Responsible Sport: Owning Up to the Problem

By Jeff Henderson

Trash Pile
Sweet, sweet trash …
Courtesy Jeff Henderson

“County-road-sign makers seldom tell you twice. If you miss that sign in the weeds that’s your problem, not theirs.”
        – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This is a story about butter. Somewhere in the telling, power and desire and revenge creep in, but fundamentally it is a story about butter.

Man evolved in the cradle of civilization, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, amid warm breezes and hospitable soils. As man wandered and spread, he ventured to less hospitable climes that required him to build shelters. In his home and away from the land, man desired ways to preserve food for tomorrow, so he salted and pickled and preserved and eventually cooled, first with ice and later the refrigerator. In warm weather, desiring to protect his animal’s products from the heat, he placed butter inside the refrigerator and it stayed cold and firm for him.

When kept outside the refrigerator during moderate temperatures, man discovered that butter stays soft and spreadable, a much desired quality. So as to avoid removing the butter in mild weather and placing it back into the refrigerator during warm weather, he invented a particular spot for his butter, a compartment with a warm surface where he could control the temperature and soften the butter to his liking.

And so the butter sits in its compartment, soft to the touch but not melting at 50 degrees, inside a refrigerator cooled to 40 degrees, inside a home heated to 70 degrees, in a climate where the outside air might be 50 degrees. Three layers of precisely regulated thermal control engineered to provide man his desired butter at the desired temperature, all of the time.

How we have fallen. Our need for control and convenience and possessions has driven us to madness, no longer able to respect the earth that long has sustained us. This earth is recoiling, straining and shifting beneath our weight, yet we insist on maintaining our foolhardy ways.

Our swath of destruction cuts wide, no longer limited to securing food, clothing, shelter. Our pastimes-the things we pursue for amusement-now scar the land, pollute the skies, befoul the water. We pander to our basest instincts-the thrill of the hunt, the rush of competition-while ignoring the intelligence we have cultivated over a millennium.

On October 13, 2007, an army of athletes assembled upon the island of Hawaii for the Ironman world championship.  From all corners of the globe they came, 1,787 strong, to prove their ability to conquer the water and ground beneath them. Aside from 68 residents of the state of Hawaii, all of them flew jet airliners to attend; the combined distance traveled amounted to 18,312,992 miles ( Eighteen million miles-for one day of sport.

The jet airplanes belched 3,634 tons of carbon dioxide and other destructive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the equivalent generated by 525 average American homes producing heat and light for one year.

When did we stop caring? When did it become acceptable to shirk responsibility, to shift it to another person, another country, another generation?

– – –

This fall I volunteered at the Westchester Triathlon in New York. After the race, I stood beneath an unusually warm September sun breaking down bike racks in an endless parking lot. I tore them down and placed them in the back of a truck; by mid-afternoon, all that remained of the transition area was trash, the waste generated by 1,000 athletes over a six-hour span.

Gel packets. Scraps of bagel. Plastic water bottles by the hundreds, a consequence of our evolution to single-use containers. All of it destined for the landfill, as Westchester does not contract a recycler. The amount of trash, and the inability of its producers to shuttle it to the trash can, was astounding.

As I stood resting, preparing to resume cleanup, two Team-in-Training women joined me in the otherwise empty lot. They each carried a plastic bag. Wordlessly they began circulating, emptying bottles and cans, placing them into the bags. As I broke down a nearby aid station, I watched the parking lot transform from a field of litter to a manageable bulk of waste. They disappeared after an hour and a half, taking their collected recycling with them. They probably saved Westchester half its trash bill.

– – –

Sport has long been an innovator.  Things we have learned about health, longevity and nutrition have often been driven by athletics. Through it we have discovered new materials, perfected technologies, improved systems and processes. And yet sport now falls behind, catering more to conspicuous consumption than long-held principles of conservation, efficiency and adaptability.

With our food, we demand organic. Our homes are triple-sealed against drafts, our thermostats and lighting computer-controlled. We buy Priuses and separate glass from cardboard. Yet our races stagnate. At the Chicago Marathon, 1.8 million cups were used to dispense water; few events practice recycling or composting. We travel thousands of miles to “destination races” while the local YMCA can’t draw 100 to its Spring Fling. A steel bike could last a lifetime; instead we buy carbon and replace it the very next year.

Sport is stuck in the age of excess. While the rest of the world educates itself about carbon offsets, global warming and alternative energy, we content ourselves with bigger cars (to haul our gear) and more exotic races.  It is no longer acceptable for those who care to clean up for the rest of us.
Jeff Henderson forsook the world of competitive swimming for triathlon in 1997. Since then he has busied himself competing, officiating, writing, and race directing.  He directs the Musselman Triathlon, the Fly by Night Duathlon, and the City of Portland Triathlon. To stay sane, he cares for Ophelia, Dixie, and Wyan, three charismatic yet remunerative backyard chickens..

