Sunday, June 14, 2009

Triathletes: the Irrational Behind the Rational

I recently followed a twitter link to an interesting article: A Question for You Triathletes... by Ben Greenfield. He asks: "What motivates you to do triathlons?" and then goes on to mention he's not buying the obvious cookie-cutter answers involving rational things like fitness and stress relief. Instead, Greenfield reasons that if we are completely honest with ourselves, triathletes will find we "do triathlons for emotional and irrational wants and fears."

Ok. I'll bite. I don't even need Greenfield's exercise for determining how to figure out my irrational wants. I can delve that deep all by myself with the help of a long training session. It all starts with childhood (come on, did you really think it would be something different?) I was born into a family that worshipped athletes. Football players. Hockey players. You name it. Athletic achievement was valued above all else except, maybe, school grades. And I grew up in the shadow of two superstar athletes -- my brothers -- who garnered all parental attention. First irrational want: to be a superstar. I chose to do it by joining the high school swim team. I was 14.

Despite great success at swimming, then track, AND school, I continued to believe I would never be fast enough, never smart enough,... never pretty enough, never popular enough. Irrational? Yes. But I was young. When I became a "more rational" adult, would the irrational motivators still drive my athletic achievements?

I started running after college. I ran because I loved running, and I needed a break from swimming. Why did I run marathons? I suppose it could have been to address the lingering irrational desires. The pinnacle of my running "career" came when I qualified for the Womens Olympic Trials in 2000. The strangest praise came from a friend of mine who told me I had become a sort of "hero" to all the local runners who were not born with natural talent. (I am NOT making this up.) He said that my achievement was amplified by the fact I was NOT your typical "runner" (by that, I think he meant small, thin, fast, and genetically gifted). I imagined myself the running version of Salieri in the closing scene of Amadeus -- had I become the patron saint of running mediocrity?

Cue the irrational motivators.

I switched to triathlon after ten years of marathoning and several injuries including stress fractures. The rational reason? To avoid more injuries. The irrational reason? Because I was a good swimmer once and I would never be as fast as the "runners." I desperately needed to be good at SOMETHING, anything. I was 36. My fourth triathlon was an Ironman. Irrational? Absolutely.

Now that I'm 44, I find the most interesting motivator may not be irrational at all. It is the one that got me back into triathlon after 5 years off following a bike accident. I never expected to WANT to do another Ironman, because, during that time off, I landed in a job that finally lent meaning to my life -- a job I loved at an organization I believed in. After more than a year of sinking my passion into work, the unimaginable happened. I found out something I already knew from previous experience: in the workplace, hard work and dedication may not be rewarded - the simple truth is that I'm no good at playing office politics.

I responded by re-dedicating myself to Ironman. If there's one thing I WILL get out of being an endurance athlete, it's the satisfaction of knowing that all my hard work pays off. I train hard, I get faster. I race smart, I win. I answer to myself only, and I am responsible for my performance. There are no arses to kiss. And I can live with that.

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