With the Triple Crown now completed by American Pharoah, it might be a good time to consider that those horses and jockeys have to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us. If I understand horse racing correctly, the weight of the jockeys must all be the same. That means a jockey that weighs 119 must carry along enough weight on the horse to make it an even playing field against the jockey that weighs 121. Or else they all have to carry enough weight to equal 125.
That means a jockey that weighs 145 would not have a chance in the race, because a horse carrying that much weight could never keep up with the horses carrying only 125. While they might be cute in their bulging silks jiggling down the track on the back of a horse, fat jockeys do not win races.
Those extra pounds…
You try it. Grab a couple 5 lb. or 10 lb. weights and go running this afternoon. Or better yet, sling a couple of those sandbag style ankle weights over your shoulders and go do a hill workout on your bike.
That would be great training. Or so one might think. A few decades ago the idea of wearing weights while training took hold in a big way. Runners could be seen carrying hand weights around. It was supposed to strengthen your arms and improve your leg capacity as well. But you’ll notice that almost nobody does that now. That’s because it didn’t really work. Or else it was such a pain in the ass training that way no one cared to keep it up.
Weight a minute…
While living in Lincoln Park, Chicago, I once met a fellow named Larry who believed wholeheartedly in weight training while running. He strapped on ankle weights and wrist weights. He wore a weight belt too. If I recall correctly he was carrying an extra 40 lbs. or more around with him on every run.
Larry amused me in that hyper-urban way. It seems like you only meet people that interesting and eccentric in a big city. I’d meet Larry once a week it seems. Every time he’d be wearing his weights and sweating like a sonofabitch after his runs. Larry also liked to run in the middle of the day. “You have got to get used to the heat,” he insisted. At that time there was a national class runner named Benji Durden who trained while wearing full sweats in the heat of Atlanta, Georgia. Durden’s formula for heat acclimation was extreme. Larry liked extreme. Perhaps he was borrowing a page from Durden. But likely not. Larry was his own special breed of heavy thinker.
But for some reason Larry’s weight regimen didn’t make Larry any faster or give him more endurance. I speculated to Larry that it was because Larry had to run so slow to carry all that weight around that he never had a chance to improve on his speed. He stopped and looked at me for a moment and replied, “No, that can’t be it.”
Weight a while
But I think that was the answer. It’s the most famous Catch-22 of all running and riding facts, that the irony of getting in shape and losing weight is that you have to start out fat and slow to try to get lean and mean. It happens every spring to millions upon millions of runners and cyclists who eat too much during the winter: we gain weight. Then when spring comes all that extra fat slows us down.
Come June or July when you finally shed a few pounds the results tend to show it. We get faster when we weigh less. It’s both the reason and the byproduct of our training.
Weight gains and losses
But what about those Clydesdale types? For some people there is no significant weight loss that comes with more training. They’re big-framed to start out. They may go down from 230 to 210 with training, but going under that weight would require the loss of a limb or two. It just makes you think about fairness when it comes to weight.
Today I was walking down the block and saw my neighbor lining up a bunch of lead weights along his driveway. They were slotted in the middle and painted different colors. “They’re for the Pinewood Derby competitions in Chicago,” he told me. “They’re to make sure the weight of the car and driver are the same.”
I laughed and told him, “Wow. That would be an interesting thing to try in the triathlon. Handicapping people by weight.”
“Well, a heavier car does go downhill faster,” he observed. True with a bike too. So the news isn’t all bad. You may suck going uphill, but damn if a fat ass can’t sending you flying downhill!
You might also think that a heavier swimmer might sink more. But that’s not true. The buoyancy of fat is sometimes helpful to a swimmer’s abilities. It’s the much thinner distance runner types that are more prone to sink. I know. I live that reality.
So it’s not so intuitive as you might think. It is clear that handicapping competitors by weight for the triathlon would not work.
It truly is relative to what you’re used to carrying around. Bigger folks get used to dealing with it. Last year at the Ironman Wisconsin there was a guy who stood at least 6’6″. He was big in frame and build. As he emerged from the water in his wetsuit I swear you could have put a big fin on his back and everyone in the race would have swum for their life thinking he was an Orca whale. Yet there he went trotting to his bike to ride 112 miles and run 26.2. Many hours later I saw him running down the stretch to receive his rewards, “You’re an Ironman!” the announcer shouted over the speakers. He shook his fists in the air and I swear there was thunder in the heavens. He was a big man, a Nordic God or something. But I bet his feet were Thor.
As a sub-elite runner, I used to ignore the bigger folks. Their plight did not interest me. Yet I’ve come to appreciate the hard work of bigger people and those that lose very little weight no matter how hard they try.
“Reality” shows like The Biggest Loser exploit people and turn weight loss into some kind of manic contest. We all know that approach is not the healthiest solution to shedding weight. Agreed, there is almost no substitute for consistent, hard training to lose weight. Along with better eating, that is the net solution to weight problems. But The Biggest Loser? It seems to make a mockery of the serious issue of losing weight.
There are some people, both men and women, whose metabolism simply likes to store food as fat. If they eat too much on top of that it can result in obesity. Yet you see folks like that out doing their best to lose weight by running or riding. When I pass them on the bike or the running trail, I can’t help looking at their bigger frames and wonder, “How difficult must that be?” It’s all relative, of course. We can’t really calculate our parallel perceptions of what is “hard” and “easy.” Everyone’s pain and suffering tolerance is a bit different.
You’re gonna carry that weight
It’s like that Beatles song at the end of the Abbey Road album says, “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight…carry that weight a long time…”
That’s both an emotional and physical figurative. We live inside these bodies yet we almost try to live outside them in our perceptions and through our endurance pursuits. It’s as if we all have a permanent selfie camera going all the time. Our self-image is malleable and yet there is some sort of fixed idea we also carry around about our ideal weight, what we should look like and how we should perform.
One of the things I like about the triathlon group with whom we train is the relative honesty. No one has the perfect body. When the workout is done and we’re all changing from sweaty kits to comfortable clothes there is a sort of confessional that goes on as well. Even fit athletes, people capable of riding 112 miles in a day, often have a layer of extra weight they cannot (or do not) shed from their bodies.
As I wrote about the covers of magazines earlier this week, few of us are picture perfect creatures. That’s an illusion carefully crafted to project an ideal that helps sell the concept of a sport, a product, or a lifestyle.
Yes there are athletes out there with amazing bodies. But if you ask them up close and personal how they feel about themselves, you will often find they imagine their own flaws far more than you would think. It’s a rare person that is completely, ineffably comfortable in their own skin. However lean they may be, there are challenges still.
The opposite problem can occur as well. Anorexia from exercise is a real phenomenon. It can happen that people become too obsessed with body image and still see themselves as too fat even when in fact they are way too skinny.
It’s as if “weight, weight, don’t tell me” works both ways in this world. It’s one of the tarsnakes of being an endurance athlete. We don’t want to know if we’re too fat and we don’t want to know if we’re too skinny.
There’s only one solution to all that weight obsession. That is to focus on the joy of doing what you can do with the body you have and the one you might be working for. But understand, that’s always a work in progress. It’s call being human.