with less effort, meaning a shortcut allowing an athlete to take things easy (or more easily than before)
  • fear--fear of the sport, fear of the self, or fear of others. it's conceivable that a person would 1) fear the magnitude of work involved in training and racing, and search for some solution that would alleviate the prospect of pain, suffering, and sacrifice needed for the sport, and find that solution in drugs that reduce such prospects; 2) fear the prospect of their own limitations, particularly in terms of finding that maximizing their own human potential may still leave them short of their competitors, and that this fear would be mitigated by usage of substances that expand their athletic potential; and 3) feel pressure from other competitors, inducing paranoia regarding their own position relative to their rivals (e.g., that rivals are getting better than you, no matter how hard you try), and leading to sufficient desperation to try solutions like doping (either because the rivals are doing it, so you need to as well; or, your rivals are too good, and the only way to get an edge over them is to use drugs)
  • impatience--an unwillingness to allow the time to develop athletic ability. this is all too common. racing often revolves around speed, meaning athletes who race hold an innate desire to go as fast as possible. this often carries an attachment for instant results and immediate gratification, things which are further encouraged by the consumer-driven nature of modern capitalist society. doping allows athletes quicker results and greater performance gains, tempting them with the lure of better gratification in less time
  • anguish--the emotional and spiritual devastation that comes with failed expectations. especially in sports, where countless hours and huge amounts of energy and so many relationships are sacrificed, for nothing more than the mere opportunity of the single moment when we might have the chance to achieve the fleeting accomplishment that is victory or reaching a often, it ends up seeming like everything lost for nothing in return. it's a lot that to give for something that is not guaranteed. doping, by increasing an athlete's abilities, gives the athlete a greater guarantee of successful performance, meaning a greater chance of getting something (victory or personal goals) for all the effort of training...and less danger of failed expectations
  • cynicism--the process of corruption, the loss of faith in values and ideals. in sports, it can happen when a person sees their body of work and energy result in failure. this can be traumatic, especially for those taught the principle that work and energy are always rewarded. an athlete can become disenchanted, disillusioned, even resentful over their personal failures, especially if rivals keep winning, and especially if those rivals win with less effort...or with cheating via the aid of more drugs. things like this make a mockery of sports ideals professing victory is the reward for effort. an athlete who then abandons those ideals finds it all too easy to turn to the things which oppose them--like drugs
  • obsession--the extreme form of desire, in which attraction becomes greed becomes lust becomes fixation leading to exclusion of all other things or responsibilities...or people. it is, in essence, a loss of perspective. most athletes are involved in sport because of desire; they have a desire to win, to appease their vanity, to gain glory, to find personal improvement, to find fulfillment, to make friends. it's innate to sports, and it's one of the things which drive athletes to compete for victory. but too much of a desire to win leads to an obsession that makes the athlete prioritize victory over everything else (like family, personal and professional duties, or values and ideals). this is a loss of perspective, wherein the athlete forgets how everything (winning, losing, achievement, failure, competition, training, a race, a season, even a sport) fits together, particularly within the context of life...there are other reasons for sport than victory, other objectives for competition than sport, other motivations for life than competition. without this perspective, a person sees only training and racing, and the temptation of those things which make training and racing result in victory--like drugs
these are all negative emotions, and they are ones that we all as human beings must deal with. but this is what makes the scenario scary. because if athletes who cheat do so because of such emotions, then what is there to stop the rest of us who share these emotions from succumbing to them as well? what is there to stop the rest of us from cheating?

athletes are not different from anyone else. in fact, fundamentally, they are the same: technically, anyone of us who aspires and works to compete in sport is an athlete, regardless of ability. meaning any one of us is just as susceptible to the lure of cheating as any of the high-profile athletes so highly publicized in recent scandals.

obviously, not everyone is cheating. but you see the point: the temptation of performance-enhancing substances is real, and something that affects everyone--otherwise you wouldn't have articles on how performance drugs are permeating high schools and recreational sports.

just because cheating doesn't seem as prevalent in some sports (i.e., triathlon) as in others doesn't mean it isn't a threat to those sports; just because you don't see scandals publicized within a community (i.e., again, triathlon) doesn't mean that community is not vulnerable. we are all human beings, and as human beings are creatures of our emotions, making all of us susceptible to the foibles preying upon those emotions. this is regardless if we are athletes...or perhaps, given the intense nature of competition and its ability to magnify emotions, especially because we are athletes.

like i said, these are all factors that i've heard from various sources, and admittedly they are all conjecture and rumination. how much of this is true remains to be seen. whether or not these motivations truly are the ones driving so many athletes to use performance-enhancing substances is something that can probably only be definitively proven through empirical research (interviews, surveys, psychological evaluations, etc.). that kind of work is something outside the scope of this blog, and probably something better conducted by more expert sources.

still, it makes sense to me, and something that i can all too easily see as plausible. it would certainly help explain the apparently increasing levels of cheating via usage of performance drugs in sports today. triathlon may not yet be affected to the same extent that other sports are, but i am afraid it's only a matter of time.

if the link at the beginning regarding the Velo News article about Michael Rasmussen doesn't work, the full text is below:

Rasmussen pulled out of Tour, fired by Rabobank
By Charles Pelkey
Filed: July 25, 2007

After 10 days in the yellow jersey, Michael Rasmussen appeared to have beaten back all challengers in his pursuit of the top spot on the Tour de France's final podium in Paris this coming Sunday.

On Wednesday, he handily dispatched his nearest challenger - Discovery Channel's Alberto Contador - winning the Tour's most difficult stage and adding to his already-formidable lead as the race made its final trip into the mountains.

