Tuesday, June 29, 2010

the World Tri (the adventure)

well, i just think i've found the endurance event of all endurance events...or at least a very good candidate:

it's being called the World Triathlon, and in accordance with the moniker consists of 275 miles of swimming (down the River Thames and across the English Channel to France), 9000 miles of cycling (from France to Calcutta), and 950 miles of running/climbing (from the Bay of Bengal to the top of Mount Everest). it's crossing 13 countries over the course of 11 months, and it began today, June 29, 2010.

there hasn't been much attention given to this in the media (popular, sports, or even triathlon-related). in some ways i can see why. it doesn't feature a large field of contestants, but instead is comprised of a small team of what appears to be a handful (3? 4?) athletes and a small contingent of support crew (relatives, friends, doctors, etc.). moreover, sponsorship seems to eschew any large-scale corporate or government backing in favor of a selection of supporters consisting of several non-profits in Iowa (where i guess the team organizers are based), Des Moines University, Toyota, and the Pfizer Foundation.

according to the website info, it's not just being done for the sake of its own challenges. it appears to have an ulterior mission of serving as a platform to educate and inform audiences in the U.S. and abroad about global health issues and cross-cultural outreach.

you can get more information form the website, as well as from the following Vimeo video it provides of the team leaders, Charlie and Cate Wittmack:

[The World Tri] Educational Programs from Wild Hare Films on Vimeo.

i have to be honest about this. in some ways i'm awed, in other ways i'm skeptical, and in still other ways i'm very much intrigued.

i'm awed by the sheer scale of the endeavor. the raw ambition of the entire enterprise is just incredible, especially given the contrast between the size of the team and the expected expenditure of resources. it's just impressive.

i'm skeptical for precisely the same reasons. given the objectives and plans that are shown. given the distances involved. given the time projected. given the terrain and weather and seasons and politics and geography at play. given all the vagaries of nature and humanity. i'm not sure that this is even feasible within 11 months with the team in effect. i'm not sure it's even for real. and even if it is, it's still going to be quite a challenge.

finally, i'm intrigued by the nature of it. and i mean that not so much as an athletic event, but just as an experience.

yes, i know, there are many (me included) who have issues with any event lasting more than 1 day being touted as a race--particularly if such an event allows for night-time rest, beds, showers, good food, etc. a race connotes competition, which implies speed, which implies doing things as fast as possible, which means no nights to sleep, no beds, no showers, no good food, etc. an example is the infamous Badwater 135-mile ultra-marathon in Death Valley, which often extends close to 48 hours, with competitors forsaking beds and showers to continue running as much as possible. under this philosophy, something like the World Triathlon is not really a race, and hence not really a triathlon (with triathlons by definition being a competitive race of 3 disciplines of swimming, biking, and running).

my response to such arguments is that perhaps that's not what the World Triathlon is really about. perhaps it's not really about being a race. perhaps it's really about being an adventure.

and this to me, makes it very much in the spirit of endurance sports. it may not fit the typical definition of a race or a triathlon. but it is reaching out for the very same things, using the very same principles.

i'll explain it this way:

most people who do triathlons and other endurance sports do so to improve themselves. for them, triathlons and endurance sports are transformative events enabling their own self-transfiguration to a higher state of existence. in effect, physical activity is used to incite and produce changes in the body, mind, and spirit for the better.

following this reasoning, people involved in triathlons and endurance sports events are--at least in part--competing and racing not against other athletes around them, but instead against themselves (if you will, against their old selves, with the aspiration that their new selves surpass whatever they were before). the training and racing then is really a personal journey of exploration and discovery to expand the realm of understanding about ourselves, life in the personal, life in the abstract, the world, the universe, and our place individually and collectively within it all. in short, it's about an adventure.

but to me this is precisely what the World Triathlon is about. it is using an arduous physical endeavor (and make no mistake about it, given the description, it is most definitely arduous) to carry its participants on a course that will most assuredly provide them a journey of exploration and discovery every bit as personal and revelatory as that experienced by any triathlete or other endurance athlete. as a result, i see it as being worthy of the association with words "triathlon" and "endurance sports", and very much worthy of its moniker "the World Triathlon."

