There are reasons to body mark that go much deeper than positioning and penalties.
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Your friend must be referring to Sharpie’s tendency to freak out and scatter when sandwiched between skin and neoprene, then run through the spin cycle. Any number and age markings that still exist after the swim may have morphed so they can’t serve their original purposes: 1) to let officials know who you are in a pinch if they can’t see your bike or race belt and 2) to tell the sucker you just passed you stole their age group position, your sweaty 35-year-old calf taunting them as you pull away.
Add on the latest fashion—elbow-length aero sleeves, compression socks—and inking up calves and shoulders can seem pointless. And yet! There are reasons to body mark that go much deeper than positioning and penalties.
Allow me to dump a few quotes on you, the first from renowned source of anthropological information, Encyclopedia.com, and the second from close runner-up, NPR:
In pre-literate societies, “tattoos acted both as armour and as an expression of the position the individual held within society. Culture is reproduced at the point where the inner individual meets the outer world—the marked skin.”
So the fact that you’re reading this means you’re not in that type of society. However, NPR pointed out more than a decade ago:
“Traditional cultures worldwide are experiencing a renaissance in body markings, which they see as meaning-laden paths to empowerment that honor both the individual and the community. In the West, body marking satisfies a yearning to reconnect with the primordial pulse of ancient ways,
thus connecting to something larger than the individual, more profound than daily existence, and a deeply rooted in a sense of global community.”
A few things. Yeah, they’re both talking about tattoos of the permanent variety. But does not body marking at a race carry with it some of the same psychosocial reasons to partake? Your buddy’s not just marking himself as #3029 in the 35-39 age group; by getting inked at a tri— with Sharpie, Xterra’s semi-permanent stampy ink, or temporary tattoos—we connect ourselves to the hundreds or thousands of people around us who, for that day, have chosen to be a part of something larger than themselves, and proudly display their part in the triathlon community.
Scientific proof: anyone you’ve ever met who kept their body markings on après race—by choice, not because they couldn’t find soap. Actor America Ferrera proudly showed off her shoulder ink at a Hollywood party the evening after racing the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in 2016 because she was rightfully dang proud of her accomplishment, and stoked to show she’s a triathlete.
So the next time your buddy poops out on the paint, tell them everybody’s favorite self-satisfying quote: “You’re only cheating yourself.” Then let them watch your age revealing calf as it runs by and out of view.