Paying Dues

Recently, an esteemed acquaintance said that I haven’t yet paid my dues to the sport of triathlon. He didn’t mean it in a jerktastic way –in fact he was saying it to comfort me— but it made me think. I trained for my first triathlon when I was staring down the barrel of my 30th birthday.* I turn 35 today (having spent this entire season as a F35-39) and am looking forward to 2013 as my 7th season, although I still haven’t figured out exactly what I’m doing with it. In an ongoing effort to calculate my next move, a few friends (including Ms. Kate Bongiovanni and her enormous compliment, as well as the “dues” comment), have inspired me to reflect on my little “journey”* so far. Join me as I gaze at my navel on the 35th anniversary of having my umbilical cord cut, won’t you?

*I didn’t know about the USAT age-up rule, so was completely pissed when body markers wrote “30” on my calf. And is “journey” not the most over-used word in triathlon human-interest stories?

On Perspective:

We’re no Boulder or San Diego, but amateur athlete-wise, Chicagoland has an embarrassment of riches: I’m surrounded by hyper-talented people who train hard but make winning look so, so easy. These people win their age group regularly and qualify for Nationals/Worlds/Boston/Kona repeatedly, and sometimes on their first try. If there’s some mythical socially acceptable rate of improvement, these people surely overstep it: they have many happy returns on their investment. Sure, they’re human and suffer occasional setbacks and injuries, but they navigate around them toward their goals.

I do not see myself as one of these freaks.

I’m also lucky enough to train and race with people who work their way toward better and better results. Their trajectory may be a slightly slower than some of the local superstars, but it’s thrilling to watch their names climb closer to the top of the results page. Some make their goals known publicly, and sure enough, they cross items off-season by season. They demonstrate their efforts, and though the rewards may be harder to come by, their pride and gratitude is that much greater.

As I’ve described, I’m embarrassingly un-type-A about a lot: I don’t really set goals, much to the dismay of, like, every coach I’ve ever had. I joke a lot about keeping the bar really, really low so that it’s that much easier for me to hop over. Then I get to go “TA DA!” from the other side no matter how narrowly I clear said bar. Yes, I train, I race, I’ve improved, and I’m grateful and proud, but I’m not self-directed when it comes to la vie sportif. I’ve always had coaches and teams to whom I was accountable. That part on my resume where I talk about being highly self-motivated? Total lie. Fear and pressure motivates me. Here’s my background:

…And memo to self: delete this post when conducting next job search.

On Precedent:

Swimming was my Thing, growing up. I remember being put in a floaty-O and learning how to eggbeat my legs so I spun in quick circles. After work one evening, my mom taught me to float on my back while standing on deck in her beshoulderpadded blazer. We joined an athletic club and the lifeguard/swim coach made me sign up for the diving team because I pointed my toes every time I jumped in the pool. That meant being on the swim team, too. I swam the 25 backstroke at my first meet and came in dead last and terribly confused: I accidentally ducked under the lane rope mid-length and disqualified myself. Watching the big kids, I learned how to approximate a butterfly stroke so swam that next.

Swimming was heretofore a summer sport, but in 3rd grade a swim mom told mine about a species of winter swimmers. These fish included Tommy Malchow, who I trained and traveled to a few meets with. You know Tom, the 200 butterfly gold medal winner from the 2000 summer Olympics? Yeah, before he beat pubescent Michael Phelps, he once loaned me his goggles. My mom took me to my first United States Swimming (USS) meet where I swam three events and was disqualified in two because I didn’t know the rules.

From 3rd through 11th grade I was on at least three teams a year (summer league, school, and USS). I swam a lot of individual medley and whatever stroke I happened to be good at that season (usually fly). Really, though, my coaches slotted me into the roster where ever they needed to fill it out: the smart ones made it sound like my idea or like it would be a fun experiment. “You like backstroke, don’t you? No? Sure you do, let’s put you in this relay. Learn how to do a start before the meet, OK?” This is also how I briefly became a distance freestyler in 7th grade (200 and 500 free). I choose to believe they valued my “versatility” versus taking advantage of how little I cared what race it was, as long as I got a ribbon at the end!

