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Friday, March 5, 2010

5. The Writing Life: Father and Son - Writer and Athlete - A Tale of Two Obsessions

One of my sons is as obsessive about triathlons as I am about writing. Back in 2005 he decided that he wanted to take part in triathlons; and not just your 2 or 3 hour events. He wanted to do the Iron Man event.
If you don’t know about the Iron Man event, I’ll fill you in. First they swim 3.8 kilometres – either in a lake or in the open ocean. It’s pretty tough in the water, too. There are hundreds of swimmers, their arms looping over and dragging back through the water, their legs threshing. Blood noses are common, kicks to the body are common.

Their first transition is from that gruelling swim to the bikes. They ride for 180.2 kilometres. You read it right – one hundred and eighty two kilometres. It’s no pleasant Sunday afternoon pedal along a bike track. Some of the events attract up to two thousand competitors – that’s a lot of people jockeying for position. Some have falls – graze their knees, dislocate their shoulders, break arms or legs.
So they ride 180.2 kilometres and then make their final transition. You’ve probably seen them dismount, then jog along holding their bike and rolling it to a ‘parking spot’. There they quickly change their footwear and set off on the final leg of the Iron man event: the marathon.
The marathon has long been regarded as the most demanding of running events, requiring athletes to run a total of 42.2 kilometres – or 26 + miles. These guys do that after having swum 3.8 Km and ridden 180.2 kms!
The elite athletes – the top Iron men – complete this amazing feat in around 8 and a half hours.
In the 2007 Hawaiian Iron man event there were around 1700 competitors, ranging in age from teenagers to 60 years plus. The final athlete to finish took SEVENTEEN HOURS to complete the event. I watched the one hour video documentary of the event, and was moved almost to tears by the rousing cheers that greeted that lone runner as he crossed the line 17 hours after the race had begun. And I realised something: the Iron Man event isn’t about winning – it’s about pushing your body and your will and your spirit to keep going. It’s about a simple kind of heroism: the heroism of not giving up. He was the final athlete to cross the line, but it didn’t matter; his fellow athletes and friends and family cheered him on as if he were winning the event. Which, in a sense, he was.

They don’t take toilet breaks, they don’t stop to eat or drink – everything is done ‘on the run’ – or on the bike or in the water.
My son has competed in nine Iran Man events in all, including two Hawaiian Iron Man contests: in 2006 and 2008, and he’s hoping to make it again in 2010. He’s in his mid-late 30s. In 2006 he finished beside the winner of the Women’s section, completing the course in a tick over 10 hours.
His slowest time for the event is 10 hours and 40 minutes. His fastest was 9 hours and 31 minutes. On that occasion he won his age group and was 10th overall.

In the International Iron man championships, his best time was 10 hours and 1 minute; he was 64th in his age group and 313th overall.

You don’t complete the Iron man course without an enormous amount of work. My son trains 20 hours a week, 7 days a week, for 12 - 18 weeks in his build up for a major event.He does this to build up his strength and his stamina and his will. He knows that if he doesn’t, he won’t make the cut, he won’t even get to compete. He knows, too, that he needs to do that amount of work if he is going to then complete the course. Without that amount of regular training, his body simply wouldn’t be able to cope. He’d break down.

This incredible training regime is partly about ‘teaching’ his body the rhythm – that zone that athletes talk about, so that in the water, or on the bike, or on the run, their body gets into a ‘rhythm’. The breathing, the movement of air into the lungs and out again; the heart, moving the blood efficiently to muscles and brain - the zone.

But the training is also about “teaching” the “mind” about how to keep going. In the discipline of training these athletes learn how to cope with the mental demands, how to deal with the pain and the exhaustion, and how to make it through the “barriers”.
My son needs to produce a quality performance each time he competes. In the case of The Iron Man event, a quality performance is completing the course; a high quality performance is doing it in a creditable time. What makes a creditable time is not the time itself. It’s whether, given the conditions on the day – the heat or cold, the head wind or tail wind, the stillness or the chop in the water – and his level of preparation [whether he is well prepared or underdone} - the time is a good one.

They ran the 2009 Iron Man on a day of 35 degree heat. His 10 hour 3 minutes time on that day was, given he conditions, a much better performance than his 9:45 Busselton performance. That’s what he tells me.
I can’t imagine putting myself through such a physical ordeal. I’m blown away that anyone can do it. I’m immensely proud of the fact that he is committed enough, obsessive enough, mad enough to do it.
He probably thinks the same about my writing.

[I’ve been working on this piece– this 1000 words or so – for the last 30 minutes. That’s right, 30 minutes. For many people, that sounds an extraordinary number of words to write in such a short time. Maybe it is. But you see, I’m in the zone, I’m in the rhythm. I’ve been training for this moment – for this event – for years. Back in 2005 when I wrote half a million words, I was in training, preparing for this event (and other events like this.]

‘This event’ is like the Iron Man contest. It takes place at a certain time, in a certain place. Somebody asked me to write about writing.
My body and mind have been in training for just such an event, so I was up for it, and I was to it. My body/mind knows how to produce a creditable performance on the day. My son has been working, day after day, to improve his swimming stroke, to increase the strength of his kicking, to deal with choppy water and still water, to judge if he’s going too fast or not fast enough, to keep his mind on the endlessly monotonous task of swimming five kilometres.

He has been training his body, too, to ride over long distances. He’s been teaching his legs how to get into the rhythm of the ride, how to maintain that rhythm over long distances, how to take short rests on the downhill stretches. He’s been teaching his body how to retain its balance no matter what the road conditions are, or how buffeting the wind might be, how to know when it’s time to re-hydrate and to ensure that he doesn’t run his body short of fluids.

And he’s been teaching his legs how to take step after step, how to find the right rhythm of running so that he will be able to maintain his ‘form’, stay in ‘rhythm’ over 42 kilometres; how to know when to back off and when to push harder; what to say to himself; where his mind must spend its time during these ten long hours.
Meanwhile, I’ve been teaching my body/mind much the same things: how to keep the sentences flowing, how to get into the rhythm, how to find ‘my voice’, the voice that I need to say these things that are emerging from my ‘mind’ even as I write. I’ve been teaching my mind to flow with word. I’ve been training my body/mind to that ‘heroic’ task of keeping going, getting through the ‘barriers’. There are physical discomforts that make me want to get up and move away from my computer: the recurrent arthritic pain in my wrists and down the length of my thumbs; the lower back pain that sometimes comes if I lean forward for too long over the keyboard; the stiffness in my neck.
But more ‘crippling’ than these are the ‘mental’ barriers. In the poem Journey of the Magi T.S. Eliot wrote of the journey of the three wise men to be present for the birth of the Christ. One of the Magi narrates the tale:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter…
A hard time we had of it …
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

... the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly ...

And for many writers, that is probably the hardest part: keeping going, despite ‘ the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly’. Why do we bother? What’s the point? Who will read it any way?

Maybe it is all folly. But – and I speak only for myself - it’s my folly of choice; it’s the folly I choose in preference to the other follies that others pursue. I’ll leave my son to his folly – I’m not up to it these days, and probably never was; he can do the swimming and bike riding and running - I'll just keep writing. And teaching. For a while, at least.

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