Swim, Bike, Run - Part 1

Last week, an ass a good friend observed that in the past few weeks the blog has been filled with stories from my youth and recollections of past glories. From this, he has deduced that I am having an online, mid-life crisis. He has also predicted that within the next year I will purchase a new, red sports car. I don’t happen to agree with his assessment, but if he’s right, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. For one, I believe that I am past the mid-point of life- due to my affinity for brown liquor and cigars I rather suspect I will not see 80 (but who knows- Baba hit 94). Additionally, if this is indeed a mid-life crisis, I got off easy – a few blog posts are far less expensive than the car I would probably buy. The ass’s point is taken, and in the future I will try to stick more closely to the urban design script. In defiance of his assertion, however, I offer another trip down memory lane.

This week marks the ten-year anniversary of my competition in Ironman Florida. For the uninitiated, an Ironman is a long-distance triathlon. The Florida version of the race comprises a 2.4-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico, a 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run (aka a marathon), completed back-to-back-to-back in the same day. The fact that I was engaged in the sport is purely a case of sibling rivalry. My brother egged me into running (a couple of a marathons) and a few short triathlons. He was always faster than me, so the only way to beat him was to go for distances that he wouldn’t. Regardless of the reason for participation, the race was perhaps the highlight of my athletic career. Beyond that, the process of training for it sparked the biggest leap in my understanding of Chattanooga and urbanism.

Yes, I shaved my legs for this.

2002 was, until that point, the most dynamic year of my life. Personally, it was the year I got married and the year I bought my first house. Professionally, the studio had just embarked upon the Downtown Plan and the 21st Century Waterfront Plan. This was also the year that I had an aborted attempt at starting a new design firm- obviously it didn’t work out, but I suppose I can count my blessings for that. It was in the midst of that storm that I thought preparing for an Ironman was a perfectly logical thing to do.

The primary factor in training for an Ironman is time. Clearly there is a physical endurance component, but with the proper training you teach your body over the course of a year to be able to handle the physical stuff- all it takes is time. At the height of training, I was spending 4 hours per weekday and six hours per weekend day in the pool or on the road. The upshot of that is that I had a lot of time alone to think. A portion of that thinking time was spent on things like technique and mental preparation for the race, but much of the training is mindless repetition that allows the thoughts to wander. The unintended consequence of spending 4 hours a day running was that I was put into direct contact with the city – our roads, buildings, sidewalks, parks, plazas and greenways. I had hundreds of hours with nothing to do other than think, observe, and contemplate the built environment. Perhaps this is something that others take for granted, but it seemed profound to me: in understanding a place, there is truly no substitute for being there. The typical planning “windshield survey” can be useful for data gathering, but it doesn’t allow for the depth of understanding that comes from actually being in a position to touch, smell, hear and see places up close.

One of the things that is best understood in person is the varying level of quality in the public realm. There were places that I loved to run and places where I didn’t. The places where it was fun to run were those that treated pedestrian with respect and generosity. These are the places where one felt safe and could let the mind wander- the excellent example is the Riverwalk. On the Riverwalk there is no real danger of being plowed by a car, lighting was ample and consistent, and the surfaces level and well maintained.  These factors made for less stressful and more comfortable runs. Then are the places where you have to constantly be on alert for motorists, cracks in the sidewalk, or any of the other typical runners banes.

Fun to run.
When we advocate for a generous public realm, it’s not about aesthetics. The width of the sidewalk, the character of the lighting, the quality of the ground plane, the number of curb cuts, and the interface with the street are often characterized as costly, aesthetic concerns. In reality these issues are more about function than they are form. It boils down to the classic budgetary concern – should you build to the minimum arbitrary standard and end with something that is marginally useful, or do we spend a little extra to produce something that is highly functional. Running through downtown, it’s easy to find the places where we built quality- these are the places where you can find people, these are also the places that expressed our values and aspirations as we were making our comeback. Its also easy to find the places where we cheaped out- these are the places we avoid, places devoid of life and vitality.

Over the past few decades (with some notable exceptions) we have proven that we are a community that aspires to do more than the minimum.  When we have made those extra investments in our public realm, the return on that investment has been extraordinary. When we have cut corners, we have received what we paid for. Chattanooga is currently kicking ass while communities across the country are struggling. Why is that? Our current success is a direct result of our investments over and above the minimum.

I'll see YOU next week

I'll be back next week to finish the thought. For now, I'm off to Nashville to see Noel again. Cheers.

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