Monday, January 31, 2011

defining endurance

those of you in the Ironman community probably know of the new triathlon-specific print magazine Lava. it's a relatively new magazine (less than a year old), and i was one of the community that was given a free subscription to it (don't worry, it's not that expensive).

if you haven't heard of it, i can tell you it's a very well done entrant into the market of tri-related periodicals that aims for a different look that can best be described as a more picturesque and more advanced--unlike most of the other magazines in the market, it appears to assume a pre-existing level of skill and racing (i.e., the content doesn't seem to go so often towards newbies or the uninitiated to the sport) and seems to have a cleaner format (i.e., the layout avoids glitz and goes more towards understatement). most of the material is for 70.3 and 140.6 (Ironman, Challenge, or independents), although i have seen materials for Olympic distance and Xterra.

you can check out the magazine for yourself:

i wanted to bring attention to an article in the current issue that i think is useful for anyone involved in ultra-endurance sports in general:
the article focuses on the definition of endurance. in case the link doesn't work, i've included the full text at the end of this post.

essentially, the article asserts that endurance can be viewed in 3 ways: 1) as the typical fitness/conditioning level for competitive race performance, 2) as the ability to maintain physical activity with age, and 3) as the capacity to sustain physical activity without injury to personal overall (physical or mental) health.

i find this interesting in that it expands the definition of endurance beyond the scope of fitness and conditioning that we tend to associate with the word.

too often, i think that for many people involved in endurance sports (triathlon or otherwise), some measure of their motivation is tied to attaining fitness and conditioning levels suitable for competition that invariably is rooted in personal desires for attention and aggrandizement.

to a degree, a hunger for glory is fine and natural, since it can fuel a process of self-improvement. but for some people, the hunger for glory mutates into overt narcissism and outright megolamania, which perverts self-improvement into self-primacy, where self-primacy makes the self more important than the world--or the people and events--around you...and as the universe always shows, no one is more important than anyone or anything else. no one.

the definition of endurance in the article, by expanding the term to include alternative notions, provides an alternative way of looking at endurance sport, with other scales by which to measure our motivation for involvement. by doing so, i think it offers some perspective as to what fitness, even on race day, can be about.

fitness doesn't have to be about seeking gratification through competition against others, but can also be about gratification by realizing what it's doing for the self, particularly in the face of the 2 greatest competitors against which everyone we must always face and which we may never truly vanquish: the progress of time and the continuation of our being within it.

House Calls: Defining Endurance
Dr. Philip Maffetone
January 31, 2011

To be human is to possess endurance. It’s built into our genes. One of the primary ways we’ve survived as a species is thanks to the role endurance has played in our own evolution. With bipedal and upright posture, feet designed for walking (instead of climbing and hanging from tree branches), and the ability to sweat (preventing the body from overheating), early humans were able to travel long distances without fatigue, heat exhaustion, or injury. The search for food or water could lead to newer life-sustaining environments many miles away.

If, over the course of several million years, natural selection has given us the gift of endurance, it’s only recently that sports science has begun to fully examine what it means for an athlete to go far at a consistent intensity. But what accounts for the physical differences among us regarding endurance? Why are some of us faster? Why do some of us excel at shorter distances while others race better in longer ones?

While genetics may dictate some of these performance differences, we actually control much of our natural athletic expression through the training and lifestyle habits we choose. Making the right decisions brings out the built-in endurance we already have in our bodies. We increase our endurance by being both fit and healthy.

By looking at the whole body and fine-tuning all of its functions, one can greatly improve endurance. Balancing the whole body is key to achieving athletic potential and optimum endurance. Many factors contribute to and create our endurance, from muscle function and fat burning, to the various nutrients we consume and the intricate workings of our brain. The optimal working of all these factors is important, and if one is deficient, endurance diminishes. Endurance helps make us more than the sum of our parts.

