Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Greatest Olympian Ever!! Really?

There was a posted question to a forum that I frequent that asked the question. "Can you buy elite athlete status"? The provocation behind the question was the fact that Micheal Phelps won 8 golds and broke 7 world records in the Beijing Olympics. Yet he did it while wearing a $1000 LZR swim suit, etc... This prompted the poster to ask about triathletes who are notorious for spending thousands on bikes that will "make them faster". As I read the responses to the question it got me thinking about the comparisons of athletes from 20 years ago and today. Is one better than the other? Are we as athletes spoiled by technology in today's high tech world?

The short answer is yes and no.

Is Phelps better than Spitz? Is Tiger better than Palmer? Check out this comparison:

I first want to start by saying that it is unfair to compare the past athletes with current ones. Especially when you do it by shear number of medals, or passing yards or baskets in a game. Its like saying that everything is more expensive than it was 20 years ago. That is not an entirely true statement. Any economist will tell you that you have to normalize everything first. Is Favre a better passer that Namath? Maybe by shear numbers but football teams today pass a lot more than they did 20 years ago. It is definitely not an easy question to answer.

The link from the Wall Street Journal above does it just right. It shows that the performances of Spitz and Phelps when compared within the context of their time were almost equal. Maybe not in shear speed but in say margin of win over the second place finisher. Sure if you put the 1972 Spitz in the pool with the 2008 Phelps, Phelps would win handily and that gets down to advances in technology and physiology.

How does this tie into the ability to buy elite status as an athlete? You cannot separate technology from training and taking care of your body. There are breakthroughs in all of it from time to time. At times technology makes a big jump forward and everyone eventually has it making us all faster. Then it reaches critical mass and physiology takes a great leap. then we all learn the new training technique and nutrition breakthroughs so it reaches a critical mass, and so on.
I would bet that if you compare all the athletes than raced against Phelps the technology they use, food they eat, and the training plans they are on are all real close. If that is the case then you have to get down to who has more heart, who skipped that one workout and who didn't, who had that McDonald's hamburger one day when they shouldn't have, and most of all who has the most natural talent. Minor differences but important non the less.

If Phelps had a secret technological advance in his suit it would not take long before everyone had it and the playing field would be even again. If Phelps found a new training technique, before long everyone would use it.

Price is subjective and almost irrelevant. If you want to be a pro you know that you have to spend 30+ hours a week training. If you want to be a pro you know you have to have the latest bike technology. Either way if you want to be a pro that badly you are going to find a way to train the same and afford the stuff. The real question is, How dedicated to the dream are you? I know pros that drive a car that costs less than their bike. They are dedicated to their dream.
A pro on a entry level road bike would not last long because everyone else had faster equipment. That same pro also knows that the carbon frame that they ride is not much better than an entry level bike if he or she does not put in the hours or become meticulous about technique.

NO, elite status cannot be bought. There is no equalizer as true as training.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Trilife

Triathlon can be a lonely sport if you let it. I was thinking as I rode alone today that I spend much of my training time working around family and work obligations. This means that matching my schedule to a training partner or trying to meet the schedule of a training group is near impossible. Sure there are running groups, swimming groups and cycling clubs, but how often do I find my training schedule matching with one of them? I am OK with this most of the time. To me, training, especially on the long runs or swims, is like therapy. I can be alone with my thoughts, whether they be about my training or about the bad day that I had at work. It calms me. I can mentally go through my next race, mentally watch myself go through the steps of each discipline, or just pretend that I am on the last stretch of road in Kona and I can see the finish. About the only time that I long for company is on those long rides. You can't socialize when you swim and if you are holding a conversation while you run, are you really running? On the bike though, you could easily spend 3 to 4 hours riding and it is hard to push yourself for that long when you are alone. Sure, this is how it will be in a race, but it is hard to put your self in a race mentality when training, especially for 3+ hours.

And what about the races? They can be lonely too. Typically I get to the transition area before dawn and the gun goes off just as the sun comes up. My family often finds it impossible to come and watch. By the time my wife gets the kids out of bed and out the door, finds parking, and a decent spot to watch the race I am at least halfway done. Then to top it off they see me pass by on the bike or the run for a few seconds. If they are lucky they will catch a glimpse of me for a minute in transition. Sure, it is comforting to hear the cheers of the strangers that have made it to the race, but it is more motivating to see your own friends and family as you pass by.

My friends have all but stopped inviting me out. They know I will just make excuses about having to get up at 5AM for my morning workout. The guys at work look at me like I'm crazy when I tell them it was a 15 mile ride to work this morning or I forgo lunch at the local burger joint to get an extra 30 minutes of running in.

So as triathletes what are we to do? Are we relegated to a hermit life (only if we want it)? There are networks of people; local tri clubs, Internet forums, even dating services specifically for triathletes. Combining our love/obsession for triathlon with our longing to socialize is about the only way to get by these days. We have to make an effort to become involved with a club, volunteer at a local triathlon and meet people and make a concerted effort to spend time with training groups. Eventually we surround ourselves with those like us, those that share our pain (literally sometimes). In my opinion being a triathlete means living a new less travelled path and it may mean that our daily interactions, and friends are forced to change. Sure it is lonely on some days, and I know that my old friends have not abandoned me completely (there is still the off season). Besides, if this does not work out I can always become a couch potato. Then the TV can be my friend.