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
Working Stiff Part 2: Working Out and the Empires of Deception
Scott Tinley on working to play, or playing at work.
“Man is not just in search of tensions per se, but in particular, in search of tasks whose completion might add meaning to his existence.”
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Tom Warren works very, very hard. As an NCAA swimming star at USC, a successful real estate investor, and a business owner, you would expect him to be cut from some carbon fiber-weave of industrial cloth. But Warren is a wood and steel guy; not Old School but indefinable in the prescient style of a Steve Jobs or the Rolling Stones. To the casual observer, he is a ball of perpetual motion rolling as if dropped onto a practice billiards game that no one is really concerned about. But there is purpose in his movement, even if he is the only one who knows the rules of his game.
Warren knows something about work and physical culture that we don’t. The night after he won the 1979 Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, he went out walking in the rain. No reason; just seemed like something to do.
* * *
The lure of occupational stereotyping is a strong one. It’s an easy trap in a liberal democratic political economy. What we do for our labor—if not our primary remuneration—must nearly define and stratify us. It’s a safe and sane way to subvert the conversational work of getting to know someone. “Oh, you’re an accountant! How…formulaic your life must be,” we might suggest. Or, “Oh, you own real estate! It must have been nice to be born with money.” And, “Oh, you’ve competed in triathlons! Than you’ve done that race in Hawaii where they swim through lava. Do you strain your cottage cheese to reduce the fat content?”
Tom Warren is now in his early 60s though he looks 10 or 15 years younger depending on the lighting and analogs lurking about the room. When he won the Ironman and went on to finish in the top 3 in1980 and 1981, Warren would list his occupation as saloonkeeper. His saloon, Tug’s Tavern, had been variously hailed in the press as, “a biker-bar dive,” “a friendly local pub,” and “the best place for late night munchies in Pacific Beach.” While the descriptives were accurate enough, it was Warren’s work to serve the clientele that made the place profitable. I used to see Tom running on the Mission Beach Boardwalk around noon while I took my own lunch hour break from a decent but unsustainable position in the area. On occasion he would write notes to himself in the sand to remind him of a thought on his return route.
“How does he do it?” I’d ask myself, “how does one man so purposely dream, design, and create an occupation that allows him to swim, bike, and run by day and pour beer to his pals at night?”
Years later, after we become friends and training partners, I asked Tom about this. And in his indefatigable response he would go on and on about how he’d never worked a day in his life. But he’d sure put a lot of effort into doing things that gave him pleasure and oh, by the way, paid the rent. Most people would just be winding you up with a comment like that. There would be little real humility. But Warren is a guy who will go out and run three miles at Sunday midnight because he’s just realized that his training log had been miscalculated. Not one to make a lot of plans, if he had one, it was non-negotiable. Warren’s stories are too quirky to be fiction. You just can’t make that shit up.
* * *
My training partners and I used to go on about finding the perfect job for the serious triathlete. “It’s an airline pilot,” somebody would suggest. “They only work a few days each month, can take their running shoes with them on trips, and never get charged for their bike.” Somebody else might suggest a firefighter (able to train while on duty), a teacher (summers off), or a lifeguard (winters off). And all them had to do with time off or the ability to train as if training and working were distinctly and necessarily separate. The irony that the discussion took place amongst professional triathletes was not lost on the few guys in the back who actually worked regular jobs. I don’t recall if there was a consensus but many years later I would remember that working period in Dickensonian fashion as both the best and worst of times. When you wake up in the morning and ask yourself, “should I run an easy 8 miles on the trails before breakfast or should I ride up the coast with my pals and stop for lunch?” What do you aspire to in your next career?
That is revisionist thinking, of course; that decade of sore legs and unstable pay checks lost to the brighter periods and awards dinners and people knowing your name. I was more lucky than good. Still, how many times have you heard of the top age group athlete who quits a good job and has a go at The Dream only to end up over-trained, injured, unemployed, and wondering what was so terribly wrong with a good job?
Maybe their timing was wrong. Maybe they were lucky to have been smart enough or wistful enough to just go for it.
Sometimes it works that way. You’ve got to take your shot and hope you hit something. Deal with life in the morning.
The American poet and novelist, Charles Bukowski, once created a character, Henry Chinaski, who suggested “endurance is more important than truth.” Never mind that Bukowski’s hard charging protagonist from the short story, Barfly, was talking about what it takes to become a really good drunk. The lesson imbued is that if you want truth, you have to endure something to find it. You have to work for it. I believed in the Chinaski character for a very long time. Yep, just stick it out, man, hang in there and one day enlightenment will envelop you like morning rays through an unencumbered window.
