Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An Open Letter from My 87 Year Old Step Grandfather Re: Triathlon, excess, and balance

Even though my grandparents are not on the interwebz, that does not mean that word doesn't travel in my family faster than the speed of light. Apparently word quickly reached my step grandfather regarding me quoting him in this blog from his last letter.

Well he wrote me a new letter, and this is another good one. Harry, who we all call him, is a Dartmouth graduate, WW2 vet, and a great writer. I always enjoy the letters and numerous NY Times articles he cuts out and sends to us. He does a great job remembering all of our hobbies and interests and he tries hard to find new perspectives on these hobbies and interests to send to us.

In this latest letter he brings up some good points regarding excess vs moderation. My take away is, "Are we so consumed by this sport that we are missing out on other things in life?"

Dear Jon -

Gran'ma H and I I hope you've made a full recovery - bounce back from whatever physical insults you experienced at and during your "go" in the Lake Placid Triathlon. Sorry I forgot to tell you about Tums; house-brand Walgreen Antacid Tabs are the same and half the price.

It's doubtful anything I said or wrote about your triathlon training and participation warranted quotations in your blog - but an obituary in yesterday's New York Times [he included it with this letter] for 41 year old Amy Martich who died in NYC's recent triathlon must surely pose questions that all triathloners ought to ponder, with or without quotation from your 87 year old step grandpa.

Wherein lies the greater honor, glory, self satisfaction and esteem? Is it in the life sacrificed to the extreme physical demands of the triathlon? Or would it be in the measured in years of normal actuarial expectancy which are dedicated to family, offspring, community and productive employment? The latter, of course, would be a life governed by moderation, not excess.

Would your fellow bloggers waste their time on such questions? I wonder - and I'm doubtful. But no harm asking.

Onward! -H

Harry, if you get a chance to read this, you hit upon a LOT of issues we triathloners think about every day.

I have it easy, actually, not being married, working a pretty cushy job that pays extremely well and requires only 40 hours a week. This is why I refrain from ever complaining about not having enough time and money to train because I know of a number of fellow bloggers who are married, have small children, and have a bit of a commute, and yet they are training just as much as I am and are putting up times faster than me. These are the true heroes in this sport. They have mastered that "balance" that we all crave so much.

And this brings upon my next point: I am doing this now while I am young, injury free (well most of the time!), not married and not tied down by the responsibilities of a family. These are things I want one day, just not now. I want to get this whole triathlon "thing" out of my system before I am ready to settle down and put my energies towards other things.

I know that I limit myself in terms of seeing family due to training obligations, but for large races I try to include my family. Lake Placid was a HUGE success. I tried my best to keep the race separate from our vacation until the last possible moment.

For now, I have another Ironman to train for in EXACTLY one year. This is where my energies are going. I will figure it out from there :)

Since Harry asked the question, what about you?

Wherein lies the greater honor, glory, self satisfaction and esteem? Is it in the life sacrificed to the extreme physical demands of the triathlon? Or would it be in the measured in years of normal actuarial expectancy which are dedicated to family, offspring, community and productive employment?


  1. "Physical Insults" for some reason this hit me hard haha. His perspective is totally spot on with that phrase.

    Let's see, for the most part, Heather and I have the same perspective as you on: do this now, start a family later blah blah blah... EXCEPT, we are a bit selfish right now.

    This is the year of the "me". Where we are doing this one event for US, not for anyone else. In the process we have no problems telling people "no" when they ask things of us. That was our sacrifice, kind of put our friends on hold for a year until we accomplish our goal.

    Could I do this with a family? uhhhh I don't think so, I wouldn't want to miss out on raising my children or experiencing their firsts in life. So we do this now, while we are "free" to do it.

    Later in life, maybe shorter distance races... but right now, its the year of the "me".

    Addressing his last questions, I contribute to our community, H and I have raised money via this lifestyle for cancer and MS... and we have both excelled in our careers... so balance is key, I need this sport for balance in my life.

    Great post, love his perspective on it, and I hope he gets to read our responses :)

  2. I think you should start having a weekly/monthly Harry feature wherein Harry helps us all ponder our training and lives. Seriously.

  3. Your grandfather is a very wise man. God bless him for his service to our country.

    We do have to ask ourselves these questions. Why do we do this? Most of us (me included), not all of us, have approximately three layers to the answer.

