Sunday, December 16, 2012

living differently

we have a tendency as human beings to have trouble with perspective. it's almost pathological. we seem unable to help ourselves see the important things in life.

our inclinations are to fixate on the immediate and proximate, focusing only on that we can recognize through our senses and contemplate within our reference. and because we are limited creatures with limited awareness, that focus is small, leaving us to obsess in confined states of perpetual claustrophobia.

in such conditions, it's easy to become jaded to the world we know. easy to become cynical to what we believe. easy to become blind to anything other than the insanity within which we are imprisoned. and so easy to become lost in the mundanities and the exigencies of our living.

it's self-reinforcing. because the more we are lost the less we see, and the less we see the more we are lost.

which is tragic. because every race has a finish, making the time within it finite. given that we are linear creatures that live through time in only one direction, it means that we have a scarcity of moments to make our journeys meaningful before we meet our end. this makes it imperative that we dedicate our time to that which we consider most important.

and this requires that we think about what it is we believe important and why it is we believe so, and commit ourselves to pursuing them through as many of the remaining moments as possible that we may have, and then doing so as much as we can as often as we can as long as we can as sincerely as we can as intensely as we can as faithfully as we can as there is a multitude of stars in the night to remind us that as much as our time is finite the cosmos within us around us above us beyond us is eternal.

and calling to us to look.

and, more than this, to see.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

another holiday season, again

well, here we are again.

another holiday season. another year of holiday crowds in holiday panic with holiday sprees for holiday things to bring holiday cheer on holiday celebrations for holiday times.

i'm less than enthused.

in a lot of ways, i'm actually disturbed.

ostensibly, this time of year finds ties across multiple faiths originating in locations that mark now as the passage into the depths of winter to see within in its darkness the visage of the unknown and find therein an understanding of the fragility of life and take from it a reminder of the profound mystery that lies beyond death and from that come to know the truths known only to the stars beckoning forth in a cold night sky.

and i consider that important.

because in a world so driven by the manic frenzy of a synthesized culture of inflated consumption driven by engorged desire, the compulsion becomes to satiate the self.  to the point that we lose sense of all else outside our cravings. including all else lost to feed them--all else lost, not just in terms of what, but also in terms of whom.

it measures the price of our consumption, our cravings, our selfishness, by the cost of other's lives.

and that is very high.

and for those who have committed themselves to undertaking journeys for the purpose of discerning creation's truths, this is insulting.

because it ignores the encroaching darkness, blinds itself to the unknown, forsakes the flicker that is life to a final surrender in death, and denies the truths meant to guide us through the infinite cold of eternity.

because it prevents us from seeing the stars in the sky.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

diwali 2012

as part of the multi-cultural portion of this blog, i wanted to bring everyone's attention to the Indian festival of Diwali, which starts today. Diwali, translated into english as the "Festival of Light(s)", is a 5-day festival that falls in between the end of the hot season and the beginning of the monsoon season in India. following the Hindu lunar calendar, its date changes every year in the Gregorian calendar. for 2012, it commences on Tuesday, November 13 and ends Sunday, November 18.

during Diwali, communities display brightly-colored ornaments and decorative paintings made from colored powder, and come together each night for fireworks, candles, and lights. there are pastries and candies specific to the holiday, meant to be given to families and strangers alike. while primarily celebrated in India, it's common to all Vedic civilizations, including Burma (Myanmar), Fiji, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nepal, Singapore, and Sri Lanka.

you can learn more about Diwali at the following links and video:

Diwali reflects some fairly universal themes that most of us can appreciate. the 5 days ostensibly celebrate the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and wisdom over ignorance. as such it marks a normative identification about the aspects of life that are "good" versus all that which is "bad", and an alliance by humanity with the former in opposition to the latter. its celebration, however, is meant not just in association with humanity as a whole, but also meant in recognition of each human as an individual. essentially, it notes the struggle within each person to arise from the depths of their own ignorance and artifice and reach the higher truths of existence, and through such truths realize the meaning of life in the face of eternity: kindness, compassion, appreciation, understanding, and wisdom. every one, each one, all. in joy.

like i said, all things that are universal for most of us.

what makes Diwali unique, however, is that it is a single holiday shared by multiple religions. Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists all partake in Diwali, making it one of the few major multi-cultural multi-faith events in the world today. the extent to which Diwali is celebrated can be seen in the picture at the top of this post, which shows India at night during Diwali. it's a profound, powerful statement of harmony and commonality of a desire for the better parts of the human soul.

and this is something that i find appeals to me.

one of the reasons i like to travel is that it gives me an opportunity to encounter different cultures and expand my awareness of the world. but the reason i like to do so in the context of doing international Ironmans is that it allows me the experience of seeing the ways different people think about the important things in life. i count myself lucky that i have (to the extent that i've been able) met people within the situation of a race, when--despite all the differences in culture, language, or place of origin--everyone shares the same sojourn in the space of miles and where everyone in the depths of the distance is driven to discard the superficial trappings of their mundane lives and is left to face the most fundamental, simple, pure aspects of their own natures...because it's then that you find out what people consider to be most dear.

and what i've found is a spirit in keeping with the message called forth by the core of Diwali.

because at the core of every race is a deeply personal, highly individual endeavor to learn about the self. and while the exploration of the self is manifested in a physical act of the body, it involves a deeper and more visceral level incorporating an expression of the mind and a testimony of the soul, and so becomes in truth a total revelation of the self. more than that, it becomes transformative, as a race is a transfiguration of space and time that crystallizes into moments of understanding that touches the horizons of forever.

and that understanding is the understanding that comes from realizing what it means to move.

and breathe.

and feel.

and see.

and smell.

and taste.

and listen.

and know.

and so to exist.

and thereby look upon the void of mortality and touch the face of life and in its mystery reach the truths that are carried within the heart of eternity beating its time in each and every one of us.

and because this journey is undertaken for each one every one all of one in us by us for us about us, we become aware of the value of kindness and the power of compassion and the need for appreciation so that awareness becomes understanding and knowledge becomes wisdom and being becomes enlightenment and we become the spirit coursing through the reaches of infinite.

and that is hope.

and that is joy.

and that is human.

good over evil. light over darkness. wisdom over ignorance.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

more on kids in endurance sports




i don't know about this:
i've written on the topic of kids involved in endurance sports before:
my views on this have smoothed out somewhat since, but i still have some concerns.

i want to be clear that i think endurance sports, just like other sports and other forms of physical activity, is good for individuals on physical, mental, and spiritual levels--in fact, that's the entire point of this blog. and i think endurance sports should be encouraged and promoted for everyone regardless of age or background.

but i want to also be clear that endurance sports, just like other sports and other forms of physical activity, has issues that need to be addressed by anyone seeking to become involved. it has to be undertaken with an understanding of the risks involved. among these risks are the unique issues with young children.

too much of anything can be unhealthy. and "too much" to me is anything that induces debilitating long-term injuries, with the damage being physical, mental, or spiritual. just like i was concerned with an 8-year old running 2200 miles across China, i am concerned with 10 and 12-year-olds running marathons and contemplating ultra-marathons. what may be a moderate or painless to an adult may be difficult or injury-inducing to a child. what may be a mild or temporary injury to an adult may be severe or permanently debilitating to a child. the constitution of an adult is capable of sustaining more punishment than the constitution of a child. as a result, i think caution has to be exercised in any regimen involving physical volume or intensity upon children.

