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Del Close, Kona Podium Winner

Hear me out. Del Close would have crushed it as a triathlete.

If you stumbled onto this post from some other source, lacking context from prior posts, WELCOME to another in a series that connects two things I am passionately average at practicing: improvised theater and IRONMAN(tm) triathlon training.

If you came to this post as an improviser, you'd have every right to mock the idea of Del Close committing to a long-term regiment of goal-oriented training in and around Ohio Street Beach, up and down LSD in bike shorts and running shorts. But... picture it for a sec. See it? Surely you are smiling.

If you came to this post as a triathlete, you too have every right to roll your yes at the idea of an outsider with addictive personality traits and a history of substance abuse--upp bupbupbup... Uhhm... you KNOW somebody just like this, don't you? Maybe even a pro triathlete? Not so far fetched, eh?

Del Close had all the traits of an outstanding, podium-quality triathlete, despite having spent most of his life in dank cabaret theaters from dusk to dawn. The three supporting arguments for this can be characterized as the Obvious, the Unsavory, and the Philosophical.

The Obvious

Del understood and treated improvisation as sport, including the playful fun aspects.

But first, in less time than it takes an Olympic triathlete to get through T1, is a history of Chicago improvisation connecting Hull House to iO:

Viola Spolin used games to deal with theater challenges from which her son Paul drew theatrical storytelling and development techniques. From Paul seeing Del as a Compass player, he invited Del to direct then act then direct at Second City. Second City drew talent from the Players Workshop (aka: the Players Workshop at Second City). Charna Halpern was a student at Players Workshop who became Del Close's partner in the development of Improv Olympic.

Games. Players. Players Workshop. Olympics. All sporting terms with which Del would have been conversant.

However, Del Close not only understood the importance of playfulness to improvisation, he understood that appeal of sport included the joy of playing skillfully. Here's an excerpt from the introduction to Something Wonderful Right Away, by Jeffrey Sweet:

In workshop, Del Close, the codirector at Second City, has drawn an analogy between improvising and a sporting event. In both improvisation and sport, what grips the audience is the fact that the outcome is truly in doubt. The players in both have, through arduous training, developed skills with which to deal with the unpredictable; but these skills cannot tame the unpredictable, they can only give the players a better chance of not being routed by it.

The connection to triathlon is clearly laid out in this quote. Triathlon training is nothing if it's not arduous. (What a great word!) Arduous training to develop skills to deal with whatever happens on race day. Like improvisation, a race route is planned out. Yet race day is unpredictable, yes? Weather. Other racers. Course conditions. Heck, whether the race will actually take place is unpredictable these days!

The players in both practices (another great word!) have the skills to deal with the unpredictable. Even Del's phrasing here, "...these skills cannot tame the unpredictable..." suggests an understanding that even the most skilled, the best trained, the most prepared will have to deal with something unexpected.

Yet skills only deliver "a better chance of not being routed..." Things might still go awry and that's okay. It's the execution of the skill that makes it worthwhile.

Del understood what was great about both impov and sport.

The Unsavory (but honest) [I'm not sure whether trigger warnings are still best-practices, so let me just suggest caution to anybody dealing with addiction. If anybody you know needs help: How to Help an Addicted Friend or Relative (]

Addiction is defined as a primary and chronic disease of the brain circuitry that is responsible for modulating motivation, reward and memory. What I'm suggesting (with no medical or psychological training, mind you) is that endurance athletes and addicts tend to have similar brain circuitry.

I'm NOT saying all endurance athletes are addicts. I'm not saying all addicts make great triathletes. But a cursory survey (aka: a Google search) of definitions and data on addiction supports the argument that the populations have common characteristics.

For example, according to "There are a number of common characteristics between behavioral and substance use addictions:

  • Most significantly, they share the same general definition of becoming obsessively preoccupied with an activity, object, or substance...

  • Individuals suffering from any type of addiction will exhibit signs of being unable to control their own behavior, are unable to refrain from their addictive behavior even though they want to, and deny the presence of any difficulties as the result of their behavior or use of the substance.

  • Individuals with addiction will continue to engage in the behavior or use the substance, even though it results in a continued accumulation of problems and negative outcomes."

Now reread that passage above but swap out the bold (mine) with "triathlon training."

Yikes. It's easy to see how an otherwise healthy and positive activity like triathlon training can easily cross the line to become a behavioral addiction. Furthermore, a Google search for "exercise addiction" opens another whole area of caution.

Or perhaps, to take things in a more positive direction, substitute an unhealthy addiction with a therapeutic surrogate. I know triathletes who came to triathlon in recovery. I will not presume to speak for them. I like and admire them for who and what they are: my triathlete friends.

So. Based on our current understanding of addiction, the number of articles on exercise addiction itself, and my personal experience with friends in recovery, it's possible that Del could have drawn some therapeutic value from triathlon training.

If "it's possible" sounds dilute, it's because I never met Del Close. I am acutely aware that he was a real human being who dealt with addiction.

