Surf City


A fellow triathlete belts out the Star-Spangled Banner.

anta Cruz is synonymous with waves, surfboards, roller coasters, and liberal politics. I didn’t experience everything Surf City has to offer during the Santa Cruz Sprint Triathlon on Saturday, August 13th. But I did gain some new perspectives of the city – and myself.

This was my fourth triathlon. I’ve discovered that one of the things I enjoy most about triathlons is that I’m an active participant in an event – not just an observer. It seems that so much of our daily lives these days is spent observing other people’s realities – reality TV shows, talent and survival competitions, sporting events, concerts, movies, YouTube, etc.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with all that. Entertainment is the spice of life. But what about actually getting up and creating your own reality? I think the technical term psychologists use is “Couch Potato Observer Syndrome” (CPOS).I know I’ve suffered from CPOS in the past. Heck, my original profession of choice was a sportswriter.

I’ve been asked many times, “Wow – sportswriter. That must have been glamorous – wasn’t it?”

Sometimes – but not really.

Basically my job was to sit stoically in a detached, glass-enclosed press box. I observed various groups of talented athletes doing some amazing stuff, and then jotted down a few notes. At the end of the game or competition, I walked into a smelly locker room, asked a lot of (sometimes stupid) questions, got a few scowls, and then wrote about the experience.Sure, it could be exciting at times. But at the end of the day, I felt a certain void. Deep inside, I wanted to be out there on the field, or court, or track, or stage. I wanted to be the one creating the images I was writing about.


Cool swag I received after finishing the Santa Cruz Triathlon.

But, alas, like most of us, I’ve never been much of an athlete, singer, dancer, or actor. I knew I could write, though. So that’s what I did. I eventually stopped writing about sports and became a technical writer. It wasn’t nearly as exciting – or as smelly – as being a sportswriter. But there are similarities. A technical writer describes, in as clearly and interesting a way as possible, how to use fancy technical gadgets created by engineers. And once again, there’s a void: I want to be the one doing the creating.

All of which leads me back to triathlons. The swimming, biking, running, training, and competing – when you put it all together, the "void" disappears. For me, at least, the thrill is simply about being a fully engaged participant. It’s about creating my own reality show. It’s about reminding myself that I’m alive. Yes, I still observe. I still watch sports. I still enjoy going to movies and concerts, and watching other people perform. But in triathlons, I’m an active part of an unfolding scene. I’m not stuck in static mode in the bleachers, or behind the ropes, or in a theater seat. When I move, I have an effect on my environment.

What in the World Are All Those People Looking At?

A few minutes before the start of the Santa Cruz Sprint Triathlon, I took a warm-up swim about 100 yards beyond the breakers at Cowell’s Beach. Before paddling back to shore, I stopped and took in the scene around me. As usual in Santa Cruz during the summer, the coastline was engulfed in a blanket of fog. But there was still plenty to see. To my left was the Santa Cruz Wharf – a creaking, but still grand structure, built in 1914. The barks of sea lions echoed between the wharf’s wooden beams.


Scene at Cowell's Beach a few minutes before the start of the race.

Beyond the wharf, I could make out a portion of the vast expanses of the Monterey Bay, which stretches out more than 20 miles between the Monterey Peninsula and Santa Cruz.  The average water temperature here is a crisp 53 degrees. As I continued to turn clockwise to the north, I could see the rocky outline of Lighthouse Point off in the distance. Directly below it is Steamers Lane, a legendary Santa Cruz surfing spot.

Coming full circle, I focused next on a large multi-story hotel, the Santa Cruz Dream Inn, overlooking Cowell’s Beach. I could see several groups of people gazing out from the hotel’s balconies. The scene caught me by surprise.

“Jeez, it’s 8 o'clock in the friggin’ morning. What in the world are all those people looking at? Oh yeah, there’s a triathlon about to start. They must be watching the triathlon… Hmmmm… and I’m in it. Man, this is really weird…”

A Sport of All Shapes, Sizes, and Ages


On the left is 77-year-old wonder woman Barbara Robben. On the right is Michael Johnston, who took second in the Semper Fi division.

Triathlon is an all-inclusive activity. If you are reasonably fit, and are able to swim, bike, and run, you can join in on the fun. It is yet another aspect of the sport that I find so appealing. Competitors come in all shapes, sizes, ages, physical conditions, and abilities. Some, like those in the Pro-Elite division, are in phenomenal physical condition and are prodigious athletes. Many others, like me, are just average athletes who simply enjoy the challenge, excitement, and camaraderie of competing.

But there are certain athletes who stand out from the pack. They are not necessarily the fastest, fittest, or most competitive in the group. But they are some of the most inspiring people I have ever encountered.

Probably the most impressive of these athletes at the Santa Cruz Triathlon was the oldest competitor in the field, 77-year-old Barbara Robben of Berkeley, CA. She was one of only a handful in the race who competed in the swim (in the aforementioned 53-degree water) without a wetsuit. Barbara finished 211th overall with a time of 1:51:52.

There were plenty of other awe-inspiring individuals, such as those competing in the Semper Fi division – for physically challenged, disabled, or wounded military personnel. (“Semper Fidel” is Latin for "Always Faithful".) The guy in the picture on the left is Michael Johnston, a reservist in the U.S. Navy, who took second in the Semper Fi division. (He finished more than six minutes ahead of me.)

When you’re out on a triathlon course, side-by-side with people like Barbara and Michael, you experience something you simply can’t get while sitting idly in a press box or on the couch watching TV. For me, it was a buzz that went far beyond the high of cheering on a winning contestant or sports team. For a brief period of time, I was sharing reality with a group of both ordinary and extraordinary people – a simple celebration of life.Reality doesn’t get any better than that.

Side Note: For the second consecutive race, I finished sixth in my age group. At least my swimming continues to improve... Here are a couple of pictures just to prove I was there...



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