to the credit of the New York Times article, it does not that such caution does appear to be in effect, and so there is a difference between the case in the article and the case involving the 8-year old in China. the New York Times article references medical monitoring, input from doctors, and family discussions. all of which i can accept as good.

however, this brings up other concerns. first is the question of whether this sports interest is more about the child or more about the parent(s). the history of athletes driven more by their parents than themselves is not good. it reflects a dysfunctionality with parents invariably projecting their own interests upon their children, resulting in an impairment of the child and family. second is the question of burnout, in that undertaking too much of a activity too soon may lead to exhaustion and withdrawal from the activity. this is the kind of thing that athletes don't always see in themselves and so has to depend upon the perspectives of moderation held by 3rd parties--essentially, someone has to save athletes from themselves.

you can read the article for yourself and make your own decisions. in case the link doesn't work i've included the full text of the article below.

but like i said, while my views on the issue have smoothed out over time and i can accept most of what the kids in the article are doing, i'm still uncomfortable with the idea of any kid--and even anyone--deciding to load up and blitz themselves into ultra-distance endurance racing. i can accept that there are things that families can do to make it medically acceptable, and i can accept that it is statistically possible that there are genetically-endowed individuals who can do it. and yes, it's impressive. but still, i would be very cautious.

Young Endurance Runners Cause Cheers and Concerns
Barry Bearak
New York Times
 November 3, 2012
HUNTSVILLE, Utah — The national championship trail run was held on a course both grueling and beautiful, more than 13 miles through the mountains near the Great Salt Lake. Most of it was an unrelenting up-and-down, the path often hugging ridges along a steep plunge, curling through a forest of scrub oak, white pine and red maple. The elevation hit a lung-busting 7,300 feet.
The race began in the parking lot of a ski lodge, and there was reason to do a double take as hundreds of men and women gathered near the starting line. In the front row, among some of America’s best endurance runners, were two scrawny girls barely tall enough to reach the elbows of the others.
From afar, they looked like twin pixies, Tinker Bell One and Tinker Bell Two, though the sisters were actually two years apart. Kaytlynn, 12, and Heather, 10, had long blond hair tied back with elastic, and the younger girl had a tiny stuffed animal — a raccoon — pinned to the front of her sports bra. Each of them weighed about 60 pounds. Their thighs were not much bigger than saucers, and the full loop of their hips was only 21 inches.
These children sweetened the scene with a dollop of cuteness, but curious onlookers were unsure whether to be intrigued or appalled. The trail’s ascent was an exhausting slog, and the precarious downhill required careful balance as swift feet inevitably slid on the loose and stony ground. The dry, thin air could suck the strength out of even the fittest runners.
Were these girls really capable of competing with elite athletes? And even if they were, was it a good idea for children this young to be in a race this tough?
The announcer certainly made a fuss over them. Kaytlynn and Heather Welsch were from Alvin, Tex., he said, happily promising, “These girls aren’t just here to run; they’re here to win.”
Kaytlynn maneuvered herself into a spot at the starting line next to Max King, 32, who had won the race four years in a row and placed sixth in the steeplechase at this year’s United States Olympic trials. The girl’s father had told her she needed to start out fast with the best of the men. “Don’t you get caught way in the back,” he admonished her. “Run out front, run smart.”
King was astonished to be standing beside someone so tiny. Kaytlynn was only 4 feet 5 inches. Towering above her to the left was the broad-shouldered B. J. Christenson, a champion triathlete from Utah. He stood 6-7.
The race traditionally begins with an explosion from a small cannon. “Cover your ears,” King advised the girl. But Kaytlynn simply stared straight ahead, her angular jaw locked tight. She leaned forward with her left hand cupped around her left knee, ready for a quick first step with the right.
The announcer yet again delighted in the sight of the blond sprites at the front. “Good gosh, look out for the Welsch sisters,” he called out cheerfully.
Then the cannon blasted with an enormous boom.
Uncommon Endurance
During the previous two years, Kaytlynn had competed in more than 90 endurance events, about a dozen more than her little sister. Some were children’s races of modest distances, but most often they covered mileage meant to challenge adults. Kaytlynn had finished two marathons. Both girls competed in triathlons, an amalgam of limb-exhausting skills where they typically swam 500 meters, cycled 13 miles and ended with a 3.1-mile run.
The sisters were better on their feet than in the water or on bikes. And they preferred trail runs to road races, bored with long jaunts on city streets. “All you see is house, house, lamppost, lamppost,” Kaytlynn complained.
For them, running trails along rivers and ravines was the most fun, though they sometimes fretted they would be lost in the woods or attacked by a bear. The fear was like something out of a children’s story, half imaginary and half real.
“Kaytlynn thinks there’s a giant sea monster at the bottom of every lake,” her younger sister said, and both girls giggled.
The championship race in Utah was organized by Xterra, a company that puts on a popular series of trail runs and triathlons. A month before, in late August, Kaytlynn won the women’s division of a major 13-mile Xterra race through Cameron Park in Waco, Tex. Heather finished third.
Will Ross, an event co-director, said he had never seen the girls before, and he recalled chuckling as they darted out in front. Soon they would come to Jacob’s Ladder, a 100-foot ascent on steep and uneven steps. Some of those stairs were thigh-high on these girls, and Ross was used to watching foolhardy runners jack-rabbit to the top only to use themselves up and pay for it later.
But the girls ran with the steady motion of metronomes. Some of the men passed them later, but the favorite among the women, Claudia Spooner, caught up to Heather only at Mile 5 and finished two minutes behind Kaytlynn.
“I was astounded they could run like that,” Spooner said.
A 13-mile trail run is much harder than a half-marathon, its road race equivalent. The course in Waco swoops and twists through cedar groves and bamboo forests, passing along limestone cliffs above the Brazos River. Although loose dirt is easier on the legs than pavement, the trail presents the ankle-twisting hazards of rocks and bulging roots and fallen branches.
Runners needed to be wary and spry, and this favors seasoned athletes. Women often peak in their 30s or even 40s. Spooner, 42, had won the Cameron Park race in 2010 and placed second in 2011. A triathlete and a coach, she said she felt conflicted about these “beautiful but teeny girls.” They were smaller than her 8-year-old son, and she would never put him in such a race. It was too hard on young bodies, she said. It could harm their growth.
Afterward, Spooner spoke to the girls’ father, who said they had driven to Waco from the junior national triathlon championships in Ohio. She sized him up as a pushy sort, a distance-running version of a Little League dad. “He told me he’d been very hard on the older girl” for finishing only sixth in Ohio, Spooner recalled. “I said, ‘Really, is it that big a deal? She’s 12.’ ”
Kaytlynn’s win in Waco was celebrated on Outside magazine’s Web site. The headline called her a “12-year-old trail running phenom,” and the story provoked a long string of comments on Twitter. Many readers found the girls awesome and inspiring, but others predicted trouble for their developing bodies and an early burnout of their competitive fire. Wayward parenting was mentioned.
The Welsches were familiar with such rebukes. Kaytlynn said, “Sometimes in a race, people will say ‘good job,’ but a lot tell me I shouldn’t be running and I’m going to hurt myself.”
Heather added, “They don’t like it when we pass them up, and some of them say the ‘s’ word.”
Niki Welsch, the girls’ mother, said the online carping made her feel sick. She wondered why some folks were so sure of the best way to raise other people’s children. “I thought about answering them,” she said. “But I decided: these people don’t know us. They’re on the outside and can’t see the inside.”
A Quiet Home Life
Rodney Welsch, 42, the girls’ father, is an analytical chemist for a company that makes plastics used in containers and wrappings. “Basically, we make garbage because that’s where it ends up,” he said in his half-jesting way. Niki, also 42, works weekends as a registered nurse for hospice patients.
The Welsches’ house is in a quiet neighborhood in Alvin, 25 miles southeast of Houston. The girls each have a bedroom. Stuffed animals and trophies and medals are positioned just so. Kaytlynn is also a consistent winner at science fairs. Rodney and Niki expect their daughters, one in seventh grade, the other in fifth, to keep at least a 93 average in each subject at school.
A large treadmill sits beside the sofa in the family room. Television has been banished from the house, though the girls are not in a pop culture lockdown. Kaytlynn has an iPhone, Heather an iPad.
“Who are you Facebooking with now?” Rodney asks Kaytlynn when her thumbs are hyperactive on her phone.
“Friends,” she replies.
“Which friends?”
“Friends I know.”
The origin of the girls’ running prowess is portrayed as a genetic mystery.
Both parents are athletic, but neither was any kind of star. Rodney played high school soccer, and his coach forced the team to run cross-country. “But I never won a ribbon, never even placed,” he said.
