My first attempt at an Olympic distance triathlon earlier this year was pretty much the most humbling racing experience I’ve had in a long time. I’ve been underprepared for events before – I still remember the way my first and only XTERRA race basically picked me up by the scruff of my neck and smushed my face in a mud puddle – but never quite to that extent. So I swore to myself that the next time I tackled the distance, I was going to be ready for it.
Problem was, I couldn’t find another race this season that met two specific requirements. The first is that the triathlon couldn’t be so late in the season that it would overlap with training for the Clearwater Marathon, which I’m planning on running in January. I’m really hoping that this will be the time that I break four hours, and so my plan is to focus entirely on marathon training instead of scattering my attention all over the place and hoping that will be enough to carry me through. And who knows, maybe the fourth time will be the charm to help me break four hours?
The second is that the triathlon had to have a swim leg that is 1.5 km long. Now, I’m not sure when and how this happened, but it seems like nowadays a lot of race organizers are billing their Olympic/international distance triathlons with half-mile swims. This will not do. I want that longer swim. (What’s wrong with me? Actually, don’t answer that.) I won’t feel like I have fully tackled the Olympic distance triathlon until I get my 1.5 km swim, and really, I kind of don’t like that all of these Olympic distance triathlons are cutting the swim short and still calling themselves Olympic distance. It’d be like race organizers promoting a marathon but lopping off the last 10K and still calling it a marathon. Don’t do that. Just…don’t.
Anyway, I was ready to defer my dream of avenging my sorry-ass performance at St. Anthony’s until the 2014 season, but then, the email appeared in my inbox. An inaugural triathlon series in Naples. Olympic distance. In September. With a 1.5 km swim. PERFECTION. We signed up that day.
Now I’m a couple of weeks into training – albeit a bit of a reduced training load thanks to a bicep strain I sustained while showing off my mad chin-up skillz to my husband (stupid, so fucking stupid) – and this time around I am doing my best to stick as closely to the schedule as I possibly can. This means I have been getting up at early so I can train before work and sitting in rush-hour traffic so I can get my pool workouts in at the only public Olympic pool in the county that is indoor (because, fun fact about Florida, it storms like a bloody monsoon every afternoon between May and October). Today, for instance, I will most likely sit in traffic so I can get to the pool to swim even though I’ve been up since 3:30 a.m. and really deep in my heart, I want nothing more than to return to bed as soon as my morning shift comes to a close. But fortune doesn’t favor the lazy asshole who wants to sleep all the time, or whatever the saying is. And so, instead of crawling into bed and falling asleep with the Bill Bryson book I’m reading tented over my face…I swim.
Okay, now it’s time to pull on your hipwaders, because shit’s about to get deep.
Early on, Brian tried to gently suggest that maybe it was okay if I didn’t throw myself into training for this triathlon, and I responded pretty adamantly that it was important to me that I do this right. In fact, my reaction was so strong that I spent some time trying to figure out why exactly I cared this much. I mean, let’s be real – the only person who cares about the way I do in a triathlon is me. I’ve found that other people either don’t care at all, or they care but only in that they think its cool that I did one. Other triathletes might care a smidge, but for the most part, I’m really the only one who cares about how I do in a triathlon.
And yet St. Anthony’s really bothered me because I knew, deep in my heart, that I could have done better. I don’t mean like I could have dug down deeper during the actual race and pulled out some amazing performance. I mean that I could have done better had I pulled myself together psychologically and trained the way the distance demanded. The more I get into racing, the more I find this to be true. It’s no longer enough for me to just show up at the starting line and make my way from point A to point B. I need to show up at the starting line knowing I did everything I could do to get ready for it. Otherwise I feel like I’m cheating myself out of the opportunity to have an amazing experience.
A passage from Joan Didion’s essay “On Self Respect” keeps going through my mind when I think about this:
Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions.
The fact is, it doesn’t matter that no one else cares how I do when I compete. The only person for whom it does matter is me, because in the end, I can’t hide from myself in that well-lit back alley. I’ll always know the truth about how I tried or how I didn’t try or if the reasons I give for my lackluster performance are actual reasons or if they are excuses meant to hide the less-noble things happening beneath the surface.
It’s a little weird for me to talk about racing in terms of self-respect, but the truth is that a lack of self-respect has been a pervasive theme in my life, up until my late 20s. I have some thoughts as to why the Self-Respect Fairy passed me by when I was younger and basically didn’t show her face again until I had stumbled through several years of humiliation and suffering, but the important thing is that I did eventually figure things out and it did truly change my life for the better. Because now instead of slinking around, wasting all my energy on putting up a facade of awesome to hide all of my flaws, I own who I am, all of it. I own my mistakes and my weaknesses, but I also own my accomplishments and my strengths. Now I take responsibility for who I am and the choices I make, which is scary but also very freeing.
What’s more, because I no longer feel like admitting my weaknesses is like offering up my soft white underbelly to be slashed to bits by the world, I feel more confident taking risks and trying new things, because failure doesn’t mean I’m worthless. It just means I need to try harder or maybe do something differently or maybe even try something else entirely. (And sometimes what we think of as failure is not really failure at all if you come at it from a slightly different angle. At least, this has been true for me.)
So that’s the mindset I bring to my life as an athlete – and also my life as a journalist, as a writer, as a human being. That’s why I’m not really satisfied to slack off through training. I mean, I could, but I’ll always know that I half-assed it, and that’s just not acceptable to me. Not anymore.