Tuesday, December 3, 2013
9:25 PM | Edit Post
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.
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
2:44 AM | Edit Post
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.
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?
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.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
3:36 AM | Edit Post
Dear Mister Takei and Mister Graham,
I am writing to you both simultaneously because you find yourselves in the curious position of having something in common. One of you is a Japanese-American living in San Francisco who endured the double indemnity of suffering in the internment camps of WWII and then fighting a lifelong battle for equal treatment under the law as a homosexual. The other is a rabid homophobe from South Carolina who thinks a theme restaurant franchise based on the detainee center at Guantanamo Bay would be a good idea. And yet, here you are, finding common ground. A joint cause that you can work together on. Namely, you want to drop the sickle and hammer on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. On behalf of sports fans everywhere, I'd like to ask you for a favor.
Sign my petition to either relocate or boycott the following Olympic events:
The 1932 Summer Games in the United States
The 1932 Winter Games in the United States
The 1936 Winter Games in Germany
The 1936 Summer Games in Germany
The 1940 Summer Olympics in Japan
The 1940 Winter Olympics in Japan
The 1948 Winter Olympics in Switzerland
The 1960 Winter Olympics in the United States
The 1972 Summer Olympics in Japan
The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing
There are a few others, but I'll keep it short. At any rate, it shouldn't be a problem for either of you to get behind this effort, based on the different reasons you've each given to axe the Sochi games. Mr. Takei thinks we should just box up all the groundwork laid in Russia and truck it over to Vancouver (the site of the last Winter Games) because the Russians have written some of the most repugnant anti-gay laws in recent memory. Mr. Graham wants to totally boycott American involvement in the event because not only did Russia grant asylum to the guy who blabbed about the frighteningly massive worldwide digital surveillance net the US government has cast, they also stole from him the title of being the person to have written some of the most repugnant anti-gay laws in recent memory. It thus occurs to me that if these are good reasons to bail on Sochi, then you can also get behind (no pun intended) the reasons to null and void the aforementioned events, thus retrieving enough precious medal to nearly bail Greece out of debt. Here's a quick rundown of my causes, by year.
'32, USA: This was an atrocious choice by the IOC. The Ku Klux Klan is rampaging all over the place. The country's military is shooting its own war veterans for staging a peaceful protest. It's been occupying Haiti for the better part of fifteen years for no other reason than to advance corporate interests. Child labor, unsafe working conditions, outright wars between management and unions. The place is a civil rights nightmare. Never should have been allowed to host and Olympics. Period.
'36, Germany: Hitler. I think that pretty much sums it up. Also, Mr. Takei, I did watch your segment on MSNBC about those Olympics "lending Hitler more legitimacy." I think you've got a questionable view of history, there.
'40, Japan: Allied with Hitler. Committing atrocities on such a large scale that people have given up trying to describe it in detail and instead resort to just saying raping entire cities. Hard to plan an Olympics when you're invading Mongolia, Russia and China all at the same time. Also, there's that rape thing.
'48, Switzerland: WWII is over and Switzerland remained neutral throughout. Funny thing about that. It's pretty convenient to be neutral when you know the Germans won't invade you because they're storing all the wealth from the Jews they kill in your banks. The country is full of blood money. Those Olympics were horrible. Let's take them back.
'60, USA: Those ugly Americans hadn't learned anything in 28 years. Jim Crow laws are still in full effect. Women's equality is in the tank. They're sending 3,500 guys to Southeast Asia to kick up a war in some country no one from Greenbow, Alabama has ever heard of, and if that isn't enough, they have the audacity to put the Games in a city called "Squaw Valley" and hold a straight face, without once acknowledging the utterly deplorable way they continue to treat the Native Peoples they displaced 200 years earlier. These are the last people on earth to deserve an Olympics.
'72, Japan: Still refusing to own up to all the atrocities they committed against China 30 years on. It's an insult to force Chinese athletes to travel to that country and endure the racism they suffer.
'08, China: Hard to figure out where to begin. How about we just say "Evil Empire" and call it a day? Works for you? Okay. Evil Empire.
Now that we've got that addressed, I'm sure you won't have any problem signing my petition. Once that's accomplished, all accounts will be settled and we should be able to find a sufficiently high moral ground from which to make reasonable demands of the Russians. Except, of course, you consider that entire spying on everyone in the world thing, or the whole vacation resort for the most depraved acts of human indecency you can imagine. We may have a problem here.
