Being a triathlete: A broader perspective

After spending the past year training for our upcoming Ironman and posting about our progress along the way, I decided to include a post, less about the sport itself, but more about the bigger picture. Though there are many admirable traits in training for and completing such an endeavor, there are also dangers one can fall into along the way. The truth is, it’s huge investment of both time and financial resources. Being such, without assessing the bigger picture, it can easily become all-consuming, and yes, I’m going to say it, selfish.

Endurance sports are a bit of a paradox: great examples of sacrifice to achieve a goal, yet the goal itself, often arbitrary, can easily fuel selfish ambition and pride. So, for me at least, it’s important to take a step back and remind myself of a few important things. None of these points are ground-breaking. In fact, you may read them and think, “well yeah, duh!” But agreeing with them on the surface and actually acting like they are true are two different things. Hopefully, by expanding on them below, I can help keep myself in the latter category.

  1. Being a triathlete does not make me better than you

When communicating with non-triathletes, there can be some implicit admiration when someone finds out I’ve done triathlons. Maybe because of the fear many have of open water swimming, the prospect of crashing a bike, or the disdain for running more than a few blocks at a time. And then when they find out that I’m planning to do an Ironman, and the ridiculous distances involved, it’s like I’m placed on this incomprehensible pedestal. I hear it all the time, “you’re insane” often said in an awe-inspired tone, or “wow, I could never do that.” Usually such comments make me a bit uncomfortable and I quickly move on, but sometimes I let it sink in, and think, yeah, I guess I’m pretty awesome.

Even if I only look a fraction as awesome as these folks, triathlon makes me pretty awesome right? #winning

But let’s examine that further… can I really take credit for the fact that I enjoy doing and am able to participate in triathlons? It’s easy to think that success in an area is all hard work and dedication, but we can’t diminish the role of numerous other factors. My genetics clearly play a role. Elements of both my personality and physical traits predispose me towards pursuing and enjoying endurance sports. My upbringing also contributes. As a child I was encouraged to participate in athletics and had generally positive experiences giving me an early sense of empowerment through sports. My parents also modeled strong work ethics through their behaviors and demonstrated that hard work can lead to success. My current social and economic status also plays a huge factor. I live in an area where the sport is fairly prevalent, where I can learn from others. And I have the means, both time and money, to actually train for and participate in these events. My husband and I are also both in a season of our life where we can devote this time, money and effort to such a large goal.

So if genetics, early childhood experiences, role models, and opportunity have all shaped my ability to become a triathlete, it’s impossible to quantify how hard it was for me to add the finishing touches. But sometimes with all the time and effort put into training it’s easy to forget about all the other influences and accept more credit than may be due.

Working towards or achieving a goal such as an Ironman does not give me the right to consider myself above those focusing on what may be perceived as a less prestigious goal. Stopping smoking and completing a local 5-k might take the same emotional or physical effort for my neighbor as completing an Ironman does for me. Others may consciously choose to focus all their time and energy on getting out of debt or raising kids as a single parent, which are also very admirable, but often less recognizable, achievements.

So, given all of life’s variables, it’s somewhat futile to be concerned with perceptions of grandeur or comparisons with others. I’d rather focus on appreciating extraordinary characteristics over a wide variety of people’s personal endeavors as well as striving to do the best that I can in my own circumstances.

(Author’s note: I initially titled this section “Being a triathlete does not make me great” but then my husband kindly noted that “great” is rather ambiguous and my argument seemed a bit fatalistic in implying that nothing then is truly great. I didn’t want to minimize the remarkable aspects of the sport and suggest that we have no control over our actions, so I chose to change the title. That being said, I find it shorter and sweeter to remind myself that, “I’m really not that great” but for discussion’s sake I can see how that could be a bit problematic.)

  1. I am not really in control

Quick example of a focused triathlon training regime: You receive a weekly training schedule and then determine how to fit each workout into your daily schedule. Within each workout there are intervals that you have to hit with certain heart rate zones. Then each workout produces data that you can analyze individually or look for trends. On top of this, for long distance triathletes you have to worry about nutrition, both before and during a long workout to maintain energy. It is also important to think about your general daily diet because every extra pound is extra effort it takes to cover 140-miles. This might lead you to track your daily caloric intake through an Ap like MyFitnessPal where you basically track everything you eat and re-record your daily workouts.

