Thursday, October 28, 2010

Jef's a little bummed, but Nevermind

My sport is disappointing me. The triathlon-promotion organization that owns the Ironman trademark is behaving badly. To their credit, they run a very smooth, if businesslike, race -- I've certainly enjoyed the ones I've raced in -- and made no bones about their businesslike motives. Many of their races are notoriously hard to get into. Now they're addressing the issue, not by necessarily making it easy to get into those races, but by making it easier for people who give them a lot more money to get into those races. Which is their right, but they may have jumped the shark on this one. That's disappointment No. 2.

It's nice that the sport is getting popular enough to have problems like this. Or is it? I wrote a column on just that question for Triathlete Magazine, which turns out to be disappointment No. 1. Triathlete's editors redesigned the magazine and redesigned my column right out of it (hey, it happens). That column was lined up and ready to go into the current issue, but instead won the distinction of being the first casualty. So it's all yours, my friends. Enjoy. It would be a shame to waste it.

Smells like tri spirit

Catching the scary scent of success

I was Grunge before Grunge was cool.

Actually, I was just a slob before Seattle musicians and record companies gave it another name. I wasn’t nihilistic, seething with rage or even in possession of more than the normal recommended adolescent allowance of Vitamin Angst. And I genuinely (as opposed to deliberately) couldn’t play the guitar or bass or drums.

I bought all my clothing at thrift stores because I couldn’t afford the red-tag Levi’s 501 jeans that all my cool high-school classmates seemed to have, and I was having none of the theory that Lees, or Wranglers, or, God forbid, JCPenneys or Sears were just as good. I grew my hair long and freaky because a humiliating experience with a perm (it was the 1970s, all right?) and a long list of better things to do convinced me that the longer I could stay away from the barbers and stylists, the better.

However circumstantial the genesis, the style sense was a 100 percent conscious decision: If a thing is in no danger of being in style, then it’s in no danger of going out of style.

It was a pretty advanced theory for a teen-aged nerd, if I may say so. But I won’t say so, because within 10 years Soundgarden released “Ultramega OK.” Four years after that, Nirvana gave the world “Nevermind” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and everybody was walking around in the same flannel shirts and unidentifiably filthy jeans and embarrassing haircuts I pioneered in a small town 2,000 miles away. Within five years, the box sets were coming out, musicians were dropping like dehydrated marathoners and bands were breaking up left and right. The music was better than ever, but Grunge was over, out of style, and in the cruelest of ironies, I had to keep my hair trimmed so people would know I was a slob and not a post-dated fashion victim trying to hang on to my youth.

In fact, I was distancing myself from my youth and its clothing budget. I was growing up and making a little more money and could finally afford a pair or two of those Levis, but I had picked up on this new sport called triathlon and a very old one called bicycle racing, and 501s aren’t at all tailored for thighs like that.

But I didn’t mind, because I was deep into another counterculture. It took me the better part of 20 years to make up my mind between triathlon and bike racing, but both suited me well. I could manage long streaks of competence with, by God, the occasional burst of goodness. Good streak or not, I loved the speed, the fitness, the guts and the gear. And I won’t lie: I loved that neither one was in fashion.

Competing in a sport on the fringes, I could convince myself I was a little bit special. When my good days brought me a spot on the age-group podium or a local time-trial course record, I knew in my heart that I wasn’t Andy Hampsten any more than the local beer-league softball home-run king was Ken Griffey, Jr., but if I didn’t want to admit it, no one was going to force me to. There was less evidence available, and even fewer people who understood or cared about the sports enough to call me on my delusions.

But look around now. Cycling and triathlon are huge and getting huger, and I’ve got mixed feelings. Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France championships and subsequent exposure showed America that cycling could be legitimate. A bicycle wasn’t a child’s toy after all; it was a genuine, serious, manly tool, like a hockey stick. Triathlon seems to be on the verge of an explosion, too, and it’s not Lance Armstrong or any other pro driving it there. It’s your neighbor, your co-worker. Your wife. My mother.

The upside is undeniable. When Armstrong was knocking down Tour victories, I swear drivers were willing to give the rest of us a few inches more road. To ride a bicycle any speed at all, dressed in real cycling clothing, was to hear kids yell, “Hey! Are you Lance Armstrong?”

