Monday, June 26, 2017

Tales from the front, How did we get here- the loss of mastery and the rush to go long

"I do not fear the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, I fear the man who has practiced 1 kick, 10,000 times"

Bruce Lee

I'm sitting here, writing this post, realizing how long its been since I last wrote. Too long. No excuse, just life. Illness followed by more illness followed by ups and downs in training have me at this exact point - on my couch, 5 days post op - had my tonsils removed. At 44. To catch you up, it was the only move - strep throat with an abcess, followed by more strep and another abcess made this decision a no-brainer. I was going nowhere health wise, so it was time to make this move. I got in a total of 3 races - 2 overall wins, one, third place finish and now, recovering. Its not too bad, I rode my Schwinn Airdyne for 30 minutes, did some bodyweight work, and hopefully, by my appointment on Thursday, the pain will be manageable and I can return to training in earnest.

There was another reason for my decision to have the surgery, physical yes, but less obvious to the eye. Being sick constantly was leaving me in a state of depression, never feeling 100%, unable to remember the last long stretch when I wasn't on antibiotics, had quality sleep, was able to taste my food, could breathe constantly through my nose. After a while, it goes beyond mildly annoying, and leaves you with the impression that your life is not going to change. That this is the new normal. I refused to believe that, so I kept looking for answers and got one - surgery. Why now? Well, the idea of risking semi decent health for 5-6 months until the season died down, or losing 10 days in late June, with the promise of great health and more room to improve seemed like the best choice. A little mid-season off season. With popsicles. Enough about me. Let's move on.

Over the last few weeks, I've noticed a growing trend that the wonderful world of social media continues to promulgate like a virus - in the world of triathlon, you aren't really a triathlete until you've at least done a 70.3. Or an Ironman. Think this is just me and my crazy mind? Well, aside from the hundreds of posts I've seen from on-line companies promising "zero to Ironman" to people who have done one sprint, then felt the pressure of social media driving them to plunk down insane dough for an Ironman, without really understanding 1/10th of what they are getting themselves into, the biggest indicator for me came via a phone conference. I sit on the marketing committee for USAT and the vibe they've got at HQ is this - The average American thinks the only distance in triathlon is Ironman. Most triathletes entering the sport don't consider others as triathletes unless they have completed an Ironman. This was buttressed by a few polls taken showing this argument has merit.

In 2016, the average American thought that the triathlon distance in the Olympics, was Ironman distance. There are more elitist athletes in the sport shunning others who don't "measure up" because they're doing Oly distance or sprint distance races. How exactly does this help expansion and acceptance in the public? We are thought of as move exclusive than ever, in a sport that requires a decent chunk of change to race a sprint (not including race fees) let alone a half, and we are now turning on each other? Is it a surprise that we can't get air time for races? Why ESPN doesn't even sniff triathlon? Why race numbers are dwindling while race fees are rising? And how is this even remotely fair to the people who made a living racing Olympic distance races around the world for decades? Does this new generation of triathletes even know names like Michelle Jones? Greg Welch? Spencer Smith? Brad Bevan? Karen Smyers? Jimmy Riccetello? Mike Pigg?  Or more recent names, like oh, I don't know - Javi Gomez and the Brownlee brothers? Or Gwen Jorgensen?  I know I'm about to date myself here, but I remember when the gods of the Ironman distance used to be just as good at winning, yes winning, short course races. Mark Allen, Dave Scott, Scott Molina, Scott Tinley. Paula Newby-Fraiser all had the chops to win at any distance. The community, from the top down, supported one another, from first timers doing a sprint, to the seasoned veteran and his/her 10th visit to Kona. There was an appreciation of mastery. Mastery of the sport. Its challenges and its joys. Somewhere along the way, that got lost.

I've mentioned this before, but I'm a huge believer in "earning your way" to racing longer distances. To show more than just proficiency in understanding the sport, the training, the commitment and the sacrifices. I don't agree with the couch to Ironman plan - I think its dangerous and can cause more people to leave the sport after one race, rather than have a true appreciation for it and want to continue. But in our "have it now", "everyone is a rockstar, just check out their Instabooktweet posts" world, everything seems easy and worse yet, has to happen right now. As if the world will swallow them up if they don't go long. Patience? Why do I need that? Can't I just spend 5k on a bike, 1k on a wetsuit, 1k on a race fee, etc, etc? Can't I buy my way to an Ironman finish? 20 of my friends on Facebook seem to have, so why not me? Well, there's a ton of reasons, too many to list here. No one want to pay dues. Which makes physical therapists and orthopedic doctors happy, it helps bolster their business with broken athletes who jumped to long course because they felt left out of their tri club if they didn't. Its not simply about grinding for "x" amount of years, its about becoming a student of the sport and your body. Mastering each discipline and distance to promote longevity and better health for life.

