Monday, July 27, 2020

Book Review: Iron Will

Iron Will:
The heart and soul of the triathlon’s ultimate challenge

Triathlon began as a sport in California in the early 1970s, but those events involved fairly short distances: Typically, a 1,000-metre swim, a 40-kilometre bike ride followed by a 10-kilometre run. 
    An Ironman Triathlon is 'way tougher. It consists of 2.4 miles of open-water swimming, 112 miles of cycling and 26.2 miles of running – slightly more than 140 miles in all. The Hawaiian event was the brainchild of Navy commander John Collins who was stationed in that state. First held in 1979 with a handful of contestants, it soon began drawing hundreds. Then, the demand was so great that applicants had to qualify to participate. 
    In this book sports writer Mike Plant, who has written other books about triathlon and competed in the race himself, shows vividly how grueling an event the event is. . Some athletes literally crawl to the finish line – a reality which provides for great TV coverage, of course, but he made it grueling on the printed page.
    I personally have completed the Ironman 11 times – nine times in Penticton, Canada, and twice in Hawaii, where it all began. I suppose that is at least part of  the reason I find this book so fascinating. The characters are vividly portrayed, and my memories of that crazy period in my life are happy ones. There are the portrayals of many of the well-known characters of that period – especially the men we called the Big Four: Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Scott Molina and Mark Allen. 
    I received training from Dave Scott at one time in my life and, by good fortune, he won the event in 1988 when the book was being launched. He autographed my copy of the book, wishing me “health and happiness always. Stay fit.” The author also signed my copy. He wrote, “Congratulations! The finish line is everything. Good racing,” and dated it October 23rd, 1988.
    The distances for the Ironman all originated in Hawaii. They combined the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles or 3.9 kilometres), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (115 miles or 185 kilometres, which was originally a two-day event) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.219 miles or 42.195 kilometres). These activities start at 6 am, and must be finished by midnight.
    The following is a brief segment from the book, slightly edited, to give a sense of what a terrific read it is.

“On a normal day, the headwinds near Hawi blow steadily at 15 to 25 miles an hour. At the Ironman in 1983 the winds howled through the town at more than twice that – gusts of up to 55 mph were reported, strong enough to stop cyclist’s dead in their tracks, strong enough to blow others right off the road. Some competitors simply got off and walked, and even the strongest were afraid to let go of their handlebars to take water bottles from the aid station near the top. 
“The aid station at the turnaround is one of the most exciting on the course because there's always a big crowd of spectators and media people. It's a high point, a big psych, especially after the wind on the hills. Turning to the left, grabbing a pair of water-bottles and perhaps a banana as they go, the triathletes are reasonably sure that for a few miles, at least, the wind will be behind them they fly through this part of the course, spinning their pedals furiously until they run out of gears to push, hunching low over their handlebars, hissing through the warm air in a rush of sparkling chrome and blur of bright colour, moving easily for the first time all day. But that lasts for what seems only a few precious seconds before the wind charts shifting, gusting back and forth. The cyclists are still going fast, but their knuckles are white and in their minds is the thought that if one of those big gusts catches them from the wrong angle, it's going to whip them off the island and into the ocean. The race in ‘83 was the worst in that department, too.

“Finally, at the bottom, with their hearts settled back into their chests, the cyclist take a sharp left turn it, high then climb a short steep Hill and turn right which puts them back on the highway. From there on it's a straight shot back into Kona. 
“Or rather, it's a straight, long shot. The race has just begun, actually. With the exhilaration of the turnaround a distant memory, the 50 miles back into town begin to soften and stretch like taffy under the hot sun. The winds, while not as strong as they were up north, are far more frustrating, and the hills have grown bigger somehow than they were on the way out. The triathletes begin to fight not just the cumulative physical effects of the long swim in the hours of hard riding, but also the inevitable impatience to be off the damn bike period to sum, first timers mostly, or fools who have forgotten, the marathon actually starts sounding good 80 or 90 miles into the bike ride. It's a stupid thought. They regret it quickly once that part of the race starts. 
“I never thought that, said [Ron] Smith, who has ridden his bike as much as 25,000 miles in a single year of training. He's a good runner with a marathon best of well under 3 hours, but it's never been his strong suit. Looking ahead to the Ironman marathon is, for him, like looking forward to jumping off a building.
“The toughest part of the ride – outside the damn wind – Is knowing that after busting your hump out there for five hours it's going to be 1:30 in the afternoon, you're on asphalt, and God Bless America if you're going to be climbing that stupid Hill and heading back out onto the lava fields again.” 
“All good endurance competitors learn that patience is a precious, irreplaceable virtue. About the worst thing for a triathlete to do during the Ironman is to anticipate the end of anything, be at the swim, the bike ride, or the run, or any segment of the three. Pacing and strategy are important, but a certain psychological, is critical. Putting the miles behind you, one mile at a time, is the key. Thinking ahead makes you anxious, eager to be there instead of where you are, and you have to be where you are because there’s little you can do about it except keep pedaling or running. An anxious triathlete, impatient with the pace, thinks the hills should be easier to climb than they are, thinks the bike should weigh less than it feels like it does. Getting mad at the Ironman is never a good idea, but it happens frequently, and the nagging wind often speeds the process along. The final, critical step for a frustrated competitor is pushing too hard too soon – It's as sure a recipe for disaster as any.”