But what is the meaning of endurance for triathletes? Endurance can be defined in many ways. The popular college textbook Exercise Physiology, by Ardle, Katch, and Katch, discusses dozens of different aspects of endurance but does not actually define the term until page 756—and then only in more academic and terms. Other sports researchers and authors define endurance as a form of survival. But you don’t want to just survive a triathlon like the Ironman; you want to embrace it, live it, and enjoy it. Otherwise, why are you participating? One unique feature of endurance that differentiates it from true sprinting speed is effort: endurance is performed at sub-maximal exertion while sprinters perform at all-out, maximal effort.

Endurance has such a wide range of physical, chemical, and mental functions that I want to propose several important definitions.

First, endurance provides the physical, chemical, and mental tools to continually power our bodies over long distances while maintaining higher speeds at sub-maximum effort. Each of us, however, defines endurance differently. For some it’s running a 10K race, swimming a mile, or finishing an Ironman. Driven by the urge to compete at the highest levels, many endurance athletes express themselves by racing professionally. Going strong for eight or sub-nine hours in the lava steam bath known as the Hawaii Ironman requires superb mental and physical conditioning.

Endurance is an expression of the body’s aerobic system. This key system includes aerobic muscle fibers that burn fat for energy, the nerves and blood vessels associated with the muscles, and all the support mechanisms to put them in action, including the heart and lungs. Properly training the aerobic system can allow a runner to cover five miles in 45 minutes at a heart rate of 150, then progress to performing the same distance a month later at 43 minutes. Or, the cyclist who can ride a flat 10-mile course averaging a steady 15 miles per hour at a heart rate of 140, with proper endurance training can now ride the same course averaging 19 miles per hour at the same heart rate. This feature of endurance is what I call aerobic speed.

We obtain endurance by first developing our slow-moving parts. Our aerobic system contains “slow twitch” muscles that burn fat for energy. Training these relatively slow muscles is the first step to building greater endurance, including aerobic speed, an important component of endurance. Initially, these muscles will move us at relatively slow paces. But as the body can more readily convert fat to energy, aerobic muscle function improves, enabling our endurance to build.

Another important aspect of endurance, and one that sets it apart from all-out speed, has to do with aging. Endurance can persist for many years and decades. Instead, too many athletes lose endurance with age—not always for lack of training, but for lack of proper training, and lack of health. Many endurance athletes can continually improve well into their 40s and 50s. Master athletes often outrace younger athletes, despite having a lower maximum oxygen uptake (V02 max). But improvement over time also means that athletes who begin serious training relatively late, such as in their 30s or 40s, can perform their best even in their 50s and 60s. And, athletes beyond age 60 and 70 can still achieve remarkable feats, and sometimes even outrace some 20 and 30-year-olds.

Perhaps most importantly, endurance is the ability to carry on athleticism successfully without sacrificing our health. While much of our life, consciously or not, is dedicated to training for more endurance—and for most athletes this includes competition—there’s usually much more to do in the course of a day. Most of us also have other daily chores—careers, yard work, families, and other events that take our time and energy. Endurance sports are not separate from these other activities; balancing everything in our life is vital to building and maintaining the endurance we’ll use for training and competition.

Monday, January 24, 2011

the after-action report

one of the lessons i learned from my grandparents was their habit of always conducting what they called "the after-action report."

it was a term used in the U.S. military from what i took to be World War II, and referred to the requirement that all participants in an engagement--essentially, any soldier involved in a battle--submit themselves to a review of the events that had taken place. typically, the reviews involved a process wherein the subjects were asked to offer a personal recollection of what had transpired, which was then, along with the individual, given an analysis by other parties affiliated and unaffiliated with the person or the event.

the main purpose of the after-action report, apart from just taking a check on the soldier's state of mind and physical health in terms of fitness to continue, was to identify the mistakes that had been made and the lessons that needed to be learned. this was considered crucial, as it helped the individual and the group increase their knowledge and draw upon their experiences to improve their chances of survival and enable their continued progress.

