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Muscle Model

I met Tony Chastain in the late 1980’s when he sold Trek bicycles wholesale. Prior to being a Trek rep he’d eked out a living as a professional cyclist, no mean feat to accomplish. Two things stand out in memory about TC. One was when we attended a National Off Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) race together. These races have categories or divisions so slow newbies like me participate on the same course as national caliber racers like Tony. We didn’t race “together,” there are heats with folks of similar skill racing side by side and I have never been particularly fast and I’m surely not skilled.

What I remember most about that race was Tony yelling at somebody about parking. Tony was turning his car around on a mountain road where we had parked on the shoulder and another driver thought he was leaving. I had only seen the laid back Trek salesman Tony but race day Tony was different. Tony “informed” the driver in no uncertain terms that that was his spot and that he should think twice about trying to take it- believe me when I say that Tony only had to “tell” him once!

A quarter century after the event the other thing that I remember Tony saying was something along the lines of, “Muscles are for the working class.” I didn’t really get it at the time but it’s something that I think of as I participate in triathlons.

It may seem odd to wonder about the value of muscles when using them rigorously, but what the heck are muscles for anyway? The main function of voluntary muscles, the ones we choose to use, not our heart or digestive system and the like, is to enable movement. We move when muscles contract. The heavier the thing we need to move the stronger our muscles need to be and the longer we’re going to move something, that “something” including ourselves, the more endurance we need. Add strength and endurance and you get something called power but that’s a different blog post!

I am fifty four years old and got into the fitness game somewhat late in life. My two brothers and two sisters all earned multiple varsity school letters in various sports during  high school where I earned none. In order to earn a letter one must participate on a varsity team and I never participated in any high school sport. 

I was pushed into cycling by circumstances. The college I attended was eleven miles from my parents’ home and after my freshman year I no longer had a ride to and from classes. I had to get to school and toward the end of my second semester I decided cycling might work. Just as the bicycle emancipated early suffragettes it set me free too. I discovered the joy of going places by bike and after a few years dipped my toe into that lowest level of racing, the bike club time trial.

A time trial is a race against the clock. A distance is set, frequently 40 kilometers or just under 25 miles, and racers take off at one minute intervals and ride from start to finish. Drafting, following closely enough behind another rider to take advantage of being in his slip-stream, is strictly prohibited. Time trials are sometimes called the race of truth. A high bench mark for amateur cyclists is to ride 40km in under an hour. (To put that in perspective the current professional Hour Record stands at 54.526km.)

Most amateur triathlons start with a swim, move on to a bicycle ride where drafting is prohibited and finish with a run. Strength and endurance- power- is critical. Strength to weight ratio counts a whole lot too.

I am a mediocre triathlete. Yesterday I finished a sprint distance race 37th out of 112 racers. That isn’t so bad but when we take the gals out of the equation my finish goes down to 28/62, and my age group finish was third of seven. (To be fair to myself I’d do better if I could “learn to swim.” It took me 13:36 for my swim while the fastest swimmer completed that segment in 7:22 and the slowest was 19:11. The slowest swim time of the 36 folks who beat me was 11:35 and only four of the 112 competitors swam slower than I. Swimming takes skill plus fitness and I have the coordination of a two year old.)

It seems obvious that excess fat is the enemy of anyone trying to move himself. It is an extra burden that slows us down. When two people are equally fit and one has a body fat percentage of 18 while the other is eight that extra twenty pounds of insulation makes going far and fast a lot harder. But sometimes muscle is the enemy too.

Muscles have jobs but some folks value them for cosmetic reasons. Many men tend to think big muscles make them look tough and masculine. There is little that pleases me more during a race than passing a bulked up youngster on that last portion of a triathlon, the run.

Twenty extra pounds of fat make life hard but twenty extra pounds of deltoids, pectoral, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, triceps and biceps may look pretty but they aren’t good for much when trying to run when fatigued. All those hours in a gym arguably  make a lot of people prettier, but once we move from “fit matters” to “size matters” prettier may equal slower.

Life is not a triathlon course. Some folks need mass for their jobs and most people that are into fitness work out at least in part to look good. Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” I’d like to add, “Fitness is as fitness does,” as a corollary to Forrest’s statement. We all need to take care of ourselves but don’t forget to examine your goals along the way and address fitness accordingly. After all, who wants some old man to pass them during a race?

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