Or we could try a different idea. How about we, as politically-minded people, respect the principle that the Olympics are meant to be an apolitical event. That, regardless of our individual and collective differences, this is a time to bury the hatchet and come together in the sole interest of enjoying sports. That if we allow ourselves to believe in the power of sports, that our belief will be redeemed. And through that vindication, we will be imbued with the knowledge that we can resolve our differences with our fellow man because, at the end of the day, they really and truly are our fellow man.
The Olympics are rife with controversy. Every two years, there's a slew of scandals and squabbles. But let's face it, Russia and the United States share the gold medal for shameful pettiness. Both countries scored perfect 10's in the Boycott FAIL event in 1980 and 1984. And what did it accomplish? Did it really hasten the end of the Cold War? Did it promote democracy or human rights? Or did it just ruin the hopes and dreams of hundreds of young athletes who dedicated their lives to a dream? Jimmy Carter can build 10,000 habitats for humanity, and some folks might remember him as a humanitarian. But if he boycotts one Olympics the majority of sports-loving Americans will say he was a clueless dick. And threatening to ruin the Games does in fact make you a clueless dick. I don't try to ride my bike around the Senate Chamber while Congress is in session. I don't sit in the front row of Allegiance and go on a rant about the odd attire of Crossfit Games spectators. If I came into your forum where you practice your art and started bellowing about sports, you would call me a clueless dick. And you would be in your right to say so. So by what virtue do you presume the right to come into my beloved sporting arena and cause a scene with your diatribes and opinions? Who are you to assert that people's plans to enjoy a sporting event and be free from the cares of the outside world for a few weeks should be cast about according to the whims of your political agenda? And just how eminent an authority do you believe yourselves to be to deem your political cause more worthy than any other? Why are we not boycotting to protest the Chinese or Iranian participation? Why are we not boycotting because of the misleading and dangerous way in which the Japanese have allowed the Fukushima disaster to fester? Why are we not boycotting because of the way the Russian government treats everyone in Russia?
How selfish and self-righteous. How dare you.
I know that, at the end of the day, you each believe in doing the right thing and that you are trying to make a positive difference in the world. We all are. That's a big component of any sport. We call it "being fair." And while we are rarely successful at being fair in real life, we actually make it happen more than half the time on the sports field. But even then, I can tell you what the most unfair thing in sports is. It's not a guy sticking a needle in his arm to win. It's not a referee who takes a payoff. It's seeing a kid whose only dream in life was to make that one big team, and having to tell him that he can't play because someone else said he couldn't.
I'm not a hockey fan. Just watching the ski jump terrifies me. I don't have the slightest clue how curling works. But I watch it all the same. I've watched hockey with friends because they invited me to their house to watch it. I watched the gold medal curling match with some Canadian soldiers because we were in Iraq and didn't have anything else to do. Every time I've watched these sports, it was a moment to escape the troubles of the world and reflect on the most intimate aspects of humanity. We really need more of that these days.
I'll be watching the Winter Olympics in Sochi on TV next year. If you want to watch curling and have pizza and beer, you're invited. You don't have to bring anything. Just leave your politics at home.
Monday, August 12, 2013
2:58 AM | Edit Post
I went to see the national championships of the Crossfit Games in Los Angeles the week before I left for Ultraman Canada, which combined with my reading of Stefan Fatsis' Word Freak made for a heavy dosage of fringe sports... and hyperlinking, apparently. Since starting on my book about Ultraman I've learned that you really can't answer the questions people ask about it (like why people do it in the first place) without taking a holistic view. Calling Ultraman "crazy," "extreme," or "like nothing else on earth" puts it in a kind of box, sequestering it from the context necessary to honestly analyze and appreciate it. That lesson has taken deep root, because I immediately found myself looking at the Crossfit Games the same way. I would not have gone to watch had some very close friends of mine who are really into Crossfit invited me to come up to Los Angeles and join them, and I'm grateful to them because it was such a fortuitous learning experience. Crossfit has experienced a popularity explosion the last couple of years, to the extent that it appears it will survive the "fad crash" of other fitness crazes like Taebo and aerobics. Perhaps the biggest indicator of its reaching critical mass is the emergence of blog posts and articles finding fault with it. Let's face it, no one bothers to slam something unless it's popular. I could write a blog post detailing how the disparities between the SOWPODS and the OSPD are dumber than the tiered-points system of the ITU, but it would be pointless because World Championship Scrabble and Professional Olympic-Distance Triathlon have the same level of popularity, which is to say they're not popular at all.