my grandparents took this, partly out of habit, partly out of routine, but largely because it had been how they had been trained and had been expected for them to uphold for most of their professional careers. despite this, over the years that i knew them, i also came to see that they also retained the use of the after-action report because they saw its value and understood its worth in dealing with events in life.

both were of that generation that had grown up in the Great Depression, fought through World War II, and then gone on to long careers in the U.S. government. and from what i have gathered, for that generation the techniques and strategies developed in public service to deal with the problems of the larger world were also techniques and strategies that were translated into personal life to deal with the problems of the individual one as well. which meant that military things like the after-action report were taken not just as relevant for government work but also for life in general--and in some ways, if anything, they were seen as even more relevant.

this, however, assumed that the after-action report was done right.

done right, an after-action report, at least the way my grandparents did it, engaged in brutal honesty.



open presentation of the facts. precise marking of timing. full listing of behavior. complete delineation of reasoning. total detail of judgment. comprehensive revelation of options and outcomes. hypothetical and real. no matter how bad or how well. no matter how much it hurt. if anything, the more it hurt, the better, since we have a way of generating lies and half-truths to cover up our mistakes.

this wasn't just for all the parties involved in assessing someone else. it was also supposed to occur within every person assessing themselves. if anything, it was especially to apply to assessing the self...because we know the truth, deep down in places we can never understand and from which we always seek to hide but which we always, always, always know to be there.

but that was the easy part.

the hard part, and the most important part, was to then distill the lessons for the future.

this was hard, because distilling the lessons required the diligence to see the mistakes, the intelligence to identify the solutions, the wisdom to discern the best ways to implement them, the courage to actually do them, and then the sensitivity to make sure that no more harm came about as a result.

this was important, however, because without this the entire purpose of the after-action report was rendered useless. and that purpose, above all else, was to increase knowledge and draw upon experiences to improve chances of survival and enable continued progress.

in other words, to improve. to become better.

which i guess is why i've come to cling to it so.

because in my life--in my training, my racing, my studying, my working, my sleeping, my eating, my breathing, my thinking, my dreaming, my living, my journey in the distance--i've come to realize the same thing that my grandparents did:

what i as an individual and we as a collective and humanity as a species and creation as this cosmos is really all about is progress.


becoming better.

everyone and everything and everyall that is together in this existence.

better than what we remember we were before. more than what we think we are now. greater than whatever we could possibly wish we will be in the future.


and for that to happen we--i, we, us, here, now--have to learn from all that which has gone before.

we have to know what happened and we have to distill our lessons.

we have to have the after-action report.

and above all, we have to live it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

LA marathon 2011 sign-up

just a short note today, to share with anyone who might be interested.

i signed up for the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon. i did it partially to alleviate the monotony (i haven't done a race of any kind in a long time, and so all i've had is just training with no end), partially to get back into some semblance of shape (as much as i've kept my weight under control, my fitness levels are atrocious, especially after the winter holiday season), and partially just to force myself to socialize more (training is lonely, and i really do need to meet some people willing to share what it is i have to share).

am i in shape? what? are you kidding? that's comedy, my friend. i'm struggling to even run 8 miles right now. but i've got about 2 months, and that should be enough to get the necessary fitness levels back. i definitely won't be in condition to race it, but i'll certainly be able to finish, and--most importantly for me this time--to do so having a good time.

race day is Sunday, March 20, 2011. if you want to join up, registration at this time is still open:

the race itself isn't anything really big. i've covered the race distance before, both in Ironmans and as races unto themselves, so i don't foresee this as being any major life-altering experience. if anything, i'm just going to treat this as a nice long aerobic workout in a social environment where i get to meet new people who have something in common with me.

i do, however, do see the race as being novel, as in fun and unique. the race course is all downhill, starting from Dodger Stadium and ending all the way near the Santa Monica Pier. according to the event organizers, the race will have 1 Los Angeles landmark for every mile. this will allow runners to enjoy many of the world-famous landmarks of the city devoid of traffic at a pedestrian level--which is something, considering just how unlikely it is that anyone can go past any of them without street congestion.