having said all this, i also want to say that i very much want to see what happens and how it turns out. i hope it happens. i hope it's for real. i hope it accomplishes its objectives and plans. because then it would have been quite an adventure.

which is perhaps why i'll be following it as it goes along...and i hope you will too.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Midsommar 2010

this Saturday, June 26 is Midsommar for the year 2010 on the Swedish calendar. once again, this has nothing to do with endurance sports, but the media attention given to the recent wedding of Swedish Crown Princess Victoria and my blog post on the topic has made me somewhat wistful for my Swedish heritage, and so i'm particularly conscious of this coming Saturday being a uniquely Swedish highpoint of the year: Midsommar.

historically, Midsommar (or in English: midsummer) is celebrated in a number of European societies, ostensibly to mark the summer solstice when the day is longest and the night is shortest. in Sweden, however, Midsommar doesn't quite fall on the solstice--historically Swedes set it on June 24, but in 1953 set it to the Saturday between June 19 and June 26 so as to better accommodate public celebrations. these celebrations are a major event, with Midsommar in Sweden being one the biggest holidays of the year (in some ways, even bigger than Jul, Christmas, or New Year). for a very well-written summary, reference: http://www.thelocal.se/7665/

Midsommar is celebrated in a variety of ways--and which are in varying degrees traditional or modern (or, depending on who you ask, antiquated and stereotypical versus fashionable and respectable). typically, it's taken as an occasion to congregate with friends and family. it used to be marked with traditional costumes, music, and dancing, although the modern era has largely dropped those practices and instead gravitated towards other traditions connected to the holiday, like dancing around the Maypole; eating the first summer crops of potatoes, pickled herring, and strawberries; and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. younger single adults collect small bouquets of 7 (some regions of Sweden it's 9) flowers and putting them under their pillow as a charm to realize hopes of meeting future spouses.

i haven't found videos of all these practices, but i have managed to find some Youtube samples showing a range from traditional to modern Midsommar celebrations, and you can check them out below:

traditional Midsommar (likely to bring shudders to hip Swedes):
more modern Midsommar (likely to bring cheers from homesick Swedes):
anti-establishment Midsommar (likely to be the mode of edgy scenester Swedes):
i have to say i don't have many memories of any of the above kinds of midsummer celebrations. part of it is that i left Sweden when i was very young (7). more of it is that my mother just didn't really get out to these kinds of events when we were there. instead, my memories are of something very different, albeit very much a trademark (and, according to some, the centerpiece) of Midsommar: the Frog Song.

yes...the Frog Song. all Swedes know it, and i mean ALL Swedes know it--whether they are willing to admit it or not. in Swedish, it's "Små Grodorna" (literally: "small frog"). it's taught to all Swedish children. i remember it as a nursery rhyme sung to children (me among them).

it is one of the pre-requisites to any Midsommar celebration, and is denoted by everyone (and i mean EVERYONE...children, adults, dogs, cats, birds, bees, etc., regardless of disposition or dignity) gathering around the Maypole and holding hands and dancing while they sing this song, in the midst of which everyone pretends to have missing ears and proceeds to jump around just like the poor little frog in the song.

check out a sampling of videos
for the sake of thoroughness, the lyrics in Swedish are:

Små grodorna, små grodorna är lustiga att se!
Små grodorna, små grodorna är lustiga att se!
Ej öron, ej öron, ej svansar hava de!
Ej öron, ej öron, ej svansar hava de!
Kou ack ack ack, kou ack ack ack!
kou ack ack ack ack kaa!
Kou ack ack ack, kou ack ack ack!
kou ack ack ack ack kaa!

the literal English translation is:

Small frogs, small frogs are fun to see!
Small frogs, small frogs are fun to see!
No ears, no ears, no tails they have!
No ears, no ears, no tails they have!
Kou ack ack ack, kou ack ack ack!
kou ack ack ack ack kaa!
Kou ack ack ack, kou ack ack ack!
kou ack ack ack ack kaa!

silly? maybe. bizarre? possibly. fun? absolutely! baby, you don't know the meaning of fun until you've done this jig!

seriously, i remember this song as being the ultimate height of exuberance and sheer innocent joy, made all the more wistful by the fact that everyone shed their veneers of adulthood and sobriety and daily worries, and for a few moments returned to become no more and no less than children dancing in gleeful, carefree, utterly lost abandon free of all the world's burdens. in short, i remember this song for what it means to me, and quite possibly for everyone who's ever known it: childhood, and everything that is great about it.

this is something that i have come to believe is endemic to Swedish culture, and is something that makes it so wonderful: it understands the importance of childhood, and it knows that--deep down inside, in places where the world can never reach--we are all still children.

i have to tell you, now that i've become an adult, and find myself in a world consumed by a strange self-obsession of image and look and narcissism and attitude, and self-correcting to conform to equally strange standards of dork versus weird versus hip versus cool, i sometimes find myself looking back upon my childhood and wishing that i could have it all again.

i can't help but think how much better it was then compared to what i deal with now.

because now is all about people wearing the right clothes, saying the right things,
having the right political views, worshiping the right gods, speaking the right language, living in the right neighborhood, driving the right cars, eating the right food, drinking the right drinks, getting the right haircut, spraying the right cologne, having the right body, hanging out with the right friends, and being the right guy...whereas back then it was just about being a kid, with all the other kids, with nothing more to do than holding hands and dancing around a pole in the middle of summer singing about little frogs.

silly? maybe. bizarre? possibly. fun? yes. as much as life was meant to be about fun.

which to a child, should be always.

and we are all still children.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

a Swedish wedding, among other things

ok, well, this has little or nothing to do with sports, endurance or otherwise, other than that it's generally about a subject touchy to some of us in the community. that, and it sort of ties in with my heritage.

today, June 19, is the wedding of Crown Princess Victoria to Daniel Westling in Swedish. Victoria met Westling, a commoner, when he became her personal trainer. he's from Uppsala in northern Sweden. the wedding concludes a 4-day event that included dignitaries from around the world, an audience of 5 million people, and a price tag of more than $2.5 million. you can get a good bit of information from the following selection of articles:
on a background note, you can see a lot about Swedish culture from these news reports (as well as the wedding). i can highlight the following:
  • Sweden practices equality of the sexes, with couples walking the aisle together (there is no father giving away the bride--which is why it caused a slight uproar when Princess Victoria asked for it)
  • Sweden is egalitarian and virulently anti-class, with many Swedes questioning the continuing existence (and cost) of a monarchy, to the extent that some even propose making it an elected office (if not abolishing it altogether)
  • anything ostentatious is frowned upon in Sweden (people are complaining about the $2.5 million price tag, which to me is peanuts compared to what other European royal families spent)
  • privacy is guarded in Sweden (it's not evident from these articles, but on the day of the wedding the royal family closed out the ceremony from the media, causing news agencies to hold a boycott)
the reason this is on my mind, however, is that it comes in June, the traditional wedding season in Western societies, and as a result puts an exclamation point on something that preoccupies me this time every year. i also know it preoccupies a lot of my buddies in the endurance sports community, and so i suspect it preoccupies many of you as well. you know what i am talking about: the loneliness of the endurance sports athlete.

endurance sports tends to be a solitary experience. as much as racing is a communal activity, the long lead-in of training is largely individual, with many hours spent over many miles very much alone, especially for ultra-distance events, where the volume of workouts become so great that very few people undertake them. even in races, there's not that much of an opportunity to reach out and connect with others, since everyone is caught up in their own personal journeys and the challenges of the day.

