Something in the Air

author : Scott Tinley
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by Scott Tinley
  
Ironman World Champion, 1982 & 1985
Ironman Hall of Famer; Triathlon Hall of Famer

          Tom Knoll strolls through the Hawaiian Ironman Expo with a bewildered intent as if he’s looking for something but not sure if he’ll know it if he finds it. Compared to the cell phone sect, the pre-occupied agents of the sport’s elite, and the whimsical wanna-bees, Knoll might be mistaken for an Old School Kona local who wandered off his up-country macro-biotic farm. At 80 years, the old silverback’s pre-modern socks no longer compress and the sweat-stained satchel over his tired shoulder feels the weight of its historical content. Tom Knoll, one of the original twelve Ironman competitors from 1978, wants everyone to read the self-published book that spills from his sack.
          And why not? He seems to be asking of anyone who will listen. Why Not a Million is Knoll’s story of endurance, a self-chronicle of this former Marine running across the North American continent to raise money for what seems like a million causes. His abject place in the hyper-slick and branded confines of The Providence Group’s World Triathlon Corporation Ironman Expo causes this writer to partially wonder about the historical and present place of this deeply significant sporting event. But mostly wonder why so many of us want to participate in what I promise you, is a long hard day under a big red sun. 
                                            *                                                      *
          A hundred years before the first Hawaiian Ironman in 1978, the geographical frontiers had been discovered; the Wild West tamed, the far oceans explored, and at least one of the planets in our solar system slated for soil sampling in advance of stucco cul-de-sacs built in a faux-postcolonial motif. These have become difficult times for mountain men and hunter-gatherers; the jobs are scarce, the rivers choked. And so we turn to endurance sports to fulfill our genetic drive to explore our primal need to test and conquer, to explore and expand. So, with land masses paved over and Google-mapped we have turned to alternate physical events as a suitable space for the Cabrillo and Drake gene that lies inside us.  
          Present day endurance athletes reflect a sampling of specie that has negotiated the ravages of post-millennium technology, that sometimes de-humanizing result of science and reason that challenges our ability to connect with our physical selves. Undeniably, there are many of us who feel the need to submit to that edging call with its entrancing whistle. And after a few thousand miles of swimming, cycling, and running, perhaps there is a shift in our purview of the world. In some ways it feels bigger, other ways smaller. But always different.
         And so we are attracted to events like Ironman, unable to deny the lure, glad that there is still an opportunity to go out beyond the last houses, beyond our comfort zone to that place inside our minds and our bodies that will appear dangerous, even deadly.
          If this seems an overly romanticized version of a simple race--one day, three events—so be it. Desire in the masses says a lot about a society.   You may not hear the same drumming in your own head but regardless of what catalyzes you into a twenty hour per week training regime and a sizable commitment or sacrifice, you cannot deny the event’s present commercial success or cultural cache constructed on its colorful past. You cannot deny its pioneers, its crazed, imaginative and indignant characters that caught wind of a small idea and exposed its large ideals.
          Forget for a moment the corporate appropriation and its for-profit intent in the business of dream merchanting. What is at question here, is some understanding of essential motive; the socio-psychological ship that launched a thousand M-Dot tattoos. Why do twenty thousand athletes from one hundred countries try to gain entry into this event? It ain’t because they all read Tom Knoll’s book.
         If America has but one archetypal myth, it is that of the renegade, the explorer, the man and woman willing to risk their stasis in life to seek that which validates if not fulfills. Off to the forest and the planets and the seas they trudge for a place within the rents and seams, a space beyond society that will justify their existence. Citing in the same sentence, for example, a 1775 John Smith with a 1978 John Collins, would be a narrative stretch but you get the idea.
         So, assume that you are allowed into this Ironman event--you’re damn fast, damn hard-headed or very well connected--now what?  Is the Ironman label and all the personal and professional accolades that go with it simply a 144 mile sunburn away? And what of the responsibility that comes with both acceptance and entitlement? What about the circularity of that hero’s journey? You didn’t see that section in the race application? You thought it was all about you…now?  And what about the ubiquitous infusion of corporate branding? Will that change the nature of your experience?
