Monday, December 13, 2010

Thoughts after a half marathon

Staring out the car window at the Sonoran landscape blurring by, some things were brought into sharper focus.

I'm fortunate that Laura and I both enjoy our camping + racing routine. Money alone would be a good enough reason to combine the two activities; races are unduly expensive. The half marathon in which we participated this previous weekend cost about $80 each. Triathlons, with their need for additional support and their longer, multi-discipline courses encompassing water and land both, tend to cost more. Only some local, “pure” cycling races are cheap, and by “pure” I mean races where your team is suppose to provide you your support and the whole event is relegated to middle-of-nowhere places where it hardly matters whether the roads are closed to public traffic during the race. (They're not.) As it is, most other races cost a pretty penny, and so it's good when one must travel to compete to save on hotel expenses by rooming in what nature affords each and every one of us.

But, of course, money isn't the only reason for camping on race weekends. Camping provides another benefit over hotel-ing, and that's adversity. Even on weekends like this last one, when we stay in a park with designated campgrounds (and for a fee), your bed is not made for you. The air is neither temperature- nor moisture-controlled, though more often than not Arizona weather is conducive for being in the outdoors. Instead, simple, routine acts like finding a spot for the tent, erecting it, and breaking it down in the morning are activities that foster a sense of teamwork. Cuddling together for warmth in the cool, desert night air hints at some of nature's basic reasons for keeping such a close distance to another. In the everything-is-predictable environment of the hotel, it's easy to nitpick against he or she with whom you're sharing your space because negativity is a luxury afforded only to those whose goings are easy. And though camping is sometimes easy, it requires hands and head both to be put to work and makes for a more positive atmosphere.

So, as I was staring out that car window on the way back to Phoenix, I couldn't help but entertain a contrary thought: how important is the racing part of the camping + racing formula? Now, before the world is painted in black and white and all things are subjected to a sophomoric duality, let me make clear that despite whatever criticism I'm about to unleash on them, races are positive events that help direct a great many people from otherwise pursuing self-damaging activities. Probably at this point nearly everyone knows someone who turned their life around by discovering running or triathlon or some other competitive racing. So racing has definite positive points.

Rather, what I question is what I've written about previously: balance. Where is the healthy point somewhere between unhealthy disinterest and unhealthy obsession? As I looked out that car window, I wondered about what I'm missing while I whittle away weekends pursuing long rides and base miles and edging ever closer to being a competitive age grouper. I live in one of the most amazing places on the planet, mere hours away from what is for practical purposes an endless supply of unique, fantastic places to explore and experience, and it seems likelier than not that I'm not taking advantage.

Training produces a material effect not much different than does any other material pursuit. Just as it can be difficult to part with a physical object once obtained (so named the endowment effect, such as how a dog is likely to fight harder for a bone once tasted than an equal bone as yet untasted), hard exercise yields as its fruit one of life's most satisfying physical objects: a fit body, the one physical object that you take with you everywhere you go. For those of us who do indeed observe immediate and gratifying changes in our bodies owing to exercise, it can be extremely hard to let go of. And it shouldn't be let go of, not all the way. Pleasure is one tool with which we are equipped to pursue a good life. But pleasure can mislead, as any number of substance-abuse problems demonstrate aptly.

But just like any other unnecessary physical object, it's all too easy to overestimate the benefit of and underestimate the maintenance cost of a racing-fit body. What I tell myself is that racing is not an anytime pursuit. As one ages, one eventually reaches one's peak potential and begins a terminal decline. Arguably, our peaks, as measured in potential and not in actual fact, occurs sometime in our mid-twenties, and I'm thus well past mine. However, what I know is that while I continue to train hard now, I continue to progress and improve (probably owing to having sat out much of my early twenties). After spending the previous couple of years dedicating a goodly portion of my life to training, progression and improvement is slowing down and a lot. Eventually, they will flatten completely and reverse, a trend that will be made obvious by universal access to race results on the Web. Hopefully, at the least, by such time I will have found an appropriate balance.


Laura said...

1. How dare you imply that we cuddled for warmth in Tucson? In reality you whined that my blankets were to small to share, stole my blankets while I slept, and then discarded the blankets to the middle of the tent! See, I can nitpick without the luxury of a hotel.
2. I believe you meant to type "an endless supply of unique..." (not and), about 3/4 of the way down.
3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post.

cmbrandenburg said...

Laura— Thanks for the correction and compliment both!