for my part, i'm going to do the race carrying a camera, so i can take pictures on the way. hopefully i'll be able to put together a decent log of a marathon from a racer's perspective for everyone to see.

you can check out the video of the race course from the race website:

there's also an animated course map:

you can also check out the PDF of the course map and profile:

if anyone else is planning to be in LA on March 20 and you feel like doing (or watching) the race, feel free to join me. i'd be happy for the company. and events like this are always more fun the more people are in it together.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

letting go

Buddhism teaches about the impermanence of things and the transient nature of life, and that the one of the main causes of our misery is our inability to let go of that which we cannot change. to resolve this, we are asked to practice detachment and release ourselves from what has become our past.

it's an important thing to remember, since a fixation on the world around us invariably ties us to things--people, objects, events, thoughts, sensations, emotions--that become baggage encumbering our minds. and mental baggage has a way of becoming of physical baggage impeding our abilities to progress in the journey of life.

we see it all the time in racing, especially in the distance as the miles roll on, when it becomes clear just how important it is to jettison all the excess load we carry: competitors struggling, gaunt, haggard, worn, beaten, dragged down by internal burdens exposed by race conditions, chained to the shackles of their own making, trapped in personal battles to overcome barriers they cannot bring themselves to let go. it's a miracle they finish, let alone make any progress at all.

we are creatures caught within the confines of linear time, and by allowing our past to hold our present we are held back from our future.

this is not to say that we should forget. that would deny us the reflection we need to know the life that we have been given...the kind of reflection needed to separate us from the banality and brutality and beastiality of this existence we as humans were meant to transcend.

what it does mean, however, is that we recognize what has gone before and understand its connection to us, and then detach ourselves to the extent that we can realize the lessons we need to go forward. this applies for both that we wish to keep and that we wish to release.

for that we wish to keep, the best way to honor the best of the past, especially those who loved us, is to know that their greatest wish would have been to let us do what they could not: proceed and progress and prosper in all the ways possible to us.

for that we wish to release, the only way to escape the worst of the past, especially for those who hurt us, is to know that their deepest desire would have been to make us share the tragedies of their doom by repeating all the mistakes that were made.

as to how to distinguish between the two: the greater lessons, the better prayers, the higher hopes--these we should take with us, because they are the things that help us proceed on the journey we must follow to find our life's full meaning before we reach its finish. everything else we need to leave where they remain, because they are the things that hinder us from making any movement at all.

to go forward we must be free. to be free we must let go. so that we can release the past and allow ourselves to live fully in the present, and from here move in the way we were meant to move: as free as the moments falling upon the waters, transcendent beyond the rivers of time to the full glories of the future.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

chrissie wellington

endurance sports don't often get that much attention, whether in the professional, amateur, or spectator communities. and they certainly don't get much attention from the sedentary world at large. so i always consider it notable when it does appear in the public media. which is why i wanted to bring everyone's attention to some recent articles that came out on one of the more unique talents in Ironman racing: Chrissie Wellington.

Chrissie Wellington is one of those stories that you sometimes hear about through legend and folk tales: an anonymous person who tries out an a lark for a challenge most consider challenging, and promptly finds herself one of the most dominant figures to have ever been involved in the sport. in her case, it's not a legend and not a folk tale. you can read the spate of articles about her at the following:
i took the liberty of placing the text of the Guardian UK article at the bottom of this post, since i think it does the most to reveal her story. i should also note that she has her own website:

there are a number of comments i want to point out that i think people should take from these articles:
  • she is a genetic wonder. not just in the sense of skill (e.g., motor coordination, lung capacity, etc.) but also in an area that often is under-rated (and wrongly so): resilience. for those of you in the sport, and for those of you who are not, it's important to know that the best athletes are not just the ones with the most talent in the skills required by their sport, but also the ones whose bodies are capable of sustaining the punishment required to develop and use those skills in the sport. and swimming, biking, and running over the course of an Ironman, especially at the highest levels of competition, is supremely punishing. Chrissie's body is not only gifted in terms of aerobic and anaerobic abilities, but also in terms of sustaining the workload of training necessary to take advantage of them.
  • mental attitude. to me, i think this is really her weapon. based on all the professional athletes i know (and yes, i do have a number of friends who are professional athletes, including in Ironman), at the highest levels all competitors have to some degree comparable physical abilities. as a result, the major differentiator among them is training, random accidents, and the mind. most understand how to tailor training specifically to their own bodies and random accidents are something that cannot be controlled. this leaves the mind as their personal driver of competition (ironic as that may be for something as physical as sport). Chrissie's mental attitude can be summed up in one word: positive. nothing but positive. in survival training, it is often stressed that positive mental attitude is crucial to surviving and overcoming challenges, and that the greater the challenge the more important it is to have the attitude that you can deal with everything before you--not to be over-optimistic or unrealistic, but to be constructive and maintain confidence that you have the ability to respond and resolve your challenges. Chrissie, more than any other athlete i've observed in Ironman, is positive. in many ways, she almost seems to relish what she sees as an opportunity to face the challenges of Ironman racing.
  • Ironman is not glamorous. and i think this is a reality that most people need to understand. but it should not deter anyone from the rewards that it provides. i've told people about what happens on race day, but nobody ever believes me. people urinate while racing, defecate while racing, spit and blow snot while racing. it's not pretty. i don't personally do it, but then i'm not close to winning. as a pro friend of mine once told me: "dude, if you knew it meant a chance at winning, you'd do it." having said that, watching other people do it, as much as i find it disgusting and squeamish, doesn't deter me from the sport. it reminds us just how big a challenge Ironman is, and just how hard even talents like Chrissie have to work to compete in it. in so doing, it gives the sport that much more meaning, and makes its rewards that much greater--not just in terms of winning or losing, but in terms of the personal development and personal revelations that we make along the way. every Ironman is its own lesson, and is something that'll change your life for the better forever.
i'll leave you with that, and let you read the articles for yourself. i've never met Chrissie, but some of my friends have. some even trained with her for a short time. from what i hear, she's nothing but genuine, and a true credit to the sport of Ironman, and so the kind of representative figure Ironman needs for the public to see. she's also a reminder that the stories are true: anyone has the potential to do an Ironman. anyone. and sometimes, they can not only do an Ironman, but they can actually dominate. you just don't know until you try.

Chrissie Wellington Interview: the Iron Lady
Lena Corner
Guardian UK
Sunday, January 2, 2011

It is rare to hear someone so openly appreciative of their own physique as Chrissie Wellington. "I love my body," she declares. "I am more than content with it. I take a holistic view and see it not just as the contours of my skin but as the muscles, sinews, bones and everything else. This body has taken me to heights that I never imagined. I do love it, and I don't mean that in an arrogant way."

Most 33-year old-women would rather curl up and die than pose, oiled up, in a swimsuit in the middle of a busy cafĂ©. Not Wellington. She leaps on to a table in the canteen at Birmingham University in front of the gathered students and happily strikes pose after pose for the photographer. You can see why she shows such willing – hers is a body that has been worked on and honed to within an inch of its life. "I'm not flawless," she says standing, muscular arms akimbo, on the wobbly table. "I have unattractive feet, unruly hair and oversized calves, but I push this body to its absolute limit and it has never let me down."

