A Momentary Departure from Photography: Athletic Attitudes

As many of you know, I am a former swimmer (“swammer” haha) and currently a highly-competitive triathlete. With this background in sports, it should come as no surprise that I find myself photographing athletic events really more than anything else. While at the pool today, I once again began the discussion about how I think sprint-focused races are rather stupid, and how I believe distance swimming is not only more satisfying, but a more intelligent choice of event. The discussion today was one of the best I have ever had; it remained civil, never became argumentative, and as such, produced what may have been some of the most compelling arguments I have heard (and come up with myself) for both sides of issue.

Before I continue though, I think it’s necessary for me to remind anyone reading that this is an OPINION piece that I have supported with various pieces of factual evidence from a wide variety of reading, higher educational classes, and anecdotal life experience – there really isn’t a right or wrong, just personal preference, and awareness of the other side’s argument.

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To start, I think it’s important to highlight my ethos on the matter, with a little personal history about how and why I got into distance events in swimming, and later became engrossed in the world of endurance triathlon. I began swimming competitively the summer I was nine and a half, and swam up until the end of high school season my senior year – November 2012. My foray into swimming began as is so typical – a summertime activity mandated by parents, with lots of splashing, not too much coordination, and overall just a lack of anything special. But I grew to love the sport: the atmosphere, my teammates, the coaches, and most importantly, the racing. As I got a little older, I watched my friends and teammates succeed at a sport in which I remained mediocre: they qualified for and competed at the Florida Junior Olympics, achieved time standards in age brackets far older than they were, and won events left and right when I could barely even get a top-eight ribbon. As a curious young’n with a thirst for something new and different, I signed up for the 1000yd freestyle less than a month after my eleventh birthday. Two months later, in what some may see as a backwards progression, I tried the 500yd freestyle, and then again around a year later, swam my first 1650yd (the swimming mile) freestyle. I was hooked on the distance events. I had found my niche – a few select events in which my fellow eleven and twelve year-old peers had not tried, and therefor did not win! And so between my woeful performance at anything shorter than a 200yd freestyle, and my passion for the distance events, I proceeded to spend the next (and presumably last) eight years of my swimming career swimming the events many others called “crazy and stupid.”

As I progressed into my high school years, where athletes start to see the preliminary specialization in their respective sprint or distance fields, I began to solidify my thoughts on the “Sprint vs Distance” debate. Concurrently, I had also begun to see myself branch out, and take on triathlon in ways I had never before envisioned, and by the time I graduated high school, had completed everything from kiddy-triathlon super sprints, to the normal adult sprint distance, the International Standard Distance (Olympic), half-Ironman, and finally the ultimate in pseudo-sane but still crazy distance of Ironman 140.6.

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I feel like it’s important to point out that neither of the above kids is me (I took the image)…but that I really like the intensity that both boys are racing with: ten or so years ago, this could have been me.

For me, my biggest argument against sprinting has to do with the time commitment in training, versus the time spent racing, and the amount of control you as the competitor has on the outcome of the race.

Any specialized athlete, be they a club swimmer, a high school runner, a collegiate athlete of any sort, or a competitive adult, the time invested in one’s training is high. While I was a club swimmer, we trained anywhere from twenty to twenty-three hours a week, and this doesn’t include time spent eating (i.e. fueling the motor), commuting to and from practice, school, and home, and most importantly, sleeping. Obviously these time commitments and constraints vary depending on person and sport, but lets assume at least ten hours a week of training. That’s far less than any collegiate athlete or professional would ever do pretty much for any sport, but for the sake of a reasonable argument, hear me out. Let’s assume you’re training for a particular race – say a 100m freestyle sprint at a local masters swim meet. (I use swimming because that has almost always been the context of this debate for me.) You train from March until the end of June when long course meter season ends for most normal people in the U.S. Four months of training at ten hours a week. Sixteen weeks of training, equals one hundred and sixty hours of total time spent JUST IN THE WATER. All that comes down to a one minute-long race, give or take a couple seconds. That’s 9,600 minutes of training :: One minute of racing. That equates to .01% of your total time in the pool. This percentage is EVEN SMALLER for elite athletes who not only train more, but are faster on race day, and have begun reaching a plateau where they achieve far fewer and much smaller bests and records.

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On top of that sheer inequality in time spent training versus time spent competing, many times, one’s success or failure in a sprint event comes down not to the athlete’s own preparation, but to external factors as well. In the above image, Tevin Hester of Clemson breaks the plane to win the final of the men’s 100m dash at the 2015 ACC Outdoor Championships hosted by FSU. He should have claimed the ACC record, but the wind at the time of the race was .1 m/s to quick to be considered a legal run, and so is forever marked down as wind-aided, and although he had won the event, and may even have recorded a PR (personal record…in swimming we call it a “Best time”), he couldn’t hold the ACC record. In swimming, I make jokes about fingernails being the right length, the pool being the right temperature, the starting block being one eighth of an inch too short. And while yes, external factors that may aid or inhibit personal performance exist in all sports, both short and long, the fact remains that in an event that lasts less than a minute or two, there is far less time to recover than in an event lasting anywhere from four or five minutes, to ten or more hours.