But if I wrote that Crossfit and Ironman have extremely similar cultures, then more people would read, because those are things that people actually pay attention to. So let's talk about that, because that's what I discovered.
If you can keep an open mind about it, there's really no difference between walking into the Crossfit Games or an Ironman race. The first thing you notice is the physical appearance of the people-- mostly because they are making a very deliberate effort to get you to notice their appearance. It matters very little if someone came to compete or spectate. Everyone is dressed to some degree in Crossfit-ish attire. Guys are in board shorts and almost too-tight wicking shirts with slogans and graphics on them advertising how "extreme" they are-- if they're in shirts at all. The women are in shorts that either look like running shorts or underwear, accompanied by the same too-tight shirts. The shirts are optional, though. Lots of people are just walking around without, the women are in sports bras.
There are lots of people in compression socks.
All of this compels you to stare a bit for a while if you're uninitiated in the culture. Everyone here is extremely fit, which makes sense. This is just the age-group competition. The pro athletes don't start until tomorrow. So anyone willing to sit under the California sun for five hours on a weekday to watch amateurs is likely a devout practitioner themselves. There's not a single woman in sight I would object to seeing in a swimsuit contest, and just about every guy looks ready to appear in the sequel to '300.' Whether or not they're "extreme" is uncertain, but they are certainly exceptional. Crossfit's motto is to "forge elite fitness," and by all appearances they're succeeding wildly. That's where the weird part comes in, though. For a bunch of people who appear as if they have nothing to worry about in the looks department, there's no escaping the feeling that a crop duster flew over the stadium and sprayed the crowd with a toxic mixture of narcissism and insecurity. You get the sense that everyone is showing off, but at the same time that they're only doing it because they're afraid to not show off. Some of the t-shirts you see have slogans on them like "Crossfitters look better naked" or other sexual overtures. Many of the women's shirts have something referring to how doing squats produce an appealing derriere. Having never seen it before, the volume of visible abs and butt cheeks makes it obvious that everyone is strutting, and it's uncomfortable.
And that's when it hits me that this is really no different than an Ironman transition area. You see the same sort of behaviors among the most serious athletes, the Kona-attendees and multiple-race-a-year folks. Always wearing "tri gear" even when they're not training or racing. Suspiciously unnecessary nudity. Hyperbolic t-shirt slogans, plentifully garnished with all the "right" brand names and the obligatory M-dot logo. The same obsessions with abdomens and bottoms. While Crossfitters seem to hail the glutes as the signature feature of a developed athlete, it's my observation that triathletes, both male and female, strive to push their waistbands as low as possible below the hip bones to show off that V-shaped cut in the lower abdominals. Everyone is out in the communal celebration of their fitness achievements, but the harder they show off the more you get the feeling they pinch at imaginary love handles with abject terror alone in front of the bathroom mirror.
Granted, I'm referring to the most extreme end of both sports. It may not necessarily be characteristic of the typical Crossfitter. But it's definitely prevalent. It's hard to argue that your sport has a distinctly unhealthy brew of vanity coursing through its veins when there are multiple blogs dedicated to "the Crossfit selfie." Triathlon does not seem to have exported its body obsession to digital forums, but the sport does have magazines that indulge in swimsuit issues. And let's not forget the Kona underpants run, which has gone from an event made to rib those athletes who wore their Speedos a little too frequently to something resembling a Victoria's Secret fashion show in Cancun during spring break.
But again, I feel like all of this is driven by a deeper insecurity among the athletes, and I further suspect it's driven by something else the two sports have in common, which I hadn't noticed before in triathlon. Namely, extreme marketing. You can't throw a rock at the Crossfit Games stadium without hitting someone wearing a shirt that affirms they can crush it into dust with their bare hands. If it bounces off of them, it will land at the feet of someone else wearing a shirt that says they can chew it. I want to say it's testosterone, except for the fact that the women are wearing equally intimidating items on their apparel. For a while I entertain the idea of shouting "This is madness!" to test whether the entire crowd will shout "This is Sparta!". Everyone here, whether they are exceptionally fit or extremely fit, defaults to the assertion of being extreme. Crossfit is really hard. It will make you puke. If you don't pass out doing it, you're not doing it right. Everyone here is really amped up. Just thinking about grabbing a heavy thing and lifting it really fast makes their nostrils flare and their eyes go wide-- a sure indication they are manifesting the extremist's state of nirvana known colloquially as "Beast Mode." They are a living, breathing powerthirst commercial.