But Rasmussen was apparently unable to defeat the growing skepticism surrounding his performance and his behavior over the past few months. On Wednesday evening, when the Dane should have been celebrating his all-but-certain victory, his own team withdrew him from the Tour and fired him.

"He broke team rules," explained Rabobank spokesman Jacob Bergsma, who said team officials believed Rasmussen had lied to them regarding his whereabouts in June of this year, when UCI and Danish Cycling Federation officials had been unable to locate the rider for out-of-competition testing.

Bergsma said the team officials learned that when Rasmussen had said he was in Mexico - where his wife lives - he had actually been in Italy, working with an as-of-yet-unnamed doctor.
"It is not even sure if the team will carry on in the race," he added.

Late last week, Danish federation officials announced that Rasmussen had been ejected from that country's national squad and would not be representing Denmark at the world championships or at next year's Olympic Games.

To add insult to injury, Rasmussen was also forced to fend off charges that he had attempted to trick a friend into transporting a cutting-edge hemoglobin replacement from the U.S. to Italy in 2002.

Ultimately, it was the missed-tests issue that finally brought the controversial Tour leader to his knees. Rabobank, sponsored by a leading Dutch bank, had been under increasing pressure since Rasmussen admitted to making an "administrative error" by missing random doping controls by the UCI on March 24, 2006, and June 28, 2007.

Rabobank director Theo de Rooy said the decision to pull Rasmussen - and to fire him - came down to a matter of trust.

"Several times he said where he was training and it proved to be wrong," he said. "The management of the team received that information several times, and today we received new information."

Last week's revelations about the missed tests frustrated Tour director Christian Prudhomme, who said he would have fought to keep Rasmussen from even starting the Tour had he known about the issue.

"What I regret more than ever is that we didn't have this information on June 29, or on the following days before the Tour started," Prudhomme told AFP last weekend. "We would have made the Rabobank team face up to their responsibilities."

Prudhomme - who at one point had phoned UCI president Pat McQuaid to berate him over not informing organizers about Rasmussen's missed tests - said that there was not much more he and his co-directors of the race could have done.

"We did all we could do to get rid of him," Prudhomme told AFP.

"One cannot mock the Tour de France impunitively like those riders," he added, referring to Rasmussen, Cristian Moreni - who also exited on Wednesday after failing a drugs test - and Alexandre Vinokourov, who was thrown out on Tuesday.

"I cannot comment on the matter now as I have not been notified by Rabobank," UCI president Pat McQuaid told Reuters over the telephone on Wednesday. "I am just a little surprised that they did not discuss it with the UCI."

Rasmussen had won two stages during the Tour, though, his presence at the race was questioned by several officials and from the race organizers as well. Mocking fans along the racecourse and a chorus of boos at the finish line indicate his lack of popularity with fans as well.

His departure leaves the young Spaniard Contador in the lead with Australian Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) in second and American Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel) in third.

The news, however, was not welcomed by Contador and Leipheimer's team.

"We just heard the news 20 minutes ago," said Discovery spokesman P.J. Rabice. "Obviously, this is not good news. We are in no way celebrating. It's a major disappointment for us. It's going to reflect very negatively on the whole sport. We are quite shocked and upset about it.

"Riders were just getting to bed when they heard the news. They have all heard the news now, and not one of them had a smile on their face. This is a sport they have all done for a number of years, and nobody is very happy about this."

Thursday, July 26, 2007

realizations re Ironman and international travel

now that i've signed up for Ironman New Zealand 2008, it's starting to dawn on me just what an undertaking i've chosen to make.

it's not that it's an Ironman. i've done 2 now, this will be my 3rd, and i'm starting to feel much more comfortable with the thought of going 140.6 miles...either that, or i'm just numb, ignorant, or delusional to it by now.

it's also not the international travel. i'm used to international travel. i lived in Sweden as a child before coming to the U.S. i've traveled to Europe often, both alone and with family. i consider myself as having basic knowledge of some foreign languages (a little Francais, a little Deutsch, a handful of Svensk) and foreign society. so i'm already sensitive to the issues that invariably come up traveling to another country: visa, passport, hotels, transportation, food, culture, etc.

but the combination of Ironman with international travel is something different entirely. this is going to be my 1st time having to travel to another country to do Ironman. the logistical scale of it is an awesome realization that only now hits me.

here's how:

  • i have to bring my equipment. all of it. that means race gear, wetsuit, and most of all, bike. with bike repair equipment. this means: extra weight (everything, no matter how little, is going to add up), extra space (particularly the bike case), and extra cost (airlines are going to charge me for the bike case, and very likely for me exceeding the per-passenger weight limit) . i could possibly avoid this by using international shipping, but i don't know as to the timeliness or reliability of this.
  • i'm going to have to plan on an extended stay. i don't mean after the race--that is something i want to do, no matter which international Ironman i choose, since i figure there's no point doing an international Ironman unless you also get to the see the country too. i mean before the race--according to some sources i've read, you need to arrive at least a week in advance to let your body adjust to the time difference, acclimate to the local environment, and refuel and rehydrate. that's an extra week of expenses.
  • nutrition is going to be an issue. i don't know if every local scene is going to have the same level of nutrition, particularly the kind of nutrition Ironman athletes have to follow leading into race day. i don't just mean stuff like gels, energy bars, and sports drinks for race day itself, but also high-fiber carbohydrates (for gradual glycogen release), low-fiber carbohydrates (for low bowel activity), and low-fat protein for the fueling week leading into race day. i could pack this stuff, but it would explode the amount of material to take, raising the issues connected with packing my own equipment all over again.
  • i'm going to have family. which raises a host of complexities. what are they going to do during pre-race week while i'm doing my taper workouts? what do i do about wanting to spend time with them? and how patient are they going to be on race day sitting on the sidelines (contrary to what many people think, being a live spectator for a 12-14 hour Ironman is NOT really fun), and the day after race day (when the only thing an Ironman wants to do is eat, sleep, and use the bathroom).

