A Question of Mettle

author : Scott Tinley
comments : 4

By Scott Tinley 

Overheard in a coffee shop.

 “I see that tattoo on your calf. Are you a fan of Marvel comic books?”

“That’s an Ironman logo…you know, the triathlon in Hawaii.”

“Oh yeah, I saw it on TV; bunch of crazies swimming through lava and stuff.”

“Sort of.”

“Have you competed in the Ironman tricathalon?”

“Not yet, but I’m close to qualifying.”

“Then you’re a Tinman.”

“Whatever.”

           I wonder about the pressures that are brought to bear on triathletes; those external forces that shape our decisions. By historical association and imagination, triathletes are supposed to be thin, wiry, and dolphin-skinned. They are supposed to have muscle definition where one could hide a quarter in their abs. They are supposed to be focused, driven, tech-savvy, and linear. And triathletes--popular opinion will argue--are supposed to do the Ironman in Kona once in their career.

           A tinman in a Starbucks line is just too easy of a target.

The grand pull to Kona is both a product of our sport’s mythology, marketing, and the intangible desires that each create. But as the sport has expanded its base of participants well beyond ocean lifeguards, Cat 2 bike racers, and 31 minute 10k runners prone to injury, great numbers of emerging multisport enthusiasts must negotiate the gravity that is The Ironman.

For those on the side of average athletic talent, real jobs, families, and interests beyond that earned tattoo, the choice is often made for them. Qualifying for Kona would take a lottery win, a divorce, and calf implants. And for the naturally-gifted workaholics with good genes and a trust fund, the Ironman is a plausible goal. But it’s that growing multitude in the middle that hears the distant drums and feels the inner conflict; those Tinmen-in-training that watch the NBC show and are filled with conflict and question. Some will heed the inner call if for no other reason than to check that box. Some will suggest that an October day under a Kona sun will change their lives. And others can’t define the desire, can’t label it, can barely justify the sacrifices.

But it won’t go away.

So, like a feral cat at the backdoor, you feed it just enough to see what it will do. And once the idea and the animal move in, their power over you grows until it becomes part of who you are. The more introspective and pragmatic realize that in some ways the Ironman Dream has value in its evolving form. They find great pleasure in the hunt, perhaps secretly hoping that the stars of their glacial efforts never fully align. God forbid they will actually have to do the race. But they would find a way.

            How can you not?

            And for many others there is great value in closure, achievement, and bragging rights. Tinman, my ass, they boast, and point to the finisher’s medal hanging from the rear view mirror. This was no midlife crisis, they will argue while speed-dialing their coach, this was just life in some pleasingly critical form.

 But for a growing majority of multisport athletes who wonder if they have the mettle to be an Ironman, they will let the idea percolate for years, sometimes feeding it, other times just hoping it goes away.  If history is telling, most are willing to pay the price, thrillingly scared, knowing perhaps, as Thoreau claimed, “If you could (just) kill time without injuring eternity,” all they would need is their One Day. The memories and  emotions  would last for years, enhancing, not injuring eternity.

             That’s not too much to ask, is it? A cost/benefit analysis, a spread sheet of simple numbers that would lead to a bounty of complex feelings. Still, the reality is that for many others, it’s a perennial line item in the budget but rarely spent.

             Either way, there is something thrilling about the idea of Kona, something largely personal and significant and not available at the company softball tournament. And so for even the very beginning triathlete, the notion of our Everest sits idly in the corner or raises it head in October or when a training partner returns with their Grail and seems to lean into the world just bit steeper.

             The facts say that intelligent levels of exercise promote health and well-being. The facts say that too often we over-train and suffer the consequences. And the fact is that finding a spot on the starting line in Kona is damn hard. But still, there are those pesky messages. They come to us in magazine ads and Starbucks’ lines and war-like narratives regaled by guest speakers at tri-club meetings. The “do I or don’t I’s” creep into our sleep and our choices made on races, books, and lottery tickets. We can dream of Alii Drive and Mike Reilly calling our name over the public address. But most of us still wake up with shin splints and three kids calling from the back of the min-van.

             I believe in the unattainable. Somewhere between immortality and a wild card entry into Wimbledon lie places where I can find some direction in my life. In the truth of first light I know that neither will happen and that I will pass away and never play on Centre Court. But I don’t lose sleep over it. Failure taught me that. It’s okay to lower your aim, to be good at the simple things, to be a tinman. Winning taught me that.

             Each of us has to negotiate our own challenges. And then the meanings of our own victories and defeats. And at the risk of purple prose I will offer this: we might realize that too many of us die too young or too late. Meanwhile we pull ourselves up by making money, making the grade; all the while making less and less time to face the fact that there are some things in life we just need to do but could never explain to someone who hadn’t done it before.  

             Okay, people are changed forever by an Ironman event. But they are changed by the sight of a homeless man on a street corner and a single kiss from a lover. The common thread is how they connect us to others. Sure the Ironman experience is deeply personal but it would not happen without an army of producers and would mean little if you had no one to share it with. So perhaps this is how we approach the Question of Kona—if a full distance race seems impossible then what else can I do that has a similar communitarian feel? It can be as challenging as finding balance in a life or as simple as a math problem. What if I just divide by two? Are the volunteers as giving and the finish line beer just as cold at a 70.3? Are fifty 5Ks the same as one century?

           You have to decide. It’s your medal and your memory.

Like LP records, tight jeans, and stick shift cars, the Ironman isn’t for everybody. As much as it can give, it can take away. If it was easy, it wouldn’t mean the same. Our dreams and desires might be analyzed and set into categories—the ones to train for and the ones that offer value simply for being dreamt. Both can offer something great. 

I know there are other ways to validate one’s life beyond chasing a white line on a long roadside. Has to be. The Pulitzer Prize winning author, Katherine Anne Porter, once said that salvation can only be found through religion and art. I believe that great feats of physical endurance include traits of both.

And the greatest people I know are made of all kinds of mettle.

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date: October 5, 2010

Author


Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

Author

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

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