My best season was my sophomore year in high school: I had moved to Emmaus, Pennsylvania from Colorado just before 9th grade and was completely fuuuucking miserable (sorry, fellow Hornets). Everything had changed. Everything but my Thing, swimming. I was almost always the first one to throw myself in the pool and start warm-up, 9 times a week. Being on the swim team, staring at the record board every day, and hoping that if I got really fast I might make some friends became my purpose in high-school life. It was a coping mechanism. During that horribly awkward time, swimming was more natural and comfortable than walking the halls at school. There was a depth of talent on my team, so I never got to be the best at any event, but I did go to the State Championship and swim the butterfly leg of the medley relay (against a girl from our rival high school who went to the Olympic trials. I got my ass handed to me).

Then I moved back to Colorado. Everything changed again, including my body, and I lost my drive. As a surly senior, I quit.

I returned to swimming at Carleton College, though, and made great friends there. Every year I thought about quitting: dedicating two of three trimesters per year to such a time-consuming extracurricular along with the rigorous academics at Carleton was overwhelming. So was the thought of not having swimming, though. Not just the sport, but the people. Just by virtue of knowing the team, I knew 8% of Carleton’s student body (small school), and knew them well. We spent a LOT of time together. We were family, and still are. Facebook lights up every time we hear Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” (see 2012 Superbowl) or if there’s a remarkable development in our world.


Collectively, we loved this video so hard. If anyone had a camera at our winter training trip in Florida, we would have created something similar. Actually, the infamous “Men’s Team Entry” video is the late 90s VHS Bizarreoland equivalent. Why isn’t this on YouTube?

On Procrastination:

Cut to post-Varsity life and several years in my 20s of thinking about joining a swim team, or taking up jogging, or bike commuting… but finding excuses not to. I was pretty convinced I couldn’t do land sports: a lifetime of virtually zero impact on my joints (unless skiing counts? And I injured myself plenty doing that) made it seem out of the question. That meant triathlon was out too, although I was really attracted to the funny-looking bikes and cool running shoes.

Anyway, I spent a few years watching teevee as my 30th encroached. Then this episode of “Scrubs” came on.

Me on Denty with the Pink Ladies of Danskin.
Me on Denty with the Pink Ladies of Danskin.

I signed up for a training program that would get me to Danskin Sprint Triathlon for Ladies and gave it a shot. I procured a wetsuit, already had a road bike (“Denty” was about four sizes too big for me), and figured I could walk the run if I needed to. I tested out my joints during a few training runs wearing my very fashionable Pumas, which LOOKED vaguely like running shoes, but had no function other than being really blue.

Training was a lot of fun, even the running part –actual running shoes made a big difference. And hey, guess what? When you start out slowly and follow a training program, you can do just about anything. The Chicago Tri Club took me in and I got hooked fast, partially because after half a year of working alone at home, I found a social group. Moreover, after five years of living, studying, and working in an area dominated by gay men, I met some STRAIGHT BOYS! Yaaaay, triathlon FTW!

On Progress:

I once had no idea how anyone could move their legs fast enough to break a 9 minute mile. It seemed impossible to me… unless I was chasing the boys at the front of the local fun run. I would listen to them having easy conversations while I turned purple and doubled over at stop lights, wondering how they could talk and run at the same time. The “fun” part of the fun run lasted less than two miles before the boys started disappearing in the darkness between street lamps blocks and blocks ahead.

I spent my first several events calculating my results in various races and was triumphant if I was anywhere near the 75th percentile (or the 50th, in a road race). Thank you, Athlinks! I thought it must be cool to finish in the top 20, then 15, then 10 percent. I admit to stalking past results and a few competitors’ times to better understand what that might take at certain events, but I didn’t know what I could pull off myself.

