Tuesday, January 7, 2014

RAAM, UMCA, and the way to a not-so-wild west of ultra cycling

   

This is going to start with a problem, wade into some history, meander through some related subjects, and arrive at a solution. Bear with me.

People got angry about RAAM's decision to cut ties with several independent ultra cycling events in the U.S. last week. Then I wrote a blog stating that they were angry for the wrong reasons. Then people got really angry. As Ultra Marathon Cycling Association President Doug Hoffman put it, "some people in the community are really passionate about this stuff, they don't want to listen to each other, and they can't talk to anyone without calling each other stupid." I feel his pain.

The disputes over the RAAM qualifier status decision and the cultural attitudes within the community stem from the same overarching problem: No one has a solid claim to legitimate authority in the ultra cycling world. The real problem with this isn't that someone "deserves" to be the sheriff. It's that you can't make real progress without law and order.

A brief historical overview is necessary to understand this. After speaking with Doug Hoffman and Rick Boethling over the weekend, I learned that the following events are the most relevant milestones in American ultra cycling history, at least with specific regard to RAAM. It's remarkable that Rick and Doug do not agree on a few details. I've done my best to reconcile their accounts.

RAAM (originally the Great American Bike Race) was started in 1982 by John Marino. Either shortly before or shortly afterward, Marino founded the UMCA as a governing body over the semi-sort-of new sport they'd created. Marino was a primary authority in UMCA and the owner of RAAM for the next 18 years. The UMCA existed primarily to keep and track records of ultra cycling achievements. As other events grew up around the country, UMCA broadened its role to sanctioning and insurance-- critical roles of a governing body in most (but not all) sports. Throughout this time, everyone was more or less compelled to bow to UMCA's authority because of its grip on RAAM by way of Marino. RAAM was obviously the crown jewel of cycling events and the guys who created it had pioneered the method of organizing and executing a successful ultra endurance race. In 2000, Marino sold RAAM to Jim Pitre and Lon Haldeman. In 2007, they sold RAAM to a group of buyers which included UMCA. From 2007-2008, UMCA had at least partial direct ownership of RAAM. In 2009, RAAM was sold to the Boethlings. As I've been told, there was some discord both about how the sale was conducted and how the relationship changed afterward. Those details are outside the scope of this discussion. The critical thing to understand is that the governing body no longer had control of the premier race. Up to that point, ultra cycling had more or less been a state-controlled industry. Between Marino, Pitre and Haldeman, there were strong bonds between race owners and governing body members. They had critical stakes in both organizations. Once the Boethlings got it, the business and the government split. Since 2009, ultra cycling has had two authorities: the guys who own RAAM and the elected officials at UMCA.

UMCA began to lose some of its authority even before RAAM was sold. As Doug Hoffman explained to me, UMCA got out of the sanctioning and insurance business as independent race directors found a way to insure themselves. Though this represented a growth in ultra cycling's economic success, it also gave race directors a certain sense of independence. When everyone is independent of you, you cease to be a governing body because you're not actually governing anything anymore. This has led to problems for UMCA. As Doug Hoffman told me:

"It's been a long, slow transition for us. You used to need to be a UMCA member to enter RAAM. Only UMCA events qualified you for RAAM. Now UMCA has to work to stay relevant. We're starting up programs to help race directors and grow the sport. Last year we started World Championship events in the 200 and 500-mile distances. We've created the race directors committee and given them a non-voting seat on the UMCA board. And now we've put together the 500-mile series."

The fact that none of this already existed after nearly 30 years demonstrates just how far behind the UMCA was in its development. That Doug Hoffman has put much of this together in less than two years demonstrates that the organization has found some extraordinary leadership right when it needs it most.

Given what he's done, and what he's planning on doing (which is part of the solution, to be discussed at the end), UMCA is set to move forward in big ways, which could put it back on track to become an actual governing body again. However, there are some hurdles, and understanding them illuminates the future problems for both UMCA and RAAM.

Let's first talk about RAAM's 6-12-24 Hour World Time Trial Championships. I've been to this race twice. As far as an ultra distance cycling time trial goes, it's tough to beat. The course is as flat as a pancake, at or below sea level, pretty well paved, and indeed brings in some of the best ultra cyclists from around the world. But the UMCA doesn't recognize it as an official World Championship. "Unless I'm mistaken, a time trial occurs over a set distance, not a specific time period," explains Hoffman. "We recognize the race winner and accord the event points in our series, but we do not list winners as a world champion or offer one of our world champion jerseys." In response, Rick Boethling says that "We choose to look at what is more commonly found in long distance races, which is miles over a defined time. The history of "not legitimate" world titles is long, [such as] the Single Speed World Championships in cycling. Whatever Doug thinks is fine by us, the racers will decide what title is important and we are willing to take the racers' votes."

Both men have valid points. This is extremely murky territory. Again, Ironman seems to be the prototype of how you accomplish these sorts of things in the world of fringe endurance events. Ironman is "not recognized" by the International Triathlon Union in the same sense that the 6-12-24's (or RAAM, for that matter) are recognized by UMCA. Indeed, ITU has its own pseudo-Ironman event that they have labeled the World Long Course Championships (it's actually about a 70.3 distance). So, without ITU recognition or approval, how did World Triathlon Corporation secure the authority to call themselves a world championship? The same way all corporations settle their problems-- in court.

So, that's an option.

But UMCA has its own challenges with respect to authority declaring things a "world championship." The most immediate problem is the issuance of a rainbow jersey to winners of its championship races. Technically, that's a major no-no. From the UCI's extremely detailed handbook of rainbow-wear:

1.3.061 The design, including colours and layout, of each world champion’s jersey is the exclusive property of the UCI. The jersey may not be reproduced without UCI authorisation. The design may in no way be modified.

Hypothetically, that's another potential lawsuit. I think sending cease-and-desist letters to the UMCA is probably way down the UCI's list of priorities right now. They have their own legitimacy issues. All of this leads to the most pertinent question: where exactly does an aspiring governing body go to get legitimacy in this world? It appears that they actually have several options. It's valuable to look at some examples.

Ironman went to USAT for sanctioning and insurance. They run their own anti-doping program, more or less in partnership with WADA.

The International Association of Ultra Runners obtained an endorsement from the International Association of Athletics Federations. The IAAF established itself in the 1800s, grew up in partnership with the IOC, and offered money to athletes. It pays to be first in line and have cash on hand.

