Triathlon according to me
Many friends and relatives ask me what it is we see in triathlon. The training, sometimes in extreme conditions, can be grueling and is definitely time consuming. The races drive us to do some of the strangest things and push ourselves beyond any reasonable measure of what any normal pastime would or should require. In my time of racing I’ve seen people that have driven themselves to the brink of and beyond exhaustion, losing control of their bodily functions, their minds, and anything else one can think of. Everyone’s seen what we like to call ‘The Chicken Walk’, a strange 'arms and legs akimbo' semblance of motoring forward that definitely gives anyone watching the impression that the person being watched is either drunk or out of their mind. I’ve seen triathletes rushing to cover their gear in the rain, only to cover the same gear in sweat and many other body fluids on the same morning. Through all this we tri-geeks maintain a bottomless love for the sport and feel a yearning for being out training every spring. I’ve been trying to put this phenomenon into words for some time now, so here goes.
First off, there are so many things coming back from our effort that they have to be categorized into two groups: training and racing. Even though the two segments are essentially the same action, the efforts are distinctly different.
Training, while sometimes a bit slow, has returns that are much more visible. It’s the training for triathlons that gets us into the shape we desire, delivering that healthy glow and fine tuned look. For every one hour of racing, to even have a chance of winning, it takes about 40 hours of training. While much of this time is just spent exercising, a lot is also spent visualizing crossing that finish line and preparing yourself for those lows that will always come during a race. During training we also have the chance to ‘stop and smell the roses’ if you will. My fondest memories are of swimming in a lake watching the sun rise above the horizon, cycling along a quiet country road in rain or shine; at times even through tornadic weather conditions. Running in the spring, with the trees flowering and a perfect breeze blowing that brings all of the wonderful smells of that season is another high. There are few experiences that make me feel as close to nature as at these times. Finally, another of the best is going out running after a very difficult day, and burning off the nervous energy that gets pent up, all the while composing, planning, and preparing myself for the next day. It’s very interesting that while on these particular runs the first 45 minutes are spent in a fugue and the best thinking doesn’t start until about an hour after the run has begun. It makes me wonder what others are missing by doing their 30 to 60 minute workouts.
Now comes the racing, the soul boosting release of power that returns every bit of what is spent. Imagine working at 90 to 95% of your actual physical limit for up to five hours plus, or plugging along at 85% for 9 to 12 hours. Actually, there is no imagining, either you’ve done it, and you know, or you haven’t done it and you’ll never know. The body is working so hard that you can feel every muscle screaming for you to stop; the feel of being right on the edge of your capabilities. On a good day (we call it the perfect race) you actually feel as if you are going beyond what your body is capable of.
The mind is also at work, driving the body onwards. Lose that focus for even a few seconds and it’s over; you return to the world of mediocrity. Then there are the ultra distance races, where the highs and lows are extreme and the only thing that gets you through is YOU. Grim determination is what counts, preparation for the grueling day ahead, and the ability to say, “ No, I will not fail.” when every ounce of your being feels spent. I remember races where this happened, I was in fear of not finishing on occasion, but when I hunkered down and went on, somewhere, from the very bottom of my soul came the ability not only to finish, but to finish well.
One of the most inspiring moments of my life was spent on a Texas highway, the temperature was well above 100 F, I knew I was behind, and I was ready to give up and walk to the finish. From somewhere deep inside came a thought, it said, “If I feel this bad, I wonder how bad the guy in front of me feels.” With this in mind I struggled on, only to see the back of my adversary within the next mile. He was walking. The desert and the heat had conquered him. I put my arm around him when I caught him and urged him to run with me, but he was already beaten and told me to go on. When I finished that race I was not even coherent, my eyes didn’t see any more, my legs were failing, I didn’t even know where I was, but I heard a voice from my left side, hollering, “Over here, over here!”. I steered in the direction of the voice until I heard someone else say,”You’re finished, you made it.” (It was literally about ten years later, when she overheard me telling this story to someone, that my wife told me the voice was hers!) At that moment, upon hearing I was done, my legs gave out and four people carried me away from the finish line to the medical tent, where I remained for quite some time. All I felt was pain, until the IV fluids started going in, then I felt as if I had died and gone on to what must have been heaven. The fog in my head cleared and I remembered that I had won; tears of joy as I had never felt stung my eyes.
You can say this is crazy, that no one in their right mind would submit themselves to this. The memories, the wonderful people in the sport, the knowledge that you have put your body into that perfect shape that teeters on the brink of total disaster says something completely different.
Try one some time. Put the effort into preparation. I guarantee you will get back far beyond what you put into it. One bit of advice though: NEVER wear the race shirt before you have completed the race; that is just plain bad luck!