i don't yet have any solutions to these issues. to be honest, i'm just trying to figure out what other challenges there might be that i haven't thought about.

i'm debating the merits of using the Ironman travel agencies. there are several travel agencies i've seen advertised that specialize in travel packages for Ironman athletes, complete with accommodations, transportation, equipment maintenance, food, and activities. i'm thinking they might be able to get better deals via group rates, and that they might be more familiar with local (i.e., in this case, New Zealand) conditions, giving them a greater ability to get Ironman-friendly arrangements.

i dunno. i've got quite a bit of time to think about it (the race is March 1), so i guess i can continue to check things out. i guess i'm just thinking out loud.

i'm open to any comments, suggestions, or advice anybody might have. especially anyone who's used to traveling via air to other countries for races.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

(more) naked cycling

let me preface this by saying i am NOT a nudist aficionado, nor do i condone the concept of public nudity.

i just find it funny.

especially when there are people running (er...riding) around naked who have no business being naked.

i posted an article about a month ago on cyclists around the world going nude (reference: naked cycling). that was in honor of June 9, which was the annual World Naked Bike Ride Day, and took place in cities as diverse as London, Barcelona, Vienna, La Paz, Rio de Janeiro (no surprise), Tokyo (?!?!), Sydney (aussie aussie aussie!!!), Auckland, Portland, and San Francisco (of course...dude, was there ever any doubt?). the event was meant to protest the reliance on fossil fuels, the human rights violations associated with petroleum production, and the lack of bicycle riding around the world.


it appears that some people in the world have taken the concept (if not the cause) to heart, in ways quite possibly not intended (note: there are pictures accompanying some of the below links):

okay. i have to say i have some issues with this. i know it was hot, and i know it was summer, and i know there's some cultural reasons for this and all, but...

dude...duuuuude...duuuuuuuuude...way. over. the. line.

i mean, i know we're all human and just creatures of the planet earth, but seriously, come on, do we really need to throw visions of putrid corpulescent flabby wobbly jiggly tires of lard and cellulite--never mind genitalia and the accompanying gluteus maximi--at each other? apparently some people believe we do.

yeah, i know what you're thinking: what's the difference between this and World Naked Bike Ride Day?

here's how i see the difference: World Naked Bike Ride Day was a public protest, and the nudity on bicycles then was meant to get attention for a cause related to the act. in contrast, this...well, this, was just gratuitous.

i should note that the people who got arrested on World Naked Bike Ride Day were largely (depending on the country) allowed to go (i.e., they were released by the authorities) with very little punishment--in Portland, for example, they weren't even fined and a follow-up court hearing ruled them innocent of any malfeasance. here, however, these tourists were apparently issued punishment ( is relatively recent, and i suspect that because they are tourists--and because nudity isn't that big a deal on the list of the world's concerns--their violations may be downgraded at a subsequent date).

still, i think we can summarize all this in 1 of 2 useful words: ewwwwwwwwwwwwww. gross!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

shark attacks, with video (or, phobias of the ocean)

one of the most intimidating things i found in triathlon when i first started was swimming (for various reasons, including the subjects of the pictures above...just keep reading).

not just because i had little experience in swimming (like most people, i learned how to swim as a 7-year-old, but never did much else besides that), but also because i had never swam in anything other than a shallow play pool (what i call the little kidney-shaped pools sitting in so many American backyards). this was problematic for me, since triathlon, particularly in a coastal region like California, often holds races in open ocean water.

for someone who was just learning how to swim lengths in an olympic-distance competition pool (the 50m length ones with lanes), the open ocean was daunting. i discovered i had a number of phobias that i did not know i had:
  • fear of waves--i was intimidated by the sight of waves, particularly anything bigger than i was tall. the power in ocean waves is overwhelming, and it gave me an immediate, visceral sense of just how insignificant and powerless a human being can be compared to nature.
  • fear of currents--i was alarmed by the thought of powerful, unseen currents capable of sucking a swimmer down and out into the deep sea...and holding them under until they drown.
  • fear of missing direction--there were no lane lines, no pool lines, and no markers. meaning no sense of direction. sure, the coastline is always an indicator of location, but it's not so much when you are caught in waves obscuring your line of sight.
  • fear of murky water--in California, the water is murky, and you're lucky to see beyond your outstretched arm. this creates an air of the unknown, and an air of mystery. which brings a certain level of tension and suspense in not having any forewarning of what else lies in the water.
  • fear of the vast deep--the ocean just seems to generate a greater realization of bottomless, infinite, awesome depths, and the disconcerting prospect that if anything happened to you, you would be an insignificant speck in the vastness of the deep, with very little prospect of anybody ever being able to find you, either to rescue you or (more likely) find your carcass.
  • fear of sharks--last, but not least, sharks. the realization that a human being is not always the top of the food chain, and that we can be prey just as much as we are predators.
in the process of progressing as a swimmer (an ocean one), i had to make a conscious effort to work on and overcome these phobias. for the most part, i managed to do this. as i progressed in fitness and experience in the water, i became more acclimated to the coastal ocean environment, and lost a lot of the anxiety i had as a novice--either that, or i just faced my fears so often that i became numb or jaded to them. i learned how to deal with waves, currents, direction bearing, murky water, and even the presence of the vast deep. i didn't eliminate my fears entirely, but i learned how to manage them and recognize them as a mechanism of the respect a human being has to have for nature in order to be safe.