The International Ultradistance Triathlon Association actually went to UCI for its endorsement. The funny thing about that is that's where I've been told ITU went. How one governing body can grant legitimacy to another is mysterious, but apparently acceptable. Based on that, I asked Rick Boethling why RAAM doesn't approach USA Cycling for some sort of endorsement. It was his view that getting that approval would be prohibitively expensive.

Beyond having the most awesome acronym of any governing body in sports, the World Open Water Swimming Association is probably the most comprehensively organized federation in the ultra-endurance business. They've got rules, manuals, procedures, officials, you name it. They support thousands of events worldwide, and even help teams and clubs. It's notable that, while FINA does organize 15 10k and 25k swim races, they do not have a good safety record. Suffice it to say that WOWSA has established its legitimacy through hard work.

There are federations and leagues for everything, and the histories of their schisms and controversies are a story that repeats itself over and over. Parkour, tetherball, Medieval Martial Arts, the ABA vs. NBA, Japan and Latin America's arguments that America's "World Series" is a misnomer, why Major League Soccer succeeded where the North American Soccer League failed, Garry Kasparov's failed attempt to create a new world chess federation. The list goes on and on. This might give some people a headache. To me, it's fascinating. For the ultra cycling community, it's a road map to the future.

This is the solution part.

At present, the UMCA performs only a few key functions and exercises little to no power over individual race directors. This is good to the extent that it doesn't have the potential to ruin things for everyone the way the UCI or NFL have with their recent scandals. It's bad because they can't compel everyone to at least rally under a single banner. Indeed, over the last week I've heard from different sources that not all race directors in the 500-mile series always get along with each other. There needs to be a little more unification. Doug Hoffman may have the plan to do that by way of the two functions UMCA does perform-- keeping the record books and establishing races as world championships.

The UMCA's major source of legitimacy is that they have kept and hold all the records. If you want to get your name in the book, they're the folks with the book and the ones who do the writing. You can go win Fred and Rick's 6-12-24 World Championship, but that's not how UMCA is going to write history. That's their power. They're essentially going the same route as the Audax Club Parisien, which is the governing body of randonneuring. That august body's authority stems from their being the people who created the world's most famous randonneuring event, Paris-Brest-Paris. They still own it and they require people to qualify for it by fairly strict procedures. All of these things compel people to listen to them. It's notable that Doug Hoffman is so inspired by the randonneuring format that it was behind his decision to not make the new 500-mile series a kind of championship. Rather, he's gone for the "participation is its own greatest reward" format, just like ACP.

Hoffman told me during our interview, and allowed me to publish, that UMCA is planning to expand its series of ultra cup and world championship races in 2015. The current 200 and 500-mile world championships will rotate to new races that year, and the initial discussions are underway to make the Race Around Ireland the world super-duper distance championship (that's not what it's actually going to be called, but Hoffman hasn't figured out what the name will be yet and I'm out of creativity). The world super-dupers will rotate on the same basis as the 200 and 500-mile championships, and will require some qualification process. There are a ton of races around the world that would fit in the lineup, to include the Race Across the West. That Hoffman would consider RAW for the lineup shows that he's a genuine bridge-builder.

With these races expanding in popularity and gaining prominence in the community, the UMCA has the opportunity to obtain more clout by virtue of its points system and how it builds the qualifying process for world champion titles. Right now, Hoffman says that the 500-mile series is planned to work like a randonneuring format. It's more about participation than competition. You get points for showing up and finishing, and there are no prizes awarded for finishing first at the most races. The individual races will still award their prizes for winning, but there will not be an equivalent of the Stanley Cup that gets people's names engraved on it. If things go well and people start seriously going to enough of these events on a consistent basis, I think that would probably change. For right now, it's a good start to have the world championship events. Ideally, the world championship status will in time gain enough importance to the ultra cycling community that UMCA could use the issue of that title to persuade race directors to cooperate as a more unified body.

The ultra cycling community has lagged behind every other major ultra-distance sport, and it has suffered the consequences. RAAM is still the queen of the ball, but the rest of the sport hasn't grown or matured with it, and even RAAM doesn't have the public attention it used to get during the Wide World of Sports days. The Boethlings have made a tremendous financial and personal investment in the sport. They have ideas about where RAAM should go and they've put their money where their mouths are. They've also been successful, and that success has benefitted the community. Doug Hoffman is also doing good work to turn things around. As the Boethlings promote the sport and grow the business entities that will be necessary to serve an expanding customer base, Hoffman and the UMCA are trying to repair and upgrade the existing infrastructure. The two entities have different approaches, but that doesn't mean they're competitors. If Fred and Rick are would-be railroad tycoons in the wild west, Hoffman is the governor of a territory trying to convince the cattle ranchers to give up a little pasture land to let the tracks come through. If the people in the sport want to gain full statehood, they're going to have to support both parties.



Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Some Thoughts From Rick Boethling on The RAAM Qualifier Decision




My commentary on the RAAM directors' decision to break ways with several well-known American ultra cycling events got a mixed-bag response. I expected as much. Some people were swayed, others not so much. My objective was to first provide the community a bit more exposure into the race directing business. It's not something we frequently get to see. Part of the measure of a good event is that, like Disneyland, the production is so good you can't even tell where the curtain is, let alone what's behind it. Even when the race is over, the discussion rightfully focuses more on those who were on stage than in back of it. It takes patience and effort beyond racing and training to learn the sports business. But make no mistake, knowing the business end is the true mark of a professional athlete. That's the signature of guys like Chris Paul and Jordan Rapp.

For that reason, I wrote yesterday's post as a preface to Rick Boethling's more detailed explanation of why they reached their decision. I still don't expect everyone to agree with him. But at least now we can dispatch with the accusations of greed and power-mongering. Rick's responses are below, with a few of my own comments in italics.

Hi Jim:

We appreciate you asking for our input on a very complicated and apparently testy issue. The evolution of RQ's is complex and so is the history of endurance cycling in the US. The issues brought up on FB are really about the domestic scene not the world-wide one. In fact, the world-wide scene is great and we are incredibly excited to be working with so many international events. The discussion on FB seems to revolve around three primary issues: 1) All about the money, 2) our decision hurting the sport and 3) the 500-mile distance. So, I have tried to address each of these issues. It is obviously pretty complex but I think you'll get the point. What the sport domestically needs are people to step up and put on better events, people with a passion for what they do. It is much like what Barry Siff has done in triathlon. Our athletes deserve every bit the attention that other sport's get.

1. We have been to nearly every RQ worldwide . We have raced, crewed, officiated, volunteered and observed each. We have studied the historical data – growth rates, trends, etc. of endurance cycling, triathlon, running, etc. and compared their relative numbers, relationships, etc. Ultimately domestic cycling is lagging behind the others. The primary causes, we believe, are the low overall event quality, the lack of promotion and the lack of pathways to get to the upper levels of the sport.