In short, if you weren’t already, the training required is almost guaranteed to turn you into somewhat of a control freak. Now, there’s a reason for all this focus and fine-tuning: the goal of putting yourself in the best possible position to succeed. But there’s a danger of letting the self-control boil over into a sense of entitlement. Like following the plan to a T will somehow ensure a certain outcome. And if we don’t get that outcome, we don’t get what we deserve.

I was challenged by this recently when some knee pain prevented me from running for a few weeks. I first tried to exert my control by ignoring it and continuing to run in hopes that it would go away. Turns out I couldn’t “self-control” it away. I then realized I had developed a sense of entitlement when in my little pity-party, I began to think that it wasn’t fair that I had developed this pain in the first place. I had done everything right, built up a good endurance base, progressed slowly to give my body time to adapt, stayed away from any potentially dangerous activities where I could hurt myself. What the heck? Not fair!

What does every child hear at some point in their early life? “Life’s not fair.” Yet, many of us still grow up with the desire that not only should it be, but that somehow it actually is. That as long as we try our hardest, and make good decisions, that we’ll eventually get what we deserve. And this fosters a rather foolish notion of control over our lives and circumstances.

While travelling abroad in Costa Rica in college, I had a rather dramatic lesson of how quickly circumstances can change. Whenever I start to lose perspective and think that I’m actually in control I like to remind myself of this experience:

Living the dream, writing my own story, creator of my own destiny
Wait, where’s the raft? My story was supposed to involve staying in the raft…
So… the Class V rapids have completely hijacked my story…

For the next couple minutes, I was at the mercy of the river and the rescue kayak stationed downstream. I suddenly faced a power so strong that I had no control over my destination or even whether I was above or below water. All of my capabilities where unexpectedly limited to one thing: trying to inhale at the right time (and I had a hard time even managing that).

We don’t always get to decide when we get ejected from the raft and thrown into the tumultuous waters. We can do what we can to prepare but sometimes things happen: an accident, an illness, a financial crisis, an unexpected death… a sore knee (okay, I feel pretty lame lamenting a sore knee). I should not operate under the assumption that it is my right to be healthy and able to participate in what I choose but instead live each day thankful for the opportunity that lies before me.

  1. Triathlon is a canvas

There’s nothing inherently great about a triathlon, or really any sport in particular. Certain people may be drawn to the shiny equipment in one, or the rules of another, we all have different tastes that drive our hobbies. But the bare bones of each individual sport is not what drives such love and adoration. It’s sport’s ability to display noble human characteristics such as strength, commitment, perseverance, and sacrifice. Sports can be an extremely powerful backdrop to exhibit these traits: A canvas on which to paint the amazing colors of our human capabilities.

That being said, we mustn’t confuse the sport itself for being the great thing. Triathlons aren’t fighting for social justice, curing illnesses, feeding the hungry, or working on a sustainable global future. Triathlons, or sports in general, don’t provide any primary service to humanity. In fact, they take resources that you could argue would be better served if they did go to an organization that fought for these things.

I don’t want to undermine the impact that sports can have to inspire and strengthen the human spirit, but the athletes themselves are competing towards an arbitrary goal (140.6-miles, who came up with that?). We mustn’t lose perspective on the less glorified heroes: those actually devoting their time and energy to help protect and serve others in need. Yes, sports can be, and are often used as a platform, to help raise money or shed light on these larger human issues but athletes aren’t on the front lines for these things. Sports have a strong and powerful role to play in society, but we must keep that role in context and continue to dedicate thought and resources to broader human issues.

Link to our donation page for Cocoon House (a charitable organization who is on the front lines helping homeless and at risk youth)

Quick recap: Triathlon is not the be-all and end-all. I am not in control. I am not better than you. Again, not earth-shattering stuff here. But trust me, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in a bit of self-admiration, self-control, and obsession with something that consumes so much time and energy. So I have made those three points a kind of a mantra: A continual reminder to put things in perspective so that I can not only continue to enjoy (and hopefully share the beautiful colors of) sports, but to live each day as stress-free as possible and filled with a sense of gratitude.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s