i'm aware of the perception that athletes are magnets of social activity. but my experience has been this is a misperception, at least when it comes to endurance sports. some other better-known bigger-money more glamorous (and invariably more team-oriented) sports may certainly fall into such a category. but endurance sports, particularly ultra-distance ones, because they're less-known or smaller-money or less glamorous (and ultimately less team-oriented), really don't feature the same level of sociability.

all of which means at the end of the day, we're very much being left to go home alone.

i've written about this before:
i've talked about this with my buddies quite a bit over the years. we've tried to do things about it. we've tried joining training clubs, hanging out at sports community mixers, chatting fellow athletes we've encountered on roads and trails, flirting with people at expos and races, anything to just meet people. so far the results have been mixed. in my case, they've been 0--as in zero, zip, zilch, nada, big fat goose-egg. as in i might as well go join a religious order, given my extent of celibacy.

and you know, i'm getting tired of this monastic lifestyle. as much as i love endurance sports and everything they've taught me and given me in terms of life and living and fitness and health and the whole being of existence in body and spirit and mind, they haven't filled the gap in my heart.....which has left me feeling a little less than, a little short of, a little way from being human. it's left me feeling incomplete.

and this has made me all too cognizant of the truth i knew and always knew long before i became an athlete: without love, you do not truly have life. because, as so many poets and artists and musicians and lovers and dreamers have come to know: love is really the greatest truth (as in: the only the best the one) in the universe (as in: all creation all existence all cosmos); it's the greatest secret against the eternity within which our mortality otherwise has no meaning.

which is why, despite all the lessons that endurance sports have provided to me, their training will always be incomplete. because they can't lead me to this mystery, other than to leave the one principle they've always passed on: this is something we have to do ourselves...it's something we have to do alone.

i'm scratching my head as to what to do, quite frankly. especially as it seems everyone else is getting hooked up and married. especially as it seems everyone else has gained the treasure that is the greatest truth.

i feel like i'm being left behind.

and so i'm watching this wedding, and the sappy cheesy maudlin sentimental gushy love-drunk fairy tale, and i'm finding myself wishing for the same thing: i find myself wanting love, i find myself wanting the truth, i find myself wanting to be complete.

and oh yeah, i find myself wanting a Swedish wedding (even if it's not the royal kind).

yo man, can a brutha just get some love?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

back up the mountain

ugh. i am so out of shape it's unbelievable. my 2-3 week bout of illness, whatever it was, has really set me back. a lot. i'm definitely not feeling like an endurance athlete right now.

i'm at the point of feeling healthy again, but whatever fitness i had seems to have vanished into the aether. workouts that just a few months ago i would have considered easy, or not even sufficient to qualify as workouts, now seem brutal. i'm suffering just to make it through 5-mile runs and 1-mile swims. don't even ask about the bike rides. and 2-a-days are out of the question--i'm feeling exhausted just to get through 1.

i'm kind of shocked at where i am. disturbed, actually. with a mix of emotions comprised of varying degrees of disappointment, frustration, shock, wonder, confusion, and shame. in some part with my current state, but more so with my current state in comparison to where i was. and not just because i've been here before, but especially because i have been here before...because i know enough to know what this means:

i'm going back up the mountain.

that's what my friends and i call it. back up the mountain. because the heights of performance require a base of fitness, and the higher the heights that is desired the bigger the base that is needed to reach them. thus, in order for you to reach the highest heights you will need a mountain of fitness to get you there. which means that the path of fitness is a climb. a long, arduous, methodical, constant, interminable, solitary climb.

part of me dreads this. because i know what it entails: work, and lots of it. physically, mentally, spiritually. blood and sweat and sinew and strain and calories and commitment and concentration and diligence and discipline and drive and motivation and miles and miles and miles and miles and hours and hours and hours and hours. and it's not fun. and it's not easy. and it's not pleasant.

and once you've reached the top of the mountain you realize what it took to get there and you tell yourself that you don't ever want to have to repeat the experience and you promise yourself that you'll never allow yourself to come back down to do it all over again. but of course you do. because it happens. because that's life.

