People Who Sweat: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Pursuitsby Robin Chotzinoff
From weekend warriors to the professional arena, we are a nation obsessed with sports. But what makes an ordinary person an athlete? Is it skill, or simply devotion? To find out, Robin Chotzinoff hit the road in search of people who sweat. Consider the triathalon runner known as "Little Fat Boy," he is world-famous because of his size and his consistency: he's
From weekend warriors to the professional arena, we are a nation obsessed with sports. But what makes an ordinary person an athlete? Is it skill, or simply devotion? To find out, Robin Chotzinoff hit the road in search of people who sweat. Consider the triathalon runner known as "Little Fat Boy," he is world-famous because of his size and his consistency: he's always dead last. Or one political snowboarding champion who founded a snowboard camp for girls only. And many more inspiring "athletes": mall walkers and tree climbers and gym teachers, cancer patients and people who exercise to fill their "God-shaped void." And Robin Chotzinoff herself, after years of "terminal physical mediocrity," finds that it is possible to be athletic without being a good athlete. In the course of her travels she discovers what these people have known all along: that giving your body a chance to exult-whether by hanging ten with geriatric surfers or straining to finish an ultramarathon-is what sport is all about.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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In physical feats, the bear could outdo its human competitor,
who held in awe the animal's tremendous strength,
its astounding speed and agility, and its ferocity when aroused.
The bear could run faster and swim better,
its reflexes were faster, it could tolerate and survive serious wounds,
and could travel in uncanny silence and stealth.
While man struggled to feed himself and keep warm during the long,
severe winter, the bear slept and lived off its fat,
which supplies about 3,500 calories per pound.
FRANK C. CRAIGHEAD, JR., Track of the Grizzly
Fifty-two and a half miles is a long way to run, for anyone.
"And I finished," says my friend Matt Reilly, on the phone from Portland, Oregon. "It took me eleven hours, and I seem to have run until my butt actually bled. You want a quote? Here: `Chicks dig guys who run ultramarathons.'"
"How many other people did it?" I ask.
"Thirty-nine entered," he says, "but I don't know how many made it."
By the time Matt crossed the finish line, it wasn't actually there anymore. Officials had removed it, and only his friends were there to note his triumph.
"But," he adds, "I did open my first beer before I crossed the line. A nice Foster's."
"What did the other racers look like?"
"Real runners." He laughs. "Little tiny upper bodies. While we were waiting around to start, I saw this little woman runnerstaring at me from behind. I was wearing tights and a T-shirt, and she wasn't scoping me out, either. She was just ... amazed."
At 230 pounds and five feet ten inches tall, Matt could not have looked like anyone else in the typical ultramarathon crowd. You could call his body fat, or you could do it his way and call it amazing.
"They weren't ready to accept that I would ever enter this race," Matt reports. "They didn't even have a category for guys like me."
Matt has entered other, shorter racesmost recently the Portland Marathonin what is known as the Clydesdale category. Officially recognized Clydesdales have been around since the mid-eighties, which makes them relatively new to the world of organized sport. Though the parameters change from race to race, the average standards are men over 200 pounds, women over 150.
This is, ahem, an enormous development. A revolution, practically. It could mean that the era of slow-and-sensible-weight-loss-through-a-moderate-exercise-program has come and gone, and we are now in a time not just of sweat, but of fat and sweat! The Clydesdales may inherit the earth, big butts and all!
"Talk about your training," I say.
"I ran some," Matt replies. "Also, I drank a lot of beer."
"What's `a lot'?"
"I would recommend an average of one six-pack of good stout beer every day," he says. "Also, you need to eat lots of red meat, pizza, and raw oysters."
* * *
Matt Reilly is only thirty-two. It will take a lot of beer and a lot of decades before he can rightly consider himself a champion Clydesdale. If he really works at it, he could be another Dave Alexander.
Dave Alexander, who calls himself Little Fat Boy, is fifty-three. The hub of his existence is the fact that he has raced in over three hundred triathlons since 1983, and that's not including marathons, ultramarathons, and bike races. He is something of a celebrity in the world of endurance sports, often signs autographs before and after races, and almost always finishes last. This is what a reporter for the St. Croix Avis had to say about Alexander's 1988 performance in the Beauty and the Beast Triathlon:
The last contestant emerged from the water. Enter Dave Alexander, stage front, dripping wet, dripping fat. Dave Alexander is a petroleum products businessman from Phoenix, Arizona. He looks great for sixty. The problem is, he's only forty-two. He was the fat person's hero of the day. And he was consistent. He was last in the swim, last in the bike, and hours later, last in the run.
