When I started triathlon, I had turned 40 and wanted something new to try for that year. It’s difficult to make a claim on youth at 40. Mistakes are no longer “youthful indiscretions.” Commitments and Very Serious Things demand our attention – mortgages, memos, car payments, staff meetings.
At the time, my first triathlon was also a Very Serious Thing. Even though it was ”˜only’ an Olympic distance ”“ I was dialed in. Gels, bike clothes, swim strategy…backup gels, backup bike clothes, backup swim strategy (much needed as I got lost during the point to point swim).
After that first race and the surprises both difficult and joyful it held, I continued training and racing. I proved I could do a triathlon so what was pushing me? Health? Competition? Pride? A fellow triathlete once reflected to me that he thought most of us were running from something in our lives. “Yeah” I replied. “But sometimes escaping is the best plan.” As I faced the deadline of a certain age approaching, perhaps I was escaping that reality by signing up to race in a big city triathlon. Maybe it was just the next thing to mark off a fickle bucket list.
Many know of Mallory’s famous quote “Because it’s there” when he was asked about his plan to climb Mt Everest. However the context is often missed – that it was said out of frustration to dismiss an overbearing reporter. It wasn’t that Mt. Everest was there ”“ It’s that Mallory was.
And so, there I am. I raced and trained. And raced a little more. I found my people, a local triathlon team, Team Z. An incredibly diverse group – we raced to place, to finish, and to have fun. On Team Z, I train with a man who won his age group at Kona last year ”“ in his 60’s. Another is going to Kona this year after also qualifying for this year’s Boston Marathon. She’s blind.
Others teammates are finishing their first sprint, freaked out about their first open water swim, or unsure about clipping in on their bike. It is the energy of their uncertainty and determination that drives us together ”“ whether to Kona or to step off the beach into the lake. Those triumphs are brilliant and defining to our days together. They are awesome times to be a part of.
And with that, I’m more grounded and humbled ”“ and getting up for the early swim isn’t so difficult. When we lean on each other, I don’t know if I am racing for my team or if they are racing for me, but we are in it together. My teammates on Team Z are amazing ”“ all of them. Suddenly my unease with 40 seems so silly, so far away.
And then”¦life happens.
To paraphrase John Lennon – ”˜Life is what happens when you are making race plans.’ Jobs, relationships, months pass. Friendships come and go. Occasionally, we gain or lose something precious that we can’t imagine life without. We go into and we leave transition. We keep moving forward.
Then, life happened to me. Work transitioned unexpectedly. A personal loss reverberated in every moment of my life’s actions. A promise went un-kept. Love lost a good fight. Moments of doubt became points of soulful struggle. I didn’t know what to do, daily.
Earlier moments of spontaneity disappeared. The commitment of multi-sport training became a relief. Keeping my training schedule became something regular that, in the midst of uncertainty, I could depend on. The long runs and rides provided solace and space for me to push that big rock in my life uphill. I repeatedly cycled through my questions and self-doubt. I ran away from hard decisions only to return to confront them head on. During 5:30am swims, the long runs, the days where I cycled through my darkest places, I was still moving forward.
My teammates had my back, even without knowing it. On one particularly hot, discouraging day on the bike ”“ I fell back and separated from the group. It was an 80-mile ride and through 40 of those miles, I was a miserable bastard carrying the weight of the world. Just before the halfway point, I came across three teammates struggling with a blown tire. One rider’s boyfriend attempted to fix it and eventually blew a spare. I stepped in to repair it ”“ and blew another spare. Finally, a third spare was produced ”“ and we were able to make it to our SAG at the halfway point.
I finished that ride with them, joking about how us guys couldn’t fix a flat, about how we couldn’t figure things out. Laughing about how life was funny like that. The last 40 miles zoomed by and, by the time we returned, I was a better man.
At the end of that training and those difficult times, I made it to start of my very first Ironman. When I lined up at that swim start, after a time of loss, difficulty, and struggle – I thought, “I get to spend an entire day to think and do nothing but swim, bike, and run? Cool”¦”
For so many months, my only reason for training and racing was just to finish the difficult process and make it to the start. However, at that moment, before the starting gun went off ”“ I thought”¦ “Wow ”“ I wonder what this Ironman experience is going to be like?”
It was a good day. I swam, biked, ran and walked a bit. I laughed way more than I expected.
The thing is ”“ what brings me to a place may not be what keeps me there. In my time racing, I’ve discovered many different reasons for why I race ”“ some soulful, some silly. While there is great emphasis in triathlon about doing your best, sometimes you don’t realize your best until you deal with defeat, injury, and bad conditions. As Bukowski says, “What matter most is how you walk through the fire.”
It’s the metaphors of triathlon that are meaningful to me ”“ starting the race, transitioning smoothly, and moving forward. In difficult times, I’ve been able to look back on my training and race experiences and pull strength from them. What is my strategy for transitions in life? When things are difficult ”“ how do I continue to move forward in my career, life, and relationships?
Since then, I’ve completed a second Ironman, a couple of ultra-marathons, the 4.4 mile Chesapeake Bay Swim, and even got a 2nd place podium finish at a local triathlon. I finish towards the middle or back of the pack far more often than I am in the front. I’m good with that.
But back in the evening of my very first Ironman – I came to the finish line at the end of a long race, with arms open to the journey ”“ to all I had lost and all I had gained. I touched my heart and pointed to the heavens to remember those close to me. And for that sublime moment, in that beautiful, fleeting glimpse – I saw the reasons why I race.
Race with gratitude