Dispatch: Beyond The Bubble

Sometimes it’s good to break away from our triathlon circle — for a few days, anyway.

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I love triathletes. They’re my best pals, my heroes, the targets I chase, and the inspiration for my work. We share a passion, a pastime and pretty much our own language. We’re like one big well-toned, exercise-obsessed extended family.

But like any family, we need a break from one another now and again. I don’t know about you, but I feel a little shortsighted when I’m immersed for too long in all things swim, bike and run. Especially where I live, in Boulder’s tri-maniacal Mecca, endurance-sports overload is a common ailment. Yet while reference is often made to the “Boulder bubble” — our insulated world where practically every swim session includes a world champion, it’s normal to be lapped on a run by an Olympian, and a ride on the commuter bike path is as competitive as any race — we triathletes are not actually the only game in town.

One of my BFF’s from my pre-triathlon life visited in October, providing a refreshing opportunity to hang outside my everyday social circle. LiLin was one of my dorm-mates at boarding school, and she and her husband Mark went to the University of Colorado Boulder. The CU Buffs’ homecoming football game anchors their annual meet-up with their college pals, and if I’m in town I tag along and make it a multi-faceted reunion.

These friends are not clueless about triathlon — they’re super supportive of me (their token “Ironman friend”) and have followed a few of my races online. One of Mark’s frat brothers, a Boulder local known fondly as The Butt, has even done a handful of sprint races (Note: This was my second time meeting The Butt, whose real name remains a mystery. I suppose once you’re renamed The Butt, nothing else stands a chance. But I digress…). LiLin and Mark live in outdoorsy Portland, Ore., where it’s common practice to hike, jog and bike. So you see, this crew is active, if not entirely addicted to endorphins. They’re normal, well balanced people — with careers and kids and casual hobbies (not to mention killer nicknames) different than my day-to-day multi-sport mix. And I’m totally in awe of them for it.

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This year we re-cemented our bond over a cruisey morning mountain bike ride. I rode at the rear with LiLin, more concerned with our catch-up chick chat than any chance to crush the boys’ egos. (Although afterward The Butt asked if my legs were sore, as he was walking a little tenderly. I answered honestly: “Um, no.”) Next we went for lunch and beers before the big game, and that’s when my fascination for my non-triathlon-fixated-friends faded to mere warm up status for what came next. Suddenly, I was smack in the midst of a fully foreign environment. Weekend warrior athletes are one thing, but college students are an entirely alien world.

I’d heard of “The Hill” in Boulder — but mostly as a place to avoid. It’s the area around the university, college student central, home to fraternity and sorority houses and all range of raunchy late night bars and cheap eateries. I had no prior reason to visit The Hill, and although I’m vaguely aware that I live in a college town, the student population never really penetrates my own Boulder bubble. But here’s the thing: our worlds literally exist side by side. Familiar or not, these folks are part of my community — we share an area code, after all. So four years into living here it was high time I learned what was up, up there.

We headed to lunch on College Avenue by way of a nostalgic walking tour of my friends’ former stomping grounds. As we strolled past their one-time homes — run down rental pads and rickety frat houses, with mildewed sofas and mounting collections of beer cans strewn across every front lawn — an entirely different Boulder population came into focus, framed by the scent of stale beer, urine and marijuana. I’m pretty sure more alcohol had been consumed by lunchtime on The Hill than sports drink during an entire Ironman. This crowd was hardcore.

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While I’ve long since blocked out memories of my own swill-saturated college days in favor of my now fitness-focused lifestyle, I couldn’t help but marvel at some similarities between the two. The CU student body was out in force to celebrate sport, their beloved Buffs prepping to play in the nearby stadium. They certainly got into the game with the same fervor as triathlon fans in Kona. Their tailgating cooler setups reminded me of race aid stations, albeit with a higher alcohol content. They dressed the part too, wearing Buff-themed getups of black and gold, the girls’ outfits especially outrageous with high-waisted bun-baring cutoff shorts, skimpy slashed tee-shirts and faux-fur hats featuring baby buffalo horns (a nod to the team’s mascot). But really, yard for yard, they probably wore twice as much fabric as most triathletes parading up and down Ali’i Drive. Who am I to judge? The students are obviously endurance partiers, and though our activities of choice differ, I give them big ups for going hard and long.

I don’t plan on going back to college anytime soon, but I do have a certain level of respect for my newfound Boulder neighbors and the ways in which their subculture is oddly alike mine. And I enjoy the eye-opening experience of exploring beyond triathlon’s bubble. I cherish the chance to expand my horizons and to ease up on the urge to always swim, bike and run with purpose — even if I’m 20-plus years past the urge to smoke pot. Sometimes, it’s good to just have fun, and forget about whether you’re going fast enough. In fact, maybe I’ll ring The Butt up someday for another cruisey ride.

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