Sunday, September 09, 2007

For the Love of the Sport?

This morning, I elbowed my way through throngs of spectators, huddled in the early-morning hours to observe one of the zaniest, most phenomenal events my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin ever witnesses: the annual IRONMAN triathlon.

For the uninitiated, the triathlon is the glory of all endurance athletics. It is a competition in which mostly-buff athletes swim their guts out, run out of the water, strip out of their wetsuits and throw bike gear on their still-wet bodies, jump on a bike, attack miles of hills and other geographic formations that discourage biking, and finally abandon their bikes for the final leg of the triathlon: the run.

Full disclosure: I am a triathlete myself, and it is one of the loves of my life. I don't know if there is any sport more thrilling, exuberant, or mind-boggling. Racing is an incredible adrenaline rush.

But I am not an Ironman. Or an Ironwoman. I race at the sprint- and Olympic-distance lengths, which usually include something like a 1/2 mile swim, 13 mile bike, and 3 mile run (sprint distance) or 1 mile swim, 25 mile bike, and 6 mile run (Olympic).

The Ironman, on the other hand, is a race of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a full marathon-length run (over 26 miles). It's a killer.

I loved watching the Ironman athletes as they raced out of the water, stripping out of wetsuits as they padded past the cheering throngs. I felt sorry for the athletes more than anything else: here they had just finished a grueling 2.4 miles of swimming through waters so crowded they resemble a literal sharkfest, and yet they were just beginning the day. (The fastest finishers complete the race in about 8 hours; many barely make the midnight cutoff.)

For all the enthusiasm in the crowd, the competitors didn't look particularly happy. As a triathlete, that really bothered me--when I race, I don't think I ever stop smiling. I guess the adrenaline had already worn off their faces (or maybe it was the embarrassment of waddling past thousands of people half-naked).

But why, I wondered, do people practically kill themselves to finish an almost-impossible race? Why do they devote a year's worth of training for a single day, which will not be experienced with utter joy but mainly fatigue and discomfort?

I know that many elite sports are hard to understand until you've experienced them, and I admire the Ironmen (and Ironwomen) who come from all parts of the world to brave the unknown, to challenge inner resolves they barely knew existed. But why?

What do you think...

When it comes to sports, how much is too much? Would you sacrifice hundreds of hours of your life to achieve something as superhuman as an Ironman finish? If people devote themselves to athletics because that's one of their passions, is their life fulfilling, or crazily unbalanced?

Would you be up to the Ironman challenge?


Anonymous said...

a lot of people have a lot of fun and determination to do that race. i was quite suprized and almost annoyed with your analysis of it!!!! :(

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. My uncle is now an official triathelete, and all the pictures are of him grinning as he nears the finish line (except when he's swimming, in which most of the pictures are of him breathing). He had a lot of fun, and although he didn't even come close to winning, I think he wants to try it again. But the Ironman is so intense, it's crazy to spend all your athletic life training for it.

Echoelle said...

For me, personally, I would never be able to devote myself so much to a sport. I play lots of sports, sure, and I love them a lot. I wouldn't spend years of my life so focused on one thing though because, to me, that is crazy. I think that doing that isn't really living, it's competing. That's years of your life passing you by! If I did that and died soon after or during that I would be sad because I would have felt I hadn't really lived yet, but if they are people who feel that is what they were set upon the earth to do… good luck to them! I hope they enjoy it and look back on it proudly.

Devin said...

I think sports HAVE gone a little too far. People are getting badly hurt. There's too much strain.

Anonymous said...

well, i think it's their choice. If people want to spend their life training for something like that, it's their choice. For some people it might be really fun.

margaret said...

While this is something I would never do, I think Echo is being unfair here. It's not like anyone is requiring them to do this - if they're doing it, it's something they want to do, and I doubt to them it's years of their life passing by for nothing. It's working toward a goal that clearly means something to them. Just because they're not grinning through their exhaustion doesn't mean that it's not worth it and they don't enjoy it in the long run.