Why Do You Race?

September 19, 2019

 

A friend asked me a week after my half Ironman race, "why do you you do a triathlon?" He had just completed his first 70.3 race (the same one I also completed), and he struggled to find an answer to his own question. My response has always been somewhere along the lines of "I do it for the finish." If you've participated in an endurance event before, this finish line feeling might be familiar to you. If you haven't, let me attempt to paint a picture. Crossing the finish line of a long distance event is something similar to the best kind of natural high one can achieve. There is something about being DONE that is wonderful. Having put your mind, body and whole heart through the paces for minutes to hours on end and then stopping is incredible. You've demanded your whole being to push beyond what once seemed unreasonable or impossible and actually completed a major goal. Its profound fatigue mixed with a cocktail of about 500 other traditional and irrational emotions. I can't quite describe the feeling, but it keeps me coming back for more.

 

I've been participating in long-distance events since elementary school. I've always been good at endurance. I remember going to cross country practice in grade 7 and teaching myself how to breathe and pace at the same time. I also learned how to persevere and push past the physical and mental torment that is commonly associated with endurance events. Please note that people who don't experience this twisted agony while experiencing fitness are an exception. I didn't always succeed in every endurance event, but I got better and learned to deal with failure.

 

Triathlon was never a sport I grew up knowing. I ran, but cycling was to the park and swimming consisted of cannonballs and handstands. Running was the only endurance event I knew how to "race" when the gun went off. In 2010 I started spectating triathlons because I was dating a triathlete. By 2016 I had been to dozens of short and long course triathlons in Canada and the US and became super familiar with the logistics of this weird event. I even dabbled in coaching a few triathletes for the run portion of their training programs.

 

In 2017 I was about to turn 30 and my birthday happened to fall on a Sunday in June. There was no possible way there wasn't some sort of endurance event on my birthday. Then it dawned on me that the 70.3 Ironman in Tremblant was likely scheduled for the same day. And I was right. What a better way to ring in a new decade than by doing something totally out of my league? I hadn't challenged myself to something physical (beyond a half marathon) for myself in years since having my son in 2015. I had been a spectator at Tremblant for nearly four years prior, so I knew the event relatively well. So, I registered. And I trained. Not crazy hard but just barely enough to squeak by in my first year and complete the event. I was super slow, but I finished upright, smiling and keen to try it again. 

 

I did the same event again in 2018. I was faster, stronger and more determined. But this time everything felt hard. I panicked in the swim, frequently swore on the bike and finally relaxed on the run, the sport I knew best. I was proud that I beat my previous overall time by over 45 minutes, but I hated the way my head uncomfortably camped out in a pit of negativity during the whole event.

 

I wanted another chance. So, when the time came once more, I registered, again, for the third time. 2019 was going to be different. I would train harder. I would train smarter. I would not panic. I would not self-deprecate. I would have fun, as I did two years prior. I set out to achieve 4 things:

 

1. Do my best in the swim. To me, this meant: don't fixate on your watch, don't panic, rest when you need to, and just keep swimming. Thanks, Dory, for that.

 

2. Be smart on the bike. Use your gearing wisely. Stay in aero as much as possible and relax. Push on the flats and downhills and go slower than you want to on the uphill because you know you're strong (its a size thing). Save a little for the run and the last 20k of the bike (which is brutal and awful and terrible). Stay as close to 30k/hr as possible.

 

3. See Adrian (my coach and partner) on the run. In 2017 and 2018 Adrian had finished the race before I even hit the run. In 2017 he was completed changed and had already collected his bike when I saw him as I was exiting the transition zone to run a half marathon. This year I was determined to see him on the run course. God damn fast triathletes being good at their sport. 

 

4. Feel good. Smile outwardly and inwardly. You paid a lot of money (like way too much) and trained for months on end to be miserable for 6 hrs. Enjoy the event, woman! You're lucky you get to do this. 

 

I'm happy to say I achieve all my goals this year. I had no runs goals because I know what I can do on the run. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the run (and I was feeling pretty good at this point) I lost all my fuel from my shallow pockets, my watch died, and it was 30+ degrees with little to no shade. My mood and energy dramatically shifted, suddenly. I decided to focus on my goal to stay positive and I allowed myself to walk about 40% of the run, slow way down, and avoid imminent death or complete misery. I was satisfied with my decision to stop pushing on the run. I knew the conditions and obstacles wouldn't dictate my overall success on how I felt the race went, despite sacrificing my time. 

 

I've had some time to reflect on my experience and these past three years as an amateur triathlete. I wasn't sure what I wanted to write about but I knew I wanted to explain why I was successful this year and what triathlon has done for me. The most significant difference between my training from 2018 to 2019 is that I did more of the things that scared the crap out of me. Those things include open water swimming, swimming in general for over 1k, the bike to run transition and riding on my aero bars. I discovered that the only way to get over crippling anxiety was to face whatever I fear. Again. And again. And then some more. I practiced until I didn't what once scared me or (shocker), I began to look forward to it. I didn't realize the ease and freedom of cycling when sitting on your aero bars. I didn't know lake swimming could be just as simple as the pool if you stop starring in the abyss of the lake and just swim, for christ sake. I didn't realize that it takes me about 20-30 minutes for my legs function properly during a run right after cycling. And I would have never known these things if I didn't try it. I didn't just decide one day to start practicing each of these things. It took me three years of self reflection, frustration and panic to have the courage to try all of them. 

 

When I first started triathlon, I avoided a lot of things that made me feel weak, silly or slow. My longest swim was less than 1k. I didn't learn to freestyle properly because I didn't practice enough. My longest ride less than 60k. I didn't practice my bike to run transition once. I trained, but I only 2 feet out of my comfort zone. This year I trained 2000 feet from it. I sat in my anxiety for months and then I gingerly walked into the lake anyway. I closed my eyes as the cars whizzed by me while trying the aero position for the first time and opened them to realize I was still upright and alive. I swam hard when my coach asked (most of the time). I ate when my nutritionist said I wasn't eating enough (after a stint of waking blackouts). I finished my 2019 training nine pounds heavier than when I raced in 2018, but I was a different person and better for it. 

 

I knew I'd be okay on it was race day when my friends and I were standing in the swim corrals and I was nervous but nothing else. Instead of quieting down and settling into fear or doubt, I started high fiving the shit out of my teammates, jumping and cheering as we approached the water. I turned around and wildly shouted, "LET'S DO THIS MOTHERF*CKERS" to my friends as I ran into the water and started swimming without hesitation. I did not stop moving for 6 more hours (except for a brief pee break). Despite all the lactic acid, sweat and heaving breathing, it was GREAT.

 

I know a ton of my peers and strangers are humming and hawing about the idea of participating in a triathlon or endurance event. There's a lot of fear with something so out your league, I get that. Know that there is magic in the process. Your experience doesn't have to be perfect. Yes, triathlon very, very hard. There were so many times I wanted to quit and I questioned my choices frequently. I still do. I am not special, exceptional or gifted. I do not have an extra gene that gives me more motivation than the next person. I am, in fact, actually quite lazy. But I did it, and so can you. So can anyone.

 

So, why do I race? I suppose it's beyond just the feeling of the finish. Yes, that's a huge part. But maybe I do it so other people will as well. I see the power and potential this sport fosters on its participants. It doesn't guarantee a "transformation" or will fix your problems. It doesn't pay your bills or find the cure for cancer. But it does inspire the people who do might. The process and result will hold more value for you than I could ever articulate in words. I've never met a person worse for trying. 

 

Here's to this silly sport, and many more years of chain grease, blistered toes and pool snot rockets (it's a thing). 

 

Jenna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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