And no one can blame me for insulting the sport, because I'm just quoting what they write on their own packaging.
Triathlon is the same way. Oh, look at us. We get up super-early to go to the pool and swim back and forth for hours on end, then go ride a bike for hundreds of miles. Then we eat some food, go to bed, and do it all again. We do the same three activities over and over, day in and day out, for lengths of time and distance such that they become exclusive to all other pursuits, hobbies, and relationships in life. And we are tougher and stronger than everyone else because of it.
Participants of both sports proudly declare their physical preparation for the zombie apocalypse, which is more fitting than perhaps even they realize. Yes, the very best among them are uniquely developed to perform exceptionally well in extraordinary conditions. But the likelihood of those very conditions and the rationale of their invocation clearly demonstrates just how weird and silly some of the messaging sounds to everyone else. Seriously, in terms of preparedness what's the difference between the coffee shop owner who spends 20 hours every weekend riding a bicycle, the nurse whose goal in life is to bench press a John Deere tractor, and the guy building an urban assault lawnmower for the global blackout?
Most of us hit the treadmill a few times a week and keep spare batteries in the house. I think the human race will go on.
Again, the common thread is marketing. Also what seems common is the impetus behind their respective messaging campaigns. Time for a hard look in the mirror-- triathlon and Crossfit are more than just niche sports. They're white yuppie sports. If you don't want to take my word for it, consult other self-proclaimed and internet-certified experts on the subject. That said, there are necessary economic forces driving both sports. While you may think that your relationship with Crossfit/triathlon makes you part of a larger collective that shares an authentic bond of dedicated participation (and, to an extent, it does), to the people who make it possible for you to participate you constitute a different type of collective known as a market. Your boxes and clubs and WODs and races are made possible by a group of people who make the products and provide the services necessary for you to do it. Their business necessarily depends on you to keep doing it if the ecosystem is to grow. So they advertise.
Because of the special nature of this market, a large portion of the marketing is aimed at affirming how special your participation in the sport makes you. And the easiest way to set yourself apart as special from everyone else is to define yourself as "extreme." Whether you go really far or lift really heavy doesn't matter. What's important is that your activity makes you different from everyone else. The brighter and clearer the line between you and the general population, the more difficult it will be for you to cross back over to the ranks of the ordinary and average. This works well for the growth of the sport, and thus its attendant industry. But it has its drawbacks. I never really saw it so clearly as I did at the Crossfit Games, because by the time I'd begun studying these things I'd been fully immersed in triathlon. Seeing it happening in a different sport was like being slapped awake. Everyone is wearing all this specialized gear with odes to extremism, some of which even touts its techno-magical ability to enhance performance-- all to ensure they're living up to the advertising emblazoned on every stitch of cloth. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, but does it actually leave those who believe in it fulfilled? I can't say for sure that it does.
What I do know is that the triathlon industry should absolutely view Crossfit as a competing brand. They are after the same demographic and marketing the same way. It doesn't matter if you swim-bike-run or squat-thruster-flip tires. You are white, in your mid-20s to mid-30s, and predisposed to engage in high levels of physical activity as a means of exercise, social behavior and recreational pursuit. You have the time, energy, inclination and, most importantly, the money to do this. And in the eyes of a market researcher, there aren't that many of you. There were, at maximum, 93,000 slots for the 31 Ironman races around the world this year (assuming 3,000 slots for each race). By contrast, 140,000 people signed up and took part in the Crossfit Open Qualifiers.
I come not to praise marketing, nor to bury it. It is neither good nor evil, only necessary. We qualify its morality through our own actions. As surely as Ironman needed Timex, Crossfit needs Reebok. That people buy the watches and the "official gear" is helpful to their respective sports. The extent to which they buy into the attendant ideologies is a much different matter. I'm not saying that Ironman or Crossfit are "unhealthy" occupations. The most balanced and level-headed triathlete I've ever met has 78 Ironmans and an Ultraman finish under his belt. I've met others that were ready for divorce proceedings by their fifth race. I don't think that every guy doing Crossfit is secretly ashamed that he never tried out for the Navy SEALs or that every Crossfit woman has an eating disorder. Just looking around that stadium, though, I can't help but think that a lot of them do. The best explanation of the pitfalls each sport has developed is the simplest one. Never have I seen a triathlon or Crossfit shirt that gives an objective number of miles or weight or reps that define a reference for validation. Everything is based on sex and macho. Why are two sports that rely so heavily on clear metrics of time-based performance advertised in such subjective terms?