After volunteering at Ironman Wisconsin (IMOO) in 2007, my friend Mike and I hatched a plan to do it together in 2009. The 2008 season would just be about ramping up ambitions: I’d do a few races, including a half iron and a marathon. I wanted to know I was structurally sound enough for the higher mileage of long course triathlon events. Mike, by the way, conveniently forgot about our pact. He was busy qualifying for Boston anyway.

Thanks to illness and travel, as well as general cluelessness, I didn’t train well in 2008. My first half at Racine went OK (I went sub 5:30 thanks to a REALLY short swim course), but I wasn’t fit enough to bounce back. I lost steam and basically didn’t train for the marathon. I did one long run a week and spent the rest of the week sore and afraid my knee was going to explode. I finished the Twin Cities Marathon in something like 4:07, then sat on the couch for the next two months.

"Training" outside of Lucca, Tuscany in 2008.
“Training” outside of Lucca, Tuscany in 2008.

Well-Fit opened the Training Center in early 2009, and I joined immediately. I also lucked into winning a spot in Liz Waterstraat and Keith Klebacha’s Ironman training program. GOOD THING, since the Elite Team rejected my application that year. =P I also finally got a new bike with aerobars and everything, which was a significant improvement over Denty.

At home on Ziggy.
At home on Ziggy.

I really liked training for Ironman, especially with a group. I had my own agenda after hours (I mean I lived with another triathlete) so it took a while for me to warm up to the dynamic. Like my old swim team, however, I couldn’t imagine training without my little tri family. We were all fairly-to-brand-new to triathlon, but had some strong people in the group. I did a few more halves that year in the build-up to IMOO and had a pretty good day. Actually, it was the best day of my life to date. (Here’s my long race report on Facebook.)

I applied for the Well-Fit Elite team AGAIN and was accepted for the 2010 season! Hurrah. I spent most of that year feeling comparatively slow and self-conscious. I still couldn’t run, and my bike was only slightly improved thanks to many more miles in the saddle. Although I was a swimmer, I felt like I was drowning next to the fast lane’s wake. I think that year I just rode Stacey’s feet and hung on for dear life. I also didn’t have a very ambitious race plan for the season. I felt slightly burned out from Ironman, completely intimidated by the team, and generally meh about my lack of goals. Coach Hayes and I had signed up for the Branson 70.3 in mid-September as our ‘A’ race, but decided to ditch it, so it was a pretty anti-climactic year.

The good news is that after a few months of mental recovery and dieting, I was really ready to hit my off/out-season plan. We registered for the Cary Half Marathon, which kept me running during the cold and dark months. I did my long runs on Sundays just before heading to my girlfriends’ dinner parties to stuff my face. 1400 calories out, 1400 calories back in! Hayes had also become serious about coaching and was reading just about every book published on training. Doctors Skiba and Coggan were informing some seriously intense trainer rides at home. I don’t think I swam at all during this time, figuring it was better spent making my legs suffer.

Ironman Wisconsin gave me a driving force behind my season, which was just the fear of Ironman and hoping I could do better than my 2009 time. I knew I could shave off a few minutes thanks to experience and better decision-making in race execution, but who knows what the day could bring in terms of other obstacles. Weather, nutrition, mechanical disasters? After a few months of Elite Team workouts, though, people started asking me if I wanted to qualify for Kona. Ummm… sure, who doesn’t? But that’s not going to happen. I thought I MIGHT be able to squeak into the top 10 of my age group, and that’s all I really dared to hope for. It would take a lot more than that to qualify.

Sharone really started shoving Kona qualification down my throat. I choked on it. I told him I wanted no one to expect me to do anything of the sort. True, I was placing well in local events and on familiar courses throughout the season. Time-wise, however, I didn’t do anything too remarkable. Barely sub-2:20 at an Olympic here, survived a hot half-iron there. Big deal. Kona qualifiers finish well at big events, right? They podium at 70.3s with national draws (which I hadn’t done), and they run WAY faster than I do.