Wellington is an ironman. That is, her chosen sport is a race which consists of a 3.8km swim, followed by a 180km bike ride, rounded off with a full marathon. It's one of the most hardcore tests of human endurance there is and comes with associated stories of medical horrors and bleeding athletes crawling over the finish line. She caused a sensation in the sport in 2007 when, in only her first year as a professional athlete, she won the ironman World Championship in Hawaii at her first attempt. Finishing five minutes ahead of the field, she blew her rivals out of the water and left commentators speechless because they had no idea who she was. She has continued to astound – rarely losing, outperforming even top male athletes and pushing her body to feats no one thought possible. She holds all the world records for her sport, wins many of her races by half an hour and is by some distance the greatest female endurance competitor in the world.

Wellington's story is even more remarkable because for a long time she had no inkling of these superhuman capabilities. Up until a few years ago she was an ordinary woman with an ordinary job in the civil service. As a child growing up in rural Norfolk right through to her early 20s, she never showed any sign of excelling athletically. "I never did any sport at a high level," she says. "Winning that race in Hawaii was surreal – I still have to pinch myself. I went from being a nobody to winning the biggest race in our sport on the biggest world stage. It changed my life forever."

It all started in 2001 when, not long out of Birmingham University with a degree in geography, Wellington decided to have a go at running the London Marathon. "I had just got back from travelling and had gained a bit of weight, so I started running as a way of controlling it," she says. "I wasn't fast and I didn't do it in a structured way – I just put on my old running shoes and went out and ran." Wellington got round in a little over three hours. "I never expected to do it that quickly," she says. "And I was surprised at how little discomfort I felt."

The following year she was gearing up to have another go when, cycling to work through Clapham, she was hit by a car. "I went over, smashed my chin, damaged my quad muscles and wasn't able to run for four months," she says. So Wellington started swimming instead and soon after was spotted in a pool by a coach who asked her if she'd ever considered a triathlon. "I'd never given it a moment's thought," she says, "but a seed was planted. I started thinking that I should give this triathlon malarkey a shot. I love the outdoors and I do love a challenge."

Wellington signed up to do a short super sprint triathlon and invited her parents to cheer her on. "They came up all the way from Norfolk to Redditch," she says. "It was pouring with rain. I was wearing a borrowed wetsuit and when I got into the water it flooded. I couldn't lift my arms and I almost sank. I had to be rescued by a kayaker. Not a very auspicious start."

Undeterred, Wellington signed up for a couple of longer races, both of which she won. "I was still very much a novice," she says. "The night before one of the races I had to be shown how to clip and unclip my shoes from my bike. But what I lacked in understanding of the sport I made up for in drive and determination."

After these wins she decided it was time to get herself a coach and joined a team headed by the controversial trainer Brett Sutton. Widely recognised as one of the best triathlon coaches in the sport, Sutton is also a convicted sex offender. In 1999 he admitted to five offences against a teenage swimmer in Australia and is banned from coaching there for life.

"There is a lot of controversy surrounding Brett, but he was absolutely fantastic for me," says Wellington. "He has an authoritarian coaching style which I found difficult, because I like to question things. It was also very hard for me to trust him, and initially our relationship was volatile. It was only when I gave myself over to him and stopped thinking and followed his every order without question that I started achieving success."

It was Sutton who spotted that Wellington had astonishing aerobic capabilities and mental strength, which made her perfect for competing over enormous distances. One of the first things he did was sign her up to do a long-course triathlon in Alpe d'Huez, which takes place on some of the gruelling climbs of the Tour de France. She got a puncture, catapulted over a crash barrier and still managed to win.

Five weeks after the Alps, Sutton sent Wellington to Korea to take part in her first ironman. "It was 90F, with 90% humidity, but even so I was chomping at the bit – I couldn't wait to race," she says. "My naivety in my capability was a blessing. I had no expectations. It turned out to be a war of attrition and a fight for survival because it was so incredibly, incredibly difficult. But I loved it, really loved it." She beat her nearest female rival by 50 minutes.

