I was first exposed to triathlon by accident in 2003. I volunteered for what I thought was a running race. I had been out of competitive sports for a few years and craved the excitement of competition lingering in the air. I figured it had to be a long race since it was called an "Ironman". I showed up early and quickly realized there was far more involved than just running. I busied myself setting up transition with the other volunteers and became mesmerized by the bikes as they rolled by. They looked like futuristic machines; I wondered how they keep them upright. I pondered exactly how they planned on changing from swimming to cycling since I saw no changing rooms. I thought it was a waste of time. Why didn't they just make them different races? What was the point of doing three sports all in the same day? It didn't seem very efficient.
Having been in professional sports, I had never seen the pros so accessible. In my own sport, we were kept separate. We had separate practices, separate races and even different uniforms. There was almost a class distinction that I found puzzling. Even countries sequestered themselves from each other, especially the Americans. I always wondered what the coaches thought would happen if we had a pre-race chat with the Jamaicans. Total disaster, I'm sure. It was all about focus; removing all distractions. "You're representing your entire country, you think about that." No pressure, huh?
Not one of the top three? Don't even think about asking for advice, you're lack of fully developed skills might rub off on them. Kindness was treated as weakness. "Screw the next generation of competitors, they're competition. That's the sports problem, not mine." I never understood that part of my competitive world, maybe that's why I never made it to the very top.
How was it that these pros could perform at such a high level and still offer a friendly 'hello' to someone in transition? It seems like an odd thing to notice, but it was one that I reveled in. I got autographs on a poster from every pro that passed the transition table that day. I thought it would be fun to remember the oddity of triathlon, since I was sure that would be my last experience with the sport. I still walk by Tim DeBoom and Peter Reid among others, on my game room wall as I head out for training. It always makes me smile.
The announcer proclaimed that the race was minutes from beginning. I rushed to the shoreline and selected a nice big rock as my vantage point. I just had to see this. I still remember the moment with perfect clarity. U2 was blaring on the speaker as the announcer counted down the start. When the gun went off and the swimmers began, I shook my head. I thought these people were crazy. Then again, all good things that have happened in my life started with me thinking they were crazy. I was compelled to my feet and cheered with the crowd; cow bells ringing in the air. This was infectious. People around me chatted about their "first Ironman" or how their training was going. Almost everyone wanted to be in the water with the athletes, but I suppose someone had to push the stroller to the finish line. I even overheard some women chatting about how they want to try something called a sprint triathlon. That sounded fun. How is it I had never even heard of this sport when I was surrounded by so many people who were fully addicted?
It was so ingrained in me that the point of competition was to win. The only good thing about coming in second, or losing as my coach called it, was that you could see first hand the weaknesses of your competition and over-analyze while you pick them to shreds before you meet again in the next World Cup. My whole competitive career I wasted, hating my body for it's lack of ability to do what I wanted it to. Win, win, win. Must always win. More training, more creatine, more protein, more muscle, more winning. Damn the genetics; good isn't good enough. It's a dangerous dance of perfection, and to what end? A man once told me, "Rudy was a frickin' moron. What kind of idiot keeps doing something he sucks at?"
At the time I thought it was hilarious but somewhat true. I was dead wrong. Watching those athletes that day I formed a whole new definition of a win. With every worthy endeavor, there is a price that must be paid and it was written all over their faces. It is darkly inspiring to watch healthy, vibrant people willingly put their bodies through hell and come out on the other side broken but victorious. It is a sweet contradiction. It became glaringly obvious to me that the athletes in the back of the pack were working just as hard as the pros, sometimes even harder, and for significantly longer. I wanted to feel what they were feeling. I wanted to know why they kept going.
I signed up for my first triathlon with the assurance that I would dominate my age-group- after my trainer taught me how to swim, of course. They wouldn't know what hit them. They would all be wondering who this girl was and surprised when she came from nowhere! I knew everything about training and nutrition, or so I thought. About one mile from the finish I had a terrifying and liberating realization; I suck at this sport. I mean really bad. I am in no way genetically blessed to run, cycle or swim long distances. I'm just not built that way. I will probably always be a 'middle-of-the-packer'.
Years ago, I was hanging out with some Italian speed skater friends and we somehow found our way to a neighbor's trampoline. I was shocked that they not only had never been on one, but we're completely unable to do flips or tricks of any kind. They were world-class athletes, the epitome of physical perfection! "I thought you guys are Olympic athletes!" I taunted as I watched them crawl off the trampoline in fear.
"Olympic speed skater. Not Olympic EVERYTHING!!" one of them replied.
Those words rang in my ears as I crossed the finish. After I got over my 'failure', I never felt so free. I even got a medal just for finishing. My kids thought I was a super hero even after I explained that I didn't win. It was the most fantastic feeling. I knew I would love this sport for the rest of my life.
Triathlon has completely changed how I view who I am, it has healed scars I didn't know were there. I find inspiration and strength in the small successes. I like the delicate balance of family, work and training. All around me I see the daily struggles of teammates striving to make little goals; cycling to the top of a canyon, overcoming a fear of open water or making it to the top of their age group. The list could go on. I am inspired by the new friendships and rivalries that had their birthplace in transition. I struggled in the beginning with the long hours alone with my own thoughts, but as time passed I began to look forward to the silence. I sincerely love the process of training and have come to love and appreciate what my body is capable of. I love the sound of my foot steps on a rocky trail, the grind of my chainring as I inch up a summit and the peaceful rhythm of my body rocking in the water. I love how small I am in the midst of the race chaos. I revel in the quiet before the gun goes off and the screaming in my head during the last few miles. I love every finish, whether things went according to plan or were a total wash. I have discovered many kinds of victories, many 'wins'.
Perhaps my new found acceptance of 'losing' can be perceived as weakness, but triathlon has helped me to find a strength I didn't know I was capable of producing. Every workout, I get a little stronger and a lot tougher. I am far tougher now than I ever was as a professional athlete, despite the fact that I have never won a single age group race. Triathlon has led me to discover all the best pieces of myself; pieces that were waiting patiently for silence. My dad always said, "The happiest man in the village is the village idiot." Maybe he was right. I still think this whole sport is crazy, and thank heaven for that.