This August, I competed in the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in Cleveland, Ohio. The event pits amateur triathletes with the best finishes in qualifying events in the past year against one another. I got crushed. But the story of how I got to the National Championships illustrates the incredible power of “tri-ing.”
I am not a lifelong endurance athlete. I started competing in triathlons once I outgrew other sports. Before 2010, when I turned 25 years old, I was never a competitive swimmer, cyclist or runner. I played a variety of sports growing up and eventually settled on baseball, a sport that never required me to run more than 360 feet at a time.
In high school, I was a defense-first shortstop. In college, I rode the bench for the better part of four years at Division III Pomona College, with the occasional appearance at shortstop, third base or catcher. I loved playing baseball and I was pretty good at it. But by the middle of my college career, I knew I wasn’t going to get much farther in the sport.
As it turned out, baseball took me farther than I ever imagined. As my senior year came to a close, I didn’t have any concrete plans for my post-college future. So when my college coach told me a baseball team in Sweden was looking for a player-coach for the upcoming summer, I jumped at the opportunity. Less than a month after I graduated, a team in the small town of Sundsvall, Sweden, paid for my flight across the Atlantic Ocean, put me up in a vacant college dormitory and gave me enough food and spending money to survive the summer. When that season ended, I traveled to South Africa to play a season with a team in Cape Town. In the 10 months I spent in Cape Town, I fell in love with the city. If you ever have a chance to visit, it is one of the most beautiful and culturally vibrant places on earth.
But my time in Sweden and South Africa marked the beginning of the end of my baseball career. I would never play the game at a higher level than I had in college. I no longer practiced or played for two or more hours every day. Even in less competitive leagues, I was no longer as good as I used to be. It was time for me to think about the next stage of my competitive life.
In Sweden, I started running long distances, something I rarely did as a baseball player. In high school and college, I trained for speed, agility and power, not endurance. But I thought building up my cardiovascular capacities would serve me well in the future. I started out by running 30 minutes at a time and increased that duration each week. By the time I returned from South Africa the following spring, I was going for 90 minute runs every weekend.
The following year, I competed in my first triathlon and marathon. I trained hard and despite having no background as an endurance athlete did well in both events. I managed to qualify for the Boston Marathon in 2010 and 2011. And in a sprint triathlon in 2017, I qualified for the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships. Triathletes qualify for Nationals by finishing in the top 10 percent in their age group in an eligible race. I was the only competitor in my age group in the race in which I qualified. So I finished in the top 10 percent, the bottom 10 percent and every percentile in between. But, I figured, why not go to Nationals and see what happens?
What happened is that I finished 153rd out of 157 triathletes in my age group and 2,179th out of 2,892 total competitors. Yes, I lost about 10 minutes when my bike got a flat tire a half mile from transition. But a smooth ride wouldn’t have made much difference in my overall place. I was an above-average triathlete competing against the best in the country.
Yet I wasn’t surprised by my finish. I had a pretty good idea I wasn’t going to come close to the top half of the field. I was excited to be there, to be competing on the same course as athletes who had dedicated many years of their lives to swimming, biking and running as fast as possible. And I had the opportunity to compete in that race simply because I had gone out and challenged myself in a few other triathlons. Sure, I wanted to have the best race I possibly could, but the experience mattered far more than the result.
That, I think, is the power of doing. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins warns Frodo, his “first and second cousin once removed either way” that “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
While the rest of us don’t need to worry about facing Tolkien’s fantastic villains, it sometimes requires a little bit of courage to step out the door and sign up for a triathlon, travel to a different country, start a new relationship or change careers. But these experiences are the very fabric of life. There is no danger in forever staying inside one’s own home, but that’s not much of a life either.
Getting “swept off to” unknown places and experiences is really what life is all about. I had no idea the first time I picked up a wiffle ball bat that baseball would take me around the world. I had no idea the first time I competed in a triathlon eight years ago that I would one day be competing for a national championship. At no point was I the best of the best in either of these sports. But the simple act of doing, of trying — “tri-ing” — opened new doors for me.
Completing a triathlon means you can not only survive in open water, but thrive in that hostile environment. It means hunching over your handlebars for hours on end and trying to run on legs made of Jell-O. It means you are capable of pushing yourself to your physical limit for two, three, four or more hours. Tri-ing not only opens doors; it prepares you to handle adversity in any aspect of life.
It’s easy to visualize “doing” or “trying” when the activity in question is playing baseball, riding a bike or traveling to a foreign country. Even people who haven’t experienced those activities can imagine the difficulties and joys of the experiences. The consequences of non-physical decisions like changing a career are harder to envision. There are complications we can’t even imagine.
But practicing “trying,” “going out your door,” and being “swept off” to unknown places help establish an open mindset that translates to the rest of life. Trying — and tri-ing — allows us to see the myriad possibilities in front of us. It shifts our mindset from complacency to adaptability. And it teaches us to face down the obstacles that are sure to arise throughout our lives. That’s not to say we have to act on every possibility, pursuing dead-end jobs and toxic relationships. It’s not to say we should rashly tackle insurmountable dangers. But being willing to try and strive and looking for open doors to leap through provide the opportunity for a richer and more fulfilling life.
Greg Hickey is a former professional baseball player/coach, personal trainer and philosophy student and current endurance athlete, forensic scientist and author. He writes about a variety of issues in health, fitness, sports, philosophy and society at kinesophy.com.
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