Which is how in October 2007, Wellington, equipped only for the first time with a proper time-trial bike, found herself on the starting line for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. She began with a distinctly average swim, three minutes slower than she was aiming for. Then at around 130km into the bike ride, with Sutton's words "Don't defer to anybody" ringing in her ears, she started moving up the pack. "I came up to the lead group of girls and instead of thinking: 'These are the champions and the best in the world', I just went straight past them." Even so, Wellington never believed she would hold on. "Halfway through the marathon I still never thought I would win," she says. "You know they are behind you and you never know what they are capable of. I was running scared the whole way, thinking: 'They'll catch me, they'll catch me.' But they just didn't."

As Wellington ran she used a number of mental tricks to propel her towards the finishing line. In her head she went over and over the lyrics from "Circle of Life" from the Lion King, Leona Lewis's "A Moment Like This" and Queen's "We are the Champions". "Quite embarrassing, really," she says. "Shows my total lack of taste in music." She also recited stanzas from Rudyard Kipling's "If" – a poem which was given to her by Sutton, the dog-eared photocopy of which she still takes to every race. "Because when you're 30k into the marathon," she says, "it's not your body that's carrying you, it's your mind."

There were no friends or family there to share Wellington's big moment. A few competitors she knew from the circuit supported her as she was thrust blinking into the limelight, but aside from that she was alone. It is still widely acknowledged as the biggest shock result ever seen in the sport, and she says that from the moment she crossed the finishing line to the end of that year everything passed in a blur.

To prove it wasn't a fluke, Wellington went back and won in 2008 and again in 2009 (she couldn't take part in 2010 because she had pneumonia, strep throat and West Nile virus). In 2009 she smashed the ironman world record by 12 minutes; she broke that by another 12 minutes not long after. The day after we meet she is due to receive an honorary doctorate from Birmingham University, and two days after that an MBE from the Queen. "I will have worn more posh frocks this week than I have in all my life," she says.

Wellington describes herself as an obsessive compulsive, and it is this trait, she believes, which explains her late-blooming success. The reason she didn't stumble into her sport sooner was because in her youth all this drive was directed into her studies. "I was very, very focused on getting the highest possible grades," she says. "When my studies were completed, all of a sudden I'd achieved my goal and needed another one."

She also cheerfully admits to really enjoying pain. Even in training, she regularly pushes herself beyond normal thresholds. "I go beyond what I think is possible; I punish myself and really learn to suffer," she says. "That gives me the peace of mind and confidence to know that when I'm racing and it hurts, I can overcome it. When I get off the bike, for instance, I don't think: 'Oh Lordy, I've got a marathon to do', I think: 'Bring it on.'"

Sutton, who is famous for his brutal training techniques, would regularly have his athletes doing marathons on the treadmill or running with rucksacks filled with rocks, and all the while refusing them water so their bodies learned how to deal with dehydration.

The extremes seem to amuse Wellington. "There are a lot of people in the medical tent at the end of an ironman," she tells me with a grin. She tells me of the chafing, the "nasty sores and cuts" she gets on her undercarriage after five hours on a bike, blisters the size of tea cups, and how in most races she usually crosses the line with a couple fewer toenails than she set off with.

She has no sense of embarrassment either. She will regularly greet her boyfriend after a training session, her face whitened with dried-up dribble. "If you've got time to wipe away the dribble then you're not working hard enough," she says. She thinks nothing of stopping on the roadside in the middle of a race, whipping down her shorts and going to the toilet. "You lose all sense of modesty because a lot happens to your body during the eight or so hours it takes to do an ironman," she says. "I've done diarrhoea in my shorts and left it trickling down my leg, but I've never been one to be ashamed of that kind of thing." On her blog she cheerily apologises to the cyclists caught behind her for the "six pees" she did as she went. "If you do it on a downhill," she says, "you don't make too many friends."