    The top layer is usually obvious. Examples: It could be for fitness, for challenge, to honor the memory of someone. The next layer is more rooted in who we are and difficult to admit: Examples: I like the applause, the way it makes me feel superior to my former self. The third layer gets to the why and how of the second layer and may not be discovered for years.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. With all due respect to Harry (and any WWII vet gets boatloads in my book; the current generation worships those guys), the phrase "years of normal actuarial expectancy" reminds me of that line from the Shawshank Redemption: "Get busy living, or get busy dying."

    I already have all those life responsibilities you mentioned, and far from getting triathlon "out of your system", you'll need it more than ever once you have them. The trick lies in not sacrificing one for the other and allowing the famous tri-narcissism to take over.

    A good tradeoff might be to get the Ironman thing out of one's system early on (I can't imagine finding time for that kind of volume right now without seriously ticking off the wife), and instead returning to the Olympic distance and working on speed. But this is unlikely once the disease has metastasized past the heart and lungs and reached the brain. I'm sure you've at least performed a google search on UltraIronmans in your area, if not given it serious consideration. I say go win you some more Sprints and get your life back. But this is coming from a newbie, so WTF do I know. I'm not even sick yet.

  5. Top Ten Triathlon Reasons You Need To Start Living More and Training Less:

    10. Your doctor notices that your blood type has mysteriously changed to M-dot. (tm)

    9. Every time your significant other brings up a potential vacation spot your first thought is whether it has a 70.3

    8. There's no public place left you would be too embarrassed to wear your tri-shorts to.

    7. Your name is Leonard Campbell.

    6. ???

    Running out of steam here. Feel free to pile on, people.

  6. Your step-grandpa seems like a great guy... have him quest post often! :)

  7. All endurance sports require a certain degree of selfishness and willingness to punish the body. However, it does not have to affect the family any more so than less punishing pursuits. For example, I could sit on the couch reading a book for hours. While not physically exerting myself I am still fully engaged in something for me alone and am probably just as non-receptive to interruptions. There is also the bright side to setting these types of examples. Just read any post about my boys doing a triathlon or my niece willing herself through a run and it becomes clear.

  8. I am fortunate in that I have a wife who does not make me feel quilty for training. We have to create schedules with each other for the weekend but that is not a problem for us.

    It is also one of the reasons that I train so early in the morning. I want to be able to go to work afterwards and feel accomplished heading into the day then toss in the fact that I am done and can sit on the couch in the evening with my step-son or cook with him and I have it all.

    I will never complain about not having enough time either b/c time is what you make of it. If you want to sit on the couch all day then do that but don't complain that you don't have time. If you want to train all day then do that but don't complain that you don't have time to watch TV.

    Live your life your way and no one can ever question it.

  9. I like to pretend that deep thinking and triathlon don't go together at all.

    I basically feel like I'm doing all this stuff while I'm young, single and have no real responsibilities (meaning, I can afford to be completely selfish). Eventually I'll have to scale back.... maybe. Or marry someone who doesn't mind 4am wake-up calls, endless eating and for whom quality time can include long runs :)

  10. Really like the way your grandfather writes. I am picturing him sitting at a desk writing with a feather quilled pen by the light of a fireplace!

    Harry touches on quite a relevant conversation that many of us have rather often. He makes a comparison between the the glory of our athletic endeavors vs that of the glory of what can be achieved without. In the context that he makes the comparison (in the letter) his point is quite inarguable. An M-Dot tattoo pales in comparison to that of the normal actuarial expectancy highlighted above.

    However, I would say that the base of his context is misconstrued by the assumption that greater honor, glory, self satisfaction and esteem are only achievable through complete focus in one or the other thus relegating a compromise between the two null.

    My reply to Harry would simply be that it is possible to not only have your cake but eat it too!

    Let's work on getting Harry to IMMT Jon. I think I would really like him!

  11. Endurance sports is our passion and hobby. Some people like to collect stamps, work on cars, read books, bird watch. Its what they like to do. We like to do endurance sports.

    Todays generation is different, we value our jobs, but todays generation, the jobs to not defy who we are.

    As for the bug, you Grandpa might be happy with my "opinion" on triathlons. I think its the new mid life crisis. Seeking something new and challenging to do. Most of the bloggers are in the 30's. After awhile, alot will get burned out on the every dayu grind of training and eventually tale off to one sport, usually the sport that is their strength. I hope I am wrong about that with me.

