In the Beginning…
We all remember the heady experience of crossing our first triathlon finish line. If you are like me, you probably used borrowed or barely-adequate equipment, made nutrition and/or pacing mistakes and suffered chafing in brand new places. But that finish line had “meaning.” We had dreamed up the goal (to finish a triathlon), put aside some fears and conquered a new challenge. And wow, that was satisfying.
Sooner or later, most of us wanted to experience another finish line. This time our reason “why” was more advanced but still very clear: to improve upon our first performance, to execute a better race, to be faster. These new goals governed training through our next season and became our reason to be resilient and determined through the hardest parts of each race. We continued to dream up performance goals and see improvement through those years. Again, that was extremely satisfying.
Inevitably, our lives become more complex as we move through adult-hood. Partners, marriage, careers, responsibilities, child-raising and home-ownership can all add to the wonderful complexity of a meaningful life. But as other parts of our life become fuller, the amount of energy, time and money that we can devote towards triathlon can decline. Eventually, age will catch up with even the fittest master athletes, resulting in gradually slowing performances. At this point, a triathlete’s continued participation in the sport depends on his/her ability to find meaningful goals and a new reason “why” to guide training and future racing. Here are some strategies for finding meaningful goals that mature alongside you through a lifetime of triathlon.
Role Model Athletes
First, step outside the “box” that contains your own training and racing experiences and reflect on the athletes that you admire the most. My role model athletes have all overcome significant challenges to become or remain triathletes (illness, injury, aging, addiction, weight loss, depression, etc.). They appreciate every starting line as the privilege that it always is. They battle through every race with all that they can give. They train with focus and determination but never without gratitude. They exist as examples to me and others on how to find meaning in a sport both before and long after your new PR’s have all been found.
Assess and Adapt Then Identify Meaningful Challenges
My great privilege to work for physically-impaired and visually-impaired veterans and triathletes has shown me the power of “adding to one’s list of abilities.” Whether they have lost their sight, a limb or the ability to use part of their body, when a person first becomes impaired, their “list of abilities” seems to get much shorter. Through paratriathlon, almost everyone can train for and race a triathlon. This quickly adds to each person’s “list of abilities” – adding meaning to each day. Paratriathletes assess their current situation, adapt, problem solve around challenges, find meaningful goals and work towards them with resilience and determination. If you feel like your triathlon “list of abilities” is shortening, there is always a way to set new goals and find new abilities. Conquer a new type of triathlon, focus on better technique, master nutrition and wellness, start a new training group, recover from injury, improve speed work, help a hesitant beginner, tackle strength training, volunteer at a race, work with a youth triathlon team, work with paratriathletes etc... You can find an infinite number of new reasons to stay in the sport with continued growth. Aspire to be a role model triathlete.
Some sport challenges reward persistence and longevity. Many races reward participation over many years or decades. Think about that athlete who has competed at a race over two or three decades – an admirable achievement for anyone. Some years, just getting to the starting line is a massive accomplishment worth celebrating. To do that consistently over many years is amazing.
My experience as a youth and junior coach has also helped me to remember what really matters in sport. Young athletes want to make progress and want to work hard, but ultimately, they want to enjoy the experience with other athletes that they consider to be friends. As adults, sometimes we become too focused on the training and racing goals but forget that our involvement in triathlon should also be a method to add meaning, joy and social connection with friends. At the end of our lives, our race PR’s might warrant some reminiscing, but the strongest friendships and the most joyful memories will be more important.
Keep Your “List” Long
It is a sign of athletic maturity to remain “in the game” even when it is difficult or impossible to improve one’s finish time. The rewards for redefining your goals and updating the reason “why” you race are worthy. Don’t let the list of things that you do get prematurely shortened. Assess where you are with your life situation and fitness, adapt, set some new goals and get going. It is going to be a fantastic year!