Well, I never wrote finished my race report from IMOO 2011, but suffice to say it went better than I expected. I have Sharone and others to thank for putting the idea in the back of my head, at least, which made me take my race preparation quite a bit more seriously than I would have otherwise. Still, I set that bar lower than I needed to, so was completely gobsmacked a spectator told me I was the 5th amateur off the bike and only two minutes down from Sarah, the leader of my age group (and eventual winner: I cashed myself catching up to, passing, and then getting passed back by her). I had friends on the side of the road who had their eyes bugging out of their head in disbelief and/or excitement. My teammates greeted me on State Street, then at the finish line with high-fives and congratulations. It was another amazing day at Ironman.

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Sweaty. Happy.

The “journey of Ironman” is horribly cliché, so here’s my new metaphor:

The cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline, and achievement that is Ironman is the sweetest ambrosia I’ve ever tasted. I would get drunk on it every day and twice on Sundays if not for the hangover.

The aftermath of qualifying for Kona without really doing the mental preparation has brought unexpected consequences, though. By “mental preparation” I mean I didn’t have the confidence within myself to believe I could do it, so when I did, my perception turned upside-down. Being surrounded with freaks and diligent athletes hasn’t lent much perspective in terms of where I stand in the greater scheme of things. I spent time asking for validation: did that really happen? Who DIDN’T show up that allowed me to qualify? Dare I ask for help next season? Will PowerBar take me on? (Yes.) Timex? (FUCK. NO. Dream on.) I glossed over my 2012 season here.

2012 was a year where I lost everything from top down EXCEPT my races. No, I don’t think I’m the shit. Although I wasn’t able to train as hard as I would have liked, I did work on quite a few other things: barely eight months ago, someone told me it was pathetic how I can’t enjoy small victories (personal bests in workouts, for instance) any longer than two minutes before questioning whether or not I gave it everything. I’ve since tried to draw the connection between hard work and positive outcomes, which are always nice. Before this year I never really posted my race results, but a) sponsors want to see them (sorry), b) it’s not about self-promotion; it’s about thanking the teams I love, and c) I finally feel kinda proud of the races I’ve learned to put together. As much as my Minnesotan nature chafes at doing it, hello, I like racing, I like doing well, and I like telling my friends about it. It’s just nice to do something and to feel supported. Not everyone gets it, appreciates it, or understands that I’m still just gunning for the pretty ribbon at the end. It’s just positive outcomes, see?

So I set the bar low for Kona (to “just have a good time”) –I knew I wasn’t at my best anyway—so that helped take the pressure off. Predictably enough, I cleared it. Seriously, try not enjoying Kona. It’s impossible.

On Proof:

What’s funny and/or hypocritical is that I always harp on people who take our little hobby too seriously. I’ve told grown men “this is supposed to be fun, and you don’t have to be here, so quitcherbitchin’.” However, I’ve also told teammates to stop complaining and get the fucking workout done. =) OK I didn’t say that, but “quitcherbitchin’” is a softer version of that general sentiment. I’ve also told people “you’re your worst critic, you have nothing to prove to anyone, no one will judge you based on your results.” Well sure, except for YOURSELF, and that is a person who can be hard to answer to. I don’t want to let anyone down, including, like, ME. And as much as I say “we’re adults, no one is making you do this to look good on college applications,” a lot of this still feels like high school. I want to get fast so I can feel like I belong. I don’t need to prove ‘em wrong or anything, but I do have to remind myself that I have worked for it, like, since I was six and put on that swim team.

Maybe I should just quitmybitchin’.

It seems that I have brought up more questions than I’ve answered: can I suddenly become a self-directed, goal-setting, driven and disciplined triborg? Is that honestly something I have to do to continue progressing in the sport? Can I fully realize that there is no peer pressure to do this: it’s my choice and for my own benefit? There’s still work to be done here, both mental and physical.

Meanwhile, here’s to ageing up and paying my dues.

Cheers.

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