I'll let you answer that for yourself.
The final thing I noticed was the commercial end of things. Toward the end of the day, I went with my friends to the "athlete village," or something like that. All I know is that everyone laughed at me when I asked an obviously-uniformed "Crossfitter" where the "vendor expo" was. This was "triathlon lingo" I was told. "It is not what you called it. We call it the other thing." I laughed along with them. Because, you know, a turd by any other name...
The expo was what you'd expect if you've ever gone to an Ironman, except bigger. There were a few unique finds, a few good ideas and products. I found that Crossfit now has its own version of Strava. There were some pretty tasty organic (also, paleo) food offerings. Mostly, however, everything was crap on the same level as the thigh master. I watched as one of my friends took every energy-health-organic-protein-anti-fatigue-tastic elixir that was offered to her. There were at least eight. Having been to Interbike and seen people try to rally from after-expo party hangovers with these concoctions, I knew well enough to steer clear and wait for the projectile vomiting to begin. All that was missing was the little old lady in the powder-blue polyester jumpsuit to match her hair smoking an extra-long menthol while she chucked her life savings down the one-armed bandit. Otherwise, it looked just like the Venetian in September.
Except with more muscles.
The thing that surprised me most, however, was the official gear worn by the athletes. Since Reebok had scored the deal to be title sponsor and was the official gear supplier of Crossfit, all the athletes wore Reebok stuff. I found this fascinating. First, the Reebok gear looked like crap. I expected something resembling triathlon-gear. Sturdy, well-fitting and wicking shirts and shorts. Instead, it was a cotton-polyester blend that fit so-so on even the fittest people competing on the field. For a company that's magnitudes of order bigger than 2XU or Champion System, they came out looking like amateur hour. Many of the male athletes went sans shirts, and I could understand why. Even the skimpy outfits on the women looked like they'd be warm. It made me wonder what option they had, if any, to wear alternate brands. That led to another question-- what happens if an athlete is actually sponsored by a different brand? Ironically, 2XU had a presence at Crossfit Games. They didn't have any athletes on the field. The obvious explanation is that few if any of them are sponsored yet. But with the Games paying out more than twice as much to their champion as the Kona winners, it shouldn't be long before that starts to happen.
Overall, I thought the Crossfit Games was an engaging spectator event. It was certainly more fun that sitting around a triathlon transition area all day. It's an experience that is significantly more accessible and amenable to the everyday sports fan than an Ironman. However, based on my observations it has yet to grow that population of viewers (unless they're all at home watching it on television because they're too afraid to sit next to the ultra-fit people). Based on what I've learned about the history of Ironman and that sport's state of affairs, it seems that Crossfit is approaching a crossroads, if it does not already stand at it, where it will have to choose whether to continue indulging its core group of paying customer-athletes or risk "watering down" the branding in an effort to attract a broader spectator/fan base. That's a difficult decision. For whatever personal and cultural baggage they bring with them, the "hardcore" athletes are the ones who can be most depended upon to pay the gym memberships, become coaches, and buy the greatest volume of high-priced brand-name gear. However, catering solely to them necessarily puts a ceiling on long-term growth. That's the route Ironman generally took, and it has yet to grow out of private equity holding after thirty years. Just for comparison, hey look, it's MMA.
It's fascinating to see so many sports reaching this critical juncture of growth. Crossfit is already in the throes of a major growth spurt. RAAM is doing extraordinary things. Ultraman is growing. REV3 and Challenge are emerging as genuine rivals to Ironman. Obstacle course races like Tough Mudder are drawing huge crowds. Video games are getting huge in America. Maybe I'm looking in odd places, but everywhere I do look there are exciting upheavals taking place in the status quo. Sport is changing around the world. What comes next and how people receive it will be fascinating to observe. The key to success will be leadership with a strong conceptual and philosophical understanding of what makes something a sport, and what makes a sport a good sport. If Ironman and Crossfit show us anything, it's that you can't keep all the bad things out. Making things work depends instead on finding and fostering enough good things that people will enjoy themselves. Crossfit seems to be off to a good start-- perhaps even better than Ironman. Can they keep it up? Only time will tell.
