“The Force is strong with this one…”
Darth Vader (referring to Luke Skywalker), from Episode IV: A New Hope
After getting badgered for several months, I finally allowed my 6-year-old daughter to watch Star Wars with her older brother a couple of weeks ago.
The original trilogy has been my son’s favorite for a couple of years, and his little sister was chomping at the bit to see all the things he constantly talks about. Unfortunately for her, I had established a completely arbitrary and logically indefensible rule that kids in our family had to be seven years old before watching Star Wars – because that’s how old I was when I first saw it.
(Trust me, the policy isn’t as mean as it sounds: I conceded my original rule that they also had to wait three years before watching each sequel, like I had to. These kids have things so easy these days.)
Of course, my daughter has matured at a much more accelerated pace than I ever anticipated, and it was clear to us that she was ready to see the movies. So I waived the final six months of her sentencing and let her watch, contingent upon one catch: she had to sit in the chair with me and let me keep my arm around her. (Yes, she’s growing up – but she’s still my little girl.)
It also seemed like a good occasion to revisit an article I wrote for my old website, about how my passion for the original trilogy relates to my life as a modern-day triathlete. I updated it slightly (mainly to justify posting a picture of Desiree Ficker), but it’s otherwise unedited from its original form.
Watching the Star Wars trilogy on DVD recently, I’ve had flashbacks to what an absolute freak I was about these movies at the time they were released.
I was seven years old when the first installment came out, and from the opening scene with the underside of the Imperial Star Destroyer flying overhead, I was enthralled. I collected action figures, trading cards, puzzles, games, clothes, and bed sheets- basically, if they slapped the movie logo or any character on it, I bought it.
The trilogy evolved during my formative years, and had such a lasting impact that to this day, I still use its analogies or points of reference in everyday conversation. For example, my relationships with training partners can easily fit within the films' confines.
Think of me as Luke Skywalker. Since the original trilogy is essentially his coming-of-age story, I’ll describe the athletes around me like his cast of supporting characters. Like the movies, some names and faces change somewhat through the years, but the core group remains - with complexities that aren’t apparent at first glance.
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda
When Episode IV: A New Hope begins, Luke is a simple farmboy with a restless nature. He wanders into the wilderness when his droids escape, and ends up getting pummeled by a group of Tusken Raiders.
Obi-Wan comes to his rescue, and recognizes Luke’s potential to become a Jedi warrior. He tries to provide Luke with the proper training, but Luke is stubbornly resistant, trying to succeed by his own methods.
Whereas Obi-Wan is the patient, traditional instructor, Yoda is the quirky guru whose unorthodox ways are initially hard to believe. He forces Luke to give him piggyback rides, makes him do handstands, and constantly plays guessing games with him. Luke is initially resistant to both methods of instruction – but after repeated defeats and disappointments, finally embraces the discipline and dedication that ultimately maximize his ability.
I’ve been fortunate to train with a few older mentors in our running group – but I wasn’t always open to their way of doing things. I didn’t want to run high mileage. I didn’t want to push myself as often as they did. I clung to my casual training philosophy for several years, and had far more disappointing races than I like to admit.
I think the tendency of many young athletes is to be overly independent, and initially dismissive of the way our predecessors achieved their success. The training they do seems crazy – but then we watch them raise an x-wing fighter out of a swamp, or run a sub-3-hour marathon in their late 50s, and finally start thinking, hmmm…maybe there’s something to all this.
The stereotypical good-looking, macho, arrogant, brash, wisecracking fighter pilot jock – there’s at least one of those in just about any group of triathletes, right?
Han is similar in age to Luke, but with far more natural talent and worldly experience than Luke could ever imagine. Luke sometimes wishes he could be more like Han, but realizes there’s no way he could ever pull it off. Han is always making a play with the ladies, and trash-talking the men, but he’s got the talent to back up his boasting. He frequently gets himself into trouble, but usually manages to show up in time for the crucial battles. You always feel better about your chances with him at your side.
Our running group actually has a couple of guys like this- very fast, very cocky, very cool. Occasionally they get injured and disappear for a while - like Han being held prisoner in the carbonite deep-freeze - but they seem to get healthy and fast just in time for the big races. They make me work harder just so I don’t embarrass myself by comparison. And their excitement at the starting line is contagious, giving me more confidence in my ability to succeed.
Han Solo’s right-hand Wookiee is a member of one of the most fearsome breeds in the universe, renowned for their sheer strength and ferocious nature. Chewie is the one character who makes Han nervous, because although they are friends, Han knows he is completely overmatched. No one dares irritate a Wookiee, so much so that the recommended strategy when playing one in a chess match is to - in C-3PO’s famous words - let the Wookiee win.
There is one guy in our running group that the rest of us would never EVER try to race against. Over any distance. It just wouldn’t be a contest - even our Han Solo guys can’t compete with him. Whenever he shows up to run the Big Sur Marathon, the rest of us all know that the “top local runner” award is out of the question, and everyone else is competing for second place. What’s more, it’s never even discussed - we all just know.
He's our Chewbacca, with one exception: we don't have to let him win. He does it just fine on his own.
Invariably, whenever a girl is bold enough to train frequently with an exclusively male group, the thought process of the men is initially something like: Wow…a girl! Then we think, there’s no way she can keep up with us – is there?