The Welsches enjoy the outdoors — camping, hiking, biking — and they wanted their two children to be active in sports. Kaytlynn tried soccer, basketball, gymnastics and softball, but none of them captured her heart. Her puny size often placed her at a disadvantage. “During soccer, people would run right over me like I was the ball,” Kaytlynn said. In school, some kids called her “midget.” If she wore green, they called her “leprechaun.”
Kaytlynn was 8 when Rodney read something in a magazine about children’s triathlons sponsored by the Kiwanis Club. Competitors could be as young as 7. The distances were not very long.
Rodney thought Kaytlynn would enjoy it, which she did, sort of. Early on, she was not only undersize but underequipped. She had neither goggles nor a swim cap for the pool. She pedaled a clunky single-speed bicycle.
Kaytlynn wanted a chance to win, so the Welsches gave her swimming lessons and bought her a faster bike, first a three-speed, then an eight-speed. Her performance improved, though it was only in the running that she truly excelled, passing others one by one as they struggled toward the finish line.
In 2010, Rodney began entering his daughters in road races: 1K, 5K, even 10K. They usually beat anyone their age and outran most women in their 20s and 30s. He wondered if his daughters were “some kind of endurance freak kids,” and late that year, he entered them in a half-marathon.
The girls handled the 13 miles well enough, but the more memorable part of the day came afterward. A woman introduced herself as a pediatrician and gave Rodney a scolding. Your daughters shouldn’t be running in events this difficult, she told him. Don’t you know you’re hurting your kids?
Unsettled by that berating, the Welsches began researching the risks of running and took the girls to a series of doctors. A podiatrist and an orthopedist checked their bones and joints. An endocrinologist said that although the girls were small, their growth patterns were perfectly normal.
The Welsches nevertheless remained cautious. Kaytlynn and Heather were taken to a doctor whenever they complained of pain. Dr. Daniel O’Neill, a Houston orthopedist specializing in sports medicine, has seen them repeatedly for aches common in young athletes. He has treated them with anti-inflammatories and has recommended strengthening exercises.
O’Neill, like Dr. Mark Sands, the girls’ podiatrist, said there was no medical reason to keep the sisters from running as they did.
“You have to evaluate every case one by one, but these girls are monitored for injuries, and their parents watch their nutrition,” Sands said. “Running has no more risks for them than for anyone else.”
He added: “And the girls really love it. You can tell by how they talk.”
Triumphs and Sacrifices
Kaytlynn and Heather, though two years apart, were both born June 28. The older girl is the more serious of the two. “For some reason, running is really fun, even though it hurts sometimes,” Kaytlynn said. “I enjoy it. I can go on and on without getting tired. It makes a purpose in my life.”
There are drawbacks, she realizes: “Kids at school tell me: ‘Man, Kaytlynn, you’re no fun. You never come over on the weekend; you can’t spend the night.’ And I say, ‘I have races on the weekend, so of course I can’t spend the night.’ I don’t have that many friends at school because of that reason.”
In January, after Kaytlynn completed the Houston Marathon, there was an announcement at school congratulating her. She had covered the distance in 3 hours 45 minutes 15 seconds, the second-best time that day for female runners younger than 19.
A few days later, some kids discovered that her name was not listed in the marathon’s official results. “They called me a liar,” Kaytlynn said.
Actually, her name had been expunged because she was later disqualified. Rodney had finessed her registration. The minimum age was 12, and Kaytlynn was only 11. “I guess a lot of people complained I was too young and I was going to break my bones,” she said.
Age minimums at endurance races vary. Runners must be at least 18 to enter the New York City Marathon, but more than 500 runners younger than that finished this year’s Los Angeles Marathon. The youngest was 9.
In triathlons and trail runs, age requirements are often set by the race director. However, many of them leave the decision to parents as long as the mother or the father signs a waiver of responsibility.
Dr. Mininder S. Kocher, an expert on sports medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, said there was not enough solid research to make across-the-board judgments about children and endurance events. Certainly, there are risks when children put stress on their growth plates, he said. This can lead to long-term consequences. Distance running can also delay the onset of puberty in girls.
“But there are cases when kids compete at a high level in endurance sports and come through it just fine,” Kocher said.
Dr. W. Douglas B. Hiller, an orthopedic surgeon at North Hawaii Community Hospital, expressed reservations. “In general, kids should stick to kids distances and then race at adult distances when they are adults,” said Hiller, who has been the chief medical officer for the triathlon at the Olympics.
But he, too, said there were exceptions. The distances run by the Welsch girls sounded “excessive” to him. “But if these kids feel it’s a mission to do this and they aren’t having adverse effects, I guess it’s O.K.,” he said. “Bottom line: I wouldn’t recommend it, but I wouldn’t forbid it, either.”
Medical issues are not the only concerns. “I always ask: What is this doing to the child psychologically and socially?” said the psychologist Daniel Gould, the director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. “Parents can get kids to do most anything at young ages.”
So there is this: Who wants it more, the grown-ups or the children?
But that’s not so easy to tell.
‘Too Much Talent to Quit’
If the girls wanted to quit, “that’d be O.K.,” Niki Welsch said without hesitation.
Rodney did not seem so sure. “Kaytlynn has too much talent to quit,” he said. Besides, the girls say one thing one day and another thing the next.
“Kaytlynn said she wanted to quit the triathlon, and I said, ‘You’re not quitting, you need to stay with it,’ ” Rodney recalled. “Two months later, after she gets a new bike, she says, ‘I love the triathlon now.’ ”
Niki agreed: children go through phases. “We know the girls well enough,” she said. “We can tell when they’re just having a bad day.”
The girls do not train much on weekdays but usually compete in one endurance event, and often two, on the weekends. They may run a 10K on Saturday and follow that with a triathlon on Sunday.
Because Niki works weekends, Rodney takes the girls to their races. Events occur all over Texas, and sometimes, that means a middle-of-the-night departure, with Rodney at the wheel of the family pickup and the girls, in pajamas, asleep in the back seat, buried beneath blankets.
So much needs to be remembered: socks, shirts, sweat pants, fresh fruit, rapid-power energy gels, glutamine-fortified recovery drinks. Heather needs her stuffed animals — Raccoon, Skunk, Beaver, Owl and Squirrel. She carries them in a knit casing that looks like a knotty tree trunk. These are her furry amulets. She pins one to her shirt in each race, and that animal, she says, cheers her on as she runs and sticks out its tongue at other competitors.
Heather sometimes cries during races. She looks miserable. “People assume I don’t want to run and my parents are forcing me,” she said. “That’s not it at all. Sometimes, when people pass me, I get frustrated and start crying.” Rodney suggests she repeat the words “go go go” whenever she feels tearful. “If you’re crying, you can’t breathe right,” he tells her.
The Welsches own 100 acres in the country, and Rodney would like to build a house there and tend his pomegranate orchard. But there is little time for that.
Instead, he has become a student of the art of running, or at least the coaching of it. By necessity, he has also turned himself into a skilled bicycle mechanic. Kaytlynn’s bike was bought on eBay for $945, but he rebuilt it for more speed — changing the rims, shifters, crank set and handlebars — while spending about $5,500. Heather’s bike, a gift from Santa Claus, is worth about the same.
The girls are natural rivals. Kaytlynn will never let Heather beat her, and Rodney wishes the older girl felt as competitive against everyone else. He says she never pushes herself to the limit, never finishes a race with a strong kick. His assessment: “Kaytlynn is 100 percent talent and Heather is 100 percent hard work.”
Rodney’s coaching style includes what could be called low-intensity nagging. Before a race, he dispenses favorite aphorisms: Remember, quiet feet. Swing your arms. Let momentum do the work. Listen to your good voice. Don’t let your mind ruin things for your body.
These instructions are repeated without harshness, and the advice is so repetitive, it is unclear how much the girls pay attention. Yet they obviously adore their father, climbing on him as if he were a personal set of monkey bars. They leap into his arms, sure he will catch them and twirl them around.
During a race, Rodney moves about frenetically, running to places where the girls can hear his shouts. He is lean and fit. Once, as he rode a bike along a trail, some competitors suggested he get off his rear end and run beside his daughters. That tickled him. “I said, ‘I could try, but I’d be 10 miles behind.’ ”
The Xterra trail run in Waco offered Rodney a motivational opportunity. He told Kaytlynn that if she finished first, he would take the girls to the biggest race of their young lives, all the way to Utah for the national championship.
Mishap Before the Race
The flight to Salt Lake City was only the second time the girls had been on an airplane. They bickered about who sat beside the window, and even trips to the lavatory were an adventure. Heather had to hang onto the sink when the air became bumpy. She was startled by the whoosh of the toilet.
