Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Houston, We Have Ignition!


The blog's been a little quiet lately, but things have been afoot behind the scenes.  Indeed, they've been a big 'ol foot just lookin' for some ass to kick.  And now those feet are kickin' like Pete Jacobs on the business end of an Ironman.

EXIT TEAM Z

But let me back up.  Back in July, I posted about my decision to leave Team Z after nearly five years.  It was a difficult decision, as I had deep affection for the team and had done what small things I could to help it become more things to more athletes, so to speak.  I was quite fond of the coaches individually and collectively, and through the team, I'd met terrific training partners, many of whom eventually became close friends.

The problem was that I've always had trouble standing still.  In fact, thinking back on it, I probably could have become a better triathlete than I am merely by finding a coach, sticking with him, finding training routes and a routine that work, and practicing until perfect.  That's how greatness is achieved, I think: focusing on results, controlling the variables, and building brick by brick until you've built the Great Wall.  It's about steady progress and evolution, and it works.

But it's not how I work.  I thrive on novel challenges, not incremental gains.  The first triathlon I ever signed up for was an Ironman, and I signed up for it at a time when I didn't own a bike, couldn't swim, couldn't run more than three miles, and was heading into knee surgery.  The novelty -- and, ok, sure, the sheer terror -- pulled me so far out of my comfort zone that I felt my brain was expanding in time with my lung capacity.  I joined Team Z shortly after I survived that ordeal, and the newness of the rides, the people, and the training kept me going for quite awhile.  Over time, though, I came to feel like I was spinning my wheels, no pun intended.  The workouts and races individually were satisfying, but part of the joy of this sport is the feeling that one is out in the world exploring new places, visiting new towns and cresting new mountains.  I began to strike out on my own to an increasing degree, signing up for nutty races and rides in exotic (and sadistic) locations, and generally making my own way.  And others I knew were doing the same.

Cutting through the considerable drama, the basic problem was this: my training partners and I found ourselves doing our own thing more often than not, and it is difficult for a large organization to maintain an identity and coherence while tolerating factions going their own way.  The coaches on Team Z did their best to offer to bring our idiosyncratic race and training schedules into the team fold somehow -- to support our rides hither and yon, and to designate some of our chosen races as team races.  But it simply wasn't working; no organization can be everything to everyone.  Eventually the tensions became palpable, so we struck out on our own, and formed a new team with a core membership of the group of us who'd been training together for years.  Team Z would be just fine; indeed, it just won Competitor Magazine's award for "Best Tri Team: Mid-Atlantic"!  For a team that didn't exist until 2005, that's quite an achievement.

ENTER IGNITE ENDURANCE

On one level, founding a triathlon team is pretty straightforward: you get together and decide you're a triathlon team, and there you go.  Hopefully you can come up with a name that somehow combines "Superheroes" and "underpants," but I couldn't.  What did crop up in my mind was "Ignite Endurance," so named because our athletes compete in all sorts of things that aren't triathlon -- their common denominator is that, by the time you really wish they were done, you're about halfway to the finish line.

Of course, the notion of an endurance sports team is fundamentally odd considering that they're purely individual sports.  Even in tennis, swimming, track, and bowling, individual scores are aggregated to determine a winning team.  Not so in triathlon or marathoning; on some level, you're only a team insofar as you identify collectively with one another and train together.  You don't actually need to be on a team to do those things, and many aren't.  Yet triathlon teams are ubiquitous for the simple reason that people enjoy belonging to something larger than themselves, and that's a terrific thing.  In fact, the proliferation of amateur endurance sports teams is one of the only areas I can think of that's actively cutting against the trend of social atomization, where we live behind electronic walls and even phone conversations are sometimes deemed uncomfortably intrusive.  Yes, we may be Bowling Alone, but we're riding bikes together, dammit.

Interestingly, my experience in founding the team turned out to be easy in the ways I thought it would be near impossible, and exceedingly challenging in ways that never even surfaced on my radar.  We had about eight founding members, and our first task was to try to find a main sponsor, i.e., a bike or triathlon shop.  We imagined that this would be difficult, but we were fortunate to get a welcoming reception at a couple of shops, and we quickly agreed on the most natural fit: Tri360, a store that had yet to open.  Indeed, when we signed our sponsorship agreement, the store did not even have walls.  We were convinced to work with them because the founders, Kate and Blaine, were in the same position we were: starting a new venture and looking for a flexible, enthusiastic partnership.  And, more than that, they're the sort of people one doesn't often find owning a triathlon shop: down-to-earth, terrific folks who are genuinely interested in helping new athletes find their way in what can be an intimidating environment.  As someone who's spent a fair bit of time in bike shops, I can tell you that there's no more welcoming place for a new athlete -- especially a female athlete -- to go.  It's a pleasure to be sponsored by a company one really believes in, and they're obviously doing something right, having been awarded Competitor Magazine's award for "Best Triathlon Store: Mid-Atlantic" after less than a year in business.  We've also had a surprising degree of success in finding partnerships beyond Tri360: so far, we've linked up with Blue Seventy, GU Energy Labs, Skratch Labs, Rudy Project, Zoca Gear, and other terrific companies -- no bad shakes for a team that, until today, didn't even have a website.

But it was not all easy sailing.  The surprising part is that the most intractable challenges have been purely aesthetic.  Put it this way:

Me: "So, we need to settle on a color scheme."

Men: "We want to look like Batman."

Women: "No."

Men: "Aww, come on.  You'll look like Catwoman.  That's hot."

Women: "We have the sudden urge to shove this bike pump somewhere you didn't apply Body Glide."

Men: "So what do you want the colors to be?"

Women: "Teal."

Men: "Batman does not wear teal."
It burns!!!  It burns!!!

See, it turns out that men and women have almost entirely different taste, and ne'er the twain shall meet.  Eventually we settled on black and white, with a neon blue and accents of yellow.  Think that's the end of it?  Hah!  YOU try coming up with a logo that seven people agree on.  We were fortunate to have a skilled graphic designer on our team, but we drove the poor lad to distraction with such minute as the shape of our flame.  It ultimately turned out to be this, which I think is pretty kickass for something created from scratch.

And then, once you have team colors, and you have a logo, you need... kits.  Uniforms, that is, in cycling cool-kid jargon.  And here, you're faced with almost literally a blank page staring at you.  It's possible, of course, to work off of a template offered by one of the major companies, but these have a way of looking like exactly what they are: off-the-shelf models with your colors and icons.  It's not a bad way to go, but we wanted to do things right.  The problems will be familiar to anyone who's ever watched a team challenge on Project: Runway.  Triathletes, like fashion designers, are Type-A people with strong opinions, and when those opinions are combined, often the result is not a happy medium, but something that would make Tim Gunn bite his knuckles, inhale sharply, and say, "You know, I really like you as a designer, but I have to tell you I have some concerns about what the judges are going to say here."

But, after burning the midnight oil for a couple of weeks, we're getting there -- yesterday we sent our proofs off to Zoca, our apparel sponsors, and they look terrific.  What's more, Christmas came two weeks late to our humble collective, bringing with it a brand spanking new website!  (We're also on Twitter and Facebook.)  The end is in sight, and stepping back, it's amazing what we've put together.  We have a terrific group of 20 athletes who are ready to take on the world come the spring, and I'm not sure how I've gotten this lucky.

To infinity and beyond!  After my knee surgery.  What?  Oh, right, I didn't actually mention training or racing in this post.  How refreshing.  An oversight soon to be remedied!  Until next time, friends.