Triathlon Heroes

Historical Figures Throughout History…Well…Maybe

As a history major in college, i was always encouraged to go deeper into my explorations of people and events, to find the story behind the story, so as to really understand the roots and ramifications of people and their actions. That desire to understand , which was embedded in me lo those many years ago, still drives me to this day. It has led to the uncovering or many interesting discoveries in the world of triathlon. I have, through serious research and investigation, that the roots of triathlon began to take hold much earlier than the ’70s. Oh so much earlier.

A few examples that I have unearthed:

  1. The Marquis de Sade was a swim coach. We all know that the word sadism came from the Marquis de Sade, but do we really know why? The Marquis was notorious for putting together killer workouts, emphasis on killer. Drills, drills and more drills. Repeats with very little if any rest. Lap after lap of trying to push some silly kickboard across vast oceans of chlorine. And then, just when his swimmers were on the brink of being sent to the hospital from utter exhaustion, he would announce that warm-ups were complete and it was time to do the real workout.
  2. Jesus invented the wetsuit. Like so many of us, Jesus had a problem with drag in the pool. He just couldn’t get his rear end very high and it dragged in the water like a dead weight. He was all arms and no legs. But, thanks to some nifty engineering, he was able to design a device that not only gave him the buoyancy to bring down his stroke count and swim times, he found that with a little extra tinkering he could pull off the whole “walk on water” thing.
  3. Rene Descartes was uncoordinated. Prior to becoming a full-time mathematician and philosopher, Descartes dabbled in triathlon. But he was, among other things, a terrible swimmer. Most of us can quote his most famous line – Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am. But what most of us don’t know is that line was a refinement of his original – Subsido ergo sum (I sink, therefore I am.)
  4. Paul Revere invented aero bars. We all know about Paul Revere and his famous ride, warning the citizenry that the British were coming. What only came to light recently is how he managed to cover so much ground so quickly. As any good triathlete will attest, riding in an aero position will decrease resistance and help you achieve greater speed. Paul knew that too, and in the back of his pewter mug-making shop he fashioned a set of aero bars for his horse. With these bars mounted on his horse, Revere turned his historical ride into a PR and helped to change history in many ways.
  5. Julius Caesar was a three-sport man. In the days of Julius Caesar, less than 1% of the world’s population were literate enough to read and write. Therefore, most communication was verbal, passed along from one person to the next and prone to misinterpretation and reinterpretation. Those of us who have played telephone know that by the time as message has passed through a number of different ears and mouths, the original message often has no relation to the original. Thus it was that when, after winning the Paris Triathlon and proclaiming, “I Swam, I Biked, I Ran” by the time the message go to Rome, it came out as “Vini, Vidi, Vici” (I Came, I Saw, I Conquered).
  6. Marie Antoinette pioneered carbo-loading. Prior to becoming the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette was a sports nutritionist. Like most in her profession, the question she encountered most often was that of what an athlete should eat the night before a race. After long and in-depth research, she distilled the answer down to its four-word essence: “Let them eat cake.”
  7. The Buddha taught about triathlons. All Buddhist scholars are familiar with the Four Noble Truths, the teachings of the Buddha about the truth of suffering and the was out of suffering. Lesser known are the Four Noble Truths of Triathlon, also ascribed to the Buddha. The First Noble Truth of Triathlon: There is suffering. The Second Noble Truth of Triathlon: Suffering is caused by clinging to expectations of finish times. The Third Noble Truth of Triathlon: The cessation of suffering comes from letting go of those expectations. The Fourth Noble Truth of Triathlon: By following the Eightfold Path of triathlon training, you can achieve the end of suffering (and get a nifty shirt to wear to work the next day to show off to your colleagues.)
  8. Charles Darwin understood that triathlons represent the Evolution of the Species. It is a commonly accepted belief that life as we know it originated in water and that was the path that evolution followed. What Darwin, in his infinite wisdom foresaw, was that the evolutionary path actually had three stages. Life emerged from the water, got on a bike, rode around for awhile, dismounted and then took off running. The missing link was eventually found buried with the missing chain and rear derailleur.
  9. Phidippides was the first Double Ironman. We know that the Ironman is 140.6 miles and began in the late 1970s, with the final leg being the 26.2 mile marathon run. But in 490 BCE, Phidippides of Athen ran 140 miles from Athens to Sparta to deliver a message and then immediately ran 140 miles back to Athens. Though lauded at the time for his heroic effort, Phidippides lived the rest of his life very angry when he found out that he could have swum and biked a great deal of the way, saving his legs for a stronger finishing kick.
  10. Every woman who fought for Title IX.
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Community: The Glue In Our Lonesome Sport