  12. That man has some great words of wisdom. He seems like he cares so much and yet wants to throw a little jab at triathletes once in awhile. I agree...he should guest post!

  13. I think the wisdom comes in being to strike a balance between all those things. There is no joy or honor in the physical pursuits if there is no one to share them with. For me that is my family. As a mother, wife, friend and athlete, I've had to make hard choices, but in the end, they aren't hard at all; you do what's best in the moment for the obligations that take precedence. I had my youthful endeavors in the pursuit of other sports and now I just do what I can, when I can; it's all I can do.

    I have to respectfully disagree with Harry on the Tums though. They did nothing for me while pregnant. I've found in my middle age, and ever increasing heartburn, that it's Gaviscon or nothing!

  14. "house-brand Walgreen Antacid Tabs are the same and half the price." <--- Are you sure this is your grandpa and not mine??? I think we get money saving tips from my Grandpa every time we visit. haha

    I fully plan on continuing this lifestyle to some degree after starting a family (kids that is). Obviously my time allotment will change but there is no reason that training and racing can't be a family event. Growing up, my dad did marathons. Guess what that meant? The entire family went on a long bike ride each weekend with my dad as he ran. I don't know many 8 year olds that can say they biked 20 miles.

  15. Your Grandpa is awesome! I do agree with Jeff that triathlons can fit in with honorable endeavors. As a middle aged triathlete, I hope to show my kids that fitness can be life long (or mid life crisis :-). My teenage daughter bought her and I entrance in to a 5k race for my father's day present this year and she is doing a couch to 5k on her own to run it with me so maybe it's working.

  16. Great post and awesome letter. Love his thought process, writing style, and perspective!
    also love he cuts out the articles for you guys, totally my dad.

    "The latter, of course, would be a life governed by moderation, not excess."

    the only thing I have ever done in moderation...is moderation. So it seems I am on the right path:)


  17. I don't see the "popular" decision of waiting to start a family as a bad thing. If one wants to train for endurance sports - that to me is not time-wasted or sacrificed in lieu of a family. If you spend time doing what you love it's time well-spent. No one can define what's "worthwhile" and what isn't to someone else.

  18. To me it's all about personal choices, none of which are wrong. Maybe training for triathlons makes you more organized and your family time has more quality (even if there is less quantity). Or you are a healthier, happier person because of your training. It obviously has the potential to head into the extreme, but it doesn't have to!

  19. I'm with Morgan - we need to hear more from Harry! He is awesome!

    I understand Harry's concerns about athletic pursuits - seeing someone train and do an ironman must be tough to take for the family of that athlete. All they want to see if that athlete survive and make it to the finish line in 1 piece. In my family I'm the only one that does endurance races, and it means a lot that my family has been to some of my races over the years.

    I'm not sure if there is a line where someone is training too much or not for something. I know for an iroman you guys have to train twice a day in the morning and at night right? There's no way I could train that much for something. But basically I think he's saying that as long as you are paying attention to all your responsibilities it seems like training and doing these races are fine. There is no way to know what "excess" means, since there are so many definitions.

    Anyways, I think the reason so many of us train and do endurance events is that the training journey teaches us so much about ourselves. And crossing that finish line when the race goes right is the best feeling ever.

  20. Thanks for sharing this! Your grandfather sounds like someone I'd like to meet.

    I think it's all about balance, and surrounding yourself with people who share the same interest (or at least appreciation) of endurance sports as you do. It then all comes down to priorities during particular times of the year, priorities overall and recognizing that you're probably not superman (hard to believe, I know).

  21. Very thought provoking - thanks to Harry, you are lucky to have him in your life.

    This week, my parents attended the funeral of the son of a good friend of my dad - he was 38 and committed suicide. I'm 39, and I know my recent decision to take up triathlon worries my parents - I assured them that I love my life, and although there are risks, at least I'm living my life doing things I love.

    Both my husband & I took it up this year; our oldest (who is 15) thinks we're crazy, but takes pictures for us; our youngest (who is almost 9) wants to join the Kids of Steel program next year and do his own triathlons! Training takes time and dedication, but we do it together, it brings us closer, and we both love it. Worth it!!


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