For about 15 years, I had the pleasure (for the most part) of competing at a relatively high level as a master’s endurance athlete. The events ranged from Ironmans (11 total, and 4x at the World Championships in Kona), multiple marathons (including 3x at Boston) and even the opportunity to win the 3,000 mile, 2-person Race Across America cycling race along with my friend Jerry Schemmel and an amazing and incredibly sacrificial crew. The competitions took me to wonderful places, provided incredibly unique opportunities, introduced me to amazing people who have become some of my best friends, and led to my PhD pursuit to study functional mental toughness. It was amazing. It stretched me in ways I never could have imagined and in many ways formed the person I am today.
It also involved a loss of perspective. Maybe the following reflection on some of those shortcomings will provide something of value for you or if you’re a coach, one of your clients.
I’m admittedly walking a fine line here. My commitment over those 15 years to be up and on the bike or in the pool by 5 a.m. (generally) 7 days a week, avoid late-night events, avoid coffee, alcohol and certain foods that might have a detrimental effect, sit on my bike trainer in the basement for hours and hours (and hours!) on end, track and plan workouts for optimal performance made the above opportunities possible. But was it worth it? Maybe? Probably? But I think there was a better path available.
It’s now been about 5 years since I’ve raced competitively. The value of garnering a different perspective as a result of that space grows with each passing day. Don’t get me wrong – I still immensely value healthy eating and exercise – it’s just not playing the leading role it once did. My current routine includes 30-35 miles/week of running, 3 days of strength training and an occasional ride. Suzanna and I enjoy hiking and paddle boarding with our dog, Sky. Plus, I enjoy the physical work around the Catalyst Ranch, from digging out boulders to clearing bushes and other miscellaneous activities. My weight hasn’t changed significantly from my racing days (or high school days, for that matter) and I’m fortunate at age 56 to be in good health.
But to all my friends and peers who are living and dying by their last swim split, Strava KOM or age group finish, I’ve also learned a key lesson in recent years: It’s not really that important.
Seriously – nobody really cares. Ok, that’s not completely true. Perhaps the person finishing right in front of you and right behind you in the race care. But that’s about it. Our family is supportive and cheer us on because they want US to be happy. There’s a nice dopamine release having people say things like “26 (or 140 or 3,000) miles? I couldn’t DRIVE that far without getting tired.” It’s personally encouraging to run faster at 40 (or 50 or even 60) than we did in high school. Of course there’s a value in the clear purpose provided each morning and the value of knowing that we (generally) get out of it what we put in, something often missing from our careers and relationships. But IT’S A HOBBY – not a profession. It’s what we do FOR FUN – not a requirement to get early release from prison! With the benefit of hindsight, here are five pieces of advice I’d give the 36 year old Brad as he was entering his first triathlon. (Marathoners, cyclists, ultra-runners, cross-fitters and others simply adjust the specific wording accordingly.)
1 – IF you enjoy it enough to go beyond the initial event, spend the first (approximately) three years just enjoying the ride. Don’t spend a bunch of money. Don’t make dramatic changes to your schedule. Swim, bike and run for fun at a level that is healthy for you, your family and your career. You’ll stay physically healthy, emotionally happy and (as a result) will get a lot faster, naturally. Pushing the envelope early won’t speed up anything except the frequency of injuries.
2 – IF you’re still enjoying the sport heading into year four and would like to “see what you can do” (e.g., Kona slot, USAT Nationals, etc.), sit down with those closest to you and discuss available time, money and energy budgets. Just like you wouldn’t start building a house if you didn’t have the money to add the roof, the same is true here. Most importantly, what sacrifices are YOU willing to make to get the most out of that available budget? If you have a family, don’t tell me you join the local cycling group at 10 a.m. Saturday for your long ride and then wonder why they question your priorities. If it’s important, demonstrate it by being on the bike hours before the family is even awake. Yes – your family/friends will play a key role in helping you through this next phase, but YOU make the primary sacrifices, not them. Remember, you are not trying to qualify for the Olympics. You’re a middle-age man/woman racing other middle-agers for a piece of metal that will (in the best case scenario) end up in the back of your closet.
3 – IF the time/money/energy budget allows, give it 2 (max 3) years to go for it. Want to go all in? Great. Me too. Go all in – for now. Then return to real life for awhile. You won’t lose your fitness. We’re not talking about shifting to couch potato mode – we’re just not focusing our lives around 100-mile rides, trimming seconds from our track sessions and perfecting pre-race fueling strategy. You will gain perspective. You will expand your appreciation for things other than speedier transition times. You will have the chance to consider whether this hobby is the best investment of the limited time we have available here on earth. Stay active – keep swimming/cycling/running for fun during these extended (1-2 year) breaks and, if desired, your baseline fitness will allow you to be right back where you were in about 3 months.
4 – While you’re dialing things back, expand your horizons. Read more books. Take some classes. Go to concerts. Tailgate at sporting events. Travel (to destinations that don’t involve a race). Stay up past 9 p.m. Hike, paddle board, gravel bike, garden – all without downloading to Strava. There’s a decent chance you’ll decide your heart is drawn back to racing. Great! But you may also decide that once you shut off the swim/bike/run/sleep/repeat treadmill, you look out the window and realize “Hey – there’s some pretty cool stuff out there I’d like to do!”
5 – IF you find yourself waving a flag, it’s probably time to wave goodbye. This one could be applied to many aspects of our lives, not just endurance sports. Flags represent our identity. We can (figuratively) wave the flag in reference to many things, from our political affiliation, religion, and yes, our hobbies. Our daughter Danielle taught me a good lesson about this. She fell in love with gymnastics at an early age and her beautiful athleticism and hard work paid big dividends in the ensuing years. Now an adult, she looks back on those years as generally positive, but lasting 2-3 years too long. She’ll tell you she would likely have stepped away earlier… but gymnastics was so core to who she was – her identity as a person that she didn’t know who she was if she stopped. (Confession alert: as her Dad, I should have picked up on that but didn’t.) Endurance sports can provide immense value in developing confidence and growing you as an individual. But if wrapped in the triathlon (or other) flag, it’s time to step away.
Endurance sports are awesome – even life-changing. They played (and likely will play again in the future) a valuable role in my life in countless ways. But triathlon (or your current pursuit of choice) isn’t life. Not even close. Life is exploring… serving… growing… living! Sure – it can be fun, provide community, get us into shape. It’s important, but it’s not THAT important.
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