True phenomenon

Michael Phelps
WR 1:52.09 200 Butterfly


Notice the dive and turns; Phelps crushes the competition with his underwater prowess. Tons of core strength goes into each flick of his ankle.

He is meters in front of his own WR redline.

Off season transition

As I continue transitioning from the off-season into my base season while focusing on my running, it’s time to address the weakness to my weakness.  My running form.  It is a kind of labored, pounding, shuffle that uses copious amounts of energy to maintain.  When running with my faster peers I sometimes feel like a big yellow school bus, engine smoking, tires low, and loaded to the hilt with screaming over-weight kids.  Ok, well, maybe I’m overdoing it a bit…but my running form is not pretty.  I’ve started doing some plyometrics and that yellow school bus is finally getting serviced.

Doing plyo’s has highlighted the weakness of my weakness, weakness.  In my first session it was obvious how much I absorbed and hugged the ground with each foot strike.  It also pointed out some soft spots in my core strength.  After just one quick session of plyometrics, where I was just getting the rhythm, I was super sore and even walking was difficult and sometimes painful.  We did the plyo’s on the grass but it still shocked my legs.  I have been doing a series of one legged bounding to alternating one legged bounding to a double leg jump.  I have done 3 sessions now and my legs are improving but still have lots of work to do on my execution.  Mainly in strength and bouncing off the ground rather than sticking to the ground.  I am hoping for a full scale make-over to my run efficiency. 

Just last week I started swimming again, while this week I added biking to the mix as well.  Both are taking a back seat to the run training as I focus on run strength, form, and distance.  In addition to the plyo’s I’m also lifting weights again after not doing any the last couple years.  I’m doing power cleans, hamstring, quads, inverted leg extensions, pull-ups, push-ups and lots of sit-ups.  Doing these on the same day as plyo’s has put the ‘hurt’ on my muscles.  Easing into it is key, (I’ve learned the hard way more times than I can remember) just putting my muscles through the motions for now.  By the end of December I should be able to start pushing the program pretty hard while keeping the muscle soreness to a minimum. 

It has been a nice change in my routine and definitely an eye opener for what I need to improve.  I am excited to improve and adapt and enjoying the process.  Doing these running drills has defiantly increased my knowledge and respect for the sport of running. 

Swimming notes:

  • Just getting back into it: 3 x (3 200’s) on 3:30
  • 1st set broken at 50’s with 5 sec rest –> 2:05’s and 2:06’s
  • 2nd set broken at 100 with 10 sec rest –> 2:05’s and 2:06’s
  • 3rd set straight 200 –> 2:10, 2:12, 2:13 (ouch, lost my form and coordination)


Money in the Bank

Running in the teens.

While up in New Meadows the weather was clear, crisp and cold getting down into the single digits at night.  Perfect running temperatures.  If there is one thing I love about running it is heading out when the elements are unusual or provide a challenge.  You truly can run in just about any conditions (save super icy) wearing smart gear.  Running in a storm is an invigorating experience that seems to charge my soul with its most basic needs.

I’m still buzzing from the two long runs I did while up in New Meadows.  The first one was early Saturday.  It was my off-season so I wasn’t doing much other than running here and there, leaving me energized and very motivated.  Add to this fact, I was partaking on an exploration run in the surrounding mountains and forests, where I would encounter no people and be scouting new terrain.  Another thing I love about running, exploring new terrain.

Milo and I headed out into the brisk air, cool on the lungs, at first difficult to take deep breathes.  We ran southwest down a remote road heading towards the flat valley just below us.  We came to an intersection with right being towards the valley and left heading up into the frosted forests in the mountains.  We headed left and immediately started climbing.  It wasn’t long before beads of sweet started rolling down my cheeks.  I took my hat off and rolled it up in the back pocket of the long sleeve bike jersey I was wearing.  We climbed and climbed still feeling too warm I took off my gloves and pulled up my long sleeves to the elbow.  I was eager to see what was around every corner and hopeful that I might be able to crest the mountain.  The snow was getting deeper but had mostly melted off the dirt road to expose the tore up frozen mud from someone’s four-wheeln’ in the past few weeks.  The contusions in the frozen mud made for good tests of my ankle strength and flexibility.

You couldn’t help but be aware of the almost total silence, save the crackle of snow and ice crunching below my feet and the whoosh, whoosh sounds of Milo ’s paw’s quickly and gracefully striking the ground.  I breathed deeply and new it was some of the freshest air around.  It felt so basic, being out in the woods, it awakened me in every sense.  The road started heading back down towards the valley.  I came to an area recently being logged and decided to turn around and head back. 

We climbed again back up to the highest point of our run before the very long descent back to the intersection.  Running downhill recharged the batteries and the speed quickened.  The quick jaunt downhill was a pleasure. Leaving me wanting to run more, to go longer.  Alas, I had ran an hour and ten minutes at 5000+ ft and done plenty for the day.  Breakfast was calling me and promised to be a most succulent feast.

