Over the weekend, three major festivals/events occurred here in Wisconsin that drew various sorts of lunatics to the state from around the world: Great Taste of the Midwest, Triathlon National Championships and the Wisconsin State Fair.
The first is the second-largest beer festival in the country, just behind the Great American Beer Festival. The second is when the nation’s top triathletes pay a hefty fee for the honor of having their near-death experience sanctioned by a regulatory body. And the third is a “no way this combination is ill-thought-out” miasma of cream puffs, Tilts-a-Whirl, and hog judging.
I live in pretty close proximity to all of these — um, #blessed, I suppose? — and have attended the first two. I thought about making it a point to go to the State Fair for the sole purpose of writing a quasi-anthropological send-up of it, but David Foster Wallace already did exactly that, brilliantly, with the Illinois State Fair. Wallace is one of the greatest writers in history; I am one of the most mediocre writers in now, so I’m not doing anything else to tempt that karmic turd being dropped across my lap.
So yeah, I’ve been to the other two: GTMW last year, Tri-Nationals this year as a spectator. And while the images you have in your head of each sort of participant might not be far off from the reality, the two are probably not as dissimilar as you might initially assume.
1. They Wear their Credentials on Their Sleeves
Or heads, or chests, or feet or, y’know, wherever. And I’m not referring here to official vendors, salespeople or event staff. These are attendees, participants, their bodies detailing the history of their extensive experience in their respective fields like Russian prison tattoos.
If you know what to look for, you can get a pretty good idea of what kind of person you’re dealing with. For example, if you go to a beer festival and see someone wearing a Firestone Walker T-shirt, probably no big deal; FW is out of Paso Robles, California, but distributes across a fair bit of the country. Dude may have picked it up online, but even if he bought it at the brewery, all that means is that he’s been to California, which any sane person would want to do.
But if you see someone wearing, say, a Dark Lord T-shirt, this person hovered over their computer on what was probably a really nice day in early spring, constantly refreshing the Three Floyds webpage until Dark Lord Day tickets came up for sale. They then repeatedly clicked the “checkout” box and hoped that they scored a ticket within the 12 seconds they were available. This person then drove an indeterminable distance, waited in line for hours and bought four bottles of the beer for which they did said hovering, driving and waiting. If they didn’t grab a ticket online, there’s no telling what they paid on the gray market. Approach this person with caution.
Likewise, if a triathlete is wearing, say, a Fleet Feet Sports cap, a standard tri-suit and a pair of $110 Brooks running shoes, that’s pretty much par for the course. But if someone ambles up wearing compression socks, compression sleeves, and an Ultraman Hawaii shirt, that person is one of 40 athletes who were invited to complete a three-day race that involved a six-mile swim, a 260-mile bike ride, and two marathons back-to-back. On the one hand, I mean, wow. On the other hand… what the f***? Just, just what the f***?
Oh, and that remark about prison tattoos? Yeah, that’s not far from reality. A lot of Ironman competitors choose to tattoo the race logo on themselves as a sort of badge of honor and distinction. But Ironman is a brand unto itself, not a descriptor of the race parameters, so that’s kind of like tattooing, say, a KitchenAid mixer on your tricep because you really freaking love to bake. Or brewery logos. Yep, that happens.
2. Some People Have Way Too Much Time and Money
I fall pretty marginally into both categories here. I run a lot, and take care about what kind of shoes, shorts, sunglasses and even socks I wear for training and races. Likewise, I don’t generally drink beer that I don’t like, or that’s come from some macro producer (unless I’m in someone else’s home and they offer it to me, because I’m not as pretentious as I seem at first) with industrial production breweries dotting the country’s landscape.
But some people… oh jeez. Let’s talk about beer cellars for a sec, okay? It’s true that some beers can age gracefully over time, for between three and 25 years, depending. Considering that, it’s worth buying a few bottles here and there to stash away for special occasions; I’ve got maybe 20, and don’t intend to go beyond 30. But it’s not unheard-of for some aficionados to maintain a cellar upwards of 1,000 bottles and more.
It’s impressive in some ways, considering that the beers come from all over the world, and are kept at proper cellar temperature. But then you start to add up the cost: some boutique bottles cost between $15 and $50. Did you trade for it? I’ve done that, and the average-sized box through FedEx costs between $15 and $22 just to ship. Did you travel for it? How far? For how long? Did you fly or drive? You can also order online from places like Etre Gourmet and Belgium in a Box, but the shipping is astronomical.
Factor in all of that, and you could end up spending the average American’s annual income on fermented bread-water.
And then there’s the Ironman, again. Excluding professional athletes, who have freebies and sponsorships out the calloused wazoo, it’s an incredibly expensive hobby. The average registration fee will run you about $600; that’s just for the privilege of probably vomiting. Now, let’s take this leg by leg: you start with a 2-mile swim. You’ll want to own your own high-quality wetsuit, which you’ll switch out every five years or so, and which will run you between $100 and $350. Too warm a climate for the race to be wetsuit-legal? Spring for a “swim skin” for around $200.
Add in a cap, goggles, possibly ear and nose clips (which you will lose, repeatedly) and a training swimsuit, and you’re looking at another few hundred dollars annually.
Now, the bike. Here’s where the deep-end recesses into a mile-wide trench. My wife, a really good triathlete, recently bought a 10-year-old Cannondale bike for about $150. Cannondale is a very good, very respected bicycle brand; Chrissie Wellington, a multiple-time world champion, rides one of these, albeit a brand-spanking-new model.
Going shopping for a new triathlon bike, though? Check out your local Trek store. That gleaming white bike with the sleek carbon frame, aerodynamic seat post (you’re realized by now, I’m sure, that I’m not kidding), built-in aero bars, Hed wheels (which, alone, cost up to $1,000) and you’re looking at a figure somewhere between $6,000-$12,000, which you might recognize as more than most of us paid for our first, second and third cars.
The run is more Spartan — I can attest — but it can still get sort of ridiculous. Top of the line sunglasses run about $75, and a pair of Newton running shoes can cost up to $180. Add in $50 compression socks and appropriate running attire and… well, at this point you get the idea.
I bring this up not to marginalize or denigrate either community; each requires an inordinate amount of dedication and care. I do wonder, though: when you’ve reached a point in your life at which you can afford to spend this sort of time and money on a hobby, you run the risk of sacrificing everything else you worked so hard for so long to attain. There’s a joke to be made here involving the word “cyclical,” but reality is too sobering.