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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Glorified Ignorance

One of the common criticisms of triathlons is that anyone can do them, they’re merely the demonstration of peoples’ ability to get good at exercising, or as I’ve heard it put so elegantly once before: “Triathlons are nothing but glorified exercise.”

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, including me, and here it is: For those who think triathlons are nothing more than a form of ‘glorified exercise’, you have a huge case of glorified ignorance.

Michael Phelps, sorry, my man, but we’re going to revoke all of your gold medals and merely give you a sticker and a hug. You’re not one of the greatest Olympians of all-time, you’re just a ‘good exerciser.’ Lance Armstrong, instead of calling you a 7-time Tour de France Champion, we’ll just call you one of the best exercisers who ever lived.

OK, but in all seriousness, doesn’t it seem ridiculous to trivialize something like triathlons? Would you say soccer is merely getting good at kicking a ball? How about football is only becoming skilled at pushing people around? This concept of over-simplifying endurance sports isn’t fair, but I think I know where the criticism comes from. It comes from two angles…

First, would be the notion that anyone can do them. I can’t dispute this fact. Yes, anyone can do them. With the proper training and drive, and of course barring any extreme medical conditions, the overwhelming majority of the population could complete a triathlon. However, my rebuttal to that would be that that exact same population can also play soccer, baseball, volleyball, football or hockey. But are any of these less of a sport because of it? As a matter of fact, I’d take it a step further, and say that one random group of people, ceteris paribus, would have a harder time completing a triathlon, than playing an aforementioned sport, primarily because of the swimming component.

Like most things in life, there is a wide spectrum of skill levels. I could go out right now and join a co-ed recreational ice hockey league and play hockey, no question about it. I’d be horrible, but I could play. Then on the other side, you have the elite of the NHL – with quite a wide range of skills in between, no? Similarly, I could join a baseball league. Again, I wouldn’t be good, but I could play. Then you’ve got professionals in the MLB.

And finally, someone right now, right this very second, could do the bare minimum of training and make it through a sprint-distance triathlon. But then there are the elite professionals who complete full Iron Man Triathlons (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run) in around eight hours time, this means usually holding around a 6 minute-mile pace for a marathon, after the previous two disciplines.

My point is that OK, anyone can do a triathlon, but so what? Anyone can play basketball, but does that make it less legitimate?

Secondly (and far easier to identify) would be the concept of pride around the endurance sports arena. Most of everyone who’s done an endurance sport race (marathon, half marathon, triathlon, duathlon, etc.) has an enormous sense of pride after accomplishing it. I suppose to some, this is annoying, especially when coupled with their belief that anyone can do it. “Those 13.1, 26.2, 70.3, 140.6 and USAT stickers can get so old!” I can understand this. I can understand what a random person who doesn’t truly get what encompasses a triathlon is thinking: people are bragging about something that anyone can do. But my response would be: until you’ve done one, you have not a clue in the world. There is a sense of pride, in completing events that few have completed, there’s an emotional impact of joy from crossing a finish line, having worked hard to get to that point. This pride is something you simply can’t understand unless you try it for yourself.

Go ahead, I dare you. Plus, anyone can do it.