Today I had the pleasure to meet someone totally nuts. And by that I mean a triathlete whom I regard with fascination/admiration/respect/wonder. He was someone I happened to meet on a group ride. As the group fragmented, he and I stuck together, as he had made it clear from the outset that he had planned a 60 mile route. I figured I would hang onto his wheel if I could or figure out my own route if I couldn’t.
As we got to talking, it turned out he had done ELEVEN ironmans (ironmen?) I had struck gold! This guy was a veritable library of triathlon knowledge! When I could manage to pedal, breathe, and talk at the same time, I spat out question after question, “What do you eat for breakfast before an ironman?” “What’s your favorite course?” “Whose your massage therapist?” “How did you choose that bike (a beautiful new totally tricked out Cervelo)?” “Do you ship your bike or take it on the plane to an out of town venue?” (Turns out he drives whenever at all posssible, even to Wisconsin). “How do you plan your training?” “How did you get into the sport?” “What’s your favorite leg of the race?” I was like a kid in a candy store! As long as I could keep up, he was there to feed my hungry mind with triathlon flavored victuals. At one point I wondered why, when he was such a stronger cyclist than myself, did he decide to draft off me? (Not that I minded controlling the pace). Perhaps he didn’t mean for his Saturday morning to turn into a Q & A session. Maybe he’s (gasp!) not like me… I’ve heard there are actually people who do not enjoy talking about themselves. Maybe he felt like staring at my butt. Who knows. I didn’t care. I picked his brain to my heart’s content. I found out that he would sometimes do a swim focus week where he would swim three times a day! While my head spun in the wake of that admission, I think I heard him say “till I feel like my arms are going to fall off.” Once he rode 205 miles in a day. I didn’t mean to stop listening but while I was trying wrap my head around that I might have heard the words “and then ran 5 miles.” This guy was off his rocker! He was great!
Lest you think he was a professional (honestly, would a professional be out training with me? I think not), or living off a trust fund, I should mention he had a legitimate full time job in addition to his sick training schedule. He once quit his job to go train with a bunch of pros in Australia. I was riveted by stories of day after day of 200 mile rides followed by 8k runs, from point to point, with just a van for support. I considered this lifestyle the way most people would daydream about winning the lottery… it sounded just heavenly.
Later, when I could breathe normally and my quads had stopped burning, I asked myself why I was so enthralled by this dude. I appreciated the fact that he trained at a level that far surpassed anything I’ve ever done. But why? What do I care what other people are doing? Partly I think its about validation. As in, “Ok I am obsessed with this sport, but not like him. He’s nuts. I’m normal.” But really who am I kidding? I think I can speak for most triathletes in saying we are all on the nuts continuum. He’s just a little farther to the nuts side than I am. And while he lets me breathe a sigh of relief for being closer to the normal side, he also plants a seed in my head. The little seed that starts as the knowledge that nice, normal people with jobs are doing crazy, abnormal things. And if that seed ever germinates and finally blooms, one day I too will be doing things I never thought were possible.
So there is the elusive dichotomy of my fascination… I am simultaneously relieved that I am not that crazy while a small part of me is inspired by the fact that he is. That while he and I are at different levels in the sport, we are more alike than we are different. We shared stories of the race (everyone has one) that made us say “That’s it. I’m never doing this stupid sport again!” And that made me ask myself, what is it about triathlon that calls us back? What makes us think its fun to swim, then bike, then run, as fast as we can, searing our lungs and our legs, sometimes as early as 7am, typically costing upwards of $65 (and thats just the race entry fee. Forget about the equipment, the pool fees, and the grocery bills). Why do we insist on eating sugary gels from little packets and drinking electrolyte replacement beverages while most of our peers are eating bagels and drinking coffee? For me its about making the impossible possible. Its the evolution from “No way! People do that!?” to “Heck, maybe I could do that?” to “Well hell if she can, I can! Where do I sign up?” to crossing the finish line.
Some people ask me if I was athletic my whole life. This makes me laugh. I only started using the words “I” and “athlete” in the same sentence about 2 or 3 years ago. Up to then it had not really occurred to me that if you’ve run a few marathons, a bunch of other shorter road races, time trials, crits, and triathlons, if you met a lot of your friends through swimming, running, and biking, if you spent most of your free time wearing spandex, then you can say you’re an athlete and no one will question you. I had been picked last for every team growing up. My interest in running was more or less a fluke, a byproduct of needing to get in shape for lacrosse season. This was my only experience with team sports and it was abysmal. I rarely got to play and when the coach did put me in, I was useless. This was as much a function of the fact that no one passed me the ball as it was just a fact that I was physically unable to handle the ball, run, and pay attention to my team and the other team all at the same time. But running in a straight line? Thinking of nothing but whatever song popped into my head? That I could do. As the years went on and running became a habit, it was not only something I could do but something I needed to do. Running became my go-to activity when I was bored, stressed, depressed, procrastinating, or just plain wanted to enjoy a sunny day.
There was a time when running around the block was just as painful as any race I could compete in today. It has been a gradual evolution from “I can’t” to “I’ll try” to “Oh my god, I did that” to “Hey what can I do next!?” It is this trajectory that keeps me excited about the sport. I am driven not only but what I might achieve next but also by being part of a community of like minded people who are also looking ahead to where their potential lies. There is something intoxicating to me about this energy. My riding buddy this morning said at a certain point in his life, running started to destroy his feet. Or was it his knees? I can’t remember I was a little hypoxic at the time. I replied “I can’t think of a better way to destroy myself.”