Sunday, September 17, 2017

In the Days of Iron Men and Wooden Ships

What's the Best Diet for Triathletes?

High fat? Low fat?  High carbs?  Low carbs? What's the best diet?  Who knows? 
Dave Scott recently came out supporting a new study in the NY Times on the side of fat over carbs.  Supporting the carb side was noted multisport author Matt Fitzgerald in The Endurance Diet, a carefully crafted and well documented volume.  Maybe it's like so many "facts," you pick the studies that support your beliefs.  Once again, the take home point here is that nothing in triathlon is one size fits all, and we don't make major changes in our work outs, nutrition, anything, based on a single study or single expert. Perhaps, for some of us, both positions are correct.

Stay tuned.

Skid lids ruled the helmet wars not that long ago. Seen yours lately?


In the Days of Iron Men and Wooden Ships

Over 100 years ago, Pulitzer Prize winning author Stephen Vincent Benet, reflecting on the impact of Captains and Clipper Ships, wrote about those men who served in the Naval Service at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.  He observed that of these men, who lived and died at the helm, there was “salt music in their blood.”  Perhaps, without knowing what the future held, he was subtly referring to the Ironman athlete of today.

“There was a time before our time,
It will not come again,
When the best ships were wooden ships,
But the men were iron men.”

The fledgling years of Ironman Triathlon were the late 70’s and early 80’s, when no one knew if this Ironman thing would make it or go the way of chariot racing, jousting or the pentathlon.

Let Me Take You Back to 1981

"Start off slow...and taper back."    Walt Stack

Triathlon has become a highly regulated sport.  There are governing organizations, certifications on many levels, and ever-changing rules and regulations.  We occasionally need to fall back to the pioneers of our sport, those adventurous souls who, when presented with the idea of swim long, bike long, then run a marathon thought, “Peachy, that sounds like fun!”  Mostly they did this on faith alone. 

“Cowman” Ken Shirk, one of these early pace setters, and one who was able to complete the entire original Kona course wearing a cow head complete with horns.  Why would he want to do that you ask?  (I must admit,the answer doesn't come to me immediately either.)  He's completed many more since. A strong individualist, he fit right in to the then prevalent mindset of people at the far end of the endurance sport bell curve.  Ken’s pedigree includes being the second man to finish the Western States 100 mile race. Or, more accurately, the second human to finish the event not horse bound! 

His Ironman swim required a modified breast stroke which Ken labeled the “cow stroke.”  Well, of course.  Wouldn’t you?  'Course you would.  I don’t know how many times he’s finished the event, both as a legal registrant, and I’m told, as a bandit, but it seems the event has gotten too big, gone in another direction, for the Cowmans of life.  Sad.

Many of you were not born in February 1981. The race was still in February back then and this would the first time for the Big Island course having been recently moved from Oahu.  T1 was on the pier, T2 down south in Keauhou.  There was no Energy Lab (NELH) section.  The race had been run in Honolulu from 1978 – 80 but had just gotten too big to be contested in the populous state capitol.

Enter San Francisco's Walt Stack ,a part of Ironman before everyone and his brother was labeled hero, a real larger than life guy. He’d done countless races before coming to the Big Island and had established himself as a legendary figure in our young sport.  Not fast, but steady, he could always be counted on to be one of those still standing at any race’s end. (Seven years later he would do a very cute Nike commercial.)

From a piece about Walt in Sports Illustrated: "Stack was out running the hills near his home. It should be called climbing. He was with a group of young women from his running club, the Dolphin South End Runners, when suddenly, one of them recalls, "I heard a sharp crack. I looked back, and Walt was stretched out on the sidewalk, bleeding from a cut on the head. 'Walt, what happened?' I yelled. " 'That's what comes from being a dirty old man,' he said. 'I dropped back to look at your legs, and I ran into an overhanging branch.' "

Walt's first, and only, Ironman was in 1981 when there was only one Ironman race anywhere, no WTC and no separation of pro’s and age groupers.  Everybody was an age grouper!  You need to remember that these were the early developing days of the sport and we didn’t know a great deal about aerodynamics on the bike, refueling or nutrition, and if you mentioned compression it was assumed you were speaking about the compression ratio of your car’s engine.  Ironman had no swim or bike time cut offs, and only a rudimentary course.  Like the Outback, “No rules, just right.”

The swim had no buoys, no course, and according current Swim Director Jan War, “You just swam out to a canoe and back.”  When asked about turn-around help for any competitor not from Kailua-Kona, or perhaps the directionally challenged in ocean swimming navigation, to aid even finding the turn-around boat, he laughs loudly as one who knows the punch line of a joke before you do.  According to Jan, his predecessor, the crusty Mo Matthews, was fond of reporting, “If they can’t find the turn-around boat, they shouldn’t be doing the race.”  Uh, OK Mo. (I have since talked many times with Mo before he passed away and found him a delightful grandfather type.)

 Stack was ready for the event and at 73, the oldest competitor ever to attempt the distances.  After a 4:11 swim and leisurely bike, history has it that he was pretty tired on the run.  Really? So, he just eased off the course, lay down in someone’s yard, and took a nap.  Once refreshed, he set off on the remainder of his 26 mile jaunt, and near its conclusion got hungry.  So what do you do when your stomach starts talking, head for the restaurant naturally.  In this case, the Kona Ranch House (Joe Friel's Favorite) which used to be on Palani Road but is no more.  The way I heard it, he was eating his waffle breakfast, reading the morning paper, with the results of “yesterday’s” Ironman race in it. The race in which he was still competing!

 Once breakfast was finished, he got back out on the course, finished the event in a speedy 26 hours and 20 minutes, and still holds the record for longest race time in Kona*.

 On one hand, it’s a shame that the sterility of present day doesn’t seem to have a place for Cowman, the Amazing Walt Stack and countless other characters who put this event into the national spot light.  But they are the rocks on which this sport is built.  If you happen to be walking around Kona one day and spy a guy with cow horns on, don’t simply assume him an asylum escapee but walk over, shake his hand and say “thanks, Ken.”  Maybe, if you’re really lucky, he'll share some of the finer points on the cow stroke with you!

*Surprisingly, in researching this piece, I found that 20 hour race times were not all that unusual in the early years.

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