I used to race in triathlons. I started in 2001 and continued until about 5 years ago. Being a triathlete and a runner defined me. My friends were all triathletes, and I spent all my time either training for races or socializing with other racers. It was one of the ways I introduced myself and how I explained to people who I was.
Then, one day, when I was driving while distracted, I ran a red light. The accident that ensued earned me a herniated disk in my neck. Even though the actual injury healed after a few months, it left me with a weak spot in my body that becomes aggravated and painful relatively easily. What does that mean for me? It means I can no longer run or swim with any regularity without severe pain returning to my neck.
When you participate in triathlon you practice three different events: You swim a distance; you bike a distance; and you run a distance. If I were a super-athlete, I maybe could have continued to compete as long as I was willing to do so without training. Being a mere, aging, back of the packer, it meant I could no longer compete in the sport I loved.
When I lost the ability to participate in triathlons I lost a big part of who I was. It has taken me literally years to re-define myself. What I now appreciate are the lessons I learned from participating in triathlons. I especially appreciate what I learned from the fourth event in every race: the transition.
Although many people think of triathlons as being three different sports, it is actually one. The portions of each race that ties the three events together are the transitions.
You start each race by running or jumping into a lake, ocean, or pond and swimming a route that is marked by orange floating buoys. You may or may not have been kicked, scratched, or swam over while in the water. Your exit from the water usually entails a sandy or rocky area that does not necessarily give you very good traction as you run out of the water. After you leave the water and make it through the “beach,” you are then expected to run the rest of the way to your bike, change into your biking gear, and run out of the transition area. Once you are in an approved “clear” zone, you hop on your bike and start pedaling. At this point in time, you’re a little disoriented and your legs and arms are fatigued from the swim you just finished.
Powering through that disorientation, you bike a course that has usually been chosen for its challenges. I was lucky enough that I never crashed on my bike, but there was usually at least one crash in every event. At the end of the bike ride you enter another “clear” zone, dismount, and run your bike back to the same spot on the bike rack where it was before. You are once again disoriented and that seemingly simple chore of finding your transition area can sometimes take minutes you don’t have to spare.
Once you’ve found your belongings and racked your bike again, you once again change gear in preparation for the run to come. Leaving the bike area, you hit the road, trying to run on the legs that have already swam and biked. I have heard lots of ways of describing the way your legs feel at this point in time: it feels like you’re running on someone else’s legs; it feels like your legs have turned to cement; it feels like your legs are too heavy to lift. All of these are accurate, but they don’t really tell the whole story. You’re going to have to take my word for it; it’s damn difficult to propel yourself forward at this point in time.
After each portion of the event you’re tired, sore, and a little disoriented. Instead of stopping to rest your aching muscles you’ve got to adjust your mind and your body to transition to the next part of the race. That transition period is the hardest part of every triathlon. It hurts. But if you push through the pain and disorientation you can achieve success at a level you would never have if you stopped after each phase.
In the real world, we go through transitions all the time. When you face a change in your life, you have to either go with that change or you can stay stuck where you are. In order to move forward or upward, you have to go through a change, and even positive changes can be hard.
Every time I face a transition in life, I am struck by how similar these changes are to the transitions in triathlon. Transitions can hurt; you don’t always know where you’re going or what the results are going to be. You often feel alone and disoriented. There are times you’re tired and discouraged and you’re sure there’s no way you can finish the race.
What I’ve learned from the painful transitions of racing is that I can: I can push myself; I can always go a little farther; I can persevere; and I can finish. Life is not a smooth, straight course. There are rough spots when you have to power through pain and discomfort to get to the next level.
The best lesson I learned from my racing experiences? How proud I can be of myself when I make it to the finish line.