Tag Archives: Sports

The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges

By Vladimir Brezina

The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges
Richard Hoad and Paul Moore
Bloomsbury Publishing
London, 2012

From the description of the book on Amazon:

“The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges” profiles 50 of the most extreme marathons, triathlons, bike rides, adventure races, climbs, open-water swims and other iconic endurance events from around the world. Breathtaking full-color photographs and insider commentary from top athletes will thrill endurance athletes, extreme sports addicts, and outdoor adventurers of all stripes.

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On Being Athletic

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

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Quite the athlete–in six inches of water!

I’m not athletic.

Or at least, I never thought I was. True, I’d been on a couple of teams when I was young (fencing, swimming) and been told I had “potential”.

But the formative comment on my athletic abilities came from a gymnastics coach when I was 8: “She hasn’t got it.”

By “it” he meant “kinesthetic sense”—that ability to know exactly where your body is and what it’s doing at every moment. It’s an ability that’s foundational for most athletic endeavors.

The coach was right—I didn’t have it, and I could see its lack in my everyday life.

I fell off things, or tripped and landed face-forward (my lower lip has been split so many times my dentist is in awe of the scar tissue). Especially early on, I could drive my kayak coaches to despair with my inability to understand basic movements: “Move the blade up, Johna… no, UP… Johna, just LOOK at me!”

So I internalized that lack, and for a while it defined me. I had many other strengths, but no kinesthetic sense—or so I thought.

Here’s what I didn’t know then, and know now: Kinesthetic sense—and with it, athletic ability—can be learned.

Sure, there are prodigies who have it at birth, and many more in whom it develops rapidly with just a minimum of encouragement. Like other human abilities, athletic talent appears to be distributed along a spectrum.

But for those of us on the “don’t have it” end of the spectrum, it’s possible to develop it by thinking about your body, what it does, and how it moves.

A revelatory moment came last year when I was taking CrossFit classes. The coach was a wool-cap-wearing tattooed guy in his 20s with interesting facial hair and the wiry body of a professional skateboarder.

“There’s one fundamental athletic motion, ” he told me, and demonstrated it: Driving your body upwards using your legs as a spring, straightening your bent knees and driving from your heels.


Learning to kayak-surf (before developing my kinesthetic sense)

Damn if he wasn’t right! It’s the classical motion of kayaking (driving your heels forward to propel the boat forward with your strokes). But you also see it in practically every other sport, from basketball to golf to rock-climbing. To get it right, everything has to be in proper alignment (heels, knees, back, shoulders) and even the positions of your toes and your neck matter.

CrossFit taught me to pay attention to form, because the coaches encouraged us to do weighted squats—and if you do squats with poor form, you blow out your knees (and potentially create insurance liabilities for the CrossFit gym). Good coaches are therefore dogmatic about teaching you the right form.

So I spent hours watching myself in the mirror, lifting weights and struggling with chinups and situps. I’d shut my eyes and try to feel where my knees, toes, and shoulders were—then open my eyes and see how close I’d guessed.

The attention to form paid off in kayaking—suddenly, I made progress in areas that had been baffling to me in the past. And the more I thought about where my body was and what it was doing, the better I got.

I recently took up barefoot running, which is all about proper form. You have to think about curving your toes up (you want to land on the balls of your feet, shift your weight to your toes, and then to your heels). And you need to keep your neck relaxed and your shoulders back… and use that “fundamental athletic motion” to drive yourself along.

And for once in my life, I’ve found an athletic activity that’s easy for me.  That attention to form feels natural, innate. No, I’m not fast—but my goal isn’t to be fast. If I’m moving, I’m going as fast as I need to. My goal is to develop the form and motion that will allow me to run as much as I want—and I don’t know how much that will be, yet.

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Practicing my low brace form (don’t want to fall into the Gowanus Canal!)

What’s even more interesting, though, is how the whole experience has changed how I move my body in everyday life.  I find myself doing the “drive” when I get up from a chair, or instinctively adjusting my balance as I climb the stairs, thinking about whether my center of gravity is over my heels or my toes.  And my movements have gotten more graceful and confident—like those of the “natural” athletes I know.

I doubt that having a kinesthetic sense will ever be instinctive for me. And the coach was undoubtedly right—I would likely never have made it to the upper echelons of gymnastics.

But the fact that, as an adult, I can acquire “it” is eye-opening to me.

If someone who “hasn’t got it” can become athletic—what other seemingly impossible things might be possible, after all?

Old, Bold Paddlers

By Johna Till Johnson

There’s an old saying, variously applied to pilots, Marines, race-car drivers, and other professional risk-takers: “There are old pilots. There are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots.”

I was thinking of this as I swam my daily laps today, in the company of a woman who’d taken up aquatics after two hip replacements—which she attributed to 30 years of aerobics. She pointed out that Jane Fonda (aka aerobics queen) had to get both her hip and knee replaced.

And many runners have had to give up their beloved sport due to joint damage from years of pounding. Then there are the activities that are almost exclusively the province of the under-30 folks: Gymnastics. Professional dance. Skateboarding.

The message is that the world is full of things that you can’t do wholeheartedly for your whole life: You can’t be old and bold.

That got me to thinking: Kayaking is one of the few sports where that’s flat-out not true. Sure, whitewater appeals to younger athletes. But sea kayakers are at least as likely to be middle-aged or older.

Usually we complain about this. Sea kayakers bemoan the fact that our sport appears to be dominated by the middle-aged—maybe because that reminds us that we’re no longer the young hipsters.

But you know what? I like the fact we sea kayakers can be old and bold.

How bold? Well, the races I’ve paddled in don’t have age classes–just boat classes. And the guy who regularly wins the fastest, most competitive category turned 70 a few years ago (we think). At any rate, he got a lot faster after he retired.

Yep, you got that right—this guy routinely trounces 25-year olds.

And he’s not unusual. Older kayakers routinely show the young ‘uns up with feats of endurance and athleticism. And my dad, a natural athlete, kayaked until the last year of his life—when he was 79.

Kayaking is one of those rare sports in which technique and endurance are more important than strength and explosive power—which means you can keep getting better and better as you age.

In sum: There are plenty of old, bold kayakers. I aspire to be one!

Preparing to be bold (at the 2011 Blackburn Challenge)… and those are NOT white hairs, yet!