But when I re-read the short story some years later I realized that Chinaski had been deluded partially by drink but mostly by a society that can’t seem to wrap its head around the idea that work can be a hell of a lot of fun. Henry Chinaski’s truth was always there. And he had been working and drinking too hard to see it.
I’m not so sure that my gig as a pro triathlete ever taught me the meaning of life. I saw some meanness in competition but got to hang out with some beautiful people for a lot longer than I deserved. Maybe that’s as good as it gets. Which, if you appreciate it, ain’t too bad at all. It’s good work, as they say, if you can get it.
* * *
The idea of corporate fitness took hold about the same time as early triathlon. The early 80s brought bike racks and shower facilities to cube farms under the guise that increased worker fitness levels correlate to productivity, fewer sick days, and the success of the company softball team. Hundreds of studies supported this claim. But still, there was this ideological chasm between work and play. Endurance athletes could ride their bikes to work or run at lunch and grab a quick shower but somehow you ended up paying for your play with longer hours and contemptuous glances. Perhaps the politics of guilt was more in play than any dogmatic influence from the bosses. While the fitness revolution altered the way we incorporated health into our lives, it didn’t foundationally change them.
A lot of people still hate their jobs and only work out to look good in a tank top.
It took the 20-something whiz kids of the Dotcom Era to show us how work and play can and should be interfaced. Board meetings held around the ping-pong table, not-when-the surf’s-up scheduling, and t-shirt dress codes hid the fact that a lot of really smart people worked some really long hours. But something happened on the way to the skate park and some cool kids discovered that at some point, you just have to show some profit to justify the party. That buzz-kill messed with a lot of heads. We were on to something, they claimed, just needed a little bit more time…and a new infusion of cash. Sorry, the Suits said, ping-pong table is repossessed. But a new idea had been planted, a paradigm shift of pain and pleasure.
And now, in a post-millennium, recessionary period, we remain confused but hopeful about how to define and differentiate between our five to nine bike rides and our nine to five jobs. Sports Business degree programs abound. Corporate fitness facilities are de rigueur. Every company of size has a Fitness Counselor on staff and a 10 minute chair massage available on Thursday afternoons. Through some tough times we recognize the benefits of a pervasive health culture. We are trying to meld the two, we really are. But still, something essential is missing.
Tom Warren, for his part, knows about missing things. In 2009 he lost his wife to a horrible cycling accident. In 2003 he lost his self-built dream house to a raging wildfire. Through it all he kept moving, kept working at “projects” as his put it, “the things that I wake up and just start doing before I really know why.” It wasn’t work and wasn’t play. He was building what some other forces had torn down; moving perpetually as a sea creature that drowns if it stands still.
Warren is a craftsman in the style of a pre-Industrial Revolution MacGyver. He does his own taxes and changes his own flats. His endeavors run together as do his thoughts. He doesn’t read Marx but there is no division of labor in his personal society.
Tom Warren has rebuilt the house and patched the hole in his heart. He is not an unhappy or unsatisfied man. He keeps his overhead low and his handful of ancient investments fresh. For Warren, a man who will ride his bike to Canada and back on a day’s notice, there was always a kind of cold fluidity to his choices--some calculation, some risk, some thought, some thoughtlessness. Warren, the accountant with a private university pedigree, never ran the numbers too close, never thought he deserved this because he gave that. But neither was he reckless with his time and his passing tides. Therein may lie the secret to both his perspective and his perseverance. Tom Warren knew how to triage his emotions.
If Tom was going to own a dive bar, it was going to be the best crummy saloon in the city. If he was going to try endurance sports than he might as well tackle the Ironman. And if he was going to live in the world he might as well live all the way in, blurring the lines as they challenged him. When he enters races these days, they serve as barometers; an outward judge of an inner state. There is no finish line, just boxes to check.
* * *
I have been lucky to have found gainful employment in my life after competitive sport, a job that is like rain—heavy in sound but soft to the touch. My students rarely know of my other careers, they just see a guy lecturing about sport in a way that might confuse or on occasion, might thrill them. The hardest part of my job is engineering my words so that there is more of the latter and less of the former. I see Tom on occasion, usually riding his bike up the coast, head bent, and eyes fixed on the distance. I don’t think of him as being retired from a career because I’m not sure I could say that in any traditional sense of the word, he ever had one. His balance sheet might excite a few entrepreneurs but it is doubtful he would do anything differently if shown his life in arrears on Excel.
Perhaps the measure of our work or our play is incalculable while we are engaged in either. When it’s all done, someone else will come along and judge the noisy aspirations which defined us. Which is all the more reason to knock off early. Have a drink. Go for a run. Burn your computer. Turn off your bra. I know it’s a cliché but I like the imagery:
“Have you ever seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer?”
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