Snowbasin, a ski resort at the foot of tree-lined mountains near Ogden, was the setting for the race. The late September chill was repainting the landscape. Russet and amber blended into the many shades of green.
The day before the race, Rodney and the girls scoped out the course, walking partway up a mountainside beneath the gondolas of a lift ride. The trail narrowed into a path through the woodland that looked like a setting for Hansel and Gretel. “When you get to those switchbacks, you need to bank off the side,” he said. “Do you understand what a switchback is? It’s a Z.”
But the girls were not entirely focused on the race. “Look, Daddy, I’m a turtle,” Heather said, slowly munching on a leaf. Kaytlynn made a careful selection of the fallen foliage and fashioned it into a laurel for her hair.
On the way back, in a burst of exuberance, Kaytlynn took off down a steep service road, each of her footfalls a slap on the ground that kicked up dust. She was running fast, then faster, then too fast. To brake, she grabbed at a plant on the roadside and slid on her rump into a small boulder.
The awkward landing left her with a stubbed big toe on her right foot. It was red and swollen on the sides and a mix of colors at the nail. It ached and throbbed.
That evening, Kaytlynn spoke to her mother on the phone. Niki told her that if she didn’t want to run the race, she didn’t have to. Rodney had said the same.
“It feels fine enough,” Kaytlynn said, perhaps trying to convince herself.
Trouble in the Mountains
The race was to begin at 9 a.m., and the Welsches arrived at Snowbasin two hours early. Rodney made the girls an endurance-runner’s breakfast, mixing a drink with powdered “energy fuel.” Kaytlynn tolerates the concoctions and Heather hates them. The younger girl mostly nibbled on an apple Danish.
Competitors were required to wear bibs with their assigned number, but the flaps were too wide to fit across the girls’ chests, and Rodney instead pinned them in a semicircle around their hips. Heather also needed her stuffed squirrel fastened near her collarbone. “You’re putting a pin through its head,” Heather snapped at her dad as he worked at this tailoring.
“You should’ve taken Owl,” Rodney said. “Owl pins easier than Squirrel.”
The girls warmed up with a minimum amount of prancing. Kaytlynn had cushioned her bad toe with a bandage and some clear tape. Still, it bothered her, and she strode with a slight limp, which Rodney found alarming.
“You can’t favor it, or you’ll hurt yourself everywhere else,” he warned.
Rodney hoped she would forget about the troublesome toe once the race began. “She’s not hurt,” he told Niki over the phone. “It’s not a knee or an ankle. She just has pain, and she’ll deal with pain.”
Kaytlynn dutifully edged her way to the front at the starting line, and after the cannon blast, she started fast, but her stride was not as smooth as usual. Within seconds a few dozen runners, including several women, passed her.
The course led into the mountains at a steep 12 percent grade, higher than the maximum incline on most treadmills. Kaytlynn’s face was contorted into a grimace as each step further sapped her strength. The toe obviously hurt. Runners went by her as if they were attached to a faster pulley.
While watching Kaytlynn’s disappointing start, Rodney had lost sight of Heather. She was hopelessly behind and already weeping. Her left knee and right arm were bloody. Someone had stepped on her foot at the starting line. She tumbled to the pavement among a thicket of moving legs.
The runners soon disappeared into the forest, but the route later brought them into a clearing at the four-mile mark. Rodney hastened up a grassy slope to be there when the girls circled by. Kaytlynn was already behind about 20 women, but her stride had evened. She was bounding along, bad toe and all.
“C’mon, this is downhill; you know how to run it,” Rodney shouted.
He then waited for Heather. She emerged from the trees three minutes later, and when she saw her father, she stopped, and her weeping erupted into a wail. “I fell down, Daddy,” she cried. “I’m bleeding. I need stitches.”
Rodney looked her over carefully. Skin had been scraped away, but the wounds were not deep. “You don’t need stitches,” he told her, trying to be soothing.
Then he asked, “You want out?”
“No,” she said.
“Decide right now. You can’t cry and run at the same time. Do you want to run or not?”
“Yes,” she answered and again followed the trail into the woods.
The day, once so promising, now seemed cursed by some double whammy of pratfalls. Rodney shook his head. He had hoped Kaytlynn’s willpower would triumph over a bad toe. But even if it didn’t, he thought she might run a great race anyway just to stay ahead of her sister.
He sighed, “There goes my Plan B.”
Gritting It Out
From the clearing at the four-mile mark the trail again went uphill, not as steep as before but a clamp on the legs nonetheless. The sun had clawed its way through a cloudy sky. Dust lifted off the ground, caking around moist lips so that each runner looked to have eaten a chocolate Popsicle.
Kimberley Hefner, 38, a personal trainer from South Carolina, ran with Kaytlynn for about a half-hour, the two runners small enough to stride shoulder to shoulder on the tight path. “You’re doing an amazing job,” the older woman said. “You are kicking butt and taking names.”
Hefner was as talkative as the 12-year-old was taciturn. Once a terrific young runner herself, she seized an opportunity to caution Kaytlynn about the dangers of teenage partying.
“Don’t go boy crazy,” she said. “Plenty of time for that later.”
“That’s what my dad says,” Kaytlynn replied.
Hefner finally pulled away as the trail neared its highest elevation, a rocky promontory with a mesmerizing view. The altitude had a chokehold on Kaytlynn by then, and she had stopped before reaching the peak and stood hunched over like a question mark. Carlyn Peterson, a 29-year-old ultrarunner, caught up to the exhausted girl. Her attitude about endurance was: the pain never goes away, so you just have to make room for it.
She slapped Kaytlynn on the bottom and said, “You’re fine, keep going.”
She did. The rest of the way was mostly downhill, some of it on scary switchbacks that leaned into the ridge. Tammy Tabeek, 52, an accomplished cyclist and runner, pulled even with Kaytlynn on that descent, and the two speedily wended their way together, passing others.
Kaytlynn, weary as she was, looked strong as the course came to an end in the valley, where a crowd was gathered. Amplified music pulsed through the air. As Kaytlynn ran through the chute at the finish, the announcer said, “Oh, my goodness, this girl just ran more than 13 miles.”
Heads turned. There was robust applause. Many people were amazed at the grit of this spindly girl, and some wanted to touch her. “You killed it, kid!” one man said as he approached. “Give me a high-five!”
Kaytlynn, of course, thought differently. She had expected to be among the top five women and perhaps the winner. Instead she finished 30th among the 75 female runners — and 111th over all. Her time of 2:08:29 meant her pace was two minutes per mile slower than in Waco.
“I did horrible today,” she said disconsolately, her chin against her chest. “I didn’t know altitude would make it this hard. My throat hurt real bad. I couldn’t breathe. My thighs ached. And my toe, it hurt, too.”
Rodney had waited along the trail to root for Heather on the final stretch. She came in 57th among the women at 2:23:28. Rodney wanted to get her to the medical tent to tend to her blood-caked abrasions. Concerned though he was, he still sneaked in some affectionate needling. “You must have stopped somewhere along the way,” he told Heather. “Either that or you were walking.”
He had a similar pinch of sarcasm for Kaytlynn: “Didn’t we talk about this? Are you supposed to follow people or pass them?”
Rodney made sure the girls were rehydrated. He inspected Kaytlynn’s toe and helped her and Heather into some warmer clothing. They were soon ready to leave but felt obligated to stay for the awards ceremony.
The girls had finished one-two in the 14-and-under age group. Kaytlynn was awarded a blue ribbon, Heather a red one. “Look at these two young ladies,” the announcer said gleefully as they mounted the steps of a podium.
Of course, they were the only two girls under 14 entered in the race. In fact, they were the only ones under 19 — and two of the only four under 24.
In the rental car, heading to the airport, Heather was again her cheerful self. She laughed about her tears. “I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry,’ but all these people were running by me,” she said.
They drove past sights they had happily marveled at a day before: a waterfall, a row of apple trees, a series of twisting ducts that looked like a roller coaster. But the mood was different now. Rodney looked at Kaytlynn through the rearview mirror. Her thumbs were busy on her phone.
“You quit on us today,” he said.
“No, I didn’t,” she responded.
“Yes, you did. A lot of people run with a stubbed toe, even a broken toe. They put it aside and do their best. Did you do your best?”
“Your time shows you certainly didn’t.”
Deep down she believed he was right, and she kept her eyes on her phone.
Heading to Hawaii
Back home, a podiatrist examined the toe. Nothing was broken, though there was a possibility of a hairline fracture. Just in case, Kaytlynn did not resume racing until two weeks later, and she began recording some of her best times.
Last Sunday, the girls ran a half-marathon through the streets of Houston. The temperature was only 41 degrees. With Halloween so close, Heather insisted on running in her Pocahontas costume, but her older sister was all business, even pulling off the shirt she wore for warmth.
Kaytlynn’s pace was so fast, Rodney cautioned her to slow down, but she maintained her same long, swift strides. To Rodney, it was as if she were saying, “Hey, Dad, look what I can do.” She finished in 1:28:39 — five and a half minutes faster than her personal record.
That sealed it, Rodney decided. In December, he would take the girls to Oahu in Hawaii. They would go up against the very best, running along serpentine paths through steep mountainsides at the Xterra trail run world championship.