The names of people I listed above, especially those who could conquer any distance, grasped this notion. They spent countless hours honing their craft, working on deficiencies, never ignoring the little things, and actually being bugged by not being able to be successful at any distance. Mastery requires this level of commitment. Its the 10,000 hour rule - it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something. I believe that. Successful people, regardless of profession, also believe and practice that. As individual athletes, we've lost the concept of practice. We train, we don't practice. That's a mistake. If we looked at parts of our fitness, be it sport specific or general, we should practice things -breathing, focus or flow. body position in the swim, bike and run. The small things that can make 112 feel like an eternity or smooth. The things you can't buy. The things you must work on, daily, to be a better you. If you were to ask a concert violinist if they thought they could practice for 10 months and land a gig with the Chicago symphony, the answer would be a resounding NO.

Not a close enough comparison? What about the best QB's? Pitchers? Soccer players? Olympic weight lifters? Gymnasts? Let's go another level - what about back up QB's? Baseball pitchers in triple A? Do you think they just walked on to the mound a few days ago and threw 99 plus? With control? Athletes at the pro level have all spent countless hours practicing. Practicing their craft. Studying it, making every movement second nature. The notion that endurance athletes don't need to practice because of the nature of the sport is very short-sighted. I ran college track, swam in high school. I never said I was going to train, I said I was going to practice. My swim coach didn't want me to simply do 10,000 yards of shit work, he wanted constant improvement in my swim strokes, the same as any other member of the team. Track coach was the same. Then, the "more is better" philosophy became the norm, and the idea of spending any time on skill work became a thing of the past. Who had time to do 20 minutes of run drills when you had to run 15-20 miles a day? Those skill pieces were ditched, and more mileage was prescribed. So much so, that many new to the sport didn't know there was a "right way" or more efficient way to swim, bike and run. They simply preformed the disciplines hoping things would magically work out. As time went on, athletes were led to believe they could buy their way to faster race times, or great finishes at the Ironman distance, without any hint of skill work. Heavy heel striker? No problem, here's a  175.00 dollar shoe with a 29-33 stack height, (but its zero drop) and you can slam your feet into the pavement as often as you like. Barely swim freestyle?Hey, I've got a 1,000 dollar wet suit that will keep you a float and, cut through the water like a shark (assuming you can swim). The list goes on. If you tell the average triathlete they can get faster with 3-4 days, 20 minutes a day of skill work, or they could continue to heel strike with less pain in a 175.00 dollar shoe, I'm willing to bet the farm that the shoe is taken well before anyone thinks about doing skill work. Practicing. And so, we are here.

The worst part about this, is that we did it to ourselves. We allowed ourselves to get sucked in to the social media bullshit, unable to see the truth, to see what is really needed. We got lazy. We didn't want to do the "not sexy" stuff that we can't post on FB, or Insta. Who wants to see me do a bunch of run drills, when I can post about my latest long run, which hasn't gotten any faster in a year and show you my Garmin to prove I was out there, destroying my knees, hips, low back? We became impatient. We are incapable of spending time on small things. We lost the importance of mastery. To our own detriment.

I know what a lot of you are thinking - "I'm not a pro, I'm just looking to finish the distance. So why do I need to do this stuff? Why can't I just jump in and do the distance, cross the line, get the tattoo and live happily ever after?" You can. No one is stopping you. Actually most companies involved with the sport encourage it. But do you want to finish in 15 plus hours, broken, in agonizing pain, possibly doing permanent damage, putting your bike on eBay 3 days post race, or do you want to enjoy the experience, finish strong, recover quickly and possibly stick with the sport? Can you say fuck off to the social media bullshit and stay in your own lane? Can you  ignore what everyone else is doing and follow something that you know to be true and worthwhile? Even if others don't agree, or laugh at you? Are you in it for the applause, or are you in it for you? Are you prepared to get zero likes on something and press on? Interesting, this advice works for life as well as it does for sport. Sometimes that line is easy to cross because of similarities between them. And this is such a case.

Maybe Bruce Lee knew what he was talking about.

Stay strong,