Before we left for San Diego this summer, I completed my first triathlon. Apparently, that’s what you must do to assimilate in Boulder. Either that or grow dreadlocks and walk around barefoot, maybe topless. I chose triathlon.
Time magazine recently published a “Healthiest Places to Live” issue. Winner of Best Place for Keeping Fit: Boulder, CO. I’ve lived in some athletic cities, but this place tops them all. Seriously: the guy next to me at Starbucks, right now as I work on this post, he’s on some app working on his Activity Log and totalling his Calorie Count. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a cyclist. Trails around town are covered with runners and mountain bikers. Olympic and professional athletes abound.
I’ve always been active, and for a long time toyed with the idea of trying a triathlon. Now that I’m living in triathlon central, I thought: why not? Naive, perhaps, as I gave up running years ago because of back pain, I just bought my first bike that didn’t have a basket or streamers on it, and the only swimming I do tends to be a snorkeling trip every few years. But I’m not one to be deterred by details.
The biggest hurdle for me, as it is for most people, was the swim. I took lessons, got up at 5:00 a.m. twice a week to go to a pool workout, and when the Boulder Aquatic Masters began their open water swim sessions at the Boulder Reservoir, I showed up thinking – I so totally have this.
Then I spent the first few sessions dog paddling around the short course, completely panicked, assuring the lifeguards that no, I don’t need a boat ride back to the shore, I’m perfectly fine, thank you very much (I can be a stubborn beast when I want to be. Sometimes even when I don’t want to be. I just can’t help myself). Eventually, with much help from the talented BAM coaches, I overcame my fear and got to a place where I felt relaxed, confident even, in the swim.
After one of the open water swim sessions, I stood on the shore watching the 150 or so swimmers and feeling like, well, an idiot for signing up for a triathlon and more than mildly embarrassed at how awkward I was in the water. A triathlete friend came over to me and said, “Carol, this is no ordinary open water swim. This is BOULDER. There are pros out there, even Olympians, plus experienced athletes who win their age groups in the big races. Don’t compare yourself to them.” She then asked me, “Do you know who that is? The coach you were talking to?” One of the coaches – Jane – had been giving me great and very calming advice after the swim. “That’s Jane Scott. One of the best swim coaches in the country. Her brother is Dave Scott.”
Dave Scott, of Ironman fame. Recognized as one of the top two triathletes of all time. Lives in, you guessed it, Boulder.
I love living in a place like this, where active, healthy lifestyles are so embraced. Where people think getting up at 5:00 am to get a workout in is a healthy choice, not a sign I should start seeing a psychotherapist. In comparison, it’s one of the aspects of French culture that is difficult for me. Exposed breasts aren’t given a second thought, but wearing running shorts in Paris (for a woman, anyway) is treated as an affront to civilized society. Many French people I know think that exercising more than a couple days a week is tantamount to an obsessive compulsive disorder. Walking here and there is exercise enough. As for French women? They don’t sweat. They don’t do things that might make them sweat. Exercise? Why bother, when you could just avoid eating? My most vivid memory of my super skinny host mom when I stayed in France is of her sitting at the breakfast table stirring, stirring, stirring a coffee mug half filled with Nestle chocolate milk, never eating or drinking, only stirring and always a cigarette clenched between her lips.
Here’s a picture I took in Nice a few years ago of athletes checking in for the next day’s Ironman. Notice anything missing?
Checking in at the Ironman in Nice, France
Yep. Women! Females made up less than 10% of that triathlon, which is the typical rate for Ironman events in Europe (in the US it’s 25% for Ironman and 30% for 70.3 events). Most of them were not French. Of course French female athletes do exist. It’s just not the norm, and not something French girls aspire to.
In Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, he talks about his experience trying to find a gym to join in Paris during the mid-1990s. He finds a “New York-style” gym, presented as a gym that would “bring the rigorous, uncompromising spirit of the New York health club to Paris: its discipline, its toughness, its regimental quality.” he describes the sales pitch given by a chic young woman in a red track suit: “They had organized a special ‘high-intensity’ program in which, for the annual sum of about two thousand francs (four hundred dollars), you could make an inexorable New York-style commitment to your physique and visit the gym as often as once a week.” When the author suggests that he might want to come more often and explained that it’s not unknown for New Yorkers to go to the gym almost daily, the chic saleswoman is perplexed and comments that it must be a “wearing regimen.”
I love being active and fit. I love the achy tingle of muscles pushed to their limits. I love that my kids cheered me on during my triathlon, ringing cowbells and shouting, “Go, Mommy!” I love that my daughter, after watching me, said, “Can I do a triathlon with you next time?” One of the big reasons we (and many others) choose to live in Colorado was for the active lifestyle we could have here, and so the norm for our kids, as my husband put it, is, “A girl riding her bike rather than walking around in stillettos.”
My husband didn’t grow up playing sports or participating in athletics. While most US high schools have sports teams of some kind, sports and school are completely dissociated in France. Kids who want to play a sport must join a private team. My husband, for the most part, has embraced the active lifestyle we’ve found first in San Diego, and now here. He doesn’t love getting out of bed early to get his exercise in, but he buys the idea that daily exercise is important to health. He even started riding his bike to work in addition to working out in the gym.
We’re becoming true Boulderites, both of us. All of us, really, with our kids hiking, climbing on rocks, and playing outside whenever they can. It’s a beautiful life, we think.
Me, happily approaching the finish line
Rock climbing kiddos