Because yes, I have a favourite thing about human beings: the infinite capacity to learn. Our entire lives can be spent learning, improving, progressing. Obviously, when we’re at school, we make learning our job. We have nothing else to do except master new skills, topics and technologies. And we even have the luxury of regular updates on our progress in the form of exams and testing.
Although it wasn’t luxury at the time. It was pure hell. Especially during my GCSE Design and Technology exam when we sat down and opened the exam paper, only to discover Mr Hallaways had taught us an entirely different syllabus (anyone remember that one?). Exams at school and university were a traumatic experience at the time, but looking back, I think a lot of people actually thrive under the pressure and rise to the challenge.
So what happens when we leave school? Do we just stop learning? For most people, the answer is obviously no, as we go on to learn from our jobs, the people we meet and the challenges we come up against. The difference is, we don’t have to sit exams on anything anymore. Suffice to say, we never get to realise how far we’ve come and just how much we’ve progressed.
On Friday night, I encountered the most beautiful exchange that demonstrates my favourite thing about human beings: my grandparents (Sydney, aged 92 and Joan, aged 89) Skyped me from their new iPad. They have never owned, nor used a computer in their lives. But living in an isolated part of the South-West of England, my dad and uncle decided to hook them up with the internet and an iPad. We had a very short time to introduce Nan to the basics, which went along the lines of:
1) Explaining what the internet is (no biggie)
2) Explaining Skype (free phone calls but with pictures)
3) Explaining what a window is (just another work for ‘box on your screen’)
4) Explaining what it means to ‘click’ on something (tap it with your finger, no, not press and hold, tap quickly, tap a bit harder etc)
5) Explaining e-mail (letters that you don’t need to put in the post-box)
6) Explaining a web address
7) Back-track, explain what a website is, and then explaining a web address
8) Explaining on-line shopping (this one was actually self-explanatory)
9) Explaining Google (what is the meaning of life?)
The last one was my favourite, as to a couple of people in their nineties, the concept of Google is surely impossible? What do you mean, I can ask it ANYTHING? It was a very existential experience to say the least. Dad and I left them the next morning thinking that the iPad might have been a bit of a stretch.
But alas, here we are a couple of months down the line, and after a few sign-in/sign-out teething problems, Nan has managed to log back into Skype, and we’re in business. She tells me that the iPad is going very well indeed. In fact, she took it into the post office in Axminster and showed the ladies who worked there my wedding photos on Dropbox. All 367 of them… She also said she ordered a pair of trousers online from Marks and Spencer, but when they arrived they were too big, so she sent them back but only got a refund instead of an exchange. So she won’t be doing that again. She told me that she has been emailing a distant family member in Switzerland who has just got a new grandchild, and she was looking at the photos in the email. “How can I make it so there are pictures in my emails?” she asked, eager to join the attachment revolution. I have to mention: I HAVE NO IDEA HOW SHE HAS BEEN ACQUIRING PEOPLES’ EMAIL ADDRESSES. It’s amazing. She bought herself an iPad case from an outlet in Hong Kong (because it was cheaper). She is absolutely excelling at iPad school and has learnt a totally foreign skill in a matter of weeks – human beings are RAD!! (Ironically, Jarrod literally this second said “You know you’ve been reading on an iPad for too long when you get to the bottom of the page of a book you’re physically holding, and scroll up the paper with your finger instead of turning the page“.)
So what does any of this have to do with sport? Well, I’m trying to look at all this through the paradigm of training, and figure out what I’ve learned – about the sport, about training and about myself. In two weeks, we’ll be racing our first Ironman. We’ve spent a year learning, from the very beginning (page 1 in fact), what triathlon is and what it involves. I think I’m only up to about page 50 in a handbook of War & Peace magnitude. But nonetheless, the first few chapters have taught me a lot. (Just to be clear, this is a metaphorical handbook that I’m referring too. Although Joe Friel’s Triathlete’s Training Bible comes pretty close to being the physical manifestation of what I’m talking about.)
We’ve learnt about cycling, or at least, scratched the surface of beginning to learn about cycling. And this one’s even bigger than triathlon. But I’ve been grappling with the basics for over a year now, so I’m in good stead for a lifetime of talking bike with my fellow bike geeks.
I’ve learnt how to swim – because if you recall, I wasn’t that great at the start of all this. But I practiced. I’m not gonna lie – I’m still pretty slow, but I can make it through.
And aside from our coach, and our friends we’ve made along the way who have all been able to teach us a great deal about what we’re doing, I think if I were to pinpoint who or what has taught me the most, I would probably say The Pain. The ultimate professor. I’ve spent many, many solitary hours riding up hills with no one but Dr Pain to talk to. He’s that really unfriendly teacher you had (probably in maths or chemistry), who doesn’t give a sh*t that you didn’t do your homework because you were sick, or tired, or had a wedding to go to. He is gonna kick your ass in class today in front of all the other good kids that did the required reading (or went to swim squad consistently, or didn’t cut their brick session short because “it was really, really hot”).
Yep, Dr Pain – the teacher that I hate the most. But he’s been teaching the correct syllabus (unlike Mr Hallaways back in ’98). And now, for the first time in a very long time, I’m going to have to sit an exam on what I’ve learnt so far. It’s just that the exam is in the Ironman race format, and it’s up to 17 hours long without a break.
So here we are, two weeks to go before the big exam. I had a mock swim exam this morning where we swam the 3.8km course out in Frankston, and here’s a quick thing I learned today: ALWAYS USE BODYGLIDE WHEN SWIMMING IN A WETSUIT. Because I didn’t. And now I have a special red necklace and matching red patches under my arms. Attractive, and really comfortable. On Saturday we did our final long ride out to Kinglake and I learned ANOTHER lesson (which I already knew, but this was like revision): ALWAYS HAVE A BIG DINNER BEFORE A BIG RIDE. Because I went to the ballet the night before and didn’t eat enough (trying to be ladylike, you know). And I bonked before we got to Eltham (a long way to go to the summit). I actually came dangerously close to catching the train home… But I pushed on (well, drafted all the way home on Joe’s back wheel as he waited for me becasue he knew I wouldn’t make it back otherwise), and I learnt another lesson: I CAN KEEP GOING, EVEN WHEN EVERYTHING IS TELLING ME I CAN’T.
And finally, yes, this has been an overly long post, but here’s the last lesson I learnt this week: I went to an osteopath for the first time ever. After running for almost ten years. And not having any treatment or remedial massage etc and hardly ever stretching (well, nothing more than a token stretch for show at the start of an event). And it was the toughest 45 minutes of my life. I even asked if he offered epidurals. But the lesson I’ve learnt from this one is: STRETCH YOU IDIOT.
So there you have it. My favourite thing about human beings. Limitless learning. What have you learned lately?