Jim's note: I would also say that another major obstacle is the insular nature of the overall ultra community. There is a passive hostility toward outside media. People don't like Dean Karnazes because of Ultramarathon Man. People don't like it when events draw large crowds of participants. They don't like it when their races "go Hollywood" or "commercial." But what they like even less is being ignored, called "crazy," or seeing races go out of business. To those on the "inside," it feels like they're protecting something special. To those on the outside, it looks reclusive and elitist. It is this cultural belief that ultra has to stay small to be "authentic" that underlies the reluctance to promote and engage. Fred and Rick don't do things that way. They talk to outsiders, and sometimes they get scorned as outsiders.

2. For the sport to grow we need to reach beyond the existing few racers. The Challenge Series was set up to do just that. We picked 7 great cycling markets and offered distances that allow riders to step up and become racers (60, 120 to 200 & 400-miles). It allows others to see that there is a step up from what they are currently doing. Much the same as a runner (5k, 10k, ½ marathon, marathon, 50k, 50m, etc …) and triathlete (sprint, Olympic, ½ Ironman, Ironman, double, etc…) has access to. This does not account for any of the other work we do in the sport.

3. We continually market every race that is an RQ through our website, Facebook, media outlets, newsletter, etc. There is no reciprocation on the part of the domestic RQs. We have asked for logos and brief event descriptions of the events to help promote them and received nothing. We are repeatedly told, by domestic RQs, that being an RQ is not important to them, so why is that not the case now? If we are not important to them, then no longer being an RQ should be a non-issue.

Jim again: Exactly what I was saying. Domestic RD's took the RAAM Qualifier label for granted. They essentially said "we do not value this relationship." When someone doesn't value their relationship with you, it is next to impossible to negotiate terms. Fred and Rick reached out and tried to foster a better relationship by offering something before asking for anything. With this as background, I think the sour grapes attitude from the 500-mile directors is both a temporary and beneficial phase. I'm optimistic that this will force them to realize that there actually is value to being a RAAM Qualifier, which is to say they will come to respect it. This will open up negotiations about paying a licensing fee and adhering to rules. In other words, agreements will be written and signed, accountability will be established, people will become stakeholders, mutual respect will increase, and the RD community will be strengthened by more secure bonds. 

4. Since taking over RAAM we have doubled its participation and the media exposure is immensely larger. We have also doubled the number of RQs and continually review new ones.

5. The illusion of qualifying – 500 miles is a fictitious benchmark that was set years ago. The reality is that you would really need to race 1000 miles or more for the racer to really be qualified. The qualifiers are really best used to train crew and racer together. Thus, the difference between 400 & 500 miles is statistically irrelevant.

6. Ultimately it is a business. We need to make business decisions. We also want a great sport with great events to talk about. We compete with Rock & Roll Marathon and Ironman, etc. for athletes and our events need to be up to snuff. We don’t expect those kind of numbers, but you still have to put on a good show, and a 10x10 tent in a hotel parking lot as your start/finish does not do that. Of course, this is also reflected in sponsorship commitments. Our athletes deserve a lot more than they are getting.

Jim's take: This is the deepest and most important piece of Rick's message. After going to Ultraman triathlon races all over creation, I have to disagree that you need more than a 10'x10' tent to make a great finish line. Then again, Ultraman is a completely different entity. That's the important takeaway. You can set up a race any way you want. The real challenge of being a race director is knowing, on a deeply spiritual level, exactly what it is you want and ensuring that what you've built satisfies your requirements. Ultraman's little finish line works perfectly because that's exactly what Jane Bockus wants it to be. Not so with RAAM and the Boethlings. They have an entirely different vision for what their race should be, but they are every bit as assured in their convictions as Jane. That conviction is the earmark of a successful event.

Regarding competition with Ironman, I mentioned to Rick that I see the endurance sports participation market sort of like a bagpipe. Ironman is the bag. All the adventurous, daring endurance types find their way there first. From that point, depending on how full the bag gets and how hard it's squeezed, it will filter them out to various outlets: ultra running, ultra cycling, ultra swimming, adventure racing, crossfit, maybe some hang gliding and the like. Right now, ultra sports are experiencing massive growth because the bag is really full. How much outflow the different ultra sports receive will depend on how big their pipeline is. Cycling is lagging because it's not as big right now. Numbers I've seen indicate that ultra-running has doubled its participation every five years for the last three decades. People on Wall Street would murder for those kinds of numbers. By comparison, ultra cycling is growing at an anemic pace. This is troublesome both now and over the long term. The economy has not been good for several years, and it's been especially bad for the 20-30 crowd. Their earning power will potentially be affected for the next 20 years. That means there may be an aftershock to endurance sports of low turnout due simply to a lack of people who can get into them. Cycling gets hit especially hard because shoes are cheaper than bikes. It's my personal belief that finances are a major driver behind the growing popularity of crossfit and the Tough Mudder breed of races. Ultra cycling needs to inoculate itself against this possibility now by developing a larger crop of participants that will keep it going during potential lean years. Part of that will depend on fostering media attention on the solo racers, but the preponderance of it will rely on a strong series of races that support the organization financially and open a wider pipeline of interested athletes, both soloists and teams, over the long term.

Rick made the further astute observation on competition:
 
I do agree in principal with you about Ironman, they are our biggest resource for new racers. Ultra running coming in a distant second. What I meant was that Ironman has set the bar for good events, like them or not. So, a racer is going to experience both events, IM and an RQ, and, when they have to make that decision to race again they are going to choose their perceived best value for the money. We, in a sense, compete for returning racers and that precious dollar vote. There are only so many of those votes to go around. The better the events, the more votes (racers). Growth for all of the events is good for all sides, then we get to swap our racers around and hopefully leave them all happy and wanting more. We know RQs and RAAM will not be the choice every time, but we do want them on the menu, so to speak.

During the course of my dialogue with Rick, there was the surprising revelation that the 500-mile races have formed a coalition as a series more or less governed by the Ultramarathon Cycling Association. To be fair, I asked him if he'd been aware of this initiative and if the move to cut off their RAAM Qualifier status had been a preemptive strike or if this was a retaliatory measure on their part.

We had heard it was in the works but were not sure what the timing would be on it. It was not a factor in our decision, because as we understood it the agreement between those races and UMCA is essentially the same as it was between them and us. Even if we had continued the relationship with those races, their cup series would not have been a competitor in the market.

