I want to believe: training thoughts October 2003

I have always considered myself a “try-athlete” more so than a triathlete.  After all, I really just give it a go, and I do try my hardest most of the time.  I am certainly not setting any land speed records, nor turning heads with my text book technique.  In fact, I think I can safely say that I am the epitome of the phrase “back of the pack try-athlete”.

None of this seems to matter much to the uninitiated, though.  To the masses, anyone who attempts a triathlon is automatically elevated to the ranks of the demigods of sport.  There is no such thing as an “average” triathlete – and anyone that claims to be one is immediately berated for being far too modest.  If you compete in triathlons at any level, it is generally assumed that you’re fast, supremely fit, and fearless.

As a “back of the pack try-athlete”, I for one have found this high esteem for triathletes a little embarrassing at times.  From time to time more accomplished fellow triathletes have also made me slightly uneasy, describing me with adjectives such as “inspirational”… words that, to me, go well above and beyond the usual healthy encouragement that comes with training in a squad.

I have always tried to accept these accolades as I’ve been told a lady should always accept complements – with grace – however it may be with surprise that some of you read while I smile and say “thank you”, I’ve often been baffled by these sentiments that raise me from a mere mortal to something much more magnificent.

Triathlon is an individual sport, and if you ask a bunch of non-elite triathletes, 98% of them will say that triathlon is not about winning – it’s about being the best you can be, about setting and achieving PBs and challenging yourself to new goals within the sport.  And so it is for me.  But sometimes, just sometimes, I find all that warm fuzzy shiny stuff about personal achievement a little lacklustre.

The reality is that it’s sometimes really hard to feel positive about your performance when you are so far from the front.  And it can be hard to feel good about your race time, even a PB, when yours is the fourth slowest time from a field of over a thousand.  (Yes, it’s happened to me.)  What I’m trying to say is that when you’re a “back of the pack try-athlete” like me, it generally doesn’t pay to compare yourself to others.

There are always exceptions to every rule, though, and I just recently found my exception to this one.

I’d been going through a hectic time at work, and the resultant stress had seen me lose sleep, eat badly, and to top it all off my dodgy wisdom tooth flared up, causing unbearable agony.  Needless to say, with not only my schedule, but also my jawline against me in the eating and sleeping stakes, my training regime was suffering.

After a particularly frustrating day in the office, I’d had enough.  I needed to do something.  I dug up an old swim set I’d written down sometime, grabbed my togs and goggles and set off to the pool on campus.

Having never swum here before, I took my time scoping it out and choosing my lane.  As I walked towards one of the lanes designated as “medium pace” I was still tossing up whether I was actually more suited to a “slow pace” lane.  But hey, one of the medium pace lanes was empty… what harm would I do?

I noticed someone get in the lane next to me as I started my first lap.  No sooner had I done a couple of laps when a couple more swimmers joined my lane.  Up and down, up and down.  I focused on my stroke and tried to forget my stress and the blue line therapy worked its magic.  By the time I finished warm up I was feeling good and ready to tackle my main set.

As I took a quick breather before tackling the main set I noticed that my lane was now empty.  Where had those swimmers gone?  I surreptitiously glanced around the pool to see whether they’d gone to a fast lane or a slow lane.  Was I holding them up?  Or was I too fast for them?  I couldn’t find them… in fact the longer I looked, the more it seemed that none of the swimmers that had been in the pool when I got there were still swimming!

Could that be right?  Were they finished already?  But I’d only just warmed up!

As I tackled my main set I kept sneaking glances around the complex, and as swimmers came and went throughout the rest of my set, I decided that without a doubt, that’s exactly what was going on.  In doing a normal swim session, I’d swum further – or at least for longer – than anyone else.

Imagine, a “back of the pack try-athlete” like me, out-swimming the pool’s entire clientele!

As I look back on that session, I’ve realised that what we as triathletes do every day at training is hard.  In any given week, the distance we cover in any of the disciplines could easily be higher than the average Joe who trains in the same activity alone.  And that’s just in one of the legs – we also have to keep building the other two.  But it’s not just distance, but the intensity of every session that makes it hard – physically, mentally and emotionally.

I’m sure none of you will be surprised to know that I’ve asked myself a million times that universal question.  Why?  The same reasons that makes us all persist.  We are the owners of a set of intangible character traits that compel us to do what we do.

There’s the bravery, the X Factor that’s required to set personal goals for yourself that seem so unattainable you wonder how you ever dreamt them up in the first place.  There’s the determination, the courage, the overriding desire to not let the challenge of achieving that goal become bigger than us, to not let it defeat us.

Sometimes, I think part of it is just plain stupidity, even insanity.  Even one of the shoe companies tells us “there’s no logical reason to do a triathlon”.

Perhaps more than anything, it is the desire to be the best you can be.  There is something intrinsically rewarding about achieving something that you’re not sure you can do… to push yourself to your physical, mental and emotional limits, then exceed that limit – and in doing so, set new expectations for yourself.

It is these qualities that unite us as triathletes.  They are the qualities that set us apart from the rest of the population, and make us special.  Most importantly, they make us worthy of that admiration that we probably all feel a little undeserving of at times.  But the irony in that is that we probably all turn up to at least one session in any given week physically depleted, knowing that these qualities, our strength of character, are the only things that are going to get us through.  And they do.  Time and time again.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to see these qualities within ourselves.  But deep down, we know they’re there.

The secret for all of us as triathletes, is to let ourselves believe.

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