one thing that i have not yet dealt with, however, is the last one: sharks. i still, after all this time, still have a fear of sharks. it's persistent. it's lingering. to a much greater extent than the other ocean phobias i have (you'll see what i mean...keep reading).

i think i know why: the other phobias i listed largely deal with drowning. and drowning is something that can be prevented or mitigated, and to some degree treated. you can train to become a better swimmer, you can learn the principles of buoyancy, you can apply the principles of water safety, you can stay within reach of lifeguards. and it always helps that most of the time in California the water is cold enough that you have to wear a wetsuit (if you've ever worn one, you'll know that a wetsuit is so buoyant that it is near impossible to sink in one--you have to consciously try to drown to actually drown in a wetsuit).

in contrast, my shark phobia isn't about drowning. it's about being eaten. which, i suspect, ties into the deep, primal fears of human species and to our origins as edible fodder in the evolutionary food chain. it doesn't help that in the water humans are not in their natural environment, but sharks very much are. it makes my fear hard to shake (again, you'll see what i mean...keep reading).

it's funny. because apart from having become a swimmer, i've also become a surfer. meaning i'm spending even more time in the ocean than the average triathlete...and even more time dealing with the ocean and ocean phobias.

i suppose it doesn't help that shark attacks are a popular topic of conversations and jokes among surfers. we frequently call ourselves "shark bait" (i've even seen bumper and surfboard stickers with that label). there's even some cult classic videos that are passed around in the surf community about shark attacks--check out this deliciously campy, cheesy, garage-video one by the (largely) underground California punk band The Surf Punks (you may want to hold on to your nostalgia meter, it's from the early '80s):

a buddy of mine (who also happened to be related to oceanographers and marine biologists, and was also a licensed diver, making him a local expert on anything ocean-related) once gave an extended lecture on the nature of shark attacks. dispensing briefly with the actual factual probability of shark attacks (more on this below), he went on an extended discourse as to the dangers posed by specific shark species, making the following memorable list of points (here's where we get to the pay-off folks...really keep reading):
  • most sharks are harmless, and if anything fear humans and tend to shy away from human activity
  • some sharks, however, are not harmless, and tend be aggressive as predators
  • sharks, particularly those in California coastal waters, tend to 1) prey on seals and sea lions, particularly lone stragglers, and 2) key in on specific bio-electric emissions and rhythmic auditory patterns
  • humans, unfortunately (particularly swimmers and surfers in wetsuits), tend to 1) look like seals and sea lions from below (especially to sharks, which have bad vision and are swimming in murky California coastal water...hooray sediment and pollution!), and 2) when swimming or paddling on a board, emit a surplus of bio-electric signals and make a VERY rhythmic auditory pattern
  • most sharks making a feeding tend to attack at the surface, meaning you can see their dorsal fin and get some forewarning of danger (and so presumably get out of the water)--in the murky waters of coastal California, this is as good as you can get.
  • the exception, however, are great whites. great white sharks make breach attacks. meaning they attack from below and come directly up. meaning the only forewarning you get is the sight of jaws from below--in the murky waters of coastal California, this is usually when they are within 2-3 feet.
  • humans (especially ones in rubbery wetsuits) are not a favorite food source for sharks, but because sharks have bad vision, the only way they can recognize the type of food source is by getting a taste--that is, by nibbling. unfortunately, for predators like a great white, a nibble is the equivalent of a body part. meaning you are still shark bait.
how lovely.

don't believe me? here's a documentary video of a great white shark attack on a seal (note the breach attack):

and if you doubt shark attacks occur on swimmers or surfers, check out this news report from South Africa (note that it occurred in relatively shallow water):

it doesn't help that there were several notable fatalities involving swimmers in California coastal waters relatively recently...especially in highly public waters:
of course, the truth is that statistically shark attacks really are not that frequent, especially considering the number of shark attacks (even including suspected ones) against the numbers of people (in the millions around the world) who swim in coastal ocean waters every year. that, and sharks tend to be scared off by heavy human activity, which is the condition that occurs in a race or in the midst of a training group (which presumably most people use).

moreover, sharks actually have more to fear from humans than we have to fear from them--sharks are experiencing a rapid decline in population, and are increasingly becoming endangered species. part of it is loss of habitat, part of it is losing in the competition against humans for fish, part of it is that even sharks themselves are now a food source for popular human consumption. check out this excerpt from a documentary:

i've been trying to deal with my shark attack phobia by educating myself, and reviewing the statistics, and also noting the ways in which people have avoided or fended off sharks. in particular, i've been tracking news items like the following:
reading sources like the links above, i do acknowledge some level of comfort. in many ways, i see sharks as just being wild animals, and so should be seen with the same levels of recognition, understanding, curiousity, awe--and respect--as any other comparable predatory animals, like eagles, tigers, bears, etc.

of course, having said this, i still make it a point to stay in a pack with everyone else when i'm in the water. i figure it'll increase the chances that a shark--great white or otherwise--will see my skinny half-breed Swedish-Asian ass and pick on a bigger, fatter, louder, neighbor.

hey, like i said, it's a phobia. i'm still working on it...and if you ever get into triathlon in a coastal ocean area, you will too.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

i made national news (sort of)

i made national news (sort of).

actually, my club (USC Triathlon), made national news. i just wrote the article:

it's a start.