"My wife thought it was cruel, but I thought it was funny as hell," Alexander recalls. "Besides, a lot has been written about me. I can send you a neat article from Independent Gasoline magazine. It should have some stuff not everybody knows."
A few days later Dave's clippings arrive. Independent Gasoline is there"The tie between gasoline marketing and triathlons may seem distant to most"and so are stories written in Turkish and Croatian. I can only assume they tell the tale of large athlete Dave, and his travels in search of foreign sweat.
At the moment Dave is stuck behind a desk at the crude-oil terminal he owns and runs in Phoenix. What I want is to see him running, swimming, or biking. All 250 pounds of him. I suggest he sign up for the Evergreen, Colorado, Triathlon of July 14, so I can see him in action.
"Yeah, maybe," he says. "The thing is, I'm usually in Eastern Europe at that time. I just got a fax from these same Hungarians. They always want me at their race. Also there's the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in San Francisco. Oh, it's intimidating! The terrible crosscurrent, the sharks. You could get washed out to sea."
Which only makes it more interesting to Alexander, who has been charged by a sacred bull during a marathon in India and threatened by a four-foot forest cobra hanging from a tree limb in Malaysia. And that was the morning after the prerace meal with the sultan.
"He asked me to have dinner with him at his summer palace," Alexander remembers. "He was real curious why a forty-something guy would come to Malaysia to do a race and not expect to win. Natch, I said `You betcha, Sultan.' He had a chef prepare this god-awful meal full of spices. I could barely handle it."
But Alexander can handle anything. Born in Southern California, the grandson of an "Oklahoma scalawag," he started his sales career at twelve, doing magic shows for Elks and Kiwanis clubs. By 1967, at twenty-two, he says he was considered "the best close-up card magician in the United States." That was also the year he fell in love with the woman he's now been married to for twenty-nine years, and knew he would have to make a living. Drawing on his Oklahoma oil roots, he talked his way into a job with a company called Southwest Grease and went on to a big-money career in "crude-oil gathering, jobberships, all of it," he says. He and his wife, Marilyn, decided against children, preferring to concentrate on foreign travel and adventure.
All that was just a warm-up for Alexander's racing career, which began in the early eighties. "I was thinking, You need to do something, Little Fat Boy," Alexander recalls. "I went to watch a friend in his first half marathon, and I watched him have to run like hell to beat a man who was seventy-six years old. You see a thing like that, it makes you think. Then my friends talked me into running a 10K. They did it by questioning my masculinity and my parentage."
At the end of the race Alexander got a free T-shirt. That, he liked. It led him to a short triathlon, "which I ran back with the blind people and cripples," he says. "All I did was pass people. Wow! Fun!"
During the next race's 9.3-mile running segment, he learned "what pain was. I hadn't trained enough."
So he set his sights on greater painthe half-Ironman-length Fountain Mountain Triathlonand solicited the help of elite race trainer Jim Glinn of Bakersfield, California.
"He said, `Dave, you have no business doing that kind of race. You better lose fifty pounds or you'll die of a heart attack.' I said, `I'll be out there anyway. You may as well train me.' So he did, and we got to be friends."
Actually, Glinn says, it went deeper than that.
"He's a very big individual," Glinn says. "He swims very well, he's good on the bike, and when he runs, he's incredibly slow. He'll never even win in a Clydesdale division. But he's very gregarious, and very inspirational to a lot of people. If he can finish one of these tough races, so could almost anyone."
During Alexander's rigorous training, which occupied the summer of 1983, Glinn noticed that the weight began to roll off his client. "Then he plateaued and got frustrated," Glinn recalls. The cycle was familiar to Glinn, whose three physical therapy clinics have designed training and nutrition programs for hundreds of endurance athletes. But Dave Alexander was the first client who made him question whether losing weight was worth it.
"I'm kind of large myself," Glinn concludes. "I'd done the Ironman, hundred-mile endurance races, and dozens of marathons. At peak training I weighed 168 pounds. But I also went to college on an athletic scholarship as a discus thrower, at 250 pounds, six-foot-one. I realized my body does not like to be light. It likes to be about 210."
Furthermore, Glinn decided, he was sick of trying to get his clients to the "real intense leanness" they wanted desperately. "I started thinking, these ultra-endurance athletes, instead of being frustrated and vomiting in little plastic bags, why don't they feel good and happy when they run a good race? I got so sick of seeing anorexia all day long, I almost wished we could go back to the Rubenesque model of the 1890s. That blond-headed lady who talks about `Stop the insanity'I mean, she's a nut, but those three words of hers make sense."