         I find it hard to place that image of a forgotten Tom Knoll schlepping sophomoric stories in proximal display to $60k portable swimming pools and $9500 bikes that go very fast in one direction, four-figure wetsuits and enough pseudo-nutrition target marketed at the neuvo-riche triathlete that it becomes impossible to tell a compression bar from an energy sock. There is always that essential past where too many souls have been sliced open and emotional blood spilt on this island to be distracted by the company sticker wars; these for-profit ideological outposts that through the magic of hegemony, can persuade a reasonable person to pay for the strategic placement of a corporate logo on their body. But what of the necessary place of a Gatorade or a Bud Light or a Ford? Their support makes it safer, better organized, and helps tell the stories of those that went before. The athletes exist in willing partnership with those that sell the stories. It seems to work.
          And lest we forget, there is the Great Unpaid, the army of volunteers, who write the numbers on your arm, hand you a Dixie cup of water, a piece of food and a piece of themselves that in some heavenly ironic way, they do so willingly and lovingly. Through it all, this model of diametric partnership seems to function well; these venture capitalists capitalizing on that which we want and need and will gladly suffer well and long to achieve. And without them we’d be looking for other frontiers and filling out applications for Space Explorer.
          Still, a larger nod to the Original 12 whose accidental brilliance assembled the marketable dream seems under-done.  If we fail to respect their historicity, we fail to realize the collaborative suffrage born of personal quests, reared in the sharing of that pain and then celebrated ensemble as one might verse or song; each coming to it on their own but walking away in the afterglow of some unspoken aesthetic collective. Thanks to Anheuser Busch for the visor at the finish line but please excuse me if I don’t tattoo a Bud Light logo on my ass.           
                                *                                    *                                    * 
         The Ironman has been romanticized, revered, and regaled in more mass media than the purist can swallow and marketers can spring with a royalty bounce. Market-based economy at its most sporting. The one-day event that happens year round is the manufacturing plant where dreams are   produced and consumed.  Those seventeen hours on one Saturday in October are where the moments are ticked off in a variable time frame reference; some moving so agonizingly slow that leg cramps seem to come like childbirth contractions--rhythmic, ceaseless but laden with a purpose. Or they slip by your window without notice; 50 mph on the downhill, the wind bending you like it bends time and you simply can’t afford the luxury of a sidebar thought. It’s all you can do to keep the stupid bike from blowing off the damn road, taking you along with it into the *&^%$#@ lava rock and kiawe thorns and the ignominious failure of not finishing and there just aren’t enough expletives for you to describe how you feel.
         The horror that is forgotten a day later.
         So you try to respect one thing. Maybe it’s the unobservable magic of the wind, that atmospheric quest for equality in pressure that never seems equal to you but since you don’t have a choice, you live with it. Somewhere, you might think, this wind is at another athlete’s back. You respect the elements that have defined the Ironman in Hawaii, the same elements that have transcended all endurance sports around the world. And then you become an Ironman because you are an explorer who found that there never was a Valhalla or Seven Cites of Gold and the earth is round not flat. But you found something in the effort itself.  
         At times it can seem so distant, so insurmountable, so pure. But it’s not that hard, really. It is aesthetic capitalism, if there can be such a thing. And while it should end in mutual respect, it should also begin there as well—a respect for your dream, your quest, your purpose, and the enablers that facilitate your quest. You might get there, you might not. Others have. Some are on cereal box covers and some schlepp books from a sack. If nothing else, it’s a collective of like-minded souls, some lost, some found, most of them very interesting.
           If the marketable legend of Ironman is its ability to allow people to discover that they can do almost anything, its demise would be catalyzed by just the opposite.
          The Spanish 15th Century explorer, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, never found the fabled Seven Cites of Gold. And in his frustration and poor planning, he murdered thousands of indigenous peoples in lower North America. He never finished and he never learned. Coronado was no Ironman. Tom Knoll, a veteran of three 20th century wars spanning four decades, raised his million dollars for charity. He is not a sponsored athlete. He is not unhappy.

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date: August 28, 2012

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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