In an excellent piece recently published on Outside Online, Erin Beresini, a runner and triathlete who has recently been plumbing the depths of obstacle-course racing, explores the question of whether—as Slowtwitch's Dan Empfield put it—multisport in the USA has "lost it's mojo."
The provocative title of the story is, "Why American Endurance Athletes Have No Fun," which—if you note the story's URL, may have been tweaked from, "Why American Endurance Athletes Suck."
At any rate, in her story, Beresini contrasts the spirit and nature of the ?TILL?, a swim-run ultra tour of 26 islands in the Swedish archipelago, against the mainstream state of endurance sport in America, and against the original spirit that motored triathlon in the early days of the sport, one that may have waned. She writes:
The drive that's developed over the last 10-plus years to make a race "Olympic" distance, or half-iron, or iron-distance, dismays triathletes who remember the sport's spontaneity—its funniness.....I'd argue, however, that training to crush a certain distance isn't bad. Time can be a powerful motivator, and earning a new PR is a thrill. But athletes should still make room for races of goofier layouts to remember what it's like to race for fun, with no expectations other than to enjoy the experience.
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Before offering my nickel's worth of wisdom, I believe a discussion of what 'fun' means versus 'funny/funniness' in endurance sports is merited. I have no hard answers on this. But following are some first thoughts.
Giving an all-out effort to win, or chase a PR, or finish a distance you've never attempted before, isn't so much fun or thrilling as it is satisfying. I'm stealing this assertion from the legendary running coach, Dr. Joe Vigil, who wrote about it in his book, Road to the Top. If you had been a cross-country runner for Vigil during his years coaching at Adams State in the 7500-foot-altitude running wonderland of Alamosa, Colo. (along the Rio Grande, with 14,000-foot peaks nearby, which from time to time Coach Vigil had you dash up), there wasn't much fun to be had in the training. Vigil believed in an extreme concoction of high-mileage, high-intensity and high-altitude. His teams collected 12 NAIA National Cross Country Championships during his tenure as head coach.
Many years ago, a friend of mine named, Mike McManus (he helped coach the Golden Gate Triathlon Club in its early years) drove his beater car from San Francisco to Alamosa to join Vigil's training group. In other words, he drove 19 hours from his life at a few meters above sea level to a parking lot near the track facility at Adams State, newly aloft at 2300 meters. Whatever adaptation to altitude that occurs on Interstate 40 in that time frame, if any, doesn't do much for your confidence when, minutes after you set the emergency brake, Coach Vigil says, "Welcome! Get your spikes on. We're doing 600-meter repeats today."
My buddy said he made it through something like 9 of the cardio-pulmonary lung-scorchers before he had to drop out. Another of Mike's first workouts upon his arrival in Alamosa was a workout in the mountains with the late Pat Porter. Porter was Vigil's most successful runner of that era—he won 8 consecutive USA Cross-Country championships (1982 to 1989). Porter was heading out for a run and spotted Mike and said, "Come run with me." As Mike told me over beers later on, he said, "Sure Pat, give me just a minute," and then went into the bathroom and tried to mirror-talk himself out of a panic attack.