Her diet, too, is extraordinary. She eats a healthy, balanced diet, but has to consume around 5,000 calories a day, so the volume is enormous. A pre-race meal consists of an industrial-sized bowl of tuna and tomato pasta the night before and white bread, jam and full-fat cream cheese on the morning of the race. After the last ironman of this year's season in Arizona she demolished two burgers, three plates of chips and 15 donuts

Wellington, who split with Sutton in 2008 ("not acrimoniously"), now lives with her boyfriend Tom Lowe, also an ironman, in Boulder, Colorado, where they train together. She has had to make, she admits, enormous sacrifices for her sport. Not only moving away from family and friends, but giving up a promising career in development economics which took her to Nepal for nearly two years and is a subject about which she remains passionate. As well as all of that, she has given up all spontaneity. "Being an ironman is a 24/7 job," Wellington says. "It's not just training, which I do up to six hours a day; it's eating right, it's recovery, it's massage, it's injury prevention and it's sleep. That doesn't leave room for the other things I enjoy. It's a monotonous, regimented, monodimensional life."

What she has gained, however, is a platform, which she is hugely grateful for and determined to use responsibly. She raises large sums for charity and regularly campaigns on development issues. "I know I'm not David Beckham," she says, "but I do believe I am a role model to show that anything is possible and that your limits might not be where you think that they are. I'm continually surprising myself by what I can achieve."

Due to the all-consuming nature of the ironman, Wellington says she probably won't go on much past 40. Does she plan to have children? "I definitely think once I retire I'd like to have them," she says. "It is possible to combine both, but I don't think I'd like to. I like to be able to dedicate myself to the task in hand. For me it's one thing or another. All or nothing."

Saturday, January 01, 2011

earn it

earn it.

it was a repeated admonition my grandfather always made to me throughout my grade school youth, frequently delivered with varying degrees of exasperation and disapproval, particularly if he felt i was exhibiting symptoms of entitlement or a lack of diligence.

did i want recognition? earn it.

did i want gratitude? earn it.

did i want an allowance? earn it.

did i want time to spend with my friends? earn it.

i remember there was one time when we'd been eating a bag of his favorite food: pecans. he'd been breaking them open with a nut-cracker, and alternating handing them to me and eating them himself. being young and perpetually hungry, i'd been eating them faster than he could open them, and had taken to holding out my hand to ask for more.

i remember he'd stopped, and with a voice thick in an equal parts mixture of disappointment and disgust pointed his finger at me and said "don't beg. don't act like you deserve things. don't think you can get anything for free."

his delivery at the time was a little harsh, but it was one that he always made at that stage of my life: nothing is free. there is always a price that has to be paid, and no one else can pay it for you. as a result, if you want something, you have to be willing to do what it takes to earn it.

i've come to think about those words a lot in the years since he passed away. particularly as i've gotten older and encountered things that i never expected or could have understood as a child, things that confronted me with the true nature of the challenges of living that exist this world. i've come to take the words beyond the literal sense to a more figurative one, since i've found in them a certain truth that's helped me understand how to resolve the things i've seen.

you see, life is fragile. as a result, nothing is guaranteed. which means that the things we want to see preserved and propagated require action by us to do so. because in a world where suffering is common and brutality is so often the norm, the few good things that exist--the kind of things associated with words like just and noble and virtuous and kind, the kind of things that make the world a better place, the kind of things that make life worth living--have a value that cannot be described or measured or perceived...a value that must, if they are to continue, be paid. as a result, they must be respected, not just for the cost incurred to keep them but also for what they represent: something with meaning in a world that has none.

it's helped me learn how to appreciate things more. and thereby helped me to get a deeper sense of life and living. and to accept just what it means for there to be good, and just what it takes to get there.

because nothing is free. there is always a price that has to be paid, and no one else can pay it for you. as a result, if you want something, you have to be willing to do what it takes to earn it.

particularly if it's special, particularly if it's important, particularly if it's good. which in this world is everything. that's what makes it priceless.

you want to be an Ironman? earn it.

you want to have an A? earn it.

you want to have a house? earn it.

you want to have a job? earn it.

you want true love? earn it.

you want to eat? earn it.

you want to breathe? earn it.

you want to live? earn it.

earn it.