Therein lies the defense I hear by sprinters most frequently: “It’s about the pursuit of perfection,” “It’s about not making any mistakes,” “The thrill of that chance is what makes it all worth it.” These and many other similar arguments levied at me do ring true to me on some level or another. Of course sport is about being the best you can be, attempting to be better than others, and trying to maximize your effort and performance in as many was as are ethically and morally responsible. But isn’t that the desire in other varieties of sports and races as well? I don’t think I or anyone else could approach an athlete of a high caliber (or even a rank amateur) and have them tell me otherwise. I have heard the sprinter mentality where they get all hyped up, to the point where when they hear the starting horn, all they can or want to do is GO GO GO, and how they don’t understand how an endurance athlete could do it – they would just get bored and want to “…go sit on the toilet and cry.” To which I responded in total jest: “Where do you think they are before their race, huh??” That interchange does indeed reveal the veritable chasm in attitude between a sprinter and a lifelong endurance athlete.

To clarify why and how that gap exists, to me, it is easiest to look at physiology. The human body is a blessed miracle of God, that science has struggled to explain, define, defeat, and re-engineer to this day. From birth, each individual has two different types of muscle fiber: fast twitch and slow twitch. These are usually defined in terms of percentages, or a ratio. I may be 67% slow twitch, and 33% fast twitch, whereas my sprinter friend may be the exact opposite. Regardless, every individual has some percentage of both muscle types, regardless of how small, and usually the are relatively equal, typically varying no more than sixty-fourty. You cannot change your amounts of each muscle type, but you can train them. Here we find what I believe to be the root of the divide. Sprinters are graced with a natural born talent that we the distance-oriented cannot comprehend. No matter how hard we train, and no matter how smart we are, until science gives us a way to change our muscular make-up, all else being equal, two individuals who have the same training, same everything, the one with more fast twitch muscles will perpetually be the sprint winner.

Not only does this seem to be the root of the divide, it also seems to me to be the root of the evil “Sprinter Mentality,” where many sprinters (regardless of sport) decide that they are God’s gift to the planet earth and don’t need to train like the mere mortal distance-oriented do. Maybe I’m jealous. I know I was jealous, when I would be working my butt off in the pool on a long distance set, and the sprint group would loaf along for a bit, do a couple short sprints, and then be done with practice. To me, it always seemed the easy, lazy way out. And while I have matured and realize that biologically, a sprinter doesn’t need the same type of training a distance athlete does, it still irks me, as the “Sprinter Stereotype” certainly is true in other areas. Many with the god complex will wander in late, screw around, and in general I have found them to be far from type-A personalties.

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As an aside, in youth sports today, In addition to lack of physiological conditioning and lack of ability to safely entertain the thought of such endurance conditioning, this “no-worries” carefree attitude, and lack of needing dedication is in my mind why so many young people aspire to be a sprinter. Look at Usain Bolt – he IS the “Fastest Man in the World!!” How can any other track event compare when it doesn’t come with a title like that.

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For me, the ultimate factor in Sprint vs Distance lies in the satisfaction of completion. Even finishing an event that many consider preposterous or impossible is of great satisfaction to me, and if I can win, and beat others out at the same time, that is a bonus to my competitive side. The woman in the image above, was just finishing the 10,000m at the same ACC Championship meet, and despite the fact that she finished second, she is so relieved at having finished period, having triumphed over the physical and mental pain, that I GUARANTEE she was more satisfied at this moment than she would have been as a 100m runner taking second. Because at that point, had it only been 100m, what have you really done? What big accomplishment is it? Even a win is a feat of skill, not mental and physical fortitude. To me, this is what distance and endurance training is all about. Pushing the boundaries of your pain tolerance in hopes of experiencing something new. As I prepare to journey to Chicago, Il this very week for my second-ever World Championship Event, I find it important to revisit my goals and expectations, revisit my previous success and failures, and indeed look at why I even train for this silly endurance stuff anyways.

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I was asking my coach one day if he was ever going to do a shorter triathlon distance again, over the ultra-silly-longer-than-Ironman-sillyness that he had been doing, and I got an answer that was along the lines of “Probably not. It’s boring, and I like pushing my body, seeing my limits, where they are, and if I can break past them and find new limits.” And when I asked another local triathlete about his Ironman goals and intentions, and whether or not he thought he could be faster at a shorter distance he concluded that “while yes, I think the Olympic is probably my best distance, there’s just something about Ironman, a desire to get it all right, and I’ll probably do them until I get it all right.”

If you’ve stuck with me thus far, or if you skipped to the bottom because TL,DR, well you’re in luck because I’m almost done.

If you think I’m bashing sprinters, please forgive me – I’m not. I know many sprinters who are fine, hard-working individuals both in and out of their chosen sport, and whom I could never even hope to emulate as an athlete or a person. In general however, I think that the mental and physical fortitude required to compete in any events longer than say, four to fifteen minutes (the mile for track, and swimming respectively, which are generally considered distance events) is far superior to that of most sprinters, one has greater control over their own success, whether that is through training, other preparations, or recovery from external factors, and the opportunities to push the boundaries of ones self are forever present. There is always an opportunity to go longer, faster, whereas at some point for the set distances of a sprint, the human body has to find a peak, until we evolve in some significant form or fashion.

Again, please do not take offense at what I’ve said in text above. I am obviously not a professional anything (some might consider me a pro photographer, but that is beside the point in this post), and if I have offended you I’m sorry, and if you have something to say in regards to the matter, I would love to hear it, either privately, or in some manner of public forum.

Have no fear, I will be back to only photo-related posts in the near future, but this has been running through my head all day, and my sports psychology class only propagated the seeds of thought in my head.

-Colin

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