Why I Tri

I finished my first triathlon in seven years today.  It was a hard race for me, and I was undertrained and overweight.  I finished last, fourteen minutes behind the next slowest racer.   I had a hard time regulating my breathing during the swim because I was nervous, my legs were Jell-O when I got off the bike, and I walked almost all of the uphill sections of the run.  When it was over, I had pains in my right calf and my left shin.  I’m still coughing from the asthma attack I had afterward.  Still, I had a great time and I’m looking forward to the next race!

So why would a forty-year-old woman who weighs more than 200 pounds and has asthma put herself through the torture, and humiliation, of participating – in Spandex, no less –  in a triathlon, in public, surrounded by other fitter, faster, more sculpted athletes?

Why I Tri

Reason #1: It gets me out of bed in the morning and off the couch at night.  I get bored trying to follow the advice  “walk every day and eat sensibly.”  It’s easy to skip a walk.  It’s easy to skip several walks.  But if I’m training in three different sports, I don’t get bored.  I feel guilty if I miss workouts because all three sports are still challenging to me and I know I’ll improve only if I follow a plan and a regular training schedule.  All three sports leave me feeling invigorated, too – even a run session, which I don’t particularly enjoy, usually leaves me feeling a full-body sense of satisfaction for having met my goals for the workout.

Reason #2: I like seeing myself in a different light, even if it’s only for thirty minutes at a time.  When I’m training, I feel strong and light and lean, even if I’m not really any of those things yet.  I am able to enjoy what my body can do instead of only being aware of how it looks or what it can’t do.  I get to challenge what I “know” about myself and I get to challenge other people’s assumptions about me.  Athlete is not a word most people would jump to when trying to describe me, and, yet, I am an athlete when I am training or participating in a triathlon.  I look in the mirror and I see muscles and firm skin and a woman who cares about herself.  For a few moments, I carry myself taller and feel strong and powerful, like the athletes I see on the covers of running, biking, and triathlon magazines.  I am a competitor.  Which leads me to…

Reason #3: Challenging myself and my identity in one area of my life allows me to challenge myself and my identity in other areas of my life.  I have already discussed on this site a little of how this works.  I think it’s about momentum and the avoidance of stagnation.  If I can see progress and change in one area, I can begin to hope for and work toward progress and change in other areas.  If I can change the way a person views one aspect of who I am, I can probably change the way a person views other aspects of who I am.  All of my limitations, those I impose and those imposed by others, begin to shift and melt when I defy expectations and push boundaries no one, including me, expected me to push.

Reason #4: Triathlon has much to teach me about managing my body.  I don’t have the body of a typical athlete, but I do have the spirit of an athlete.  I want to learn how to take fewer strokes per lap when I’m swimming, how to spin faster on the bike, how to increase the tunrover rate of my legs when I run.  I enjoy practicing drills that help me approximate better form.  I enjoy reading about each sport and learning as much as I can about what makes a person more efficient or able to go farther.  There is an unlimited amount of learning to be done in each sport as well as in figuring out how to do all three sports well in one race.  There’s also plenty to be learned about how to incorporate training safely, and sanely, for three sports into a life in which triathlon is only a hobby.  My mind doesn’t get bored and, hopefully, my body gets better and better.

Reason #5: Triathlon has much to teach me about managing my mind.  When I started the swim this morning, I had butterflies in my stomach.  I had made a race plan and had been following my pre-race plan to the letter.  I knew I was not going to drown in the pool,  something I have seriously feared in each of the three previous open water swims I completed.  I wasn’t worried about times per se, as this was a baseline race to help me get a feel for where I’m starting, and there was absolutely no threat of me finishing well enough to place.  I was a little nervous about crossing the finish line last and what that would feel like, but I really had very little to fear. 

Still, the anxiety I felt at the beginning of the race meant that I swam the 250 meters one minute slower than I could have because I couldn’t regulate my breathing.  I couldn’t focus on long, efficient slides on my side or on front-quadrant swimming and a patient hand because all I could think about was getting air into my lungs.  I swam with my arms and my legs, as I am conditioned to do, rather than with my core, as I am learning to do, and it cost me.  Managing anxiety is only one example of what sports training can teach a person.  I also have much to learn about positive self-talk, about focusing on efficiency – regardless of what comes up, because something always comes up – rather than perfection, about flexibility, and about meeting myself where I am in each moment.  If I can practice these things in triathlon, they will inevitably spill over into my every day life.

Bonus Reason #6: It’s fun and it enriches my life in lots and lots of ways!  It’s hard to explain why something so difficult is so much fun, but triathlon is lots of fun.  People come to it from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of reasons for competing, and somehow manage to respect and support everyone else in the field.  I was amazed at the number of racers who took time to offer me encouragement on the course today.  I was really amazed when Jody, a runner who could have blown right by me, slowed down in the last half mile of the run so I wouldn’t have to cross the finish line alone.  I have met great people at the pool where I train, I met Mary and John K. during a pre-race training ride, I met Mary L., who lives in my neighborhood, in the hour leading up to my start.  Becoming a triathlete – at any ability level – is a wonderful way to become part of a community, to meet people who are willing to go out and have a good time and accept you exactly as you are. 

It’s also an opportunity to practice your one-liners, as it’s always fun to have something clever to say to the person passing you or the volunteer pointing out the next turn. 

Triathlon is an excellent way to practice laughing when what you really want to do is cry.