One thing we are doing with the Series is recruiting and "grooming" officials. We all know every event can use more, more, more officials, especially RAAM. We also know cheaters will always find a way. So, we have put in a system of recruiting officials and training them. Right now we have about 1 official per 10 racers or less. I have no idea what the other races have for officials. We are also the only event, that I know of, that compensates officials (at least a little bit - basically expense money).

Thanks and have a great weekend! Rick


Jim again: I seriously doubt that after an official is "groomed" for service in RAAM Challenge that they will restrict them from officiating at other races. Thus, the growth and prosperity of the Challenge events represents a benefit to everyone. 

In closing, this is not about greed or shutting down someone's race. This is about sustainment, stability, accountability and mutual respect in business relationships. Those principles have to be at the forefront of every decision any race director makes, because violating them dooms races. People should consider just how much the team running RAAM puts the sport ahead of their own interests. The triathlon world has been significantly less fortunate in the last few years in its relationship with ITU, USAT and WTC. I don't think we need to beat the UCI or Tour de France horse. For now, RAAM is the queen of the ultra cycling ball. As it goes, so goes the rest of the ultra cycling world. The sport has found good custodians who support the community. The community would do well to continue supporting them, even if they don't support all the decisions. That means framing disagreements in a respectful and informed debate.  
  
Sunday, December 29, 2013

Badwater's Nuclear Meltdown



The last week of December may go down in history as the great Ultradistance Christmas Conspiracy Jamboree of 2013. There were major upheavals in two of the United States' most prominent ultra events: the Badwater 135 and the Race Across America. The ultra-endurance community's passionate advocacy of their races more than makes up for their small (but growing) numbers. The problem, as it often is in such cases, is that the passion didn't have the requisite guidance of thought, leaving it to blow up in all the wrong directions in both instances.

Dealing specifically with Badwater, the deterioration of the dialogue was helped greatly by the internet. On December 21st, the Death Valley National Park Service announced on its website that it was placing a moratorium on all sporting events running through the park until a complete safety review had been accomplished by the staff. Primary concerns cited by the park include risks to participants, volunteers, and event and park staff. The review won't be completed until late 2014, all but assuring that the Badwater 135 and the premier ultracycling event Furnace Creek 508 will run on new routes.

I received e-mails from multiple sources about the announcement within hours of its posting. By the end of the day, the fiber optic pipelines of the internet had been thoroughly coated in ragebile. People hollered that this was all a conspiracy to hook up some private safety consulting firm with a plum government contract. That's actually not the case, and they would have known that if they'd read the official letter (.pdf). Quoting the document:
The safety evaluation team is composed of the park safety officer, technical experts from the park including a Park Ranger who participants in bike sporting events, a U.S. Public Health Service representative, and technical experts from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The conspiracy theorizing continued apace. Within 48 hours, there was a full-blown story setting sail that the NPS was doing this to cover up a massive spike in radiation levels due to the Fukushima disaster, or government weapons testing, or possibly Godzilla. There was less content to the thing than a George Tsoukalos montage. Again, taking a few moments to peel back the layers on the idea shows it's pretty hollow.

The article on Run-It-Fast is based on a video made by sensationalist journalist Michael Collins as he used a Geiger counter to demonstrate that there were insanely high levels of radiation in Death Valley. The problem is that Collins has made videos demonstrating insanely high levels of radiation all over the place. My personal favorite is the one that says Los Angeles is already approaching Chernobyl levels of horror. He is almost literally running around telling everyone that the sky is falling. Meanwhile, more established sources of scientific study and journalistic practice report that Collins is a few years ahead of schedule. When you hear people talking about insane levels of something and saying that the sky is falling, you should begin to consider the possibility that they themselves might actually be insane. You don't do the insanity workout, why read insanity news?

Specifically dealing with the "Death Valley experiment," Collins' method involves wiping rain water directly off the windshield of his vehicle which he drove to Death Valley, presumably from Los Angeles. The research community calls that a tragi-comical level of experimental contamination. This is about the least scientific approach to collecting and measuring samples possible. The conspiracy article notes that Collins spent ten days taking samples around Death Valley. The problem is that ten days of poorly collected samples gives you consistently corrupt data.

Collins only references the number on the geiger counter as a metric for radioactive exposure. What he doesn't give is context. A Geiger counter measures lots of things. He only gears it to register counts-per-minute (CPM). What does that mean? Relatively little, actually. Most Geiger counters are calibrated to measure radiation from Cesium-137. If you want to account for different isotopes, you have to take several different readings. Furthermore, the counter is only registering "events." That doesn't equate to actual exposure or potential consequences. Doing the best I could with the video quality and the available information on the particular counter he's using, I estimated that his 10,800 CPM reading equates to 9 milli-Roentgen units per hour (9mR/hr). That means prolonged exposure carries with it a whopping 0.000055% chance of getting cancer. Again, I didn't specialize in nuclear physics in school and this is some back-of-the-envelope calculation, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express in Los Angeles one time and did not get cancer, so I think it's safe to call this one a flop.

On the whole, the conspiracy theories are reckless and detract from the real problems. The discussion desperately needs to focus on the real conspiracy at work: the accidental one between the Badwater organizers and the National Park Service. Yes, I am saying that the good people at AdventureCORPS, the producers of the Badwater 135, actually helped the National Park Service kill their race. This was a case of epic self-sabotage and a public relations disaster of their own making.

Note the timing and nature of the NPS announcement. They put it out on their website the Saturday before Christmas. If you're not picking up on why this is important, I would just like to point out that if I wanted to commit a mass murder and get away with it, the best time and place to do it would be on the National Park Service website the Saturday before Christmas. In the journalism community this is known as "burying the lede." Consider the behavior of the internet this time of year. All the news sites are doing their "10 best of the year" stories or recycling those "how to make your New Year's resolutions stick" advice columns. They're doing this because, like everyone else, they are all on vacation. 99% of the stuff on the net right now was typed up a week ago (to see how professionals do this, look at how many articles The Atlantic ran over the holidays debating the relative virtues of the movie "Love, Actually"). Few people are actually keeping up with current events. If you're in the government and want to make a move without a lot of controversy, this is the perfect time to do it. That's what the NPS did. Mainstream news didn't get hold of it until Christmas Eve (another blow to media attention), and the story was written as a post-mortem. The Badwater organizers didn't get outmaneuvered on the news front. They got steamrolled.