Monday, July 16, 2007

velib' (la bicyclette parisien) - cycling in Paris sans le tour de france

for all you cyclists, there was a bit of an interesting development in Paris in the news recently:
it was a minor news item, but i think a pretty significant one in terms of anybody into cycling--and i mean generally, not just in terms of racing or personal health. i feel it notable enough to comment about it, and to offer up some additional links that i think you may find useful.

those of you who've been to (or live in) Europe are probably familiar with the extensive bike community that exists there. compared to the US, there's more bikes, bicyclists, bike routes, bike tours, bike stops, bike appreciation, bike respect, and bike safety. in essence, it's just more of a bike culture.

it's readily apparent in the way bikes are used in Europe. in the US, the majority of cyclists are recreational users who view their bicycles as forms of fitness and health; when we ride, we ride to get a workout. in contrast, in Europe, most people actually use their bicycles for other activities, like commuting to work (what a concept!) and shopping on errands (another concept!); you don't have to be a fitness freak or a pro athlete to be riding one.

i'm thinking Velib' would fit in with my vacation plans...i've been contemplating doing some races in Europe. partly because i still have relatives there, partly because i have fond memories of living there, partly because i feel comfortable as a tourist there, and largely because there are some pretty nice races there (triathlon and marathon--in particular, London Triathlon, London Marathon, Paris Marathon, Ironman Germany, Ironman 70.3 Denmark). what i'd really like to do is to do a race, and then do bicycle tours of the cities and towns--but casual, relaxed ones (as in beach cruisers as opposed to Tour de France racers) where i could take time to see the people, their culture, and the land (in ways you can't speeding by otherwise). the only thing stopping me right now is the cost (booooooo bad dollar-euro exchange rate!!!), but i think it'd be fun.

personally, i remember as a child living in Sweden that i rode a bicycle with family and friends to get to the beaches and fields in Falstebo for picnics and walks and play. the bikes were nothing fancy, we had no cycling gear, we always felt safe on the road...and bikes never got stolen, even though we had no locks.

despite the growth in wealth and automobile consumption in Europe, this kind of bike atmosphere seems to be growing. if anything, it's being encouraged. a notable example is in Paris, where the French government just initiated this past July 15 (not so coincidentally Bastille Day, the national holiday marking the start of the French Revolution) a program called Velib'.

Velib' is a public service allowing people to rent a bicycle from any number of public bike locations, which they then can use to get to their desired destination in the city, at which point they deposit the bicycle at another public bike location. for some in-depth insider commentary about Velib', i found some English-language (my French is mediocre) blogs, along with an informative article from the Christian Science Monitor:
Velib' is not a novel concept in Europe. it isn't even the first of its kind in France. the idea of public bike rentals at readily accessible public bike stations for city use has been around for some time in places like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Vienna, Salzburg, and (to my understanding) Berlin. in France, as indicated by the news reports, it's been operating in Lyons. the news articles says there's been a mixture of success (with Amsterdam being cited as a failure)--although, my personal experience has been that they're all still in operation and people are still using them (even in Amsterdam).

in contrast to what's happened before, i see a number of features that promises to make Velib' effective:
  • since the bikes are rented and returned to specified public bike locations around the city, they are in a state of constant circulation.
  • since there are a wide number of public bike stations throughout the city, people are never far away from one, making them convenient to use.
  • significant investment was made to increase the number and size of bike paths and bike road lanes in Paris, making it safer to use a bicycle.
another thing that may affect Velib' is that Paris is different from other cities. i know that in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, there already are pre-existing bike cultures where a vast number of people already own and insist on using their own bikes, meaning that their desire is not to rent a public bike from public bike stations, but rather to simply find and park their own bikes at the public bike stations. in Paris, in contrast, i don't think that the bike culture has as high a percentage of people with their own bikes, and so city residents may be more apt to rent public ones.

in addition, i think that in Paris, because it is so expansive and so expensive, is likely to witness tourists turning to Velib' as a cheap, less intimidating form of travel around town relative to taxis, buses, or the metro. if anything, i think tourists will comprise the bulk of Velib' users.

you can get an idea of the scale of Velib' by checking out the following:
i hope Velib' works. it sounds like a good idea. and i'm going to encourage all the athlete friends i know who happen to be in Europe to give it a try (assuming i can get them to tone down their type-A adrenaline-fueled competitive fire and desire for speed and just...relaaaaaxxxxx). i know if i ever do a race there, i certainly will give Velib' a try. hey, anything for cycling, right?

besides, not only is it encouraging a (relatively) more environmentally friendly wave of travel, but it's also reducing gas consumption, it's cheaper than other forms of public or private transport, it's convenient, it's easy, and it looks like a fun way to see Paris. rock and roll!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

it is national ice cream day (awwwww yeah, babeeee!!!)

it's national ice cream day.

the greatest day. EVER.

yes. EVER.

did you hear me? EVER.

awwwwww, yeah, babeeeeee!!!

3rd sunday of every July...meaning July 15, 2007. today.

here's some info about national ice cream day, and ice cream in general:
making this a holiday was an act of enlightened genius. almost as enlightened, and almost as genius, as actually having invented it.

seriously. i love ice cream. LOVE ice, you don't understand: I. LOVE. ICE. CREAM. the creamy goodness. the cool smoothiness. the sugary sweetness. the savory tastiness. i love love love love love it.

ice cream is amazing.

ice cream is ambrosia.

ice cream is nirvana.

ice cream is divine.

ice cream is god.

and let us worship him together...can i get an amen? amen. i said, can i get an a-men? A-MEN!


there's nothing better on a hot summer day than ice cold ice cream--the kind that sends the shivers into your skull (the classic "brain freeze"). and there's nothing better on a cold winter day than a slice of oven-warm pie with freezer-fresh ice cream. and there's nothing like drowning your sorrows in a comforting bowl of your favorite flavor of ice cream (oh, the memories of sitting at a table with my grandmother, talking and sorting out all of life's travails over cups of strawberry and chocolate and vanilla ice cream...).


my growth in ice cream palette reads like a record of my life. when i was young, i gravitated towards the more basic flavors (chocolate, fudge, vanilla, cherry, strawberry). as i got into adolescence i ventured out into the mixed tastes (peppermint, bubble gum, rocky road, maple pecan, coffee, caramel swirl). now that i'm an adult, i've gone into edgier, more adventurous fare (rose, green tea, tarot root, avocado, jackfruit, kiwi, pomegranate, cinnamon, rosemary)--although, i have to say, in moments of supreme nostalgia and sentimentalism, i'll still come back to the basics, and just indulge with great fondness in the memories and tastes of simpler times.

what's funny is that i'm lactose intolerant. meaning dairy products just have a holiday in my digestive system.

but there are some things in life that are worth the price to enjoy them, and ice cream is one of them. NOTHING will stop me from ice cream. no freakin' workout plan, no freakin' diet plan, no freakin' sport restrictions, no freakin' training schedule, no freakin' racing goals, no freakin' nothin'. i may be an athlete. but by god, i am human, and ain't nothin' going to deny me my rights to my humanity.

and ice cream is humanity.

can i get an amen? amen. i said, can i get an a-men? A-MEN!


in honor of this most holy of days, let us take communion with the divine and partake in the consumption of the sacred. go to your nearest ice cream shop, and find your favorite ice cream--or better yet, live on the edge and find a flavor you've never tried know, the kind that you've eyed across the way, and giggled and quivered over with unbridled imagination and unrestrained lust, the kind your parents told you to stay away from and your older sister claimed for herself, and that you were just too nervous to walk over and give a try...weeeeeelllllllll, now's the time to give it a try. go ahead. it's time you enjoyed it for yourself. nothing's stopping you. and you know you want to....

in honor of this most holy of days, let us eat ice cream with all the passion, commitment, discipline, diligence, strength, and endurance that we as athletes give to our sport and our lives. eat! eat, i say! eat to save our souls! are we athletes or aren't we? endurance! fortitude! courage! guts! ice cream! ice cream! ice cream!

in honor of this most holy of days, i am casting my aversion to corporate commercialism out the window and promoting ice cream in all its forms with all the gleeful abandon and utter innocence that this food deserves...and yeah, maybe it's not really food, and maybe it's not really innocent, but i refuse to believe it's evil, and i'll deny anyone who says it's a sin--and even if it is, then you may as well open up the doors to hell, baby, because we're going in with 2 scoops and load of hot fudge sundaes!

so for the sake of promotion, here's some classic corporate ice cream companies...go to them today and enjoy their products, if at all possible:
and not to forget the little guy, here's some local stores where i live (and which, incidentally, have better quality and wider selection to choose from)--some of them don't have websites, so i'm making do with reviews of them:
if anybody has any others they'd like to add, let me know and i'll put them on the list.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

racing as religion

i should begin by saying that i don't consider myself particularly religious. i'm about as pagan a heathen unbelieving infidel as you're likely to ever meet, and there have just been too many things that have happened in my life that have caused me to question the nature of organized religion as any presence in my life.

but i don't disparage people who are religious either. i'm not one of those who make it a mission in life to deride the beliefs and character of others who choose to engage matters of spirituality. that just seems mean to me, and worse, arrogant because it involves an attitude that humans know everything about everything--when we really don't (and given the way the universe works, maybe we never will).

i can see why people continue to hold to religion. given the chaos and brutality that permeates so much of this world, given the magnitude and horror of so many problems in it, and given the venality and baseness of so much of forces behind them, it's entirely understandable why people turn to religion as a response to the evils of our lives.

i won't say that people are looking to religion for love. to me, that's just saccharine, and it's a superficial veneer disguising deeper truths. i think that people look to religion as a way of dealing with the world around them; in whatever form may succor them: for solace, for strength, for inspiration, for insight, for contemplation, or simply for the ability to accept things as they are. it's not just about resolution or answers.

our world (the human one) operates through a paradigm of body and the mind, which assumes that all burdens can be eased through application of the body under guidance of the mind. but this is a life out of balance, because very often we encounter things that resist--and sometimes overwhelm--the capacities of either or both. sometimes there is no resolution, sometimes there are no answers. to a worldview of body and mind, the reality of such a scenario can be difficult to confront; at times, it can be psychologically cataclysmic. it's in such times that we realize how much can be found in a life of the spirit; not so much for resolution and answers, but for the endurance to continue...even when there seems no reason to do so.

the question, though, becomes on just how people are supposed go about finding spirituality. it's not clear, and there are no references or guides. and it's not exactly the kind of subject you explore through trial-and-error. moreover, there's no physical manifestation with which to interact for help (that's by definition: things that are spiritual are spirits, as in no physical presence, get it? ha ha). with these conditions, it's clearly something promising a lot of work and a lot of time and an awful lot of uncertainties.

i suspect that this is the point human nature takes over and organized religion comes into its own. organized religion is the corporeal to the spiritual, and hence gives people something to identify and interact with--in short, it makes spirituality easy to find. in addition, it gives them whatever they seek with all the immediacy that is to be expected in a mortal world driven by cravings of the body and desires of the mind. the result is less work, less time, and lot more certainty...all things human nature tends to gravitate towards, and all things that help people to make the life of the spirit as real as the all-too-real world of the body or the mind.

it's a fair enough trade for most. all that's usually required is a measure of piety in public, sufficient alms and vespers on the record, and periodic (and tolerably) brief visits to a place of worship with salutations to the appropriate officials. some go farther than this, and extend the regimentation to dress code, speech code, behavior code, eating code, and acquaintance code. a few demand even more. but for the most part, the level of exchange is very reasonable for the blessings of the spiritual life.

incidentally, i think that's why we see churches, temples, mosques, pagodas, gardens, altars, shrines, and the vast array of paraphernalia in so many degrees of grandeur: it shows what the faithful believed was the reasonable exchange for their devotion, and in so doing indicates the value they placed upon the spiritual. it wasn't trivial.

personally, however, none of this really appeals much to me. the formalities, the regimentation, the public just doesn't really appeal to me. it's for several reasons:
  • i've seen--and personally experienced--how organized religion very often is less a vehicle to spirituality and much more a tool of demagoguery. because too often, organized religion devolves into a single (or a few) individual(s) claiming that only they know the wishes of the divine, with those wishes ranging from benign (charity, reflection, etc.) to sinister (donations to fund gold-plated mansions, violence against unbelievers, etc.) to horrific (apocalyptic self-destruction, mass genocide, etc.).
  • organized religious settings tend to be less about the spirit and much more about the mundane: socializing ("hanging out with the joneses"), gossiping ("talking about the joneses"), competition ("keeping up with the joneses"), conformity ("keeping in line with the joneses"). in which case, spirituality and faith becomes mere lip service, and a ruse to cover personal agendas and community tensions.
  • spirituality, at its core, is a deeply personal thing, with the individual ultimately having to make whatever connections they are seeking with the divine. whether alone or with others, it always reduces to what the individual finds. this is the substance of meaning found in faith...otherwise it's a meaningless pursuit accompanied by empty gestures.
for all these reasons, i find myself turning away from organized religion. of course, this leaves me with the many other great unwashed masses foundering in the pagan darkness, seeking a life of the spirit among the legions of the heathens. me, the great infidel.

but for me, this is where training--and racing--comes into play. faced with the work and time and uncertainties of finding spirituality in life (because i am one of those for whom a world of body and mind is just simply not enough), my nature isn't to turn to organized religion, but instead to sport.

i know, it's odd, incongruous, even oxymoronic; a life of the spirit doesn't exactly seem to conjoin with a life of sweat, strain, exercise, and exhaustion. but to me it does, and this is why:
  • while there may be demagogues in sport (with their usual assertions of self-glorifying claims and promises), they tend to be constrained and marginalized, since sport is still predominately driven by criteria of action and performance. unlike religion, where someone can always claim that they have the only true conduit with God and hence absolve themselves of any skepticism or doubts, sports demands constant question and accountability--given the nature of racing, sooner or later your strengths and weaknesses will be exposed, and the truth will come out, and you be shown to be either genuine or fake. in sport, that which is found true is retained; that which is found false is discarded.
  • there is little room for trivialities in sport, meaning little energy or time for the pressures of socializing, gossiping, competition, or conformity. in sport, the desire for performance strips out the distractions that so often make religion mere lip service to faith. in sport, either you are training or racing, or you're not; if you are, then anything else is a diversion from the main objective (performance), if you're not, then you are pursuing agendas antithetical to the goal. that which aids in achieving the objective is observed, that which does not is ignored.
  • for all the association arising with the competitors and crowds, sport is ultimately, definitively, fundamentally a personal thing. athletes are responsible for their own performance; they have the talent and they do the training, or they don't and they didn't. athletes are motivated to compete for their own reasons; the only thing holding them to sport is themselves. athletes don't find their sport in meetings, buildings, or talismans; they find their sport after intensive (sometimes painful) work extended over long (often solitary) hours, with nothing awaiting them but the uncertainty of race day (sometimes good, sometimes triumphant, sometimes bad, sometimes tragic). but it makes their sport--and their lives--that much more meaningful.
i don't claim to be a star athlete. i don't pretend to be elite. i don't even consider myself particularly any good. as the title of this blog states, i'm just an ordinary (some say less than ordinary) man. but i still compete, i still participate, and i still try, because i find within sport the things that in organized religion i do not: the spirit, in a way that balances the body and the mind.

some of you may know what i'm talking about. sport, when done well, is a transcendent experience. at its highest levels, it even becomes majestic. for all levels, when undertaken with concentration and passion and purpose and discipline and dedication and diligence, it is always sublime. sometimes, in very special moments, it is supremely beatific.

it's hard to describe.

all i can say is, there are moments that come in training and in racing, regardless of the seasons, whether in the gathering morning or evening sun, when the light falls to a glow and the world settles into silence and the air becomes as soft as the caress of whispers, and the universe becomes only the sight and sound and sensation of my limbs pacing steadily upon the earth: hands coursing water, legs cycling through air, feet striding land, and the sky as my witness...

and it is then that my heart enters a time underlying the movements of my body and leads my mind upon a path that follows the deepest rhythms of existence murmuring the greatest truths of this creation as profound as the visage of eternity. there is solitude, there is silence, and there is the sacred and the divine. and then there is nothing, save the soul and serenity and the spirit and God.

and it is then that i begin to find a way to peace, begin to find a direction to understanding, and begin to find a conversation with a God that i may never truly know.

i pray that the holy runs with me.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

videos: kenyan marathon runners (chasing KIMBIA)

i've developed quite an attraction to YouTube as of late.

part of it's the adoption of new technology. yeah, i know, i'm late to the bandwagon. i usually am. but trust me, when i adopt technology, i ADOPT technology. and YouTube is the most recent example. i'm using it a whole lot more than i'd ever thought i would; i'm finding it incredibly useful for helping my blogs function as a record of my experiences (so far mostly for my kung fu--reference: also very soon for triathlon...just wait, you'll see).

part of it, though (and perhaps most of it), is that i'm finding stuff on YouTube that's compelling. and i don't just mean in terms of interesting, or funny, or entertaining. i mean in terms of emotionally pulling, intellectually provoking, and spiritually nourishing. things that i don't find too often on more traditional venues like television or cinema, which quite frankly too often are full of commercialized predictable cliched manipulative storylines that just simply aren't well told.