Soon we discover that she’s actually pretty talented, and secretly hope that she doesn’t get faster than us. Eventually, the idea of having a girl around becomes pretty attractive, and we think about how cool it would be if our girlfriends or wives were good runners, too. Finally, we come to think of her as a sister, and enjoy having her in our company as we race together. Our group is lucky enough to have just such a girl.
Now think about the relationship between Luke and Leia. It’s pretty much the same, right? Shock and initial attraction eventually giving way to familial bonds and fighting together for a mutual cause.
Remember at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, when Leia kissed Luke tenderly on the cheek to make Han jealous? Sure, with hindsight and the later revelation that they were siblings, that scene seems kind of creepy now - but at the time, that was a lot of sexual tension for a nine-year-old to contemplate. I can still feel my heart racing just remembering it.
In Episode IV, Darth Vader was the most loathsome villain imaginable: the faceless personification of evil, a remorseless murderer with seemingly unlimited dark power. My younger sister had nightmares about him for months after seeing that first movie.
To Luke, he represented the ultimate challenge: there was no way for the rebellion to succeed except by defeating Darth Vader, and Luke was the only one to do it. It was a battle that Luke inevitably had to wage, but not until he had prepared himself as thoroughly as possible.
Every day of his Jedi training was done with Vader in mind, until their ultimate confrontation in Return of the Jedi. But then we learn the major revelation of that movie, when Vader ultimately saves Luke’s life, and tells him…well, you know the rest.
The identity of my own Darth Vader has changed over the years, but there is always someone to adequately fill the role. Almost every running group has two or more people who are very closely matched in ability, or maybe one is consistently just better than the other. They may train for months on end, each day thinking about a race that looms ahead, when they can challenge each other face-to-face.
Fearing another runner is not necessarily a bad thing if it inspires you to improve. There have been many dark, cold mornings when the only thing that got me out of bed was the thought that one of my main rivals was out there training, too. Eventually you realize that your rivals aren’t really evil, and they frequently become your allies at the most crucial times.
(Incidentally, sometime between 1977 and today, Darth Vader became very “cool.” More Star Wars merchandising has Vader’s image than any other character. It’s a popular Halloween costume every year. Little kids have Darth Vader birthday cakes. College bands play “The Death Star Theme” at football games. He’s actually the main character of the entire series, when you consider the new prequel trilogy. In hindsight, isn’t it kind of amazing that this happened? I think even my sister likes him now.)
This is where the analogy takes a bit of a stretch. The Stormtroopers are nameless, faceless foot soldiers of the “dark side”. They are overwhelming in number, and they seem to be present around every turn as the main characters travel the galaxy.
The sight of them is instantly terrifying, for it indicates the nearby presence of the Empire. Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, and Leia are constantly devising new ways to avoid or escape their presence in order to accomplish their tasks.
To a triathlete, Stormtroopers are anything that limits us from getting out the door and training every day. They could be something internal - like injury, lack of motivation, or simple laziness. They could also be external factors like too many time commitments, excess job stress, or negative reinforcement from acquaintances. The only way to progress toward our goals is to avoid all of these potential pitfalls.
Obstacles could even be loved ones - such as when all of my kids are sick, or when the baby wakes up just as I’m trying to sneak out the door in the morning. (Yes, you read that right - I just compared my kids to Stormtroopers. Go ahead and cancel my father of the year nomination now). The point is, we always have to figure out ways around these factors in order to carry on with our training.
And if you buy that analogy, how about this: the scene in Episode IV when Luke and Han put on Stormtrooper uniforms to infiltrate the Death Star must have been something like two skinny runners putting on those sumo-wrestler suits and sneaking into fat camp for a week. In both cases, they become the very thing they fear the most in order to gain secretive access to a foreign, threatening environment. And if they get discovered, they’ll likely be killed. (OK, maybe that’s a bit much … but really, I can go anywhere with this Star Wars stuff.)
Childhood is a time when it’s perfectly acceptable to become infatuated with things like rock bands or movies or sports team. But we usually grow out of these affections by the time we become adults, or risk being branded as pitifully juvenile.
I gradually put most of my childhood obsessions to rest, but there has always been a place in my life for the Star Wars movies. If I come across one while I’m flipping the channels at night, the clicker automatically goes down - it’s not even a question. And these are movies that I’ve seen close to 100 times. Is it possible that we don’t ever entirely grow out of some things?
Finally, here’s another idea: maybe our capacity to become inexplicably passionate doesn’t fade - it just loses its direction for certain periods, and latches onto something else at a later time.
My clicker never seems to make it past a triathlon on TV, either. I collect all sorts of crazy workout equipment, and if some toy company ever made action figures of Chris McCormack or Desiree Ficker, I’d probably buy those up, too. I frequently use triathlon terms and analogies in everyday situations, and my perception of the world is influenced by my abnormal interest in the sport. So maybe we never lose the potential to have a consuming interest in irrational things - it’s just the context that changes.
Yesterday it was the Star Wars trilogy, today it is triathlon. Considering all this, I guess the question could reasonably be asked…did I ever really grow up?
November 7, 2007
“The Force is strong with this one…”