Glinn began advising clients to pursue goals that were "athletic, not aesthetic. There has to be more to life than, quote, looking good," he says. "You can make a choice, as Dave Alexander has, to quit worrying about what you weigh, and just function."
Ironically, Dave himself continued to be tempted by the possibility of weight loss. Articles written about him in the eighties report his weight as anywhere between 200 and 260on a five-foot, eight-inch frameand several quote him as being firmly on his way to a reasonable body weight.
So far he hasn't gotten there. "And why should he?" Glinn insists. "Some of us were meant to be big. It's genetic. Dave's ancestors were probably sacking [champion triathlete] Scott Tinley's ancestors. This world has always been full of big guys. Back in the Viking era there was a Norwegian guy known far and wide as Walking Rolfand this because he was too big to ride a horse. He was still a great warrior."
And Alexander was determined to become some kind of legend, despite his race times and his physique. "I'm part of the sport," he now says. "I'm dead last, doing the best I can. I was there in the early days, and I'm still there, and I'm recognized. I'm incredibly tough and strong. My heart is huge and it beats real slow." His even lower metabolic rate, he says, is what keeps him fatalthough experts tend to disagree. They might also take issue with his theories on women in triathlon.
"My wife, Marilyn, for instance," he says. "Sports make her legs bulk up. She likes thin, trim, feminine legs, and so do I. The fact of the matter is that I like women, and triathlon is not good for them. It ages them. If you're a woman, and you care about being soft and feminine, you won't do it. It'll ruin your face."
"It doesn't ruin yours?" I ask.
"I goop on lots of sunscreen," he replies. "Also, I'm a man. You're gonna do that Evergreen race?"
"Maybe," I say.
"And you should? Why?"
"For the T-shirt, of course," he replies. "Also, when I finish a tough race like that, I feel like King Kong."
"There's a Clydesdale division," I point out.
"I disagree with that whole thing," Alexander says. "I mean, you can be guilty of not even trying to eat right if you get more attention for being fat. Some guy from Baltimore invented the Clydesdale thing, and that's all it is, attention for being fat."
* * *
Personally, I wouldn't mind a little positive attention for being fat, or big, or large, or whatever you want to call it. I am five-foot-eight, and at the moment I weigh about 165. I am forty years old, and I have spent most of my adult life bouncing between big and way big. This used to be my central neurotic tragedy, but more and more, it is turning into no big deal. I like to move around outdoors, breathing hard and sweating. According to my latest calculations, 85 percent of the significant fun I have originates with my big, bad body.
For instance, I live in the mountains and run on mountain trails. One recent morning, while running, I had a vision of a bear careening slo-mo through Yellowstone on a National Geographic TV special. Bears are big, but they sure can move. Everyone knows a gazelle is built better for runningand yet you wouldn't want that bear chasing you, would you? Then I remembered that the Colorado Department of Wildlife allocates one hundred square miles for each of our state's brown bears. Any less than that, and you end up with "nuisance" bears who eat garbage and start fights. I related to this implicitly. If I am prevented from crashing through the underbrush, I too eat garbage and snarl a lot.
That day I sent off my application for the Evergreen Powerman Duathlon, which consists of a 2.5-mile run, followed by a 56-mile road bike ride, followed by another run of 13.1 miles. I entered in the Athena division, which, apparently, is female for "Clydesdale."
* * *
Joe Law, the guy from Baltimore who came up with the Clydesdale concept, shot himself in 1990, taking much of his story with him. This much I know:. Law worked for the government in the area of insurance, and it was his interest in actuarial statistics, his sizehe was six-four and weighed 225and his athleticism that led him to the Clydesdale concept.
I wish I could find one of the rate tables he designed that prove how much more effort it takes for a 210-pound man to run ten miles than, say, his 140-pound counterpart. I wish I could find a copy of his long-defunct Clydesdale Endurance Sports Magazine. (I do stumble across Clydesdale News and Clydesdale Stud Journal, but they both deal mostly with stallion sperm.) Finally I reach the Long Island home of mortgage banker Dan Intemann, who is said to be the heir to Law's Clydesdale empire. But according to his brother, Intemann is "a very busy, important man who has very little time for phone calls, even on his cell phone. He is doing very well for himself," the brother adds.
Whatever Intemann is doing very well at, it is not the Clydesdale movement.
