“The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don't have that, we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.”
One Sunday morning, not too long ago, I noticed some runners were still circling the parking lot after they had already finished their weekly long run, or so it seemed. They kept glancing at their watches and I began to wonder if they were impatiently waiting for others to finish, when it suddenly dawned on me what was going on.
It was not so long ago, that a runner wanting to plan a route would have to get in the car and drive it. The odometer was the gold standard and a tenth of a mile, here or there, off of the desired distance was not a concern.
Now, thanks to gps watches, everyone knows down to the hundredth of a mile, the exact time, pace and distance they are travelling at any given moment. Folks who used mapping software to plan their weekly long route of, oh say, 10 miles, will continue to circle the parking lot until the discrepancy between what they charted, matches what their gps watches tell them they have actually covered.
Perhaps there is something inherent in human nature that gives rise to the desire to finish things off with round, even numbers.
Thanks to a special kind of mental math, claiming a 10 mile training run somehow lends more credibility and a sense of completion to the accomplishment than does claiming a 9.87 mile run. Not to mention that uploading and sharing 9.87 miles to social media simply screams “unfinished business” to the world.
Unfinished business is messy and unsettling.
The same is true for race results. Finish times may be disappointing, or they may be a point of pride; a reward for hard work invested.
Ask anyone involved in racing and they will always prefer a finish time, any finish time, no matter how awful, to the alternative; a DNF.
Did Not Finish.
DNF did not sit well with me.
Several years ago, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Twice.
Why twice? Because the first time I took a crack at it, I did not make it to the top. I vowed to return someday because not completing the journey disturbed me so deeply. Three years after the first attempt, I returned with a friend and successfully completed the climb. I cannot begin to describe the feeling of satisfaction other than to remark that the issue was settled and the itch was scratched.
Some say, that a DNF opens a wound that may only be healed by returning to finish another time.
As a newly minted cancer survivor in the spring of 2001, I knew all about wounds. I was also determined to prove to anyone that cared to notice, that cancer had not diminished me in any way. Having already been involved in sprint distance triathlons prior to my illness, the Ironman® became my focus and fixation, because it had been billed as the “ultimate test of personal fitness”.
My plans were set to go further and faster than ever before, thus figuratively flipping off anyone, and everything, that haunted me.
In my mind, it was going to take something big to shake off the yoke of victim status. The medical profession that had completely dismissed me was going have every expectation of failure and catastrophe they threw at me, slung right back in their face.
Ironman® was big.
After my recovery, rage fueled a ferocious return to my comeback training. Entire days were spent out on the roads, dividing the hours between running and riding my bike. Early morning master swim practice was somehow crammed in there as well.
It was a singular existence. Eat, sleep, train. Outside of work, it occupied most of my time.
What I discovered out on the road, is that retribution is a fickle motivator and it does not guarantee success.
I made it to Ironman® but I DNF. Somewhere around mile 70 of the bike segment, about 40 miles short of the run transition, the pain of a herniated disk in my neck forced me to abandon the race. As emotionally painful as it was, I rationalized quitting as the safe and prudent thing to do, which it was.
At that moment, I knew, or thought I knew, that I would be back to prove myself another time.
At that moment, I knew, or thought I knew, that I would be back to prove myself another time.
After neck surgery to repair the damage, training started all over again, but not to the same degree as before.
As the years passed, I found that was I was left frequently feeling anxious and disappointed because I never did return to Ironman®. I’d resolve to train more and work my way back to previous levels of intensity, but it never quite materialized. I’d train some, but never enough. I’d stress about it and yet was unable to get myself up to speed.
I could make a million excuses as to why - different job, not as much time to train, all legitimate excuses…reasons and yet, not enough.
Eventually, I recognized that my motivation had shifted and the time had come to make peace with that.
I had nothing to prove to anyone, any longer. I had accomplished so much, physically, and managed to dismiss all of the negative expectations. So why was I still anxious? There was something else I could not quite name banging away at my brain.
In addition to all the indignation I was venting through my training, I discovered I had also become entangled in a compulsion. I had completely bought into the mentality that endurance sports confirmed that you could, as a matter of fact, “endure” anything. I had stepped into a world in which stopping was an unacceptable option. Further and faster was all that mattered and whether or not this contributed positively to one’s well being was never a concern.
Looking back, it was easy to recall the exact moment, over 15 years ago, when the obsession started. My most immediate thought as I crossed the finish line of my first long distance event was:
“If I can do this, I handle anything that comes my way”.
I was diagnosed with cancer 5 months later.
I suppose it is a useful metaphor to take into battle, whether it’s a cancer diagnosis, or a tour of duty in Afghanistan, but the ability to "endure" a particularly grueling race doesn't necessarily correspond to improving one’s health or fitness. This is particularly true, especially when one considers other elements of good physical conditioning such as strength, power and agility.
Ultra events, into which category the iron distance triathlon belongs, are more properly classified as suffer fests, rather than true tests of overall, personal fitness and health.
Keep in mind, the iron distance itself, was not developed as a scientific benchmark of health or wellness.
It is random.
Worse than random, it is the result of a drunken argument among a few runners, swimmers and cyclists about whose sport was the toughest; which athlete among them the fittest. They selected the longest distance races of the three local, Hawaiian events for each of their respective sports and threw them all together sequentially. Scientifically speaking, this experimental endeavor would not even answer the questions they themselves raised.