As kids, most of the sports in which we participated were those involving others, whether as teammates or opponents. We either had someone to throw the ball to, or to take it away from. Something to hit to someone, or to hit past them. Bodies were in motion in direct competition with other bodies, whether they were driving to the hoop, blocking at the net or sliding into a base we often had some direct interaction with others, either helping some towards our collective goal or trying to keep others from theirs. Be it as teammates or competitors, we were all part of a common community on a field of play.

In triathlon, on the other hand, save for the relays, we generally don’t compete as a team. It’s just us out there against everyone else and against ourselves And except for the beginning of the swim, physical contact with others is not only uncommon but often means disqualification. We’re out there by our lonesome with no one to pitch, pass or kick to. We swim unaided. We follow the bike rules and avoid drafting. We run alone with our thoughts.

Yet in the midst of all this aloneness (poetic license – aloneness is not really a work), triathlon has an extraordinary sense of community which in my opinion is one of the things that makes it so attractive. From the moment we arrive at a race, we are embraced by a huge community of staff and volunteers, genuinely happy to see us and help us. Incredibly dedicated people get up really early to mark the course, set up bike racks, place the swim buoys, handle check-in, mark our bodies, maintain the all-important porta-pottys. They sit in the cold water on their paddle boards there to rescue us should we need it. They are at at the intersections making sure we go right instead of left. They are at the aid stations handing out equal amounts of water, electrolyte replacements and words of encouragement. They are at the finish line cheering us home, calling our names and placing our finisher medals over our heads. And long after we have gone home, they are cleaning up and packing up. That’s one hell of a community.

And for many of us, it is community that has gotten us to the race in the first place. For those of us fortunate enough to have people with whom to train, we draw strength and support from that community even when we are out on the course all alone. I am very lucky to belong to a YMCA triathlon club made up of some of the best people I know, with skills and experience all along the spectrum, but who collectively pull together to propel each other forward. When I am getting tired near the end of a swim, or grinding up a difficult hill, or plodding through the end of a run, I have my coach’s voice in my head reminding me to extend my arms, engage my core, relax my shoulders, lean forward, kick my feet. That voice is a comfort and never fails to make me suck in my gut. I know that without this community, the likelihood of my training and racing on my own would be much smaller. This too is one hell of a community.

Funny how life’s little dichotomies manifest. In a sport that is so predicated on individual effort, it is the collective efforts of a broad community that makes it all happen and makes it all so worthwhile.

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In Praise of a True Triathlon Hero

There have been many lauded triathletes over the years. I began racing in the era of the Scotts (Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Scott Molina), Sally Edwards, Mark Allen, Mike Pigg, Paula Newby-Frasier, the Puntous twins and more. They, and those who followed in their footsteps, have graced the covers of a myriad of triathlon publications over the years. But there is one man who has never, to the best of my knowledge, been on the cover of Triathlon or Triathlete magazines Who has never been chronicled in a featurette during Cona coverage. Who will never be inducted into the Triathlon Hall of Fame, though he certainly belongs. 

Who is this unknown triathlon hero?

Hi name is George Harding and in the 1960s he invented the one item that no triathlete can do without: the Porta-Potty! Would triathlons even exist without Mr. Harding?

File:Porta Potty by David Shankbone.jpg

At a time when the development of new technologies for triathletes seems to increase exponentially year over year, we can still take refuge in the porta-potty. It’s often the first place we visit when we arrive at a race location and our last stop before we leave. What do new triathletes do as soon as they arrive at a race? They get in line go get their body’s marked with their race number. What do seasoned triathletes do as soon as they arrive at a race? They get in line for the porta-potty. They know that there will be plenty of time to get numbered, but a quick visit to the house that Harding built will help to ensure a better race. And, if timed correctly, there will be opportunities for a second or even third visit before hitting the water.

Back in the 80s I did the USTS Chicago, with thousands of other athletes. When I arrived at check-in there were several city blocks worth of porta-pottys there to greet us. I was moved to tears of gratitude for our unknown hero.

So, Mr. Harding, on behalf of the entire triathlon community, thank you for your foresight and your invention. Without it, our lives would surely be diminished.

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