Friday, August 22, 2008

Cool Idea, Lame Execution

So I just watched the women's Modern Pentathlon. I also just watched the women's 20k speed walk, which was weird and tactical and involved vomiting in a disturbingly compelling way. But this is the Pentathlon, the fiveathlon. Five events:




Equestrian Jumping

Cross Country Running

The skills required of a messenger in the era of the Napoleonic wars to deliver a message to (or perhaps from, I don't remember the details) behind enemy lines. Sounds pretty badass. Tough, gritty, compelling. Uh, no. Actual experience? Lame, pussy, boring. How could that be?

The shooting is 10m air pistol. Ridiculously ritualized and pathetically slow. And completely devoid of bang, smoke, or recoil. I couldn't tell when they'd fired!

The fencing was actually pretty cool, so I'll leave that one alone.

THe swimming was 200m pool -- so my imagined version of this as some sort of badassed-up triathlon with shooting was already heading out the window.

The equestrian was cool -- show jumping is actually something I sort of enjoy.

And the run was missing both the cross and the country. 4km, around a weaving stretch of Tensabarrier that made the competitors look like they were trying to get through an airport check-in line rather than win a race.

All in all, not nearly what it could be. So I propose something new. An adaptation of the pentathlon to bring some grit, some hardness, and a little more athleticism to the event. First off, I propose timed transitions as in a triathlon or duathlon. Second, I propose a carry-your-gear approach much like the biathlon. Borrowing another page from the biathlon (which really is as badass as it sounds -- skiing and shooting), I propose eliminating the "points" system entirely and going to a strictly time-based system where errors or misses in un-timed component events would result in extra distance on the subsequent event. I also want to ensure that the environment is as natural and outdoors as possible. And I want a blend of "timed" and "scored" events so that neither monopolizes the overall challenge.

My thinking has now diverged into two different threads. One follows the "officer and a gentleman" approach of the original modern pentathlon (that sounds strange!) but updates it and intensifies it. The other takes the whole thing in a slightly more "outdoorsy" direction.

The 21st Century Pentathlon

Much like the original, an event modeled on the skills required of a soldier. The challenge was to avoid it becoming a paramilitary contest and keep the focus athletic. The format grew out of the idea of soldier in an airborne assault: gathering after a dispersed (possibly bungled!) drop, attacking an enemy position, and then evading counterattack to make it back into contact with friendly forces. I keep picturing the parachute landings of D-Day. It is, then, perhaps most based on the golden age of modern infantry combat, the 2nd World War. We could even call it the "Band of Brothers" -- but anyone who knows me recognizes that I (along with the late, great Stephen Ambrose) have something of a crush on the exploits of the 506th PIR.

You've come down behind enemy lines, scattered, in an unknown location.

In reality, you depart the starting line, navigate using map and compass through a series of checkpoints, to arrive back at the start line. I'd like to make the competitor schlep their rifle along with them, but safety concerns might prevent this. They could, instead, haul a dummy weapon like drill teams use.

Shooting (Rifle)
Having arrived at the objective, you attack.

Run to the range, retrieve your rifle, load, fire prone at ten targets. Run a specified distance (say 200 meters) around a close course and then return to the range to fire, standing, at another ten targets. For every target missed, run a penalty lap or have a minute added to your time or such. Putting the shooting after a cardio event massively increases the challenge of this part -- just like in a biathlon.

Swimming (open water)
After the attack, outnumbered, you flee across a river to evade pursuit.

An open water swim, perhaps 800m. Go ahead and ditch the rifle back at the range.

Running (cross country)
Having emerged from the river, run like hell to friendly lines.

A 5 or 10km cross country run. It needn't be literally cross country in the sense of natural terrain -- it could be an urban course and probably would be best if it was at least partially so -- but it should not just be laps around a stadium or such.

The airborne assault theme would have been even better served with something like parachuting as the initial test, but that is too much of a specialized skill and would push the whole event more into the military training exercise than the "themed" athletic contest. For the same reason I avoided an obstacle course and tried to build it up from things that have an existing and established place in competetive sport.

I'd also like to have a fifth event, but can't quite decide what that should be. Fencing is too French and too old. Equestrian is too english and too old. I'd like a non-shooting but "scored" sort of event -- and I'll have to keep thinking to decide what it should be.

Interestingly, as I research this event (Google!), I realize that there is something called biathlon orienteering and, yet again, have that slightly sinking "someone already thought of this" feeling. However it only appears to have been thought of in Swedish, so if I can bone up on my translation skills, I might be able to pull of credit for this here in the US...

The biathlon orienteering, however, only seems (as best I can translate) an orienteering exercise followed by some shooting. I'd like to see it extended, at a minimum, to a three-athlon involving orienteering, shooting, and running (navigate to objective, assault objective, return from objective). It would be the land-locked version of my event, then, and possibly an equally or even more appealing event. A long length orienteering event (60 minutes), a series of run-shot sequences at, say 50, 100, 150, and 200 meter ranges. Then a cross country run of 10km to the finish.

The Lewis and Clark

The model here is the skills required of an explorer in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest (or thereabouts). It eliminates the need to avoid "dated" events such as equestrian and the temptation to add excessively modern and militaristic events such as "locate and disarm IED." I fancy a two day event with three events per day. The first day is timed from departure to arrival at some camp site. Once there, using only gear they packed in, the competitors must spend the night. There is no score for how well you camp (this isn't Survivor!), but decisions on what gear is brought with might influence sleep and performance the next day. Departure times to the 2nd days events are based on arrival times at the end of the first day.

Since competitors are schlepping a bunch of gear on day one, it is the "heavy" day. The second day is the "light" day since they can leave their campsite behind.

Erica and I discussed this a little bit and came up with two different ideas. Her philosophy was "make it to camp and then perform various actions while based at camp. I followed a different approach. I'll outline hers and then elaborate on mine (only because I know it better!)

Erica's Approach
Day One
Equestrian Orienteering
Cross Country Run
Day Two
Short Run

Nick's Approach
Day One
Orienteering Run
Day Two
Cross Country Riding
Cross Country Run

Here's the thinking behind my approach:

You take a ship across to your destination. You land in unknown territory and need to find your way to a good campsite. On the way, you need to hunt for food. You make contact with a friendly tribe and obtain a horse and a a canoe to explore more. Finally, you must flee after an attack from hostile natives.

This could easily add an addition event per day (at the cost of completely destroying the competitors!). Possibly some sort of rock climbing the first or second day and something like fencing or archery (fighting off the hostiles) on the second. But I think that the three per day are a pretty good outline.

Erica's approach economizes by putting the navigation exercise on top of the riding exercise -- and by eliminating the somewhat cumbersome small boat sailing. That would allow for more "skill" based events like another shooting contest (pistol or shotgun?), archery, fencing, bouldering, etc. I ended exercised some discretion and ended it with a run again, so that there is a dramatic finish-line-crossing. I'd use some sort of a time penalty system or what-not to bring the performance from target disciplines and their kin into the event as a whole.

Would either of these be fair? Popular? Successful? I'm not sure. But I think they'd be more dramatic and probably more TV friendly. I think they'd have an appeal to the REI sporting set (for the Lewis and Clark) and the crossfit/military set (for the Band of Brothers).

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