There’s a vain, egotistical side to all of this as well, that is a bit tougher to own up to, but I’m doing it now. Most will not admit it, but deep down inside, every triathlete gloats and preens just a little bit when someone calls them out as an overachiever. I confess; I enjoyed it. Perhaps it was because I am physically small, but people were often astounded when they heard that I did triathlons. I’m not exactly sure why, but I imagine it has something to do with the way triathlon is mythologized by society. It was quite the ego stroke, kick in the pants and pat on the back all rolled into one, whenever someone acknowledged it for me.
There was an ugly, elitist attitude that went along with it as well. Snide banter triathletes would engage in when other athletes were around often went something like this:
“Oh you are a runner, that’s nice, how cute. I run too, after I swim and bike, of course…”
You may have even seen that crap on a bumper sticker.
I could have been their poster child.
Reading books by Dean Karnazes did not help the situation any. I was simultaneously drawn in and repulsed by, everything he describes in Ultramarathon Man. There was something strangely appealing about running all night and ordering a pizza for refueling to be delivered to a street corner in the next town. I also found myself thinking that he was an annoying, narcissistic jerk as well, and that didn’t bode well for my own self image. Reading his description about his experience at Badwater, kicked something loose. It had me thinking that perhaps something about extreme endurance racing was not quite right.
A line had to be drawn somewhere, between healthy activity and insanity. I had to decide for myself when or where, the finish line of “that’s enough” was.
Badwater, The Ultra-Marathon, claims to be the world’s toughest footrace. According to the race website: “Covering 135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA in temperatures up to 130F (55c), it is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet”.
I suppose that the mental fortitude required to complete any ultra event is admirable, but nowadays I struggle to understand what sort of accomplishment it is to suffer the potential consequences of severe dehydration, kidney damage, heat stroke or death, in a race that someone else dreamed up as a challenge?
What benefit could it possibly impart to my body? Or anybody’s body?
What is to be gained? Prestige? Pride? Bragging rights? At what cost?
Is it worth it?
To some it must be, but the answers to those questions are ultimately, quite personal.
Was everyone else who participated in these races as furious as I had been? What drives them? What compels someone whose life is not being threatened, to push themselves to the very edge of survival?
For me, and certainly many other athletes, participation in sports is an avenue of self-expression. It’s an old cliché that a true artist must suffer for their art, and in that sense, all athletes suffer, to a certain extent, for their sport in various ways. It’s also been said that a little suffering is good for the soul, but at what point does the suffering become counterproductive?
I have dubbed myself a "reformed" triathlete. Years of pushing myself to go further and faster never got me anywhere. The compulsion to spend endless hours riding the same training routes, eating energy bars and sucking down Gatorade in the hot sun, to the exclusion of all other activities, was gone.
Once the anger that had been driving me dissolved, once I came to appreciate that stopping, or slowing down was not failure, extreme racing became an unfulfilling, open-ended treadmill. It was easier than expected to step away.
It was a relief.
Who’s to say that 140.6 miles imparts better longevity, health or mojo than 70.3 or 26.2, 13.1 6.2, or even 3.1 miles.
Is more of the same, always better?
I suspect the answer will be different for each of us. Everyone needs to seek their own, healthy balance. For me, that balance has to involve not being so involved, in any, one thing. Others thrive on the singular focus, so for them it works out.
I know I’m not alone when it comes to the need to “step away” from triathlon culture. Recently, while out running with some friends, a guy wearing a souvenir Ironman® singlet struck up a conversation with us out on the road.
“You guys training or maintaining”? he asked. We told him we were training and which marathon we were training for. I gestured to his Ironman® shirt and said, “which one are you training for”? He threw up his hands with a dismissive wave and said, “Oh I don’t do those anymore. In fact, I’m thinking about taking up smoking and bull riding instead”.
I completely understood the sentiment.
Ridding myself of the obsession to be constantly training, or feeling guilty when I wasn’t training, was liberating. I had forgotten how much fun it is to do other things. Reading, working in the garden, hanging out and drinking beer with friends and gasp… even playing golf, are now back on my list of things to do. They are not necessarily focused on improving my VO2max, but what’s the point of being fit, if you can’t enjoy the fitness?
It had become difficult for me to enjoy these things because even when I allowed myself to partake in those other activities, I was constantly thinking about, how much training time I was losing, how far behind I was falling. Gradually it dawned on me that training had become more of an obligation in my life and not all that much fun anymore.
It was time to ask myself some hard questions:
Why was it important to go so far? I no longer remembered.
Was killing myself racing the best or most appropriate way, to honor my body and the battle I fought with cancer? Probably not.
It’s been 12 years, have all the wounds healed yet?
Thanks to years of training, I can still swim a mile or 2 or 3 if I need to. I’m not the fastest or the slowest out there but it doesn’t really matter.
In this part of the country, riding a bicycle out on the roads is a particularly risky undertaking and I’m no longer willing to endanger my life every time I go for a bike ride. Riding a bike here is way too stressful for me and certainly not fun. If we lived somewhere more conducive to bike riding, or if we go on vacation somewhere bike friendly, I’ll ride.
It is still fun to plan vacations around a destination marathon now and then, for the shared experience and exotic location. Why not? After all, it is "only a marathon". That's fun.
By no means should it be construed that I think ultra events shouldn’t exist, or that they are inherently bad or wrong. I’m glad other people can participate in and enjoy them. If "enjoy" is the right word for that experience.
What’s different now, is that it’s finally acceptable for me to sit back and marvel at other people testing the limits of human endurance.
Their endurance. Not mine.