Archives for posts with tag: Iron War

Every January, countless magazines, newspapers and blogs devote many a column inch to the practice of making New Year’s resolutions.  I don’t know how the concept got started, but I love the idea of creating voluntary challenges for the betterment of our lives.  What’s surprising, however, is that rarely do you see a follow up several months down the road.  I guess the not-so-surprising reason is that most resolutions are broken soon after they’re made.

I started out the year with three goals:  to live a more balanced life, to become a more patient person and to learn how to swim long distances.  We’re now almost halfway through 2012 and I’m happy to report that I’m two for three (who cares about that stupid patience thing anyway).

My resolution to learn to swim is the one I still can’t believe worked out.  Like most people I know “how” to swim, however there’s no way I could do a proper freestyle stoke for any extended period.  This has always been something that has bothered me, especially after my interest in triathlons was peaked while reading Iron War.  At the beginning of the year when I set this goal, I had no idea that learning to swim would be so difficult…or so enjoyable.

On January 3rd, I was full of confidence as I slipped into the water at the lap pool in my gym.  But less than a minute later and just halfway through the first lap, I had to stop and catch my breath.  It felt like I was drowning and full-on panic mode kicked in.  It’s a horrible feeling.  After flailing through a few other pathetic attempts, I decided that this just wasn’t going to work out.  Luckily, I hadn’t told anyone about this resolution yet.

The next day I did some research and discovered that water is almost a thousand times more dense than air.  While most anyone with average fitness could jog a mile, there’s no way that same person could swim continuously for 100 yards with poor technique.  The good news is that even small improvements in swimming technique will lead to huge increases in efficiency.  The bad news is that I would definitely need to seek out some help.

A local triathlon shop recommended a swim coach who works with lots of runners and cyclists who are struggling with this tricky third discipline.  Dennis Baker was a top collegiate swimmer at the University of Arizona and twice qualified for the Olympic Trials.  He still competes regularly and coaches swimming full time.  This guy’s got chlorine running through his veins.  During my first lesson, he gave me several drills to work on and encouraged me to buy a pair of fins.  The purpose of the fins is to help with propulsion, so you are better able to focus on proper technique.  I felt like Aquaman cruising through the water with my new royal blue Zoomers.

Dennis suggested I practice on my own three days a week and work specifically on the drills he gave me.  I used the fins most of the time and intentionally never swam more than a single lap at a time.  My first breakthrough came after stumbling across a swimming program called Total Immersion.  Check out this guy effortlessly gliding through the water (gotta love that cheesy 90’s background music).

This video inspired me to pick up the book, Total Immersion-The Revolutionary Way To Swim Better, Faster, and Easier.    Its basic premise is that a streamlined body position is the key to swimming well.  The book and the accompanying videos on YouTube laid out a series of drills to help you achieve the desired “fish-like” body position.

So, for three months all I did was work on the drills Dennis gave me, along with the ones in the book.  Never once did I swim a single lap with a regular freestyle stroke.  It was just drills, drills, drills for one hour every other day at the pool.  The goal was to commit to muscle memory the proper technique.  Once a month, I’d meet with Dennis for another lesson.  He’d videotape me, analyze my stroke, and then give me more drills to work on.  I think I was improving, but it was hard to say because I never swam more than a single lap at a time.

Once April rolled around, I felt like I was finally ready to start swimming (or maybe I was just sick of all the drilling).  Either way, I stopped doing the drills and took off the fins.  Do you remember what it’s like to learn a musical instrument or a foreign language?  After months of struggling you just want to give up, but then a moment comes when suddenly, inexplicably, you’re playing music or speaking another language.  It feels like a miracle.  That’s exactly what I experienced that first day.  I swam 40 laps, slow, smooth and steady, only stopping occasionally to catch my breath.  I felt like a bird that just learned to fly and I didn’t want to stop.

