Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why I run

I was originally going to have a race recap of my first half marathon at the Madison Marathon as my first post back on this blog. However, I had a somewhat heated conversation with a good friend of mine that has since been banging around in my head for a few weeks, and the monster wants out.

My friends Eric and Kevin participated in the Capital View Triathlon last month, and as my wife and I stood around talking with them after the race, Kev asked "so you going to join us next time?" I gave my pretty standard answers, that I don't swim well enough (true), I don't own an appropriate bike and the Boss isn't likely to let me buy one (true), and that I really just wanted to focus on long distance running for now and didn't think I had the time to properly train for two other events (true and true). I got some nods, provided some basic surrebuttal to their rebuttal questions (like "you know, I don't really dig on having a hard metal object up my backside for 10+ miles"). But, for the rest of the day my answers bothered me. They felt like an attempt at a dodge and that I wasn't truthful about why I would have, at that exact moment, been more likely to agree to have my eyebrows waxed than sign up for a triathlon.

Why then do I run? Why does the notion of doing a marathon or a trail ultra light the fire in my belly where the triathlon clearly does not? Since the Internet is the modern surrogate for a shrink's couch (That is what folks do these days, no?), I might as well plop right down and work out my issues.

The first reason I came up with was pretty straight forward: I run because I enjoy running. When running isn't fun - and I will concede that I'm working with a variable definition of "fun" - I don't do it; such as when I injure myself or overdo the mileage. I don't listen to music when running because it takes away from the experience. I often like to run alone, just me and the sound of my feet against the ground and the rhythm of my breathing. As a result I'm not very fast, but that's fine by me. I go at a pace that feels good, or feels challenging to me at the moment, depending what I'm in the mood for.

I participate in races from time to time because I like to run, not the other way around.  I also register for some events just to keep me honest, to make sure I have some goals out there, and as a check to make sure I maintain a certain level of fitness. But generally, I just like going out and hitting the road or trail. Races are the byproduct of my desire to run, not the other way around.

I know for a lot of people though, it IS the other way around. They're competitive and want to do events like 5ks, marathons, or ultras, and so running for them is simply training for the event, a byproduct. The event and the competition is the objective, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, for hundreds of years mankind has used sports and athletic competition as an alternative to conflict and war. After all, there is more honor in beating a man in a race than in killing him. Healthy competition, whether with others or with ourselves, is a commendable pursuit.

Then there are always the folks who run for exercise, where weight loss or fitness is the goal. They're typically easy to spot, as they're the ones who look like they are hating every minute of life while they're out on the road. I feel bad for those people, because for them there is nothing in the act of running itself that they enjoy. The competitive person at least gets off on the thrill of the race. They may not always enjoy the training, but at least there's always the competition. But for the fitness or weight loss runner, running is simply a means to an end, much in the same way colonoscopies are a means to an end. "We want to to be thinner, healthier and cancer free, but why in god's name would I enjoy what gets me there?"

There's nothing wrong with either of these reasons to run. They are both noble causes. I wish that the fitness runner could learn to enjoy running a little bit as it would probably help them stick with it and achieve their goals. I wish that some of the competitive types could dial back the competitiveness, because (and we all know at least one) sometimes they can be a real douche. Although I suppose for that sort, sport is a better outlet for those impulses than, say dog fighting or overthrowing a small third world government. In the end though they are both admirable causes. (Just try not to be "that guy" okay?)

Which brings me back to triathlons. And the other reason I run. But before I continue I need to make one thing clear:
The triathlon, regardless of length, is a test of endurance and the completion of one is to be commended.

There. Now that that that is crystal clear, I can continue.

As you can probably guess by now, a triathlon does not fall into the category of things I would consider fun. More specifically, I really have no desire to spend hours and hours training on a bike and in the pool, just so I can do a tri. Additionally, as I've long abandoned the illusion that I will ever  be competitive in individual sports, I don't really feel that competitive bug that might allow me to overcome the aforementioned un-fun-ness. Finally, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no one, or very few people anyway, does triathlons to get into shape. I mean really, there are much less masochistic ways to get into decent shape. Like wrestling a bear, that's probably easier.

So clearly, there's nothing in it for me - nothing that makes me WANT to do a triathon. Which is fine. Whatever. The one thing I discovered though, in talking this out with people, is that there is a perceived negative (at least for me) that tacks onto my complete ambivalence about the triathlon and totally kills it for me. That's the fact that I don't want to get tagged as a triathlete. Allow me to explain.

Most people who do triathlons do them for some of the reasons I've identified: 1) Because they inherently find all three events so much fun that they want to string them all together into some kind of glorious celebration of all things swimming, biking, and running; or 2) they are competitive and want to prove their mettle, either to the world to to themselves. Both of these reasons are hot-damn, fantastic reasons to enter into a triathlon and you go get on with your bad self. There is this small minority however, that's into it because the triathlon is the new "it" thing, the new status symbol - and for some reason when economics enters the picture it really cheeses me off and totally ruins the party for me. 

I seem to remember marathons being the athletic status symbol, and at least I can deal with that. At the end of the day, a marathon is a foot race and there is almost no amount of technology or money that can compensate for pure athletic ability. You can beat my ass at a marathon? I will concede that you are the superior human specimen. True, greater affluence makes it easier to find the time to log the miles and have better nutrition. In the end though, it's still mano-a-mano with little bullshit in between - and the scrawny kid from a village Kenya is just as likely to beat you as the son of a millionare with too much time on his hands. More importantly, this is true whether you're an elite runner or a back of the packer like me.

That's not the case with the triathlon. 
  • Full wetsuit for added bouyancy and reduced effort during the swim: $400
  • Tri singlet to reduce transition time during stages: $80
  • Tri bike with carbon frame and tricked out components for decreased weight and increased efficiency: $4000+

Access to better gear can make a huge difference in performance, particularly in the middle of the pack. The result is an ability to essentially buy performance. 

And it's not just the gear. I've noticed that this particular type of triathlete is particularly taken with the Ironman distance events. It takes some serious time to train for a marathon - you're talking runs at least 3-4 times a week, typically with a long run each week that hits around 20miles at the peak, pre-taper. And that's for one event. There are two others you need to train for, each equally as demanding. Realistically, unless you're a college student, it takes some non-trivial economic means to be able to afford that much time on the road, in the saddle, and in the pool, both in terms of opportunity cost and access to the necessary equipment and facilities.

Most people who consider themselves a triathlete are aware of the fact that they are blessed with the means to train and participate. Most are thankful and are unpretentious about it. The status seekers however, flaunt it. They rock out with their Ironman branded apparel, while driving around in their Prius, with their tri bike strapped to the top, and an ironman bumper sticker on the back and a 140.6 sticker on the hatch.

I will concede that it is a fine line between doing all of those things because one is justly proud of having finished a triathlon, and doing so because one feels superior for it. Nevertheless, there is a line, some people cross it, it makes me want to punch them in the ear, and I want nothing to do with it.

What does this have to do with why I run? Well, in exploring my deep seeded hatred of douchey behavior, it occurred to me that I like running precisely because of how simple it is. Do I usually run with a garmin on my wrist, and the newest in minimalist shoes on my feet? Yes. But, I am equally as happy when I go out for a run with no timing device, wearing huaraches that are little more than sheets of rubber strapped to my feet with nylon cord. I like running for the purity of it. But moreso, I like it because it's something that anyone can do, no matter who they are or how much money they have. I like it because it's about the most democratic (if I may use that term) sport there is. Now, if this makes me my own special brand of asshole I guess that's something I'm going to have to live with.

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