Friday, November 02, 2012

re the uses (and abuses) of power

"power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"
--sir john dalberg acton

power in our society seems a preoccupation crossing to obsession.  we think about it, talk about it, hope for it, look for it, chase after it, work after it, fight over it, steal over it.  and if we are not doing any of this we are dreaming of it and rationalizing on it and believing in it.

and believe we do. we believe that power is the answer to all our problems. the answer to every challenge, every hurdle, every hill, every hole, every rough patch, every windstorm and rainy day and heat wave and affliction and suffering and injury and slight wrought upon us by forces seen and unseen, real and unreal, discovered or fabricated, made or imagined, in this realm or another. we believe it to be right, we believe it to be true, we believe it to be an end to all the obstructions keeping us from achieving our desires.

but this form of power is dangerous. motivated by interests arising from the self, it becomes driven by the individual. self-interest. self-service. self-centered. even when justified with the express purpose of serving others other than ourselves, it is still tied with the self. because in serving the fulfillment of our desires it is predicated on the aggrandizement of power within us to act on its use, with the assumption that we can discern the truth of its application upon the world and those around us.

but we can't. self-aggrandizement entails a constant evaluation of power in terms of our position relative to others, where power is power only to the extent that it empowers us to enact change more so than others. meaning that it calls for a zero-sum state where in order for us to succeed others must fail.

and this induces a focus upon the self exclusive of all outside the self, with the aggrandizement of the self coming from the consumption of everything around us.

this is unsustainable. because the supply of life--lives--is finite. and it is self-defeating. because when such power has consumed all around it, it turns upon itself. and so utterly dooms itself to self-extinction.

a safer form of power, a better form of power, is that which is sustainable and is not self-defeating. this means a form of power that recognizes the finite supply of lives and escapes the destruction of consumption.

this means a turn away from the self. it means the inclusion of all outside the self. more than this, it means the empowerment of everything beyond the self. outside of us. around us. with us.

so that it is not the aggrandizement of the self but rather the growth of others. so that it does not consume but instead nurtures. so that it means not a zero-sum measure of one relative to others, but instead means an absolute term reflecting the accumulated contributions of diverse abilities and multiple perspectives of a group unified in its aspirations to find the truths that lead humanity towards a better this realm and all others.

so that the answer to a problem, a challenge, or a hurdle is not the exercise of power from an individual but the exercise of power from the many.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

it's time to get off the beach

on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the men of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, of the U.S. Army assaulted Omaha Beach with the initial waves of Allied forces.

their landing did not go well. they encountered entrenched, well-fortified, and motivated German defenders who proceeded to counter-attack with the full arsenal at their disposal. the 16th Infantry Regiment was decimated, trapped along a narrow beachhead fully exposed to enemy fire. shocked, confused, lost, exhausted, the men who survived the landing found themselves by 0800 hours huddled along the Normandy seawall taking sniper rounds, machine gun bursts, and artillery blasts in a state of utter carnage and chaos. their situation, along with the Allied invasion, had become tenuous.

at that moment began one of the most legendary exploits of D-Day. 