The really tragic part is that the Badwater organizers had ample time to prevent this from happening. I was told that the NPS was considering the moratorium back in October, so they were obviously aware of it much sooner. I contacted AdventureCORPS CEO Chris Kostman about it. I asked him if he would be willing to give an interview, whereupon I'd contact the NPS officials and seek comment from them. He declined, saying he wanted to see how things panned out. I thought at the time that it was a bad decision. It was bad for Kostman because he wasn't getting in front of the issue or engaging people who could get the debate into the public arena. It's also necessary to point out that it was bad for me as a journalist because it would have made a good story. Tension, conflict, agendas, the fate of something people care about. It was all there. I could see the headline: Badwater Organizers Fight Overbearing Government Officials to Keep Small Race Alive. I was genuinely interested.

Instead, Kostman reached out to the Badwater faithful and asked them to write letters to the director at Death Valley National Park. This was another bad decision. I highly doubt that, even if every Badwater finisher, support crew member and volunteer wrote in, that it would constitute a body of paperwork half the size of what the NPS receives in a week from Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. Furthermore, it's futile to write a letter to a government administrator. That's an appointed person who answers to administrative channels. They don't feel accountable to the public. To demonstrate this, the next time a cop pulls you over for speeding, be sure to point out to them that their paycheck comes out of your taxes. The proper targets would have been local politicians, including the Congressmen from the affected districts.

I again approached Kostman about the possibility of an interview when the letter writing campaign was announced. He responded that he didn't want to "draw [the NPS director] out like that" because "it would be harder for her to backtrack from such a firm decision." Again, that was a misreading of the public relations map. If the recent government shutdown shows us anything, it's that getting people to declare firm decisions makes it much easier to get them to back down. It at least rallies strong public sentiment behind your cause. A textbook example of this is the way World War II veterans handled their own confrontation with the NPS.

But now the debate is over without the public or even Kostman really having a chance to participate in it. And few journalists will have interest in writing the story because there's no tension, no conflict, no fate at stake. The title reads Small Race Cancelled For 2014, Nothing Else to See Here. It's just a post-mortem.

It's important to note that this is just halftime in the battle. Granted, the NPS has run the score up badly on Badwater, but it's the score at the end that counts. In Kostman's favor is the fact that, thanks to those WWII vets, the National Park Service has about the most despicable reputation of any governmental agency outside the NSA. There are all kinds of ways to influence the course of the "safety review," from asking for Congressional intervention to building local support. The event should also provide its own historical review of on-course incidents and the private and public resources that were used to address them. It probably also wouldn't hurt to ask Dean Karnazes to write an op-ed in Outside in the next few months.

I don't write this to slam Kostman. This ruling on Badwater ought to serve as a warning to hundreds of other race directors around the United States, whether they deal with the Parks Service or not. In case you haven't been paying attention, this is an issue that's been bubbling to the surface for a while, and it could be more radioactive than Godzilla. If professional cycling races can't get permits to run through those areas, why should events like Badwater or the Barkley Marathon? Kostman himself has used the argument that Badwater and the Furnace Creek bike race are economic boons to the community and that his company runs the safest of races. But all that does is make him sound more like a big corporate event, and the NPS rules are clear about forbidding those. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Organizers need to take a hard look at their event structure and figure out how they can best differentiate themselves from something like the Amgen Tour of California, or else risk getting thrown out with the big-money races.

It's time for ultra-race organizers to face some hard facts. For the last 30 years, most of these races have operated on the assumption that they are small events operating on the fringe of the public's awareness. But they've done this in the face of clear data to the contrary. Western States is a mega-popular event. Badwater itself has had to go to a qualifier and lottery system. They've been featured in Triathlete, Outside, even The New York Times. Anyone who thinks their little 135-mile race through the desert that "brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars" can operate under the radar is fooling themselves. They are not "gaining traction in the public consciousness" or "getting there." They have arrived. Pretending and acting like you're still the little guy is sticking your head in the sand. Organizers need to accept that and adopt new practices and strategies.

 The people who make these events and the sport at large what it is need to come to grips with these changes. Some of them are directing big races. They need to start acting like big race directors. The survival of their events depends on it. In their own way, races themselves are like Godzilla. Once it mutates into something bigger, you really don't have the option of making it smaller again. You have to be ready to manage the beast.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What it's like to report live from Ultraman

   

I haven't been as frequent on here the last several months due to the demands of other projects, passions and ideas. Between fighting the good fight, asking deep questions and trying to sell a book (which I'm slowly getting better at plugging shamelessly, just click here to see), I'm working on a new book about Ultraman. That's Ultraman the ultra endurance triathlon, not to be confused with the lovable hero of Kaiju fame. As of this writing, I've been following the race for 374 days, stalked athletes for 960 miles in cars, traveled 3,000 miles by plane, written 240 pages of notes, taken maybe 32 hours of recorded interviews, read two biographies, been in contact with the personnel office of the French Foreign Legion and learned the secret history of the world's most prolific paper bag hat maker.

So, you know, not really a lot of time to comment on that whole Brett Sutton thing.

This past weekend was my second go around at the Ultraman World Championships in Hawai'i, and my third time observing an actual race. I've been writing about the event since 2010 after an interview I did with David Goggins so astonished me that I had to know more about it. I spent the next two years talking extensively with women's champion Amber Monforte and race director Jane Bockus. The more I talked to them, the more I realized just how little I understood the event. In 2011 I wrote a story for 220 Triathlon and tried to write about things more in the way Jane and Amber talked about it. I wrote about the journey, the friendships, the crews and the meaning of the race's principles-- Aloha, Ohana, and Kokua.

The editors wrote me back and told me to cut out the "peripheral stuff" and find out about Amber's nutrition plan and her weekly mileage in each discipline. My response was something to the tune of "What do I have to do to make you people understand this? Write a book?" And then it occurred to me. Yeah, there should be a book about this.

And that's what I was in Hawai'i to do this weekend: perform research and work on my book. In no way did I intend to live-tweet the entire damn race. I mean, track athletes, record interviews, and do social media? For three days straight? I mean, that's as crazy as swimming, biking and running all the way around an island. But I thought some folks might be interested in a few pre-race questions with the athletes, so I threw out a tweet to my meager 230-something "followers" that I'd ask specific questions if they were interested. No one replied. I wasn't surprised. I wasn't a big believer in Twitter.

Wasn't.