part of me, however, desires this. because i know why it has to be done: to rise. to rise to the heights above. to rise to the highest heights, where the air is clear and the light is bright and the body is whole and the mind is pure and the soul is free to see that the sky is as broad and as vast and as open as the firmament of stars pointing towards the reaches of heaven...where you were meant to be.

and once you've been there you come to know that the journey is what made you and the path is what guided you and the climb is what lifted you and that it all enabled you to transcend the sum of your being to become the full measure of your dreaming so that you understood the full power of what it means to be alive.

and it's then that you tell yourself that you'll do whatever it takes to repeat the experience again, no matter how many times it takes, no matter how far you have to go. even if you're having to do it over all the way from the bottom.

because you've known life. and you want to know it again.

you want to know it forever.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

shark alert

sharks. oh god. why does it have to be sharks?

and great whites, too.

they're back.


i know, i know, they always are. but this time they're in force.

great white sharks have recently been spotted off the coast of Los Angeles county beaches. this in and of itself is not a big deal--a number of beaches around here are renowned great white shark grounds (just ask any surfer). but it appears that now there's a surge in their numbers at a number of popular locations in the area...and there's video to prove it. check out the KTLA Channel 5 video on this:
and here's the accompanying transcript of the report:
in case you don't know, i have a phobia about sharks. a serious one. i have numerous fears about the ocean, as ironic as that may seem for someone who enjoys so many ocean-related activities. but of all my ocean-related phobias the one towards sharks is the worst. especially regarding great whites. i have nightmares about them. i shudder to even think about them.

i've written about this before--reference:
it's not that i fear the odds of being attacked by a shark. that, i know (and, more importantly in terms of my fears, feel), is something that has a very low probability of occurring. the number of humans attacked by sharks is almost trivial given the number of people in the oceans of the world at any given time. even with the above news item, they note that in the Malibu area there have only been 4 attacks in the past 5 years, which is miniscule considering the number of beachgoers frequenting those beaches.

what i really fear is what happens in a shark attack, particularly a great white shark attack, particularly with the great whites that inhabit the coastal waters of California. it's the image of staring down a giant gaping bloody razor-sharp tooth-filled maw bent on chomping into you--through you--in one giant great big massive gulp...and knowing there's nothing you can do about it.

and yes, i am well aware that science believes that sharks are generally afraid of humans and moreover that they do not like the taste of human flesh. but as i've said before, science also believes that sharks are generally blind and often unable to distinguish among different kinds of prey, and that the one way they do identify prey is to take a nibble--and unfortunately, a nibble to a shark (especially a great white shark) is the equivalent of a human body. it doesn't help that the reason great whites frequent California waters is for the plentiful supply of seals, which for a near-sighted near-blind creature in murky polluted California water look all too much like a human being paddling/surfing/swimming in a wetsuit.

and what really gets me is that the great white sharks off the California coast use breach attacks (i.e., they come up directly from below, accelerating to the point of launching themselves completely out of the water into the air). given how turbid and obscure the waters around Southern California are (while swimming you frequently can't even see your arm stretched out in front of you), this pretty much means the last thing you'll ever see in the event of an attack are the jaws engulfing you.

usually i can deal with this. the allure of surfing and the need for open-water swimming is generally sufficient to call on me to face and address my fears.

but it raises my hackles to see news items like this. especially when they report things like observing 12 great white breaches in a single location within a single 5-day period, with all of them within the presence of human beings. and these are only the breaches that were observed by people on the scene, meaning that there's no telling how many breaches there were when no one was watching. to me, this just raises the odds of a hungry great whites believing they're in a high-target feeding area making a mistake and eating a human...a human like me.

right now, all i can think about is surfing or swimming in open water off the beach and one of these great whites just coming up from below and breaching right into me in one monstrous massive mindless soulless horrific terrifying crunching crushing *snap* of jaws.



sharks. oh god. why does it have to be sharks?