The fact that I have triathlete friends isn't the strongest evidence that Del would have too. It's just a more optimistic opinion to hope that Del could have chosen to be a great triathlete.

The Philosophical Regardless of brain circuitry, Del Close was a guru to many and his genius has influenced modern comedy in innumerable ways, largely due to his philosophy toward developing material.

As outlined above in the brief history of Chicago improvisation, Del's influence on modern comedy rose during his time at the Second City. However, because his philosophy differed radically from one of Second City's founders, Bernie Sahlins, Del's tenure at Second City was pretty rocky.

In fact, there are many stories about the pyrotechnics between Bernie and Del. One of their fights might have gone like this:

INT. CABARET THEATER, 1959 -- Two men in shirtsleeves and skinny ties face each other like professional wrestlers on a small, poorly lit riser in the corner of the room. Waitstaff clearing low-ball glasses and ashtrays are holding their breath, watching.

Del: What grips the audience is that the outcome is in doubt.

Bernie: Improvisation is a tool for creating material.

Del: Improvisation shares the process with everybody. The process is the product!

Bernie: No, people only care about the final finished product. THAT'S the show.

Del: Go @#*&! yourself!

Bernie: Go @#*&! yourself!

This historically inaccurate rendering from my imagination is an opportunity to breakdown how Del and Bernie differed in their philosophies.

Bernie was product focused. His position was that improvisation was just a tool for developing material--a Second City revue. Audiences want to share in the final polished performance that the actors have worked out prior. Audiences do not want--and would not pay to see--performances that fail to deliver on their expectations. Other than the players, nobody cares about the process for arriving at the product. Product.

Del was process focused. His position was that the improvisation process was its own product. Audiences would share in the risk of the immediate creative process because they shared the stakes (suggestions) and admired the skill demonstrated by the performers. Audiences want--and would pay to see--performances that risked failure. Everybody shares in the emerging performance. Process.

Product vs Process. Both have merits, clearly. Now, in terms of triathlon, race day is the product while the entire training process is, well... the process.

Mapping Process-Orientated Improvisation to Endurance Training

In an interview with Jeffrey Sweet, Del laid out three main ideas for successful improvisation. Here's an example that applies Del's three main concepts to a beginner's desire to run a 5k.

Improv principle 1: Don't deny reality.

If it has been stated, it's real. If a physical reality has been offered, it must be accepted.

Applied to training:

Thinking, "I want to run a 5k" makes it real. "I'm scared I'll fail." is equally real.

Signing up to run a 5k from your couch is a reality. Accept.

Improv principle 2: Make the active choice over the passive choice.

Applied to training:

The passive choice is to sit on the couch after work instead of training for the 5k.

The active choice is to take the first step in the process. Any first step.

Getting off the couch. Putting on running shoes. Opening the door, Stepping outside.


Improv principle 3: The most important task is to justify.

Applied to training:

Since you spent energy and time thinking about doing a 5k and actually signed up,

now your most important task is to justify that initial expenditure of energy and time.

How? Actively agree and support the reality. By training. Running some.

Get help if need be.

Distilled down, we get: Agreement, Active Choice, Justify and Support. Or, using improvisational short-hand, "Yes, and..." your desire to run a 5k by training properly for it. Get a coach if you need one.

In the same way Del was process oriented, the triathlete (or 5k beginner) should be process oriented. Why? Because success is not defined by the race day 5k result. That's incidental, or in Bernie's terms, the product.

Success IS the process...the arduous training ...the new skills acquired... the recognition of capabilities previously hidden... attitude changes...mental changes...outlook changes. The training is not just a means to an end result, it is the result. The process is the product.

Flipping this back onto Del Close, he organically developed the rules and philosophy for successful improvisation...which are also the basis for successful triathlon training. Therefore, he would have been well prepared to succeed at the ongoing process of triathlon training.

Wrapping up then, Del Close understood the joy of sport, the playfulness. He valued developing under-utilized skills and acquiring new skills to demonstrate impressive new abilities. Everything he was about--The Obvious appreciation of sport, the Unsavory (but-honest) brain circuitry and the process-oriented Philosophy--would have made him a great triathlete.


I'll coach anybody who knows and practices Del's philosophy, which I believe in so emphatically that I'll give you A FREE MONTH OF ENDURANCE COACHING. To qualify, you must:

1) Register for a 2021 endurance event. This can be anything from a 5k to a full distance triathlon to an ultra marathon...


2) Have completed at least one improvisation training program. This can be any major theater training program, including but not limited to: Second City Improv program or Conservatory, ComedySportz, Annoyance, iO Chicago or iO West (both closed, sadly) or UCB workshops.

Email me at You answer a few questions and we can talk it over. Limited time offer. Some other restrictions apply.

Del Close organically developed the mental and emotional qualities to be a successful triathlon age grouper, if only his life's work, developing the Harold, hadn't taken all his time and attention. Which brings us to the close of this entry and the tease for next entry: Triathlon is a Harold.

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