Really, the most I anticipated was to do a few quick Q&A sessions with some athletes people were especially interested in, tweet the responses, and get back to real work. I'd write my daily update report, e-mail it to the editor at LAVA, and then tweet it out to let people know it was online. People would just have to wait. Meanwhile, now 13-time Ultraman finisher and keeper of vast amounts of ultra endurance sports history Gary Wang was working on a little project. A savvy programmer, he put together a little website for the greater Ultraman community around the world that would be keeping tabs on the race throughout the weekend. In it, he incorporated a twitter feed aggregator that would post all tweets with the term "#ultramanlive" in them. I thought, okay, duly noted, will use the old hash tag in the tweets I post, if any. Still wasn't believing in Twitter.

So we had the technology and the capability, but no real structure or plan. Gary spread the word around to the athletes. But I don't remember it being especially mentioned in the pre-race briefing. Support crews during this rodeo have their hands full with enough stuff as it is. There's no sense introducing iPhones and social media into the equation.

But then the race started, and suddenly it all just hit the fan. I posted times coming out of the swim, then a couple of updates from the road. Mostly I was still putting it on my Facebook page for all the Ultraman alumni I'd made friends with in the last year or so. Then the weather turned really bad going up the volcano, and I start getting tweets. Urgent ones. From Portugal. Everyone in the world suddenly wanted to know how Antonio Nascimento was doing. Ultimately, he DNF'd day one with four other athletes. It was heartbreaking. But since people asked, I made sure to get an interview with him for the daily update on LAVA Magazine's website. And just like that, my meager Twitter following increased by 50 thankful Portuguese triathlon enthusiasts. Well played, Twitter. Maybe a little more open-minded, but still not believing in you.

The day isn't over until the last athletes come in safely, well past the 6:30PM mark. Then the volunteers have to break down the finish line. Then we go get checked in to the Kona Military Campground area on top of Kilauea. Then we eat. Then I can finally start writing the story at about 10:00PM. Then I can e-mail it out about midnight. So I can get up at 4:00AM.

Twitter apparently found my lack of faith disturbing and immediately began force-choking my account within 30 minutes of the start of day 2. Portugal wants to know if Antonio started the day. All of Brazil starts asking me about the whereabouts of different athletes. I'm even getting messages from other people who are on the course itself. By the time we get to the Red Road I beg Steve King to give me the times the athletes passed by his announcer's station just to make the tweets stop. What I failed to realize that I was just feeding the beast.

The Red Road is one of those areas without cell reception, so I was offline for about 30-40 minutes. When I emerged from the ancient canopied jungle, my phone blew up with all kinds of questions-- questions that people couldn't possibly have known to ask unless they had some special knowledge of events on the course. Worse than that, I get an e-mail from my editor saying that the files for the day one report didn't come through and he needs them re-sent. So there I am, standing on the extreme south-west tip of the land that time forgot, trying to e-mail hi-res photos and a word document from a smart phone that's got a little skull and crossbones blinking over the battery life indicator. Somehow, I'm able to get 10.4 Megabytes chucked into the digital pipeline before the phone gasps its last. I get it plugged into a car charger, only to find out that my charger cable has gotten half-severed. So I have to hold the cable in a weird way to get it to work. I'm supposed to be a serious journalist and I feel like some old granny working the TV antenna to get the static out of Murder, She Wrote. FML. But we must press onward.

"We" in this case being myself and Vern Sekafitz-- Ultraman volunteer and chief bike course mechanic. My view of the race today, as it always is, comes courtesy of whoever is unlucky enough to get saddled with me. There's no expense account for this caper. I'm not even getting a paycheck. Everything here is my own nickel, except for room and board which are provided by Jane. I'm here because I believe in this event, and Jane puts me up in the race staff condo because she believes in me. She gets me a rental car for a couple of days before the race and asks me if I want to keep it for the whole weekend. I decline. I can't cause her that kind of expense. This race has only lasted as long as it has because people are willing to make do. Besides, the athletes are only one part of the story. The people who make this possible are every bit as important, which brings me to Vern.

I rode shotgun with Vern on day two of the race last year, and for reasons unknown to me he decided the experience was tolerable enough to repeat. This is his sixth time working Ultraman. Last year, he regaled me with the unlikely story of how he got roped into this affair, which I hope to explain in the book (further proof that I'm getting better at shameless self-promotion). This time we talk about Brock Lesnar (he's an MMA fan), how it's bullshit that wrestling has been pulled from the Olympics, and just how epic this duel between Christian Isakson and Miro Kregar is. Much of this discussion occurs when we stop in Hilo for Taco Bell. Ask an Ultraman athlete or volunteer why they come to this race, and you'll get all kinds of answers. For Gary Wang, it's a meditative retreat. For Alexandre Ribeiro, this is three days in elysium. I'm writing a whole book on why Jane has done it for twenty years. But for me personally, there are two reasons. First and foremost, I hunger for truth, and this event is both product and producer of a truth so genuine it can't help but restore your faith in all the things you want to have faith in. But a close second is driving up the west coast of Hawai'i and having Taco Bell with Vern Sekafitz. That's a kind of truth of its own.

The day two bike is just amazing. I mean, I called it in the day one report when I said don't count Isakson out. I wrote that because I saw that guy race in Canada. But I also left Canada thinking I'd never see a race like that again. On that count, I was wrong. Nobody saw him coming. He bombs down the volcano at 50mph with Ribeiro and Kregar, waits for some indication that Alexandre is vulnerable and then takes the lead from the Red Road all the way up to Waimea, riding like a man possessed. He's trying to atone for the losses incurred yesterday. He's trying to ride Miro and Alexandre into the ground. It's also possible he's doing long-term damage to himself. He must have puked about 20 times in 24 hours. When he finally crosses the line, Christian crumples in a heap on the grass. And what do I do? I stand there and take photos. It's hard to stay objective. I feel like an asshole. This guy is getting his physical existence scoured by the wire brush of God, and I'm hitting the camera button like it was the Victoria's Secret fashion show. I'm a little scared of myself. I'm a fan of this guy, but I have to be fair. I tweet his time and condition. He's still the story of the day, but it causes me to overlook how Ribeiro doesn't succeed in taking the overall lead after day two. I realize that later and curse my lack of attention to details. I can do better than that. I get ahead of the curve and start working on the story at the finish line. It only takes until 11:00PM. Gotta be up at 4:00AM again.

Also, now believing in Twitter.

I have become a Twitter convert. I have gained 200 "followers," and at least for now they are legitimately following me. Holy crap, I can't believe just how many responses I get every hour. Where is this stuff coming from? People are asking for updates on everything. I worry about what to do on the third and final day. I'm also simultaneously aggravated and amused by the grousing on Slowtwitch about the race coverage. Aggravated because it seems like these people don't realize this is the first time a reporter has actually been out on the course live-updating the race (because I didn't do it last year), and amused because it seems so typical. "Oh, here's a new thing that we have never seen and barely understand. Let's gripe about it." I see that Nick Mallett has jumped on it, though.