George A. Taylor, at that time a Colonel of the regiment, arrived on the beach. surveying the horror before him and realizing the precariousness of the situation, he made what became one of the most famous quotes from the Normandy invasion: 

"there are 2 kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. now let's get the hell out of here."

ignoring enemy fire, he proceeded to walk along the seawall, motivating the men and organizing them into units. he then coordinated their attacks towards a specific target on the defenses. their attack worked; they managed to open what was the only exit off the beach in the early hours of D-Day, and allowed the Allied forces to move off Omaha Beach and take out the German positions.

it's worth remembering this story, not just for its commemoration of the experiences and sacrifices made by those involved, but also for the lessons it leaves for us.

taken as an allegory, we've all had experiences where the situation was grim. where things were not going well, where the odds were poor, when misfortune seemed the rule and one bad thing was followed by many many more. and as much as in hindsight those times may have turned out trite, there were also those times when it was not--when the danger was very great and very close and very real and very much meant the extinguishing of even so much as lives: including ours and those around us.

and knowing how the universe works, those times may be before us still...those times may be now.

and in such a situation, we may find ourselves fully exposed. shocked. confused. lost. exhausted. caught in the carnage and chaos of what life is doing to us.

and at that moment, we may wish for a Colonel Taylor to come striding before us and guiding us towards what we should do.

except that's where the allegory fails.

because in our lives--our real lives--there very often is no Colonel Taylor we can expect to come save us. no hero we can count on to defend us. no one else we can rely on to help us. there is instead so often, very often, too often, just us. and so often, very often, too often, others who depend on us.

but it's then that we need to remember Colonel Taylor's quote.  we need to remember what he said.

more than that, we need to remember what he meant.

because what he realized was what we know, each one deep down inside of us, in the core of our being that holds everything we are, but which we do not yet comprehend is our one true answer: 

there is nobody coming to save us. there is nobody except ourselves. and if all we do is nothing, if all we do is stay where we are, paralyzed, in fear, in despair, in turmoil, in pain, in suffering, then the only fate that is left to us is to be devoured by the afflictions that torment us. if we are to have a chance, any chance, of survival, then we have to look to ourselves to face our suffering and do whatever we can with whatever we have in whatever way we are able to act and move and do and advance and proceed forward.

even if it means crawling along the sand one inch at a time.

because crawling means a chance of survival. crawling means a chance of life. crawling means a chance of hope.

and because there are only 2 kinds of people who are staying on the beach: those that are dead, and those that are going to die.

it's time to get off the beach.

Friday, October 12, 2012

re Lance Armstrong, USADA, and the other shoe

those of you in the cycling and triathlon communities are probably buzzing over the news about Lance Armstrong and USADA.  if you weren't caught by Armstrong's statement that he would no longer contest USADA's charges (reference: Lance Armstrong's statement) or USADA's subsequent stripping of his Tour de France victories (reference: USADA stripping of TdF titles), then you should be in the wake of USADA's release of its report on its investigation of Lance Armstrong.

i held off posting about Lance Armstrong because i wanted to wait for the USADA report to come out and evaluate it for myself. i wanted to see just what USADA had uncovered and just what evidence it had against  Armstrong. especially since USADA had said it ran over 1000 pages, making it one of the more--if not most--comprehensive investigations into Armstrong and doping in professional cycling that's ever been conducted. coming from a legal background, i was particularly interested in the weight of the evidence behind the allegations of doping.

well, the report is out, and you can read it for yourself. it's available at either of the 2 following links:
with respect to the report, i have to say it's pretty damning. ~1000 pages, with 200 pages of testimony from 26 witnesses, including 11 former teammates from the Tour de France victories. i won't summarize it here, since there have been very good commentaries in the media that i recommend, including the ESPN interview with USADA CEO Travis Tygart and the statement from a number of Armstrong's former and closest teammates:
going beyond the USADA report, i have very mixed feelings about this entire situation. to me, it's in some ways simple and in some ways complex.

it's simple in that the weight of evidence is now about as close to convincing (by the legal standards of a preponderance of evidence, clear & convincing evidence, and even beyond a reasonable doubt) against Armstrong. i recognize that without a "smoking gun" that much, if not all, of the evidence is circumstantial, but legal cases, even criminal ones, are often tried on the basis of circumstantial evidence in the absence of anything more direct. i'm among those who first believed, later questioned, then suspected that Armstrong had, like so many others in his sport during his era, engaged in doping. now, however, i'm among those convinced that he did.

it's also simple in that Armstrong was not the only one. in fact, i'm convinced that most, if not all, professional cyclists doped or are doping. and not just in the Tour de France. given the details of the USADA report, as well as all the other doping investigations conducted of other professional cyclists in recent years, i think it's clear that doping has and is widespread, common, systematic, and institutionalized not just as a culture among athletes but as a structure maintained by teams, sponsors, organizing bodies, and even government entities at all levels of professional cycling. the scale and intensity of it is just horrifying.

it is, however, so much more complex than just this. i'll put my thoughts in bullet points to help keep them organized:

  • given the scale and intensity, just what are the prospects of ever cleaning up this sport? when all elements related to the sport appear to be complicit or active in doping, who can be responsible for oversight or change?  and even if you change the structure, how do you change the culture?
  • given the scale and intensity, how do you change the record books? i'm not sure, but it seems that even though Lance Armstrong is stripped of his Tour de France victories, that all the other cyclists were also doping. in which case, do you have an entire era of cycling with races where the record books show *no* podium places?
  • given the scale and intensity, is it time to heed the voices of those who think that attempts to stop doping in sport is futile? some people refer to the U.S. experience with Prohibition, when the U.S. federal government engaged in a vain attempt to stop alcohol that drove the industry underground and encouraged the rise of organized crime. such voices claim that it's hopeless to try and stop doping in sport, and that all sports, not just cycling, need to consider acceptance of it or allow categories for athletes who engage in it.
  • sport is not just sport. athletes are not just athletes. sport and athletes are symbols and avatars for society at large. as public figures they exert an influence on society outside of competition. Lance Armstrong the cyclist became Lance Armstrong cancer fighter. the Livestrong Foundation has done a significant amount of work raising awareness and money to fight cancer. it has helped thousands, if not millions, of cancer victims and their families. what does the USADA report and the stripping of Tour de France victories do for them? should it do anything to them? will it change Lance Armstrong's role on behalf of them? should it change his role at all? 
  • is it really justice if the actions against Armstrong end up hurting all the people who have benefited from the Livestrong Foundation? it may be justice for cycling, it may be justice for all the cyclists hurt by doping, it may be justice for USADA, it may be justice for sports in general to take action against Armstrong. but is it justice if such actions hurt all those who have benefited from the Livestrong Foundation? for that matter, if action is taken against any and all cyclists who have doped, is it justice if it affects all the charitable work done by them? we might blame the athlete, but that's not much consolation if you're the one who's depending on the charity.
i don't have answers to any of these questions. like i said, they're just thoughts. and to me, indicators of just how far the ramifications of the doping era in cycling--and in sports--goes. it's not just a sports problem, it's a society problem.

i'm just shaking my head. like the kid said to Shoeless Joe Jackson in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal: say it ain't so, joe. say it ain't so.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

the physical toll of Ironman

if anyone has ever wondered what goes on physically during the course of an Ironman, a recent article appeared in Inside Triathlon that i think should be mandatory reading for anyone contemplating doing an Ironman, anyone associated with someone doing an Ironman, or anyone curious about Ironman. you can read the article here:

in case the link doesn't work, i've pasted the full text of the article at the end of this post.

this is probably the best summary of the physical toll of an Ironman out there. i've read more comprehensive descriptions, with probably the best being Joe Friel's Going Long (which i also think is mandatory reading for any endurance athlete, triathlete or otherwise).  and admittedy, this article doesn't delve too far into the mental aspects in terms of emotional and spiritual phenomena (of which, trust me, there are...there's a reason why the Tarahumara natives treat their 200-mile runs as spiritual exercises).

but this helps to understand the physical demands being placed on the body and shows just how dangerous this sport really is. which is why i say that Ironman is not something to be taken lightly: you will pay the price for any mistake, any transgression, any weakness in body or character, in spades.

it makes the distance the race of truth.

the kind of truth we don't get from anywhere or anything or anyone else in our lives.

which is why we love it so.

