For five months this year I devoted inordinate hours to physical exercise preparing for a triathlon. A triathlon is an endurance sport in which competitors engage in successive excesses of swimming, bicycling and running. The first triathlons took place in the mid-'70s, but the sport did not really take off until this magazine published a lengthy account of the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii in 1979. That was the same year, it should be noted, that W.W. Norton published Christopher Lasch's best-selling book, The Culture of Narcissism.
Television was on hand for the next Ironman event. ABC-TV focused its cameras on every sweat-drenched, teeth-clenched detail of both the men's and women's competitions, then edited the resultant yards of recording tape into tense segments that were shown on a single edition of Wide World of Sports, and that sealed the deal. With such exposure, the Ironman concept of combining a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile run caught the popular fancy. Back then, there were maybe 50 events worldwide that qualified to be called triathlons and a few hundred competitors. The sport continues to grow exponentially: Now there are more than 2,000 events worldwide and close to half a million triathletes, who spend large amounts of each day in training and at the dinner table; top triathletes burn 5,000 calories per day. Many people admire them for their supreme fitness, but I have come to regard the entire concept as appalling.
For me and, I suspect, most other triathletes, the best explanation I can offer for participating in such a foolish event is the mountaineering axiom "Because it is there." To which the implied corollary is "I have to see how much punishment I can endure."
A friend from work who has done several of these things says, "It seemed at first to be impossible, so I'm impressed with myself when I finish. It feels great when I stop, but then the same is true of poking yourself in the eye with a stick."
On a typical day during my preparation for the triathlon, I swam a mile, biked 20 and ran four. That's a paltry workout by the sport's higher standards; professional triathlete Dave Scott bikes, runs and swims for eight hours a day, during which he says he "thinks about lunch." In my defense I should point out that I didn't train in California, as Scott does, but in New York City, where you must contend with potholes, cracked sidewalks, roving bands of bicycle thieves—actually good for sprinting workouts—and lung-searing clouds of exhaust fumes. Taking these factors into account, perhaps Scott's and my daily rigors aren't so different.
Herein lies a problem. While champions in every sport must devote disproportionate amounts of time to exercise, only in triathlons will you find mediocre, even lousy, athletes, who dedicate so many waking hours to an activity in which they compete only to finish. I bike with my friend the triathlete, and when someone shoots by us, one of us will look at the other and say, "It's O.K., he's a real biker," the implication being that we might not be able to compete with him in his sport, but because we've stacked so many activities together, we are somehow comparable. We aren't. Decathletes like Bruce Jenner and Daley Thompson are good at everything they do; we just do everything.
Triathletes are, of course, free to spend their time as they choose, but this preoccupation with running-swimming-biking seems to me to be a remarkably unhealthy way to use it. That might seem like a strange thing to say about such superbly conditioned people. However, after my experience of training for a triathlon (this one was made up of a one-mile swim, a 25-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run), I'm willing to hazard that the bouts with hypothermia, the severe muscle cramps and the general pounding will have a more deleterious effect on the health of this first generation of triathletes when it reaches old age than a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit would. It's no surprise that steroids have surfaced in this sport. These drugs, which reduce the body's recovery time from physical stress, seem tailored to compulsive exercisers.
Yet triathlons are unhealthy for an even more troubling reason. Because triathletes spend most of their time absorbed with their bodies, they divorce themselves from society. That doesn't mean that if triathletes were not counting laps and dreaming about lunch they would all be engaged in humanitarian acts. What I mean is that triathlons ask everything of the body and nothing of the imagination. They leave little time for the things in life that make us generously and distinctly human: conversing, playing games, reading, listening to music, writing letters, watching movies, plays and ball games.
"Because of the demands of the sport, you have to cut back on something," says C.J. Olivares Jr., editor of Triathlete magazine. "Since most people don't have the luxury of giving up their job, they give up their social commitments and leave behind the people they don't see in their workouts." This, I understand, can often include spouses and children.
I worry about an America in which ambitious, committed men and women devote their energies to finishing double, even triple, triathlons. Such people are, as the British poet Philip Larkin once said of James Joyce in a far different context, textbook cases of "declension from talent to absurdity." Those with such curiosity about their physical limits used to enlist in the Marines or enroll in Outward Bound courses.