The next morning I was yearning for another run.  I felt good from the previous day’s effort and thought I would go further this time and start with the same route but take a new course once in the mountains.  I would head up, every chance I had and try to get near the top of the mountain.  I headed up and up finally reaching a point on the old logging trail where trees were now growing in the road some of them 20ft high already.  We continued on, blazing through the snow and weaving through the young trees.  Still wanting to keep running I made it to a clearing with a vast lookout of the valley below.  Being almost an hour into my run I thought it best to head back.  I paused for a moment, taking in the scene and enjoying how I felt.  “C’mon Milo , Let’s go home”.  With that, we cruised the long descent back and finished in just under an hour and a half.                  

It was a great thanksgiving weekend.  Still in the off-season but slowly transitioning into the ‘Base’ season, these two long runs would prove to be some money in the bank..

Sweet running and swimming videos

I love watching these videos.  They are a great way to see close to perfect form and execution.  Great athletes performing at their pinnacle.

Haile Gebrselassie

Marathon World Record 2007

10,000m World Record 1997

Alan Webb

1 mile American Record 2007

Michael Phelps

200m Freestyle World Record 2006

Phelps dominates the field in the Start and Turns

Phelps 200IM under water

Ian Thorpe

400m Freestyle 2004 Athens


Becoming a runner

Running Start in San Francisco’s Treasure Island Triathlon

Starting the Duathlon at Treasure Island

Running is painfully difficult in a race with competitors that push the boundaries of human propulsion.  I feel fortunate to be racing with some of the best runners on the planet, albeit, I am surely not one of them.  I am a pro triathlete with a strong swim a good bike and a weak run.  This combination puts me in some exciting situations starting the run portion of triathlons.  Unfortunately, the runners of this sport have a way of making me feel the pain as they stride off towards high finishes.  I am the pony, racing the proven-breeds at the Kentucky Derby. 
It is ironic how my season ended with a 6.5k, 40k, 10k duathlon after the swim was canceled at Treasure Island’s Triathlon because of an oil spill.  I had worked unusually hard on my swimming, and was poised to cause some suffering for those not adapted to moving fast in cold water.  It was disappointing to miss an opportunity I was well prepared for.  It did, however, spotlight what I was ill prepared for….16.5k of fast running.  I knew that my running needed some work; this race threw some salt in the wounds. 
It is perhaps more ironic that I bought Runners World magazine at the airport in route to this race in San Francisco (I was already planning to focus on improving my run in the off-season.)  The magazine devoted a lot of pages to John L. Parker, author of ‘Once a Runner’.  I devoured the excerpt from his new book, ‘Again to Carthage ’, a continuation of ‘Once a Runner’.  The article mentioned that ‘Once a Runner’ was very hard to find…going for $300 on e-bay.  After my race I was talking to my hosts about the motivating article and the book.  Guess what!?  He had two copies, lucky day! 
I love the book and relate to it in many ways, I could tell like stories of my swimming days at Oakland University.  Look for ‘Once a Swimmer’ at the stores soon…therein lies part of my problem.  I have not morphed into a runner yet.  At least, I have not put in the work to be an elite runner.I am proud of my progress, starting triathlon along with biking and running four years ago, learning as I go.  Running has been a struggle.  My first few years were plagued with injuries and my training was less than optimized.

After four years of consistent running, slowly, methodically improving…I think that I am primed to make the journey necessary to be an elite runner.  To feel, and to know, at my core, what it means to be a ‘runner’.

I am still working out the details on how I will make this journey but being physically and mentally prepared will take me a long ways.  For me the journey will be satisfying and a test of character.  This off-season I will spend much of my time and energy focusing on enhancing my running ability.  It is important to note that this journey began 4 years ago and will continue for years to follow.  This off-season, however, will be an important chapter; I see it as a turning point.

I have to smile at the perfect timing for me to discover such a motivating book.  It speaks to the sacrifice, the determination, the grit, the pain, the power, the love…that it takes to be a fast runner.  “The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials” excerpt from ‘Once a Runner’.  There are no short-cuts.

Moon rise over New Meadows, Idaho

Night before the frost moon in New Meadows

Oddly enough, I finished reading this book at a remote cabin (much of the protagonist’s training takes place at a remote cabin) over the Thanksgiving weekend.  I had this urge, maybe a need to lace up and get out into the wild.  Being in New Meadows, ID, I was in a beautiful spot; the cabin nestled right on the line where the forest and mountain begins.  We were nestled high up on the hill over looking the large valley below.  Behind us, the wilderness beckoned.  I wanted to explore, to be free, to run wild.  I was an already motivated runner that had just finished reading a running book that would get your grandma off the couch.  With eye’s wide open, pulse rate elevated, and lungs ready to expand, I grabbed my dog and ran into the wild.

Milo and I loving the great outdoors while on a run  
Milo and I running in the mountains around New Meadows