Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Triathlon and Human Metamorphosis

by Drew Martin

Last Sunday I did the running leg of a triathlon in Croton on the Hudson. It was a "Toughman" half Ironman, which means a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and a half marathon (13.1 miles). The half Ironman is the longest triathlon you can race as a team. Our team was well balanced and took first for the coed relay.

Croton is a beautiful part of New York and the annual event takes advantage of this. The course starts down on the Hudson River (actually in the river and this year it was very murky after Hurricane Irene) and climbs up above the spectacular Croton Dam (pictured here).

The bicycle and running courses are difficult because of the extreme elevation changes and a lot of the running is on trails through the woods. That being said, it is one of my favorite places to run and the event is well organized. At the bottom of the dam you are greeted by a band and cheerleaders before entering an uphill battle in the woods. There are other cheering sections, lots of cow bells and even a rock band along the way.

At the turnaround in the woods there is also a waist-high statue of a gorilla or a yeti. It is all quite a surreal experience because you are trying to run and stay focused and yet you are a bit delirious from the exertion. Most of the other athletes had run and swum, and I had fresh legs, so it was very dreamy because everyone was really tired and I was apologetically flying by them as if they were in slow motion.

I have written quite a bit about the arts and running, how they overlap.*
The triathlon culture is more diverse and has its own visual cues and aesthetics. For one thing the hydrodynamics of swimming and the aerodynamics of cycling influence what we look like and how we make things.

These dynamics inform shapes and surfaces. It is amazing how the eye picks up on this. We instinctively know what is lighter and faster. Aerodynamically and hydrodynamically engineered shapes look cool. I think that one reason we gravitate towards streamlined objects is because they appear simple; they are smooth and without complicated and frivolous details. Perhaps it is an association with examples from nature.

Aerodynamics and hydrodynamics are disciplines of efficiency. Just as there is beauty in symmetry, mathematics is also stunningly eye-catching when we witness the tangible results of its formulas for speed and resistance.

A triathlon is the most metamorphic of all sporting events. The athletes start on the beach in tight black neoprene wetsuits looking very fit and aquatic. When the swimmers emerge from the water, they have to run quite a bit to their bikes for a transition, which involves stripping down out of their wetsuits. In this event there was a place where volunteers peeled the suits off the athletes for them. (Pictured here, is our swimmer leaving the Hudson River after a 1.2 mile swim)

In the cycling portion, the participants mount their bikes and take off for a long haul. Some riders wear tear-drop helmets and have low, extended handlebars, which morphs the rider and bike into one streamlined force and a hybrid of human and machine. The shaved legs of the riders and the sleek carbon fiber surfaces are equally smooth.

In the final transition, the bikes are abandoned as are the fancy helmets and stiff shoes. Everything is left behind including the previously shed rubbery skin, and the participant begins to run. It a significant moment, born from water and beyond the assistance of technology. It is the human running free.

For someone, like myself, interested in visual identity and graphics, the event is a real treat. Aside from the numerous logos and the rainbow of colors that adorn bikes, helmets, wetsuits, and running shoes, such an occasion is rich with graphs and charts.

Below, is a map from the Toughman website, which shows the running route. It is not something you could actually use to navigate the course but at least you get a sense that it is hilly and that it is, for the most part, an out-and-back run. Personally, I like running big loops, preferably clockwise.

The next chart is interesting. It shows the elevation changes of the running course. For the kind of runner I am, this is like finding a treasure map. It tells me more explicitly just how hilly the course is, the number of climbs and when they occur in the race. I can also reason that the best runners will stay away from the event because their times would be ravaged by such topography.

Immediately after the first waves of athletes finish, the results are posted on a board. Each triathlete wears a chip around one of his or her legs with a wide, rubbery and Velcro strap. For teams, the chip is passed from swimmer to cyclist to runner. The chip is read by mats at the entrance and exit of the transition area and at the finish line. Theoretically you could cut corners, or worse, and the computer would be none the wiser. In fact, in our race I was ranked with the seventh fastest running time. Naturally, I wanted to see who was quicker but the fastest running time was listed for a woman in 413th place. The only reasonable explanation is that she cut out the few mile loop above the dam, thus placing her with a running time more than four minutes ahead of the elite male who won the overall event with a time two hours ahead of her, even with her shortened course.

These results look something like the chart on the right, which was shows our team on the top line. It has fewer columns than the overall standing chart, which details the duration of each part of the triathlon as well as the transitions times.

Finally, the best visuals of all are the pictures taken by professional photographers (for sale), like the one of our swimmer (above). My pictures are odd to behold. I do not even remember the outside of my body during the run. I do recall some internal cramps and focusing on my lungs, telling myself I was one with the air around me as I ran like the wind. I would not post an image of myself here because I am too pale and skinny. Despite all of the previously mentioned visual elements, I think the most interesting aspect of such event are the body types. Triathletes are perfect. They have swimmers' arms and cyclists' legs. As the mercenary runner, I am all legs and weigh as little as people a head shorter than me. It was a bit of a joke at the event, people asking me if I was the team's swimmer.

Even with all the visual reminders of the day, nothing can compare with the memory of participating in the event...the body moving through space and going into a zone.

*Other posts by me related to running:

Born to Run: A Do-It-Yourself Marathon
Recalling a do-it-yourself marathon inspired by the book, Born to Run

An Out of City Experience
The "third man factor" while running

Find Your Strong
Gladly brainwashed by Saucony's "Find Your Strong" campaign

Running with Music
The analogy of running and music, comparing a runner's body to a musical instrument.

Running the Media
Running as a means of communication

Murakami...About Running: A Book Review
Comments on Haruki Murakami's memoir "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running"

Cause & Effect
Running as performance art

Comparing Neal Bascomb's "The Perfect Mile" (about Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile) with Anaïs Nin's seductive "Delta of Venus"