Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Swimming at Dawn

Thomas H. Wilson

A few years ago, I approached one of those climacteric birthdays.  I resolved to be in better shape when I reached the new milestone than I was a decade earlier.  Like a character in those old Russian novels, in a fit of delirium, I signed up for a triathlon.

Triathlons are those sporting events at which participants swim, bike and run certain distances, racing against fellow competitors and the clock.  The most famous triathlon is the Ironman distance race at Kona, Hawaii, run in the fall each year.  Ironman distance is not for the faint of heart:  2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike race, and a marathon run of 26.2 miles.  It takes the best professional athletes about eight hours to complete an Ironman.  I have raced one Half-Iron triathlon, so named for distances that are exactly half that of a full Ironman.  Usually, I compete at the Olympic distance:  1,500 metre (.93 mile) swim, 40 kilometre (25 miles) bike segment, and a 10 kilometre (6.2 mile) run.  This takes me about 3 hours and 45 minutes; a pro can finish in a little under 2 hours.  Normally, triathlons start with an open water swim at dawn.

 (Los Angeles Triathlon. Swim start at Venice Beach.)

Is triathlon a humanities discipline?  When the United States Congress established the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1965, it defined the humanities by discipline:  archaeology, languages, linguistics, history, literature, philosophy, ethics, comparative religion, jurisprudence, and history, theory and criticism of the arts.  The humanities include those aspects of the social sciences that employ historical or philosophical perspectives.  Today, universities are breaking down these disciplinary silos, and one may take a more broad and inclusive view of the humanities, grading into and sharing characteristics with the arts, social sciences and sciences.  Most broadly, the humanities explore what it means to be human.

Although the elements of triathlon came together in France in the first decades of the twentieth century, the rise of modern triathlon dates to 1974 at San Diego, when some friends organized a race at Mission Bay with swim, bike and run elements that they called triathlon.  Modern triathlon postdates the founding of NEH, and then Congress could not have added it to the disciplines of the humanities.  There is a good case that triathlon is a humanities discipline.

One of the elements that characterize an academic discipline is a body of serious literature on the subject developed over a period of time.  A large scientific literature exists about the three sports and about triathlon as a whole, and there is a great corpus of creative writing that certainly falls in the areas of history and literature.  An important and perhaps unappreciated aspect of triathlon is the opportunity it offers to practice the humanities in your head.

Triathlon involves a significant commitment to training.  Swimming, biking and running offer opportunities to think whilst honing athletic skill.  I usually swim in lakes or the ocean in triathlons, but I train in the pool.  I normally swim 1500-2200 metres in a pool 25 yards long, which takes about 45-75 minutes.  Swimming laps allows time to formulate big thoughts, but it is difficult to sustain sequential thinking because of counting distance, maintaining technique and turning around at the end of every length.

Cycling allows some time for sustained thought, but on the bike the potential for disaster looms greater than in swimming or running.  About 30 cyclists per year are killed in Arizona, so it behooves you to pay attention to what you are doing.  I have crashed twice, both times by myself and going relatively slowly.  Each was caused by a split-second lapse in concentration.  When cycling with my bike group, we cruise 18-22 miles per hour, one rider normally about 18 inches behind the bicycle in front.  You do not want to crash at those speeds in a group.  The bike requires concentration and focus.  After one of my accidents, I was in Los Angeles registering for a triathlon.  A young woman at a registration table saw the scabs and scars on my elbow and commented, “Crash, huh?  I love a man who can take a beating.”

On the run one can really get into the weeds of the humanities.  Form and technique are supremely important in all three triathlon sports.  One of the purposes of training is to inculcate good form into your sports activity, so that it becomes second nature.  The greater ease with which you can pass through the air or water, the better you will do in your sport.  Unlike in the pool, where you have to reverse course at the end of each length, or on the bike where your safety demands concentration, on the run you can often find courses that allow your body to achieve a rhythm and your mind to pursue your thoughts to their conclusion.  What glory to run along thinking of Socrates or the Iliad, the rise and fall of civilizations, the cosmos, the evolution and extinction of life, Catullus and T.S. Eliot, or whatever else pops into your mind.

 (Crossing the finish line at Nokia Plaza, Los Angeles in 3:38:25.0)

I confess to no patience for those who say they find exercise boring.  I usually think, but normally restrain myself from saying, how boring you are, how infertile your mind.  Another complaint:  not enough time.  I say get your priorities straight.  We are blessed with a certain amount of time on the earth.  How precious are those moments we can dedicate to thinking about our favorite subjects.  Athletic training allows multitasking:  improving the body and mind at the same time.  It is easier to think creatively in a state of health.  Exercise clears, quiets and focuses the mind.

Since I began training for triathlon five and a half years ago, with some time off for a broken foot and cancer surgery, I have swum 396,688 metres (246.5 miles), cycled 8,466 miles, run 1,993 miles, and spent 157 hours strength training.  I have competed in 31 triathlons, run six half marathons and cycled a number of long events, including two centuries (over 100 miles).  Even accounting for some focus on safety, form and technique, this left plenty of time to think about the humanities.  I composed each of these humanities essays in my head while training.  You can do the humanities anywhere, you don’t have to participate in an organized event, like a lecture or exhibition.  Practice the humanities in the theatre of your cranium.  The humanities are a state of mind.

Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema and I did the Tempe International Triathlon this year (she beat me handily).  There are other triathletes in congress.  A bill to add triathlon to the disciplines of the humanities offers the opportunity for broad bipartisan support, for a great healing of the political culture of the country.  Let us come together to improve our bodies and minds, and to address the great challenges that face the nation.

Thomas H. Wilson is the Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History.

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