"He's let it fall apart, unfortunately," says Les Smith, director of the Portland Marathon and supporter of Clydesdales since the mid-eighties.
"We had a heavyweight division before I ever heard of Joe," Smith points out, "and we didn't call them Clydesdales. That was because I'd been running for years with this huge guy, a big runner, a big man, and he used to point out, in a polite way, that bigger runners were running pretty well, and that it wasn't easy. Then his songodalmighty, he was six-foot-fiveregularly qualified for the Boston Marathon."
Smith finally met Law when he came to Oregon for a race directors' conference. "He was a regular guy who was big and looked great," Smith remembers. "He was proud because he used to be even bigger. He was nice and pleasant and enthusiastic, and from what I hear he went out in a field and shot himself. Later I heard he was just obsessed with his Clydesdale movement."
"Obsessed" is not the style of the Portland Marathon, which prides itself on being one of the more laid-back races in the country. There is no prize money, entrants have over ten hours in which to finish, and large runners can choose from ten different categories in which to compete and win trophies. There's a Power Division, for big guys who can lift a large percentage of their own body weight, as well as several weight categories within the Clydesdale division. Big women have three divisions of their own: 145 to 155 pounds, 155 to 165 pounds, and 165 pounds and up. Their odds of winning could hardly be better. No more than nine women have ever entered the female Clydesdale division of the Portland Marathonwhereas there are always at least a hundred males.
"It's hard with women, a sort of double whammy," Smith says. "Of course, I only opened up the category at all because I didn't want to be sexist. And we don't call them Clydesdales anymore, either. We got too many letters saying, `Don't call me that.' Finally we came up with Bonniedale, as in Bonnie-and-Clydesdale."
"I call them Athenas," says Robert Vigorito, director of the Columbia, Maryland, Triathlon. "I was always into Greek mythology and she was the big goddess of something or other, so I suggested it to the USA Triathlon Committee."
One of the reasons Vigorito landed on the Clydesdale committee was his proximity to Joe Law, who was a personal friend. "I was probably one of the last people to see him alive," Vigorito recalls. "It wasn't long after the triathlonhe had had a great race, there was no sign of trauma or turmoilbut oh, man, he had his heart and soul in this Clydesdale thing. He always compared it to boxing: Would you put a 145-pound guy up against George Foreman just because both were professionally trained boxers? No, you would not. Law made this almost into a cult. He had seven, eight hundred members in his Clydesdale Running Club. He went around to races promoting his dream. It may have been too much."
Had he lived, Law would have seen his dream come to life, even as the organization he founded dissolved. Competition in Vigorito's triathlon has intensified to the point at which Clydesdale contestants must be weighed before the race, in order to detect, and foil, thin wannabes. The Columbia Triathlon now serves as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Clydesdale Championshipand last year that category drew more than two hundred participants. Men, that is.
"Women are still reluctant to enter this category," Vigorito says. "They're reluctant to tell you their weight. Guys don't give a crap."
"Why do you think that is?" I ask.
"Well," Vigorito says, struggling for clarity, "a big guy is a big guy. A big womanwell, women carry more fat. It's notorious. A big woman is ... well, what?"
Despite their notorious fat, seven or eight women enter the Athena division of the Columbia Triathlon every year, and the one who usually wins it, Vigorito wants me to know, is "a brick, a stone, just totally built, all 160 pounds of her."
The brick turns out to be Sue O'Donoghue, a former competitive swimmer who has just moved to Atlanta.
"Vig." She sighs. "I like him, but his real opinion is that for women, the Clydesdale division is a starter group that might give you incentive to lose weight. That's ridiculous. I'm five-foot-ten and 160 pounds, I'm built big boned. I look like an athlete, but not like your classic real thin runner. I am never gonna be skinny, and to me that's under 150 pounds. One-fifty is light for me. Any lighter than that and I wouldn't have the energy to compete."
Though she went through a high school phase of "starving herself," the thirty-five-year-old O'Donoghue has trouble being ashamed of her current weight and is disgusted at the small turnout in Athena categories.
"You have to put your weight on the Columbia Triathlon entry form," she says, "and one year Vig gave me a printout of all the women in the Athena weight range. I called twenty-five women across the country, trying to build interest, trying to get them to compete. But they didn't want to, and usually they said something like, `I've been classified as big my whole life. I don't want to stick out anymore.'"
* * *
Incomprehensible as it may seem to those who prefer "thin, trim, feminine legs" attached to every female body, some women were designed by nature to be big, the same way some men were built to gravitate naturally toward football. A woman like Sue O'Donoghue is standing on very solid ground when she asserts that she and her fellow Athenas would risk their health by constantly pursuing thinness.