A Physiological View Of What The Human Body Goes Through
In An Ironman
Inside Triathlon
By Matt Fitzgerald
Oct 2, 2012

In the past year Chris McCormack, Julie Dibens and Chrissie Wellington have announced they will take a step back from Ironman racing for various reasons. All were at the top of their careers and have emphasized the toll that Ironman training and racing takes on the body. The following story explains exactly what the body goes through over 140.6 miles of racing.

From the outside, swimming, cycling and running appear as movement. But from inside the triathlete’s body, swimming, cycling and running appear as an acceleration of time. Blood gushes through veins and arteries like traffic through night highways in a timelapse video. Within muscle cells, glucose and triglyceride molecules are tossed into the fiery furnace of mitochondria at a breakneck pace, as though someone has put a DVD of the process at rest on 4x fast forward. Armies of oxygen radicals punch holes in muscle cell membranes, causing a general deterioration that calls to mind those computer animations that show a person aging 20 years in 10 seconds.

Indeed, from an internal perspective, completing an Ironman is a bit like sitting on a sofa for 12 hours and aging two decades. In other words, the changes the body undergoes in 12 hours of extreme exertion are similar to some of those that occur in the body over the course of two decades of non-exertion, as a result of normal aging. Fortunately, though, those years are restored to you within a few weeks. Then it’s
time to start thinking about tickling the reaper again.

Let’s take a more detailed look at how racing an Ironman affects various parts of your anatomy. There’s no particular lesson in this exercise, but it may give you a greater appreciation for the accomplishment of crossing an Ironman finish line.

Something “Wicked Hard” This Way Comes

Ironman begins to affect your body even before the starting horn—or cannon, in one notable event—sounds. Research has shown that the mere anticipation of exercise increases blood flow to the soon-to-be working muscles, as well as oxygen consumption and the release of hormones, including epinephrine (adrenaline), that
prime the muscles for activity. This anticipatory response is mediated largely by a primitive part of the brain called the periaqueductal gray area, which is responsible for regulating the cardiorespiratory response to exercise.

That internal roiling you experience when you step out of your car at the event site on race morning, surrounded by your fellow competitors and the electric Ironman atmosphere, is essentially the same feeling your dog experiences when you show him the leash.

When the race begins, the biochemical state of every system in your body changes as each responds first to the challenge of swimming 2.4 miles, then to that of cycling 112 miles and finally to that of running 26.2 miles. Among the greatest physiological challenges are core body temperature regulation, dehydration, fuel supply and usage, muscle damage, nutrition absorption and processing and brain fatigue.

On a Hot Streak

Core body temperature regulation is not a big issue in most Ironman swims, as cool (and even somewhat warm) water transfers heat away from the body very effectively. But the bike and run legs are a different story, especially on hot days. Almost threequarters of the energy that your muscles release during cycling and running takes the form of heat waste. If this heat were allowed to accumulate in the muscles it would eventually cause serious tissue damage.

Your body has various means of preventing this heat from accumulating. The best known and among the most effective is perspiration. But the most effective of all is simply regulating your exercise intensity. The more you slow down, the less heat your muscles produce. That’s why you don’t race as fast on hot days.

You might assume that your core body temperature begins to rise gradually at the beginning of the bike leg and continues to rise throughout the rest of the race, reaching its highest level when you cross the finish line. This is seldom the case.

“Within the first 10 to 20 percent of the race, the core temperature rises relatively quickly,” says Jonathan Dugas, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Chicago. “For example, it might rise from 37.5 to 38.75 degrees C in that timeframe. And then for the remainder of the event it stays within a very narrow range—maybe 0.1 and 0.2 degrees Celsius.”

The maximum safe core body temperature is 40 degrees C, or 104 degrees F. Even on the hottest days, Ironman participants seldom cross this threshold. According to Dugas, that’s because the brain constantly monitors the core body temperature and produces feelings of discomfort and fatigue that force you to slow down and generate less heat if things look like they’re about to get out of hand. Triathletes sometimes
mistake these unpleasant symptoms as indications of heat illness, but they are actually products of a self-protective mechanism that prevents heat illness.

But this self-protective mechanism has been known to fail. That’s probably because the brain itself can become too hot to function properly during exercise in hot environments. When this happens, the central nervous system begins to malfunction and the athlete becomes dizzy, disoriented and uncoordinated, and may collapse.

Running on Empty

The most celebrated physiological challenge of Ironman racing is supplying the muscles with enough energy to cover the distance as quickly as possible. The average Ironman competitor burns more than 6,000 calories between the start and finish lines. These calories come from fats stored in adipose tissue and within muscle tissue, glycogen stored in the muscles and liver, amino acids released from the breakdown of
muscle proteins and calories ingested during the event, usually in the form of carbohydrates.

The balance of fuels shifts over the course of the day. During the swim and the first portion of the bike leg, carbohydrates are likely to provide almost half of the muscles’ energy, with fat providing an equal amount and protein just a sliver. As the body’s carbohydrate stores decrease, the carbohydrate contribution to forward progress diminishes and fat takes up the slack. By midway through the marathon, at the latest, muscle glycogen will have reached critically low levels in the calves, quads and hamstrings. Consequently, total carbohydrate contribution to continued running drops further, fat oxidation increases, and amino acids may provide as much as 15 percent of the muscles’ energy.

The inability to supply sufficient energy to the muscles is one of the main reasons individuals who do not train for an Ironman cannot complete an Ironman. Endurance is strictly limited by the availability of glycogen in the liver and working muscles. When these stores fall too low, your day is done. Endurance training greatly increases the body’s capacity for glycogen storage. But even the fittest triathlete cannot store enough glycogen to fuel an entire Ironman. Thankfully, training also greatly increases the capacity to burn fats, which allows the athlete to conserve glycogen, making it last longer.

There’s a Hole in the Bucket

The most visible effect of Ironman racing on the body is the production of tremendous amounts of sweat. Thank heavens for sweat. Perspiration is a vital cooling mechanism for the body. The blood carries some of the excess heat produced by the muscles during cycling and running away from the muscles to capillaries near the surface of the skin, where it leaves the body. Sweat glands then take up some fluid from the blood, and with it some heat, and release it onto the surface of the skin, where it evaporates, cooling the skin. Finally, cooled blood flows back toward the core of the body to absorb and distribute more heat.

The only problem with this mechanism is that it’s essentially self-sabotaging. The more you sweat, the more your blood volume shrinks, and the more your blood volume shrinks, the less heat your circulation can carry away from the working muscles. However, contrary to popular belief, dehydration only slightly increases core body temperature. Its greatest effect is on performance, because as your blood volume decreases, so does your cardiac efficiency, or the amount of oxygen your heart can deliver to your muscles per contraction.

