Friday, June 08, 2007

On the appeal of three things

Of course I am far from alone in having fallen victim to the fatal thrall of the idea of triathlon. (In fact--horrifyingly--the next season of "Wife Swap" is going to feature families that participate in triathlons!) But there's something peculiarly compelling about the notion of balancing three different things at once.

I love running, it really is my passion, and of course triathlon training is also a sensible way of limiting running-related injuries; it's a safer way of having a high level of fitness. I rather love swimming too, only swimming in these crowded pools is horrible--but if I could swim in a lake every morning, I would probably feel much the same way about it as I do about running. And I am a total novice cyclist--starting next week I am going to be a cycling devotee in training--but pretty much everyone I talk to who does this stuff loves biking, it's got its own challenges but it's not as technically difficult as swimming or as pantingly and stomach-churningly intense as running and there's something magical (we all know this from when we were kids) about how fast and smoothly you cover the ground on a bike.

But the appeal of three things is something much longer-standing for me. Of course it's partly why I like being a professor, where the three things to keep in balance are teaching, service and research/writing. I also like balancing fiction-writing and academic writing, and have recently realized that of course the third leg of that particular tripod is the kind of reading and writing I talk about here on the blog--I've been doing it all along, it turns out, just not quite realizing the extent to which it was part of a threesome.

When I was a Young Person, I was passionately devoted to musical activities, and there too I always had to have three things: oboe, clarinet and recorder. (Singing also, but singing doesn't count, not so much my cup of tea in the end!) The oboe was my one true love, but there were various reasons to keep the others also, and of course I also loved the way each one kind of proliferated out into a whole family of instruments, all of which I played at one time or another. I came to the oboe by way of the bassoon (now that's the instrument I'll take up again in later life, it's the least technically demanding double-reed instrument), there was a spare one lying around school and a Scottish exchange student who gave me a few free lessons (in the nurse's office, I seem to remember!), and it led to the English horn also. Clarinet flowers out into bass clarinet and various sizes of saxophone (tenor is my favorite, the larger instruments are all easier on the embouchure); and of course the recorder (though alto's the main one) comes in various different sizes right from the start.

My great pleasure in those years was sightreading chamber music in some farfetched variant--you know, like reading the viola part in a string quartet on the clarinet--or else having a maniacal week of rehearsals in the small orchestra for a school musical, when my genius music teacher Al Clayton realized that he could rent me an instrument at the beginning of the week & I would be able to play it by the end of the week & it was both cheaper and more educationally valuable than paying a pro! So I had those funny little stands where you can rest your clarinet and your English horn or whatever funny combination of instruments you need depending on the orchestration of the particular show. And in general the work you do on each instrument is specific to that instrument and yet also has some cumulative benefit for your playing in general. And triathlon is just like this, it's a threesome of activities each of which has different sub-challenges (climbing versus sprinting on the bike, different sorts of running at different distance, working on the transitions between) and all of which go wonderfully well together, and it is what I am most excited about doing in future!

Further thoughts on swimming:

(1) I must check out the pool at
Riverbank State Park, it is potentially the answer to all my problems...

(2) Spare a thought for my inspiring swimming teacher, Doug Stern, who's having a major health crisis. I am so worried, it is awful! Here's a post by a longtime friend of Doug's that will give you the flavor of why he's such an important teacher. One thing I have especially appreciated about Doug's teaching is that though he's an immensely accomplished and high-powered athlete, he believes (as I do) that the most inexperienced beginners deserve the best teaching just as much as (maybe even more than) the super-intense talented ones. One of his particular interests is teaching adults who are afraid of the water how to swim, a topic of great interest and importance; another focus is helping triathletes improve their swimming, which is why these swim clinics he does focus on front crawl (you don't use breaststroke, for instance, in a triathlon because it's much more tiring on leg muscles that you need to save for the bike and run).

