Arbitrariness - a term given to choices and actions subject to individual will, judgment or preference, based solely upon an individual's opinion or discretion.
So what does this mean? well, thats a bit more complicated. In some sense, all of meaning is 'arbitrary' - but i won't get too into that, at least not in general. What i will bring up, however, is the notion that all of modern athletics is arbitrary. Percieved differences in levels of 'arbitrariness' between athletic pursuits and competitions can largely be traced to the level to which the rules/guidelines/specifics of an event or goal are culturally accepted. I'll explain through example.
An ironman distance race is by many considered to be kind of a pinnacle of endurance based athletic achievement. It requires an athlete to excell in three not particularly complimentary disciplines at a relatively high level. The distances themselves - athough now steeped in tradition - are completely arbitrary, however, and contain no signifigance outside the fact that they have gained acceptance as 'norms' to describe what is held to be a benchmark distance for endurance. If the Greek town of Marathon had been closer to Athens, then that run at the end of your IM might well be 23.6 miles, or even 19.4. On the flip side - it might have been 40.
Likewise, rules that govern and define our athletic achievements are equally arbitrary. Aero is allowed in triathlon, but not in regular road racing. Some tri's are draft legal while others are not. Advancements in technology are sometimes accepted and allowed and other times prohibited. I imagine that swimming 2.4 miles without a wetsuit would be significantly more challenging than with one - not to mention the difference in effort that would be required were you to do an IM on your own, with no opportunity to draft off the toes of the (faster) swimmer in front of you. Do our apparent gains in fitness - visible by the dropping 'record times' - really indicate what we think they do? Or is it rather that high tech gear, more advanced training techniques, and total focus on an arbitrary goal framed by arbitrary guidelines allows us to better specialize ourselves towards completing a particular course faster than ever before?
Meaning, as i mentioned before, is arguably arbitrary. And so when we create meaning for ourselves through athletic pursuits, why should it be any different? The fact that i've chosen to see what i'm capable of on three hours of training a week is completely arbitrary. But no more so than when person X decides to challenge themselves to see if they're capable of qualifying for Boston, or Kona, or climbing some remote mountain.
Not so! cries the purist. When person X decides to seek their limits by attempting to qualify for Boston, they're really going to see what they're made of, without 'arbitrarily' imposed conditions such as only training three hours a week.
Not so! i shout in return. Not only is the goal itself (qualifying time for Boston) completley arbitrary, but the conditions within which the person is operating are still chosen - though they might be 'chosen' with less awareness. Attempting to maintain a relationship, care for children, succeed at a job, ensure a certain standared of living - all of these will serve to create, as the folks at Endurance Nation like to call it - the box into which they have to fit their training. And these are choices! In addition, they have to decide how hard they're willing work, how important the goal is, what habits to change or give up or adopt, etc. And then, even after all of this, they're likely going to 'choose' a training program from somewhere, that is, of course, completely arbitrary.
Now before i end this rather lengthy ramble, i want to clear something up - arbitrary does not equal random. The marathon distance does fall within a range of distances that require certain physiological abilities to be able to complete. Endurance events do indeed require endurance - it's just that the specifics have no meaning other than what we, as participants give them. And this 'gift' of meaning is up to us. Likewise, the theoretical underpinnings for my 'three hours a week' idea are based on, at least in my opinion, non-arbitrary notions: seeking the point in the training equation where the rate of fitness return vs. time invested is near maximum - ie the point at which the training value for each one of my minutes is highest. I'm not suggesting that this is three hours - there's no magic number here. But I do think it's in the neighborhood.
And for me arbitrary works just fine. By conciously choosing to limit myself to a certain training volume, especially one roughly of a level which i believe maximizes efficiency given my personal capacity for intense work, i've defined/created/articluated a challenge for myself, and this is ultimately what i'm after. And at it's heart this is no different than the challenge that anyone lining up at the start line or racking up at the bottom of a climb has arbitrarily created for themselves. the arbitrariness of these challenges does not diminish their worth as a tool for learning about ourselves and our capabilities.
At the end of the day though, they are arbitary. I like to try to remember this - it brings me comfort, perspective, and hopefully will help keep me humble - which is pretty important. because after all, i'm going to run an ironman on three hours a week.
And come on... seriously.... how totally bad ass is that?! (;