In a typical warm or hot Ironman, athletes sweat in excess of one liter of fluid per hour on the bike and during the run. That adds up to more than 20 pounds of fluid loss for many athletes! If some of these fluids were not replaced through drinking, triathletes would not be able to complete Ironman events nearly as fast as they do. By the time they got to the marathon, their blood volume would be reduced to the point where
walking or a painfully slow shuffle would be the greatest level of exertion possible. Even with the availability of sports drinks and water, most triathletes finish their Ironman races weighing a lot less than they did when they started. Nevertheless, rather modest amounts of fluid intake appear sufficient to enable the body to maintain blood volume, as the body can also draw fluid into the blood from other compartments (and, for that matter, much of the weight lost during an Ironman comes from the metabolism of fuels and the release of water stored with glycogen, which does not contribute to dehydration). A 2007 study from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, found that while participants in an Ironman triathlon lost nearly 5 percent of their body weight, their blood volume actually increased.

Wear and Tear

Muscle tissue stress may be the single greatest challenge the body faces in an Ironman triathlon. Vast numbers of muscle cells are disrupted, damaged and deconstructed along the way. The main cause of muscle damage is mechanical stress, which is caused primarily by eccentric (pronounced ee-centric) muscle contractions. In an eccentric contraction, the muscle lengthens as it contracts (for example, during the lowering phase of a biceps curl) instead of shortening as in a concentric contraction (e.g., the lifting phase of a biceps curl) or staying the same length as in an isometric contraction (e.g., flexing to show off one’s biceps). The muscle is really being pulled in two directions at once during an eccentric contraction, like a tug-o’- war, so it’s easy to see the potential for tearing.

A second cause of muscle damage during exercise is the breakdown of muscle proteins for energy, called catabolism. Protein is not a preferred energy source during exercise, but when carbohydrate stores run low in the later portion of an Ironman, protein is called upon increasingly to take up the slack. As mentioned above, by the end of an Ironman, protein may supply as much as 15 percent of the energy your muscles use to keep moving. If you’ve ever finished a long workout or race smelling like ammonia, that’s a sign you’ve been burning a lot of muscle protein, as ammonia is a byproduct of protein catabolism. When your blood glucose level drops during exercise, your adrenal glands secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which assists in breaking down carbohydrates, fats and proteins to release energy. Most of the proteins that it breaks down are found in your muscles.

Muscle damage is also caused by oxidative stress during exercise. A small percentage (an estimated 2 to 5 percent) of the oxygen molecules that enter the body lose an electron while participating in energy release in the mitochondria, becoming “oxygen radicals.” This increases their instability and causes them to pilfer an electron from a living cell in order to regain stability. The result is often a chain reaction of “free radical” damage to cell membranes, DNA and various structural proteins. During endurance exercise the rate of oxygen consumption can increase up to seven times above resting levels, with a corresponding increase in the production of oxygen radicals.

Just how much muscle damage does your body experience over the course of an Ironman? One of the chemical biomarkers used to estimate muscle damage is creatine kinase (CK), which leaks into the bloodstream from ruptured muscle cells. According to Bryan Berman, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist with Carmichael Training Systems, in a recovered state, the typical athlete’s serum creatine kinase level is approximately 125 U/L. Twenty-four hours after completion of a half-marathon, the CK level doubles. A day after a bike ride to exhaustion at 70 percent VO2max (a little faster than Ironman intensity), CK levels are as high as 700 U/L. And one recent study found that 16 hours after finishing an Ironman, triathletes had an average serum CK level of 1500 U/L, or more than 10 times the normal level.

I Think I’m Going to Puke

Australian professional triathlete Chris Legh had emergency surgery to remove half his colon after the 1997 Hawaii Ironman. A good chunk of the organ had literally died during the event due to inadequate oxygen supply. While this type of crisis is extremely rare in Ironman racing, and in Legh’s case was probably related to a congenital heart defect, completing an Ironman is stressful to the gastrointestinal system of every competitor. Common problems include stomach discomfort and bloating, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Exercise scientists do not fully understand the causes of such symptoms of GI distress during intense physical exertion. But they have identified some of the contributing factors. In a 2005 review published in the online International SportMed Journal, authors Stephen Simons, MD, and Gregory Shaskan, MD, wrote, “To date, contributing theories mainly focus on the mechanical agitation of the gut, fluid shifts, decreased splanchnic blood flow, dehydration, increased sympathetic and parasympathetic tone, endotoxaemia, changes in bowel transit time, hormone shifts and autoimmune changes. However, none of these adequately explain the full range of GI pathology.” Triathletes also bring many of their GI troubles on themselves by trying to consume too much fluid or nutrition or foods that are too difficult to digest while competing in
Ironman events. The gastrointestinal system cannot tolerate the same rates and types of nutrition intake during vigorous activity as it can at rest. Studies have shown that athletes who take in the most nutrition during endurance events are most likely to suffer gastrointestinal mishaps.

The Final Stretch

If you’ve ever completed an Ironman, you know that the last few miles of the marathon are a unique experience that is only hinted at by the experience of running the last few miles of a regular marathon. Your body is so impaired from the beating it has taken over the course of the day, it’s almost funny. The simple act of lifting your foot off the ground to take the next stride feels akin to performing a heavy squat with a weighted barbell on your back. Research from the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education in Paris confirms that the energy cost of running at the end of a triathlon is significantly greater than that of running at the same speed without swimming and cycling beforehand. And that’s an Olympic-distance triathlon.

There are probably multiple causes of the “weightlifting” effect of an Ironman marathon’s closing miles. Stride form is measurably different at the end of a triathlon run than it is in the same athletes in an independent run. The stride changes that increase the energy cost of running at the end of a triathlon are themselves caused in
part by local fatigue in specific muscles, which necessitates a change in form in much the same way you might start running with a locked right knee to protect a suddenly cramping right calf muscle. It’s neither efficient nor pretty, but it sure beats the alternative.

In triathlons and independent runs alike, fatigue and loss of mechanical efficiency are associated with increasing ground contact time. The closer you get to the finish line, the harder it becomes to pry your feet off the road. This bit of bodily mutiny is caused by a weakening of motor output from your brain to your working muscles. It is your brain’s way of preventing you from running faster—and perhaps even forcing you to slow down—in response to feedback from your body.

Your brain itself may become tired by the end of an Ironman—a phenomenon known as central fatigue. Like your muscles, it runs low on critical fuels and accumulates increasing levels of metabolites that interfere with its functioning, resulting in feelings of discomfort, loss of will to continue, fractured thinking, declining mood and reduced ability to fire the motor neurons that activate the muscles.

The Aftermath

It takes a good while for the body to recover from the stress of completing an Ironman. An Austrian study found that blood levels of antioxidant enzymes remained significantly reduced, while biomarkers of muscle damage and inflammation remained significantly elevated in triathletes nearly three weeks after they had crossed an Ironman finish line.

The immune system plays a major role in helping the body recover after exhaustive exercise, but the immune system itself is overwhelmed by the stress of endurance racing and its aftermath. Immune cell function remains depressed for as long as three days after such an experience, greatly increasing the athlete’s susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections. The causes of this effect appear to be multiple and are not fully understood. Part of the problem is that the immune cells’ main fuels, such as the amino acid glutamine, are depleted during exhaustive exercise. It seems that the immune system also downregulates its inflammatory response to tissue damage to avoid out-of-control systemic inflammation that would otherwise result from the high muscle damage incurred. But this very downregulation impairs the immune system’s ability to fight foreign invaders.

Triathletes also commonly suffer from a malady known as the “post-Ironman blues” in the weeks after an Ironman. It is likely that such mood depression is to some degree just another symptom of the general overtraining syndrome that commonly affects endurance athletes after such a test. Overtraining is known to disrupt brain neurotransmitters that influence mood. It has been hypothesized that as a symptom of overtraining, depression is your brain’s way of discouraging you from overexerting yourself again—in this case, doing your next Ironman—for a while.