(3) The best thing in my life recently is Doug's Level II swim clinic, pretty much triathlete-oriented and really, really excitingly challenging. Doug's been too sick to teach, but everyone who works with him is a wonderful teacher also, and this class pushes me to the limit of my abilities in exactly the way I most enjoy. We did an amazing set as part of class last week, it was 8x160s (it's a 20-yard pool--Wendy Buckner's lovely not-exclusively-swimming-related blog is a good place to check out some of the swimming lingo--my other favorite swimming link is here) at lactate threshold pace--the first sets we did with fins, the second with paddles, so it was not absolutely brutal naked swimming, but still totally intense--I am slower than everyone else (least experienced, only female--but by this time next year I am promising myself I'm going to be able to beat some of these guys!), but I am so determined to keep up that I can just about have mind over matter and make it happen. The teacher's on my side, she's an amazing athlete & I whether it's reality or not feel that she's specially fighting for me to keep up because of me being a girl! So she urged me to draft off the other guy in my lane (poor guy!), and just kept on cheering me on, and amazingly I really only finished half a length after the last of the others. As I breathlessly and sweatily staggered up out of the water, she said, "I bet you never swam so far or so fast in your life!" And it was true, I never swam so far or fast in my life--it was amazing. (Promise to self: I must get a good flip turn this summer, it's driving me crazy not being able to do them properly! I was practicing yesterday morning, made a bit of progress, long way still to go...)

Further thoughts on cycling:

I am in love with the bike I've just bought, though I won't have it in my possession till next week. (NB for my mother--don't click on the bike link, you will be horrified at how much money I spent! And NB for my mother and J., I will die of mortification if anyone calls up that store & tries to buy presents for me in absentia, DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT IT! I mean it...) So it's
a Specialized Roubaix, and I got it at an absolutely lovely store called Sid's Bikes. It is going to be slightly nerve-racking riding it home on Monday or Tuesday, haven't really ridden a bike since I was a kid, but I am going to abandon all shame and just walk it over (the store's in Chelsea) to the bike path along the Hudson and ride only once I'm not on actual streets, so I feel I will probably survive unscathed. I hit the local Barnes & Noble on Saturday, they do not have much of a sport-related section but I bought & then compulsively read the two books they had on cycling: a useful though mildly goofy book called Bicycling Magazine's New Cyclist Handbook (as a precaution will read through it one more time before actually getting on the bike, though I can see you only really get things like gearing once you're actually doing it), and Lance Armstrong's rather grippingly interesting autobiography. What an unbearable guy the young Armstrong must have been, and what an amazing story--only I wanted a bit less inspirational life message (the parts about cancer treatment are really excellent, though, especially his descriptions of the horrors of chemotherapy) and more about peloton strategy! Any recommendations on good cycling-related reading would be welcome, or swimming- or running-related for that matter.

In proof of how bicycle-obsessed I already am, I will say that almost the only thing I liked about the recent production of Ellen Stewart's Romeo and Juliet adaptation at LaMama was the person in the gorilla suit riding the tiny bicycle! That bicycle really was adorable--otherwise it was definitely one of those evenings when the dinner was better than the play. (Grilled squid salad, grilled mahi-mahi in tomato broth, rhubarb crisp--mmmm....)

I've just spent a rather harrowing morning writing reminiscences to read at the memorial services for Anton Segal and Helen Hill and other lost classmates at my fifteenth college reunion, which is taking place this weekend in Cambridge. This is a task I am hoping not to be called upon for again any time soon! I am not the reunion type, I wouldn't be going otherwise, but I must go and talk with the relevant family members and such--there will be incidental pleasures along the way, I'm sure, but it's all going to be very sad. No posts here till Monday.


  1. I would love to do a triathlon, but I suck at cycling.

  2. Your new bike looks pretty! Enjoy.

  3. Flip turns might be my most favorite things! I taught my mother to do them using empty gallon milk jugs. If you hold one in each arm, you can practice the leg-tucking aspect and they let you spin around really fast! It always helped me coordinate the inhale/exhale timing so I didn't come up sputtering half way around. Once you give up the jugs, you just have to get your arms tucked in, too.

    The nice thing about triathalons is that you don't have to turn much, right? I've never done much lake swimming, but I imagine it's much more efficient not to have to turn around and go backwards every 20 yards (that's really short!!!).

    Good luck, I adore reading about your adventures! I'll be up in NYC quite a bit this summer to transport skulls from the AMNH down to DC, I hope we can find some time for lunch!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Jenny, thanks very much for the nice "shout out". I deleted my previous comment because for inexplicable reasons an HTML link I included was broken.

    What I said was ... Lynn's methodology for teaching flip turns is great! It is now commonly used at public pools with the ends of styrofoam "noodles" tucked under one's arms.

    The broken link was to Go Swim as their 5 step flip turn lesson is now up and worth a look. Here it is for cutting and pasting: