The Power of Three

So, a lawyer, a doctor, and a triathlete walk into a bar.

Bartender says, “We don’t get many triathletes in here.”

Triathlete says, “And at these prices you won’t get many more.”

Trizophrenia by Jef Mallett Pub TRIZWow! Did you notice what I noticed? (1) That genre of joke always starts with three characters. (2) Like most great stories, it was told in three acts. And (3) you rolled your eyes and protested in three pained, identical syllables: “Ha. Ha. Ha.

You did that because the joke has—yes!—three major flaws. (1) It’s not really that funny; (2) price never stopped a triathlete from buying anything; and (3) that gag is older than the Father, the Son, and the . . . holy smokes! There it is again!

What is it about the number three? Three dimensions. Three primary colors. Third planet from the sun.

Veni, vidi, vici. Citius, altius, fortius. Hut, hut, hike.

Three wishes. Three blind mice. The three bears. (Am I belaboring this idea too much? Or too little? Or juuuust right?)1

And of course: Swim. Bike. Run.

Triathlon.

The sport sounds crazy to outsiders, but you can’t argue the numbers. Triathlon has three legs. A tripod has three legs. And what’s the signature virtue of a tripod?

Stability.

Yes, stability. People who get off a perfectly good bike to flirt with shin splints are stable. People who leave perfectly good asphalt to play moshpit bumper cars in water over their heads are stable. People who leave a liquid, gravity-free environment to spend time with the majority of their weight on the frontmost inch and a half of a bicycle saddle are stable.2

There’s an enviable balance to a body with a runner’s legs, a swimmer’s torso, and a cyclist’s cuts. And a Zen-like calm to realizing that somehow your order got called in wrong and you ended up with the swimmer’s legs and the runner’s deltoids, and being fine with that because you get the same heart and lungs and red blood cells either way. Isn’t that stability? And if the basis of a sound mind is a sound body, then that mind cannot help but thrive in a body that gets substantially more exercise with a fraction of the single-sport athlete’s injury interruptions.

Let us not shortchange that sound mind. While your body adapts to the physical stresses of training, your brain picks up a few tricks as well.

It’s often argued that that’s where the real benefits accrue. Triathlon is not darts. It hurts, and it’s time-consuming. To do it right, you have to come up with some toughness. You learn that, as was so eloquently said by former Detroit Tigers manager and English-language mangler Sparky Anderson, “Pain don’t hurt.” You have to learn focus, and there’s nothing like a race and a potential butt-kicking on the horizon to prompt a convergence of priorities. And what of the time needed for all that training, on a planet that stubbornly rotates on a miserly 24-hour schedule? Somehow you find it. If work expands to fit the time allotted, then it seems just as true that wasted time shrinks to fit whatever is left. A track coach once told me that his sprinters got very good at video games and that a lot of his distance runners went on to medical school.

Well, then. Aren’t we triathletes awfully impressive people? If so, we’re impressive people with an image problem. We wander into the break room at work and mention—with dread, with glee, or as an offhand statement of fact—our upcoming workout, and people don’t even finish chewing their potato chips before they say it:

“You’re sick.”

“You’re nuts.”

Oh, we’re sick, are we? Well, maybe we are. A body that sweats profusely and aches to the bone often is sick. Unless it’s in perfect health, tapered to peak form, and running at redline. We’re insane? Apparently we are. Who but a crazy person would get out of bed well before dawn on a weekend to swallow hard against the butterflies while staring past the start line, over water and mist, to an impossibly distant turnaround buoy?

The truth is, we triathletes wonder ourselves sometimes.3 I raced my first triathlon not long after the very first Ironman®. Then I quit. Then I started. Then I quit. Then I started again, and now here I am writing about stability.4

Maybe it’s important to understand that stability is not immovability. Maybe stability is to inertia5 what courage is to fearlessness—more a triumph over adversity than an absence of it.

Maybe. Always maybe.

Let’s explore the maybes. Let’s pick triathlon apart and see what we find. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Maybe the unexamined sport, the unexamined lifestyle—particularly one that’s as demanding as this one—is at risk of dissolving into mere routine, and we can’t have that. And while we’re at it, maybe we can let those heathens in the break room in on the way triathletes think. That worked so well for Socrates.6

  1. On your mark
  1. Get set

Footnotes

1 One place where the magic of three falls apart is the human body. One heart, one brain, one nose. Two lungs, two eyes, two arms. Then straight to five: five fingers, five toes. Barring some sort of grisly accident, we don’t come equipped with three of anything.

Do we?

I was riding bicycles in Tuscany with the kind of friends who know people. Thus, riding with us was one Paolo Guerciotti, a former pro. Paolo wasn’t buying into the “former” aspect of anything, at least not on the flats where he and I were riding and conversing. He was young, after all.

“Nineteen!” Paolo said, holding a straight line amid enthusiastic gesturing. “I am nineteen years old!”

Paolo won the Italian national championship in 1978. This was 2004. I may be a writer and an illustrator, but I can do at least that much math. My eyebrows betrayed a little skepticism.

“I am nineteen each leg!” he elaborated.

More mental math. More eyebrow action. More gesturing. “I have-a three legs.”

2 As with the anatomical footnote, the magic of three is not absolute here. Common practices such as simultaneously talking on a cell phone, grooming, and idling at a traffic light as it goes from red to green and back to yellow are not associated with stability.

3 Even something stable is not rock-solid. When renowned architect and control freak Frank Lloyd Wright designed the world headquarters of Johnson Wax in Racine, Wisconsin, he had the chairs built with only three legs. To be fair, instability was kind of the idea, the thought being that it would promote good posture. The effect was that a lot of workers—and by some accounts Wright himself—were dumped on the floor. Today the chairs have four legs, the employees are on their own for posture, and the city of Racine has to look elsewhere for its slapstick.

4 See my cousin Rebecca Gochanour-Stafford-Walton-Caszatt-Charles-Porterhouse’s upcoming book about marriage.

5 Inertia is oversold. Whoever said an object at rest remains at rest didn’t share a bed with cats, and whoever said an object in motion wants to remain in motion never enjoyed the last 10 kilometers (km) of a marathon.

6 Postapologia tally: 220 jurors voted for acquittal, 280 for the hemlock smoothie.

Trizophrenia: Inside the Minds of a Triathlete, by nationally syndicated illustrator and veteran triathlete Jef Mallett, offers up a witty, thoughtful, and entertaining exploration of the triathlon lifestyle.

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