Others would do better not to get that scientific about it. I am not at all sure, for instance, that I was programmed to look the way I do. I've always been muscular. On the other hand, I've always eaten too much. And then there are women like Parthenia Jones, whom everyone has called Potts since she was a baby. Potts is a forty-six-year-old Denver deputy sheriff who is just plain fat. She is also a dedicated "heavyset runner." Having been through the weight-loss mill countless times, she finally accepted defeat and decided to concentrate on enjoying running exactly the way she is.
This is lucky for everyone in Aurora, an eastern suburb of Denver, where Potts holds an annual series of runs known as the Potts Trotters races. She came up with the idea six years ago, after running the popular six-mile Bolder Boulder race and noticing that "they only focus on people who win. I went the same distance," she insists. "It just took me longer."
Potts started her own race in retaliation. The plan was to raise some money for cancer patients while recognizing every nontraditional runner in the packby age, sex, weight, physical ability or disability, and then some. "I give everyone an award when I have the money," she says. "I give out a Caboose Award to whoever finishes last. The people who are seventy-five years oldI give them a bunch of awards. I give an award to whoever can answer my trivia questions. And I know the big women have no chance of winning in their age group, so I give them their own Clydesdale team."
Instead of those T-shirts Dave Alexander covets, Potts tries to give out "wonderful goodies"which, in the past, have included coffee mugs, bouquets of flowers, tubes of deodorant, and stained-glass ornaments. And sometimes she holds a race so wildly noncompetitive that all contestants need do is show up at the local police station and run for as long as they like, and they'll still receive a prize.
* * *
For the past two years, women entering the Columbia Triathlon have been asked to check yes or no to the following question: "If necessary, would you accept an Athena award?"
Imagine. You win an award but refuse to accept itnot out of deep political conviction, but for fear someone will see the award on your mantelpiece and discover your (hidden?) fatness. For that matter, if you are going to go ahead and tell your weight to strangers, why not just be called a Clydesdale and have done with it? How does being compared to a Greek goddess or a gangster's girlfriend instead of a draft horse sweeten the deal?
It is all very female and neurotic, and I am feeling very tolerant and superior about it until I remember that, at the 1996 Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon, I could have weighed in to compete in something called the Horsepower Contest, but didn't. Why? Because competition means nothing to me and I did not covet the beautiful silver-plated automotive piston offered as an award? Ha! It was sheer psychological chickendom. I knew the race would take me at least seven hours, and I didn't trust my mind. What if I developed a nagging inner voice, and that voice kept repeating, You're fat; you're fat; you're fat?
"But food has so much control over people," says Danelle Ballengee, a world-famous Colorado triathlete in such superb physical condition that you wouldn't think she'd give this female fat stuff a second thought. In winning the World's Toughest Triathlon for the second time, for instance, she had to bicycle fast enough to get away from a very real, and very interested, bear. But that did not scare her as much as the thought of gaining five extra pounds.
"In running," she explains, "if I gain weight, I tend to be more prone to injuries, whereas I get stronger in my biking and swimming. One-fifteen to one-twenty is about right for me, and I struggle with it. I love to eat, and I love to eat junk, and controlling that is the hardest part of my training."
Ballengee qualified for the Olympic Marathon trials in 1996, has won the Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon and the Pikes Peak Marathon, and works full-time as a fitness trainer. In '95 and '96 she directed the Evergreen Multi-Sport Festival, which includes five separate on-road and off-road duathlons and triathlons, including the one I entered. Like any other race director in the country, Ballengee is familiar with the Clydesdale concept.
"We had a great turnout last year," she says. "Road bikes and mountain bikes. It was very popular."
"What about Athenas?" I ask.
"Let me see," she says. "Oh. We had no Athenas. None. Not knowing what I was doing, I may have put the weight limit too high. I made it one-sixty-five. This year it's one-fifty."
"Do you have any Athenas yet this year?" I ask.
"Hold on a second. Yes! We have two!"
Two? That's me andI don't know, Potts?
But when I call to ask, Potts says a half marathon is her race distance limit; she doesn't have time for more. Still, she's intrigued. Whoever the mysterious second Athena is, Potts wants her to feel welcome.
"Because, you know, I am pretty large," she says, "and there is always someone yelling at me to run around the block a few more times, and sometimes it gets discouraging and I think about giving it up. But then," she adds, "I think, The hell with you. I can run a good fifteen, twenty miles when I feel like it. Can you?"
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