As badly as the athletes get strung out on day two, it's even worse on day three. The Queen K is still an open road. You don't make U-turns out there. You make U-Take-Ur-Life-Into-Ur-Own-Hands turns. Yeah, you can make substantially more "orbits" of the athlete field, but the trade-off is that once the first person gets within 45-minutes of the finish you're stuck at the line. That only leaves about six hours for any-damn-thing to happen to 30 people trying to run a double marathon through the lava fields. It's unfair. Their effort is no less worthy than those who cross the line first. But I have to cover the winner.

I force myself to shoot more photos. Tim Sheeper starts to crack and lose the lead. Ribeiro comes apart and can't hang with Kregar. Then Sheeper passes him. Then Biscay. Then others. I record his pain. I think about a National Geographic documentary on polar bears I saw a while back, in which the crew documented how a bear was wounded, couldn't catch food, and eventually starved to death. I remember wondering how those guys felt. Now I know, and I wish I didn't. Damn. Now I'm a fan of Alex. I don't want this for him. But I'm a fan of Miro, too, now. And I do want this for him. If you can't be objective, be biased toward everyone, I guess.

A little while longer and I ask my ride to take me to the finish. This day it's Peter Bourne, who has more of his life bound up in Ultraman and triathlon in general than any three athletes out here, excluding Alex and Miro. Some people talk facts, figures and dates. Peter imbues me with history through the language of philosophy. I sit and listen to what it means to be a course martial from the former regional director of USAT. History is more than just dates and places. It's the difference between yesterday and today and where the line between them projects we'll be tomorrow. It's that potent mixture of zeitgeist and karma. I get that from him.

I sit at the line and start typing. Miro comes in. Then... Hillary?!? Damn, what happened out there? I have no idea, and I know immediately I've got huge gaps to fill in the story. I type out her time, put my phone under my chin and squeeze the tweet trigger. I get the result I expect. Half the planet rejoices while the other half asks a collective double-you-tee-eff. I tell them that all will be explained in the day three race report on LAVA's website, which is a great way to deflect having to say "I am totally blind to events on the course now."

It all works out in the end. The athletes fill me in on their views, and Steve King tells me what he saw from his fixed vantage point at the half and three-quarters points. It comes together. It just takes time. There's no such thing as high-def or instant replay out here. Some people might say we're doing it "the old way." I say we're bringing it old school. And you know what? I like bringing it old school. I have been more exhausted and stiff and anxious than I have all year, but I wouldn't trade that in for all the live GPS tracking in the world. That's the type of coverage that focuses on distances, times, and places. The only thing it gives you are numbers for instant gratification. It's GMO-chicken-soup for the soul. Finding out that Miro Kregar ran a 6:43 double marathon doesn't tell you anything other than that he ran fast. Finding out how he ran that fast fully believing that he was going to lose, and then magically pulling out the victory from the gaping jaws of defeat is the pure, just-like-mom-used-to-make stuff that you crave. Twitter is helpful for right-here-right-now stuff, and right-here-right-now has value. But you can't cook with your microwave every night. If you want something more substantial, you've got to wait on the crock pot. And that's what Ultraman is designed to do-- to make you wait for the good stuff.

Ironman coverage is different. You take 80 pro men, 50 pro women, 2,000 age groupers, a couple of celebrities, and throw an army of NBC cameras at them. It's essentially throwing eggs against the wall hoping that Julie Moss will pop out of one of them and crawl across that line in a perfectly orchestrated twist of fate. And when you stretch things out to those proportions, the odds favor some sort of Disney moment. There's nothing wrong with it, either, because for that person it happens to be true. But the dilemma of the circumstances is that all that effort to ensure and capture that moment make its delivery feel a little plastic. When lightning strikes twice, it's amazing. When it strikes half a dozen times, it's photoshop.

There was a joke out on the course on day three that Ultraman rules prohibit an athlete from crawling. For whatever reason, it strictly precludes a Julie Moss moment. But the race doesn't need thousands of people or someone to crawl to have that. We had 36 people start the journey, 30 to finish, and an epic tale in every one of them regardless of their result. What Miro had, what Alexandre had, what Hillary had, what Christian had, what Justin Nixon had, what Kurt Madden had, what Dene Sturm had, those were all just as real and sincere and wonderful as what Julie Moss had. Hell, Lucy Ryan didn't even finish, and she might have had the most sincere and wonderful story I've ever seen out there. Believe me, you're not going to find that type of thing on Strava.

I got several compliments on the final write-up. Personally, I was dissatisfied with it. I could have done better. I should have done better. I'm looking forward to doing better. I've got a feature story to write in the print version of LAVA, then on to finishing the book. There will be a little more time and space to do the whole story true justice.

In the end, I figured out what caused the Twitter explosion. Gary Wang's little website worked like a charm. I never could access it from my phone on the road or the crap-tastic wi-fi at the places we stopped along the way, so it wasn't until earlier today that I realized the full magnitude of the thing. It was a huge collaborative effort among dozens of people here interacting with hundreds around the world. Friends and families of the individual athletes and Ultraman at large banded together. Gary's was the little gimmick that did great things. I'm glad. It's another reminder that you should never count anything out at Ultraman.

Did we cover Ultraman live? Yeah, sorta. We didn't do it well. But it's not something you can do well. The geography, weather, time constraints, logistics and bandwidth just don't allow for it. But even bigger than that, the spirit and meaning of Ultraman defy our paradigm of coverage. I told of events this weekend. In due course, I'll tell stories, and then stories upon stories. And even when I'm done it still won't be covered. Ultraman is that big. Its distances often exceed the capabilities of those who attempt it. Its meaning and reach transcend all of us. In the end, there's only so much we can see. By design, Ultraman teaches us to be content with that. The rest we have to wait to hear. It's stories and oral tradition, just like the ancient Hawaiians passed their heritage down. You can't evolve or improve on that, because doing so would make it not Ultraman anymore. Ultimately, the question is not how to improve transmission of the event. It's how to improve yourself to find fulfillment with what it bestows upon you. Jane Bockus will be the first one to tell you that this is an event, not a race. You're not here to rush through it.

