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.