    If you can find a copy of this book, give it a read. It might inspire you to put your pandemic time into training - and maybe competing in the 2021 event. This year's, for the first year ever, has been cancelled.

Friday, July 24, 2020

A World in Turmoil

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Until the pandemic began, our globe was getting richer, but not becoming a happier place. Indeed, one of the great ironies of those pre-pandemic days was that, despite a growing world economy, turmoil around the planet was rising. Refugee camp numbers were growing rapidly, and would-be migrants used every imaginable tactic to migrate toward the world’s rich economies. This commentary draws widely from the ideas of political scientists – a field of science often confused with the rough-and-tumble of raw politics – to trace the growing turmoil in the world.

The three political scientists I cite begin their commentary with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the attendant collapse of the USSR. Think back on those events: After two world wars, communist takeovers in Russia and China and bitter East-versus-West encounters in Korea, Vietnam and other regions, the people of a soon-to-be-united Germany tore down the Berlin Wall.   

With those events, the future looked to be one shifting to liberal democracy, everywhere – at least, that was the view of political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who captured these moments of na├»ve optimism in The End of History and the Last Man. Western liberal democracy would rise after the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he wrote. “The end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” had begun. Most of his peers quickly rejected this notion.

Based on secularized Christianity, the view that history has a grand purpose for humanity is a classic Western conceit. As British philosopher John Gray pointed out, it is not found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, nor in Greco-Roman antiquity. In those traditions, human history is seen as cyclical, with some version of salvation as the goal. By contrast, such Western secularisms as Marxism, liberal humanism, and global capitalism view history as linear trends which will ultimately lead to salvation.

            Political scientist Samuel Huntington countered with The Clash of Civilizations and the Remarking of the World Order. This brave new world would face more, not fewer, conflicts between and among formerly communist powers and major civilizations, he wrote.

To understand the conflicts the world faced, we need to understand culture as the primary source of war. “In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash,” said Huntington, “Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.” While peoples and countries with similar cultures would come together, those with different cultures would come apart. “Alignments defined by ideology and superpower relations are giving way to alignments defined by culture and civilization.”

Civilizations in conflict are more intransigent than countries advancing national interest or calculating the balance of power. During the cold war, the major global division was between liberal democracy and Marxism, both of which are Western notions. But when Russia became the core country of a civilization, its distance from the West became difficult to bridge,

As the relative power of the West declined, so did its cultural appeal. Meanwhile, in the dispersed Islamic world and the centralized Chinese state, renewed assertiveness and self-confidence arose. After four centuries of rapid growth in Europe and North America, a more hazardous stage of world history was emerging.

This led Huntington to a set of recommendations anchored in the idea that, unless the West recognizes the power of cultural conflict, it could perish from ignorance, overconfidence and complacency. “The principal responsibility of Western leaders,” he wrote, “is not to attempt to reshape other civilizations in the image of the West, which is beyond their declining power, but to preserve, protect and renew the unique qualities of Western civilization.”

These trends are in play in America’s capitol. There, the present Administration practices unilateralism and contempt for traditional allies, while it romances with traditional rivals. Washington seems to want the benefits of its traditional leadership without the inconvenience of shouldering the burdens they imply. In today’s White House, the gap between ends and means is increasing rapidly.

But America’s problems pale in comparison with those of countries with weaker institutions, less robust economies, and less democratic experience. Take Russia: Its collapse into a communist state led to control by a former KGB agent playing a similar role to those of the Tsars and such political premiers as Stalin.

For the best part of a century, people in the West believed Lenin had created a collectivist state with little resemblance to Marxism. Calling Russia or China a communist state benefitted two groups. Within the States, it conveyed the idea that those with power and wealth were using them for the benefit of all. Outside, it made the US and other countries that break unions to keep labor costs down seem to be doing so for the sake of freedom and not the benefit of those that already have wealth and power. You cannot associate Marxism with Russia’s or China’s government. Doing so is a dog-whistle.

The most recent important recent work in this area, Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, carries the subtitle “What the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate.” It paints raw geography as a critical contributor to global conflict.

Acknowledging that people’s ideas and actions shape history, Kaplan described “constraints imposed by geography and the vast and varied phenomena that emanate from it...everything from persistent…national characteristics to the location of trade routes to the life-or-death requirements for natural resources – oil, water, strategic metals and minerals.”

And what about new technologies? “The advance of electronic communications [only made] the world smaller.” Such new media as the Internet made “geography more precious, more contested, more claustrophobic.”

The science of political science will now have to grapple with how these new technologies affect political structures and decisions. Countries can now influence each other and even wage “war” via the internet. Will that decrease or increase international tensions? Political scientists will do what all scientists do: develop new hypotheses and test them by observing what actually happens. Hopefully, what they learn will help us reduce conflict and improve human rights globally.