Friday, June 04, 2010

exercise and GPA




i'm not going to say too much about this, i'll just let you read it for yourself:
you can add this to the litany of things i've posted here regarding the benefits of exercise. it's just not physical. and note that they're not really asking for a lot of activity--just 20 minutes per day, which really isn't that much (especially considering that most people i know are maintaining weekly averages of at least 1 hour per day)...20 minutes isn't even enough time for most people to get cleaned up and dressed in the morning.

so for all those students out there griping about how much blubbery weight they've gained while in school (freshman 15, sophomore 50, junior 100, senior don't-even-ask, and all of it 100% prime US grade AAA pure unadulterated jiggly squishy juicy greasy fat) for the sake of studying: maybe it's time to rethink things a bit. based on this, it's entirely possible that your willingness to take on a decrease in fitness in exchange for an increase in grades was based on the wrong logic. if the study referenced in this article is true, the right logic works the other way, with an increase in fitness driving an increase in GPA.

in other words students need to get off their (fat) butts and get themselves into gear. which echoes something one of my coaches always said: lazy body = lazy spirit = lazy mind (reference: sirloin). and the mirror does not lie.

i'm definitely curious as to what the follow-up studies they mention are going to find.

but in the meantime: no excuses, kids.

Does increased activity mean higher GPA?
By Georgiann Caruso
CNN Medical Associate Producer

Twenty minutes of daily vigorous physical activity among college students may lead them to have grade point averages about .4 higher, on a scale of 4.0, compared with students who do not exercise.

A study presented Thursday at the American College of Sport Medicine's annual meeting demonstrated the relationship and reinforced the notion that exercise reduces stress, improves performance and increases a sense of well-being.

Joshua Ode supervised the study at a university in the northern U.S., of students ages 18-22. Ode said, "If the students are improving in the classroom, it may create a better campus environment. You're creating more successful students, which is the goal of universities."

Researchers studied 266 undergraduates and defined moderate activity as those exercises which don't make you sweat or breathe hard, and vigorous activity for those which do, of any type. Their findings were consistent regardless of gender or major.

Ode said one of the next questions for further study should include the impact of activity on GPA throughout college.

And it doesn't have to be seven days a week, Ode said. But the research suggests the more often, the better.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

national running day 2010

wow. i almost missed this. today, Wednesday, June 2, is National Running Day (here in the U.S.).

it's not an official (i.e., government-designated) holiday, but rather an informal one started at the grass-roots level. it's a recent creation, with the 1st event only being a year ago. i'm not sure how it formed or who created it, but i know that it began as a nation-wide project spanning multiple cities and is now being supported by major organizations in the running industry. ostensibly, as stated on the event website, the purpose is to promote running as a "healthy, cheap, and accessible form of exercise" and has a goal of getting the entire nation running.

you can check out the official website:
there's also a "meet-up" page, where you can check announcements (or create your own) of places to meet up with other people to go running as part of this day.
yes, i know, the cynical among you are probably saying this is really just a promotion and marketing campaign driven by the running industry for their products. and i think you have a point.

but my thoughts on this are:
  1. compared to other sports or recreational activities, running is comparatively cheap--all you need are shoes (and even there some people are choosing to run barefoot), while other sports often need special (read: expensive) equipment;
  2. running can be done almost anywhere, while other sports often need dedicated venues or facilities;
  3. running provides benefits to health both personal (physical, mental, spiritual) and communal (as a social activity) that outweigh any potential drawbacks; and
  4. you don't have to pay attention to the promotion & marketing if you don't want to, but instead just enjoy running as an activity that can improve your life
you don't have to be a world-class athlete to run. anyone can do it. and anyone does. it doesn't have to involve a lot of time, a lot of distance, a lot of effort, or a lot of suffering. it can be as simple and as easy as just taking a few moments to go a little way with some energy in a manner most enjoyable.

all you need is the desire to move. from there, it's a simple act to get up and go outside and reconnect with yourself, others around you, and the larger world in which you live...and in a way that makes life better.