Reporting live from a small sliver of a rich, ongoing legacy of love and family that can never be summarized in a 500-word recap, I'm Jim Gourley.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Things I left behind in California

   

It hit me about two months ago. I was out on a ride somewhere between San Diego and Oceanside, going through a particularly mundane stretch of road, when my thoughts drifted back to Italy. I thought about the Veneto plain: the unbridled joy of endless fast flats surrounded by gorgeous fields and punctuated by small rustic towns. The Italian methodology of placing road signs made getting lost almost a foregone conclusion, but that was also almost the point. Around every wrong turn there was some new plantation estate adorned with equally beautiful columns and gardens-- a perfect union of marble and flora. And the hills! Que bello! Basano del Grapa, Monte Berico, Nanto, Madonna del Ghisallo.

How's that for a twist on California dreamin'?

I took it as a sign. After two years in SoCal, I'm getting bugged riding up and down the same old strip and looking forward to finding a new place where the kids are hip. That's the advantage of being in the military-- it affords you the chance to get around. But wanting to go back to have one last ride around Vicenza means that a year or two from now I'll wish I'd yearn to get back to Cali, at which point the disadvantage of army life will kick in-- they'll tell us "nah, I don't think so." So, even though there's no "one last ride" that would prevent that feeling from overcoming me in the future, I wanted to have a good one no matter what. There was no question where to go. A combo ride down memory lane and and off into the sunset. I wanted to start with an ascent up Palomar Mountain and then ride down Montezuma Valley Road into Borrego Springs, aka, the glass elevator.

It seemed fitting to end the California adventure where it began. My first ride here occurred while we were still living in Italy. I came out for RAAM, riding on a four-man team and made some of my best friends in the world through that experience. I'll never forget that first day. A navigational error caused the support crew to miss the switch-out with me and I must have ridden for an hour without any water. I rode Palomar by myself. My friend Mike took the descent into Borrego, which wound up being very fortunate. Just driving down that thing scared me to death. When we competed in RAW last year we specifically planned for me to climb Palomar and him to tackle the descent again. That's just how we roll. It's always bothered me that I haven't felt stable enough in the saddle to even go down that road. I wanted to leave Cali having overcome that challenge.

Irony intervened.

The first odd thing that happened was that I wound up doing this last ride the same way I did the first one-- with a friend I didn't know that well. Rick and I met through some strange Facebook connection and started talking about things. Then he finally came out to meet in person when I was in Oceanside announcing at the RAAM start line this year. We met again at Ultraman Canada, and decided to rendezvous at Jilberto's Taco Shop at the base of Palomar. He'd never done the climb before. As it turned out, he had some mechanical issues that slowed our progress on the way up. That was fine, since it gave us longer to chat. I wasn't doing this for time. Besides, my speed sensor on my bike was on the fritz, so it wasn't like the data would work when I tried to upload it. Not that I really had my heart set on doing that, either. Things felt different this time.

We got to the top and began the descent. At this point, I was the one holding up the affair. The problem was with the operator instead of the bike, though. Still unsteady on anything steeper than 6%. Still skittish anywhere over 25mph. I had to squeeze the brakes pretty hard to stay confident as I shudder at every wake effect off the cars and every substantial piece of cracked pavement. My hands hurt by the time we got to the bottom. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

We racked the bikes and had amazing burritos. We talked about RAAM, Ultraman, and the future. By 2pm Rick had to leave. As we said our goodbyes, he remarked how sad it was to have made a new friend right as he was leaving. I felt the same way. I'm sure we'll see each other again. It sucks to leave anyway.

I watched his car roll out and stood in the parking lot. It was hot as hell. The air was only about 90-degrees, but with the reflection coming off the pavement you felt like your skin would bake and start to peel right off you if you stayed too long. I checked the weather in Borrego Springs on my phone. It was 111 out there. I could still go. Park the car in Borrego. Climb the elevator and then come back down. I didn't have to go fast. I just had to get down. That was the only standard. 46 miles to drive there. Maybe 40 minutes to get far enough up the mountain past the "elevator" portion. Less than 20 minutes to get down. Two hours to drive home.

I looked in the car. I had a copy of the book I wanted to deliver to another friend who was instrumental in getting published. I had a wife and kid who had been very patient in allowing me this day-long indulgence, and were probably getting pretty impatient with each other awaiting my return. I got in the car and turned home. Then I thought about the descent I never did, the dragon I never slayed. The photo of myself at the top and bottom I never got to take. I turned the car back toward Borrego.

And then home again.

Because it was more important to me to properly say goodbye to a friend than ride a damn bike. Because getting home was more important than getting down that damn hill. Because it was just too damn hot. Not too hot to do it, just too hot to be bothered with it.

Because things are different now.

I didn't slay that dragon. I outgrew it. I realized my heart really wasn't in it to ride further. There was a time, back when I went up that mountain the first time, when overcoming fears and slaying dragons and riding miles and miles for hours and hours day after day was really important. Going up Palomar as fast as possible and logging the power and mileage data were the paramount concerns, and for that reason I didn't even consider riding with other people. Those days and miles and dragons are all behind me. In that way, it all comes full circle. It ended in the same way and the same place as it began-- on Palomar with a new friend. After endless miles, questions I'd found on a bike were only satisfied by answers found in a car.

One of the biggest struggles I've faced in the last year or so is that question at the core of all endurance-minded people-- how far can I go? The thing that keeps all of them going, I think, is that there's always the suspicion that they can go just a little bit farther than the last time. It's the carrot on a stick that's always just out of reach. My problem has been that I've hung multiple carrots off my bike helmet. I've been trying to find out just how far I can take my bike, my writing career and my son all at the same time. Pursuing all those different carrots leads to nothing but dissatisfaction. No matter which direction I grasp in, I always feel like I'm cheating myself because the effort isn't genuine. And I'm right. How far can I go? As far as I want to. Can I descend the glass elevator? Anytime I like. Can I do those test myself in those arenas, take part in ongoing dialogues about the science of sport, write books about the history of triathlon, and be a good father?

Hell, no.

There have been several articles and essays about the ills of Disney movies and their mantra of "you can do anything you want to" of late. I believe they're unfounded, and that it's harmful to discourage the idea that people can't defy expectations. I believe that you can do anything you want to, but that is not the same as believing you can do everything you want to. You can be president of the United States. You can be a world-famous artist. But you can't be both, and odds are that if you try you won't succeed at either.  

Somewhere along the way I decided that I wanted to see how far I could write more than I wanted to see how far I could ride. That didn't become clear to me until I turned back from Borrego Springs. "I left it all out there on the road" is a phrase people use to say they can be satisfied with their performance because they've given it their all. I didn't leave effort out on the glass elevator. I left a challenge. I can be very satisfied with that, because it's a winning effort of a different kind.

I'm taking all my belongings to Texas. Some baggage remains in California.


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