April 28, 2010

Focus ~ A Guest Post by Len Joy

Our excellent Cool Person Guest Blogger today is Len Joy. I met Len at the Tin House Writer’s Conference a couple of years ago when we were in the same novel workshop. His kickass fiction has that wonderful understated quietness that I like (a la Tom McGuane or William Kittredge), but it’s also very funny. He’s been published in Pindeldyboz, Hobart, 3AM Magazine, Slow Trains, and Boston Literary Magazine, among others. Last year several of his short fiction pieces were published by Bannock Street Books as part of a themed collection on “Work.” An excerpt from his novel-in-progress, “American Jukebox,” was published by Annalemma Magazine in 2009. Len lives in Evanston, Illinois, with his wife, Suzanne. Their son, Stephen, is a chemistry graduate student at NYU and their two daughters, Nicole and Christie, are in the fashion industry in Chicago. For over fifteen years he operated his own auto remanufacturing plants across the country. I urge you to check out his great blog, “Do Not Go Gentle…,” which chronicles his writing and his pursuit of USA Triathlon Age-Group Championships.

I was honored earlier this week when Tamara invited me to be one of her Cool Person Guest Bloggers. I’m definitely a cool person. One of my daughters once told her mom that “even Dad is cooler than you,” which is pretty solid evidence, I think. However, just to be safe, I’m completing my guest assignment before Tamara has second thoughts.

In my blog, “Do Not Go Gentle,” I chronicle my efforts to become an age-group competitive triathlete and a writer. While the activities have obvious differences, the endeavors do complement each other and my triathlon experience has helped me to develop as a writer.

Five years ago, on a whim, I signed up for a sprint triathlon (400 yards in a pool, 12-mile bike ride, 3.1-mile run). I figured it wouldn’t be that difficult as I knew how to swim, bike, and run. I just hadn’t ever had any reason to do all three at once. It does make a difference. As Donald Rumsfeld liked to say, there are things we know we don’t know and then there are those things that we don’t know we don’t know. Before my first triathlon I didn’t know there was such a thing as a triathlon suit so after my swim, I changed from my soggy swimsuit to running shorts in the, fortunately not very populated, transition area.

Not knowing anything is a big advantage when you’re getting started. Ignorance allowed me to enter the race and by the time I finished I was exhausted, but hooked. Started reading about the sport ~ learned important stuff such as don’t wear socks and don’t bother drying off after the swim and use shoelaces you don’t have to tie.

All on my own, I improved. In my second year I finished in the top three for my age group in all my races and even took a first in one of the smaller local sprints. Of course I’m in the 55- to 59-year age group so there are only a few survivors still competing.

Three years ago I decided to try an Olympic distance race (0.9-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 6.2-mile run). I signed up for the Chicago Accenture Triathlon ~ the largest triathlon in the country with over seven thousand participants. Swimming was my weakest event. The sprints all took place in rec center swimming pools. The Accenture was nearly a mile in Lake Michigan. I bought a wetsuit and decided I should probably try it out before the race. So one morning I got up early and drove to the lake. The waves were a foot high so I went home. The next day it was calm, but then I discovered I needed someone to help me zip my wetsuit. I recruited an early morning jogger to help me and was able to get one practice swim in before the race.

The open water swim was a learning experience. I learned I should have waited for everyone to start so they didn’t all have to swim over the top of me. And I learned a mile is a long distance to swim. I was so happy to survive the swim that I got on my bike and start pedaling like it was a five mile race. And I had a really good time for the first five miles, but unfortunately the course went on for another twenty miles.

It was noon by the time I started the run. It was hot and I wasn’t prepared to run six miles after a long bike ride. It took me over three hours to finish the race, almost an hour longer than the top finishers in my age group.

After the race I thought about what I needed to do become competitive and realized I had no idea. So I hired a coach. Craig Strong (Precision Multisport) happened to be the instructor for the Masters swim class at the Evanston Y. With Craig’s guidance I’ve learned how to train, upgraded my equipment, even started to pay attention to nutritional needs. This March I took a 3rd place in the Lake Havasu Triathlon and later this summer I plan to compete in my first Half-Ironman triathlon (1.2-mile swim, 52-mile bike, 13.2-mile run).

My writing career has followed a similar arc. Six years ago on a whim I took a writing course at the University of Chicago’s Writer’s Studio. I’d always had a vague desire to be a writer, but needed a push. After the first course, I was encouraged enough to take another course and then another. That summer I went to the Iowa Writer’s Festival for a week and a year later to Tin House (where I met Tamara). This year I plan to attend the New York State Writers Institute at Skidmore and I won a scholarship to the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Cape Cod. That should be fun.

As it was with triathlons, when I started I was benevolently ignorant. After that first year I thought I was ready to write a novel, and I did. Four years later, I’m still writing that novel. I guess I’m not going to be an overnight success.

But like training for a race or raising kids, the reward is in the journey.

Len, I am convinced that you’ll be an overnight success someday, but it may take a few years (even though I think your work is deserves it already)! Thank you for the great post!

PS Len had some beautiful photos of his kids to include, but I am unable to get photos to post right now. I will work on this. Sorry!

PPS To see the photos, go to Len's blog here.

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