Every new triathlete stands to be the first triathlete somebody knows, and that’s another ally. The SUV driver who brushed you onto the shoulder last year because you were one of those freaks gives you a little more room this year because you might be somebody like his sister. More triathletes means more races. More stores that carry triathlon gear with staff who know something about it. More triathletes means …

Well, more triathletes means more races, but it’s near-impossible to get into some of them. It means a greater chance that Elwood in accounting will be legitimately impressed by what you accomplished in that race Sunday, but it means a greater chance that he accomplished it, too. It means that when you place in the top 10 in your division, you beat twice as many people as you did two years ago … when you placed in the top 5.

When I finally give it more thought and less worry, I see more opportunities but less convenience; more respect but less vanity. And if that leaves me with fewer reasons to love my sport, they’re the reasons I love it most anyway.

I started wearing baggy jeans and flannel shirts to soothe my ego, but the ensemble was too comfortable to ditch when it became Grunge and it was still that comfortable when it became old. I started racing because I loved it, and it went on to stroke my ego. If triathlon becomes commonplace – or, dare I say it, passé – I doubt I’ll miss my ego much while I get reacquainted with the fitness, guts and speed that were there all along.

Soundgarden has come and gone and returned, but L.L. Bean never left us.


Rich Proctor said...

Hi Jef,
An aspiring triathlete here, I guess that makes me a pre-newby.
I must say that I was a little bummed myself when I opened up the new issue of Triathlete Magazine and found that your column wasn't in there. I enjoyed your book and I thought your column was great. Thanks for posting it here - entertaining and clever as usual. I'm glad it didn't go to waste.

justfivegrins said...

I was also curious that the Competitor Group was relaunching Triathlete Mag. since it had Inside Tri under its corporate fold. Though IT was given its face lift about 2 years ago. The Competitor Group is much like the WTC which seems to have everything all neatly wrapped up under the M dot logo (licensing IM Tri's worldwide, the 70.3 series, along with a new 5150 series); with each trying (tri-ing hum?) to maximize their profit potential from the growing core of dedicated triathletes.

At least the CG book publishing arm - Velopress - didn't kick back your wonderful Trizophrenia; and I hope you'll find another outlet to publish your unique outlook on the sport. Maybe you & Tinley could put a rag together where he could wax poetic & you could let the humor fly.

SSB said...

Great column. I love this part "The SUV driver who brushed you onto the shoulder last year because you were one of those freaks gives you a little more room this year because you might be somebody like his sister" It's so so true.

Bob said...

re: IM premium plan, check this hilarious take on it: (note your special card is NOT printed on unicorn skin).

La Professora said...

The Mister and I laughed aloud at the album cover image.

501s aren't made for anyone with real thighs, so you're not alone on that count.

McGovern (McG) said...

It's the magazine's loss for not publishing your thought-provoking and insightful article; we are fortunate to access to your blog.

I joined the sport in 2009 as a reformed tennis player who wanted to try his hand at what I perceived to be a fringe sport. This hobby has now developed into a full-blown obsession and a way of life. In fact, despite the fact that I only just completed my second year of racing, I now find myself similarly conflicted when I witness how increased popularity limits convenience.

I guess I deal with occasional bouts of frustration by continuing to be proud of positive results, seeking out some obscure races where the list of participants is small and eccentric (my favorite is the Burrito Union up in Superior, WI), and ultimately appreciating the difference between participants and racers.

It's sometimes so refreshing to be chilling after a nice hard effort and be able to watch rookie triathletes (who have no passion or perhaps even ability to be at the top of the age group) cross the finish line with extreme pride, while I'm pissed at spending 30 seconds too long in transition. I guess it all goes to keeping everything fun and balanced. (I recall you writing about similar experiences at the Hawk Island Triathlon.)

Now, all this said, it will be a strange Planet Earth if we have another couple hundred thousand of guys running around with shaved legs, heads, and rocking tight Pearl Izumi tops.

You summed it up nicely -- convenience vs. opportunities.

As I currently set goals and race targets for 2011, I remain in search of new and obscure races to deal with the increased popularity of the sport, while also remaining cognizant of pre-race social anxiety disorder!

McG (Chris, WI)