while YouTube isn't as slick, or professional, or traditional, as television or cinema, i find its raw nature and amateurish aspects and non-traditional format appealing. and in the right situations, for the right stories, when done in the right way, i find it absolutely mesmerizing.

and this is one of them:

this is actually a YouTube channel. but it's a channel featuring a chronicle of a group of Kenyan marathon runners. it bills itself as a "blogumentary" and is organized into what appears to be 2 seasons totaling 39 episodes. season 1 isn't clearly labeled, but season 2 is clearly marked as a set of 24 sequential and separate episodes. both seasons seem to follow several runners as they train for the New York, Chicago, Boston, London, and Rotterdam marathons, and traces them from Kenya through training to race day.

i should note that it is actually pretty professionally done (at least, it looks like it was done by someone with experience in editing and narrative), but the footage is raw, and its format is non-traditional relative to mainstream television and cinema.

here's some of my favorite episodes so far:
the YouTube channel is actually the video host for an organization called Chasing KIMbia, a non-profit dedicated to improving education for impoverished rural children in Kenya, and which has a main website:

what i find compelling is that the videos focus on more than just the training and racing, but in addition presents their lives, from the villages and families to the challenges and travails each athlete faces in following their personal journeys as professional marathon runners. you can see the circumstances behind them, and how their lives are a reflection of those's not glamorous, it's not fame, it's not fortune, but instead a life of obstacles, of struggle, of disappointments, of triumph.

kind of like the rest of us.

it's emotionally resonating. intellectually motivating. spiritually fulfilling.

like i said, it's compelling.

and it's made all the more so when you find out just what its ulterior purpose is: aiding the educational needs of children through donations to the KIMbia Foundation ( the foundation claims to take donations to support the education of rural impoverished children in Kenya, many of whom cannot afford high school. according to their statements, they make no distinctions regarding student abilities, and are attempting to assist all children in Kenya. they also claim that 100% of contributions go towards education assistance. from all appearances, it's a noble cause.

feel free to check things out...and definitely view the videos. they're just...amazing.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Ironman New Zealand 2008 - registration

awwwwwwwwww yeah, babeeeeeeeeee!!!


i’ve been waiting for the registration for Ironman New Zealand 2008 to open up. they normally hold the race the 1st week of March, and people had told me that registration normally starts about a month after, which meant April. but the website never opened up registration, and i had been waiting to sign up.

the announcement went out to applicants last week, stating an open registration time of 9am, July 2, New Zealand time. accounting for the time zone differential, this meant 2pm, July 1, Los Angeles time (New Zealand is 19 hours ahead).

i found myself actually waiting by my computer for the registration to open. i was positively giddy when i finished the registration process. and i was even happy to enter in my credit card number to pay the registration fee--although, i'm sure i won't be when i see the credit card statement show a charge of NZ$ 660 (approximately US$ 550) can compare this to the fee i paid for Ironman Arizona (US$ 475). ouch.

but whatever. i registered. and as far as i know, i'm set to race it.

if anybody else wants to sign up, the website is:

rock and roll, baby.

i've stated this before, but i should probably go ahead and mention it here...i'm trying to combine my love of travel with my love of Ironman, and am trying to follow a strategy of doing Ironman races around the world, and using Ironman as an excuse to spend some time exploring locales that i (and i suspect most people) wouldn't ordinarily get to see. i figure that given the limited amount of vacation time that i'm going to have professionally, i can maximize that time by using Ironman as a form (and agenda) for travel.

this isn't a short-term project. in fact, i expect it to be a lifetime project. but that's kind of the point--it's a lifestyle, and one i'm trying to consciously choose. that, and given work and training constraints, i can foresee really only being able to fit in 1, or possibly 2, Ironmans a year. given that there are 21 Ironman races around the world, that makes as long as 21 years to do all of them.

i know, i know, all this is me just being a graduate student dreaming of a personal life, and will be subject to change given the pressures of work and family. but right now, my plan is to find a job that's flexible enough to fit this lifestyle (academia is starting to look very promising...), and i'm pretty much a single guy not even close to even contemplating the idea of marriage. so as far as i'm concerned, i'm just being who i am and intent on being who i want to be, and that means this.

rock and roll, baby.

in the near future, i know that i want to do a specific selection of races (in no particular order):
  • Ironman New Zealand
  • Ironman Australia
  • Ironman Western Australia
  • Ironman Korea
  • Ironman Tokyo
  • Ironman Brazil
  • Ironman South Africa
  • Ironman UK
for a complete list of Ironman races, reference:

why these for start? no reason. but i've never been to the Pacific-Asia region, and i'd dearly love to check it out--i've heard nothing but positive things from my friends who've been to the countries there. ditto for Brazil and South Africa. UK just sounds cool.

and i'm starting with Ironman New Zealand.

rock and roll, baby.

i don’t know why i’m making such a big deal out of this. i’ve plenty of triathlons before (lost count), i’ve done Ironmans before (2 so far), and i’m familiar with the global travel thing (traveled quite often in Europe). but i guess the wait had gotten me a little anxious, especially given that organizing a trip like this is going to be a much bigger logistical expedition than any tourist trip i’ve taken, since it involves packing race equipment (bike, wheels, wetsuit, etc.) and enough money to sustain an Ironman diet. in addition, i’ve never been to New Zealand, and so i don’t quite know what to expect, although being an English-speaking country and a former part of the British colonies, i suspect the culture shock won’t be that big a hurdle.

i hope to have you follow along on my journey there–or better yet, see you at the race with me.

and oh yeah: rock and roll, babeeeeeeeeeee!!!