Friday, July 19, 2013
5:10 PM | Edit Post
The ever quotable Chris McCormack went to Roth to
The easiest thing to spot is his constant use of the world "challenge" in everything. He says people don't look for a challenge anymore. When he does a race now, he wants a challenge. It gets to a point where you can just imagine him squirming in the effort to keep from saying "see what I did there?" But the real genius is in the McDonald's comment. Putting Ironman in that box is the kind of verbal fireworks he's known for, and such a bright one that it covers up the more subtle implications. I do sort of see what he did, there. He's reaching out to a market.
That market is the group of athletes disaffected with Ironman today. It's a disparate and even somewhat indeterminate population. You've got people who think they hate Ironman for all kinds of reasons-- the culture, the rules, the changes, or that favorite refrain, "WTC." But if you find people that hate Ironman and can get past asking them why they're at a race they hate, then it doesn't take too much exploration to find out they really don't have a solid justification for their hatred. The foundation of their sentiments is built on impressions and beliefs, most of which are informed by hearsay and false history. For the most part, people either don't know why they hate Ironman or they hate it for the wrong reasons.
Not that Challenge minds.
To be fair, and as we're all aware, WTC is not without faults and righteously deserves healthy competition from Rev3 and Challenge. The gravitational pull of those bodies on potential athlete-customers may be the only forces able to keep WTC's deciders grounded in reality. And Macca may have been a successful test firing of a marketing tractor beam.
The McDonald's crack does two things. First, it gives Ironman haters a one-word characterization for why they hate Ironman. It's fast, easy, and universal. You can go to any triathlon around the globe, say "Ironman is McDonald's," and everyone will get it. Furthermore, the association sounds so sensible that it defies any reflection. It just feels right. "Of course," people will say. "I can't tell you how long I've been looking for a way to explain how I feel about Ironman, and that's exactly it!" Thank you, Macca!
The second thing he accomplishes is to express how authentic and intrinsically valuable Challenge events are. We have beer gardens to be more German. We route the swim course to make sure the sun isn't in your eyes. We're more thoughtful about our athletes than Ironman. Come to Challenge, we love you here. Then comes the coup de grace:
People these days are so driven by numbers it’s a different way of thinking. Be it watts, calories-consumed – and time is obviously such a critical thing. And if they’re going to do one they want to be able to go to the office on Monday morning and say ‘I did 9:30′. It gives people a ranking system but it’s sad.
I don’t need my effort to be measured by what other people perceive it as. I’m hoping with time that will change and people start picking challenging events again.
That's just beautiful. Don't fall for "their" version of validation or a meaningful experience. Don't become a slave to their prepackaged, data-driven, preservative-laden messaging. You don't have to buy that product! You can break out of that mold!
All that is true, but there are implications of the analogy that Macca glosses over. If Ironman is McDonald's, that would sort of make Challenge the Burger King of triathlon-- the second-place business that loves it when you hate McDonald's. Macca's whole sales pitch is even eerily similar to BK-- Have it your way.
In the end, reducing your choice in long distance triathlons to the fundamental differences necessarily leads one to realize you really don't have much choice at all. Let's face it, before it was Challenge Roth it was Ironman Germany. You say BLT, I say BFD. The common flaw all these race companies have nowadays is that they're trying to sell you on this idea of authenticity. You should buy their race because it will be outperform the others in helping you find the catharsis, or the light of human spirit, or the one true al dente noodle leading to the flying spaghetti monster, or whatever it is that you think you're going to find by process of aerobic self-flagellation. It's disingenuous, obscene, and stupid. These are companies, not churches. If you go to their race, they are going to give you a spot in a transition area, a race number, a finisher's shirt and medal, a post-race meal, and a plastic bag filled with race sponsor crap. In all the races I've ever done, I have never once emptied out my race sponsor crap bag and exclaimed "Wow! They put authenticity in the bags?!? That's amazing! This is the best race ever!" I don't anticipate I'll have to do that anytime soon.
Macca is sincere when he says you don't necessarily have to do an Ironman-branded event for it to count or matter. But he's bending things a bit when he suggests you must necessarily do someone else's event. Challenge and Ironman are both businesses. Their goal is to reach the "billions served" mark. Unfortunately for those seeking authenticity, it's not something you can get at a drive-through window.
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