Swimming had always seemed so boring–the endless back-and-forth across a giant chlorinated bath tub with nothing to look at except the black line painted along the bottom.  But it is those exact qualities that have proved to be most appealing.  While in a pool swimming, there is nothing to see, nothing to hear.  It’s almost like being in a sensory deprivation chamber with the only motion a light flutter kick and the rhythmic stroke-stroke-breathe cycle.  Running has always been extremely meditative for me, but swimming, with its forced focus on breathing and lack of sensory stimuli, has allowed me to go even deeper, sometimes to a point where I completely lose my sense of self.

I feel so lucky to have acquired this ability to swim.  While it required a fair amount of discipline, all in all it only took three hours a week for several months.  Even if you’re not a “water person,” it’s still a life skill everyone should have.  My only regret is that it took me 42 years to finally master it.  In two weeks, I’ll be putting my new-found swimming ability to the test at a triathlon in McMinnville.  It’s just a sprint triathlon (the shortest possible distance), but it’s a start and one step closer to becoming an Ironman.

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Growing up in the pre-ESPN era, a sports crazed youngster such as myself would spend many a cold winter weekend channel surfing in desperate search of a fix.  One February day in 1982, during that lull between football and baseball season, I happened across a sport so ridiculous it blew my mind.  Running had already gone mainstream and the idea of doing a 26.2 mile race no longer seemed like a form of lunacy.  But what I saw that day took it to a whole new level.  Started by a ex-military endurance junky, the Ironman triathlon also involved a run of 26.2 miles, but only AFTER swimming 2.4 miles and THEN biking 112 miles, all in the high winds, heat and humidity of Hawaii.  The announcer explained that the events were held in this particular order because if the swimming segment was held last, exhausted competitors may drown before finishing.

The reason I remember this particular afternoon so vividly is because of a graduate student named Julie Moss who was competing in the the Ironman to gather research for her thesis on exercise physiology.  Julie had little racing experience, but nevertheless took the lead in the women’s field.  She held on as the long day turned to night and was just 100 yards from the finish when her body completely gave out.  Here’s a clip:  Julie Moss-Ironman 1982

Watching her crawl towards the finish and then get passed in the final few yards is heart-wrenching.  Yet her performance on national TV inspired thousands to take up this crazy new sport.  One of those converts was a lifeguard from Southern California named Mark Allen, who would go become one of the great Ironman triathletes, not to mention the future husband of Julie Moss.

Though I’ve never completed in a triathlon(the swim has always been the deal breaker for me), I’ve remained intrigued by the sport.  A few weeks ago I happened across a copy of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run.  For those of you not familiar with the protagonists, Dave Scott and Mark Allen are the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird of the Ironman triathlon.  These two guys are a big reason for the massive surge in growth the sport experienced in the mid to late 1980’s.  And like Bird and Magic, they had very different personalities and styles.  Dave was an old school “no pain, no gain” kind of guy, while Mark had a more spiritual, new age approach to training.  Both were extremely successful.  Mark won races  all over the world and had lots of big name sponsors, yet couldn’t win the one race that mattered most, the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.  And that just so happened to be the race that Dave dominated, so much so that the six-time winner was given the nickname, “The Man.”

In 1989, these two met at the peak of their careers and squared off in a race that would become known as the Iron War.  For 139 miles and more than 8 hours, they raced side-by-side, never more than a few feet apart, at a world record crushing pace.  These two rivals pushed themselves and each other to the limits of human endurance and mental toughness.  I won’t reveal who the winner was because I didn’t known myself while I was reading the book.  As tempting as it was to sneak a peak at Wikipedia, I held back and the book was more enjoyable because of it.

The author, veteran sports journalist Matt Fitzgerald, did a fine job of introducing us to these two superhuman athletes with all too human flaws.  The narrative arc of Iron War reminded me of John Brant’s excellent Duel in the Sun.  That book also focused on two men(Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley) and one race(the 1982 Boston Marathon)–a single day that changed the lives of these two men forever.  While I loved both of these books, Iron War had the added appeal of introducing me to the fascinating subculture of triathlons.  I’m now more than ever tempted to give it a try.  Maybe I should look into some swimming lessons.