Creative Release

I have been doing too much and not doing enough.

I have been expending energy but not necessarily in the right ways.

I know about the four quadrants Stephen Covey outlines regarding time management in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I understand the energy management principles described by Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute in The Power of Full Engagement.  I have read about managing my attention deficit challenges through diet, exercise, interpersonal interactions, and physical challenges that utilize various segments of my brain in books by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey.

I used to teach time management skills to college students, and I can be very good at managing my own time – up to a point.  As long as I know the length of time my diligence will be required – say, for a semester or until a particularly large project is completed – I am able to remain focused and excel.  As soon as that deadline disappears, however, and I am faced with simply having to live an organized, efficient lifestyle every day with no end in sight,  all of those skills go out the window.

Of course, anyone who read the preceding paragraphs closely will point out that I said I understand the principles outlined by those various writers–not that I had practiced them with any regularity.  As part of my time management counseling, I would tell clients they had to practice time management and study skills for thirty to sixty days before they would begin to feel like habits, so, clearly, I understand the need for practice.  In my defense I might argue, as many of my clients did, that I don’t have the time to practice or that I can’t figure out which skills to practice first or that I can’t possibly implement all of these great ideas in my life and I get overwhelmed trying to figure out where to start.

But the truth is, if I am doing what I love, I am focused, effective, and fulfilled.

When I begin to see my focus fade and my energy dwindle, when I start dreading the next day before I go to bed at night, and when I have a hard time dragging myself out of bed in the morning, those are the signs telling me I’ve somehow lost my way.

I discovered several years ago that I am what Barbara Sher calls a Scanner.  I am always scanning the horizon for the next interesting thing.  I can get intensely interested in something for a period of time and then put that aside, often without warning, and dive with great joy into something completely different.  This doesn’t make sense to the people around me and gives me one of the craziest resumes you can imagine – I have to organize it around the skills I’ve used in each job, because people freak out when they see it chronologically.  And as crazy as this kind of life looks on the outside, it can be quite confusing and draining from the inside, too.

It takes a LOT of energy to try to remain engaged with work that has lost its ability to excite you.  It takes a lot of energy to try to find some small corner in that work that can excite you.  It takes a lot of energy to try to convince yourself, as a grown-up with grown-up obligations, that if you only expended a little more energy you would be able to grow your work in a new, exciting direction and your overall passion would return, bringing your focus with it.

Luckily, I have discovered I don’t have to be excited by every aspect of my life, provided I am sufficiently excited by some aspects of my life.  Recently, to reenergize my life and recapture my focus, I’ve signed up to race a sprint triathlon.  This has reminded me that I am capable of following a training schedule, that I really do love working out (especially swimming and biking, although the running hasn’t completely sucked), and that I am capable of following through on commitments I make to myself.  Swimming before work puts me in a great mood and helps me get into an early groove that carries me through the day.  It also makes me feel strong and gives me more confidence that shows in how I carry myself.

I have also decided to publish electronic versions of Your Mileage May Vary, the memoir I wrote about the cross-country bike trip I did with the American Lung Association, and have found an editor and had several friends read the manuscript to give me feedback.  As soon as I made this decision to do something for myself, to move some small part of my independent, creative life forward, my energy at work went through the roof and I was able to find plenty to keep me interested.

Recently, I’ve had to struggle a bit to maintain that level of engagement, however.  When I admitted that I’d lost some steam yesterday to an artist I’m coming to know, she said, “You’ve stopped working on your book, haven’t you?”  I was suprised that she nailed it so quickly, but she was absolutely right – I have stopped working on the book, allowing myself to be side-tracked by other things and getting caught up in doubts about whether or not I really should publish the book or whether it will just embarrass me in the long run.  I’ve been keeping up the workouts – even increasing the number, intensity, and duration – but I haven’t written anything new or even looked at anything old in several weeks.  And this lack of creative exploration, this lack of taking care of myself on what for me is a fundamental level, has taken its toll on the rest of my life.  Stress has built up in my body, causing me to feel tight in my shoulders, chest, and back.  I’ve actually been angry and antsy, even telling my husband on Thursday night that if I didn’t spend an hour writing sometime this week I was going to go crazy.  (He suggested that I spend several hours writing to undo some of the crazy I’ve already gone.)

On the way home from work yesterday in rush hour Friday night traffic (unfortunately, I spend about three hours a day commuting these days), I got the urge to release some of the energy in my upper body vocally.  I didn’t scream exactly, I just opened my mouth and “sang” a single, sustained note at very high volume.  I was shocked, actually, by what came out of my body.  For one thing, I didn’t know I had the lung capacity to make such a loud or long noise.  But I was also surprised by what the sound sounded like.  It was totally foreign, a part of me I don’t think I’ve ever touched before.  For fun, I opened my mouth a second time and sang a different, sustained note to see what that felt like.  Amazingly, the tension in my shoulders, chest, and throat melted right away!

When I got home, I walked and fed Kaija, our American Hairless Terrier, and immediately began writing something new.  I slept well last night, had no bad dreams, and felt rested this morning when I set off for my thirteen mile bike ride at 8:00 a.m.

What about you?  What areas of your life have you been neglecting?  What effect does this neglect have on the rest of your life?  Can you do one small thing, today, right now, that will bring you back into touch with one fundamental aspect of yourself that you have been ignoring?