Two years ago, I raced IRONMAN Louisville as my last professional triathlon, capping a five-year career as a pro that included a trip to Kona and a handful of podium-topping finishes. It felt good to know definitively that I had squeezed every last drop of ability I had out of myself.
My athletic career crosses more than half my life: I ran cross country and track in high school and for Penn State, and I competed in triathlon as an amateur before turning pro with QT2 Systems in 2012. In running or triathlon, I had spent nearly 30 years seeking more speed, another PR, that next big thing.
After a year away from competition, I felt that old itch. I didn’t know what I wanted to train for, but I knew I wanted to train. I missed the routine of swim, bike, run. Then a 3/20 test (similar to a FTP test of power and heart rate) made me face a new truth: at the age of 40 I realized for the first time that I had reached the pinnacle of my athletic career — on a day that is now in my past.
Is sport still worth it, knowing that I will never be faster than I once was? If I was motivated in the quest for speed, PRs, and podium finishes to be the fastest, best version of myself, where do I find the drive now that I had already become the best I could be?
Fortunately, there’s a flaw in this logic: the equation of ‘fastest’ with ‘best.’ In fact, each of us defines who we are at our best.
Some 11 months after that fateful 3/20 test, I am starting to find my way in my post PR era. I still get discouraged by slowing times, but I’ve found new sources of motivation, and I’ve wrested control over my own definition of ‘best.’
Here are three strategies that are working for me:
- Mix it up. I went ahead and found a new sport: mountain biking was calling my name and it has been a very good addition to my life. It allowed me to be competitive, set goals and go after them with fervor, and go after a whole new challenge. Talk about improvement: Every time I got on a mountain bike, I improved. Short races gave way to longer races, which motivated me to try to qualify for the Leadville 100. I had my new Kona. There are so many awesome endurance sports — long distance open water swimming, mountain biking, cyclocross racing, trail running, nordic skiing — the list goes on. Find a fresh new focus and go get better at it. I guarantee you’ll have a lot of fun.
- Age in sport. To a great extent, chronological age has less to do with defining the peak of your career than the number of years you’ve been getting at it. I’ve been running for a long time, but for some, 40 might be just the start of their athletic career, and they have many PRs ahead. One athlete I coach started running at 45, and five years later he keeps getting faster. I’ve seen 65 year olds go faster than they ever have before. For the new athlete, your PRs may lie ahead; for the older (we’ll say, ‘experienced,’) athlete, all you have to do is pick a new sport for your trajectory to point only upward.
- Reimagining your ‘best’ self. What if you don’t want to change sports? For me, I missed the routine of training: swim, bike, run, eat, recover. When I did my last IRONMAN, I swore I wouldn’t come back to the sport as an age grouper. I realize now that the athlete who made that promise had different values from the one who has a new triathlon itch to scratch. My best self is the one that loves the process of training and seeing improvement from week to week and month to month. I have new found appreciation for how much I simply love swimming, biking and running. If I used to race IRONMAN at 200 watts on the bike, well maybe 150W is the new standard. But that 50W difference will not keep me from enjoying a sport I love.
Aging brings perspective, and when I think back to what motivated me in the past, I think that my ‘best self’ wasn’t actually defined by speed, but rather by my dedication to improvement. In that light, it isn’t actually much different from how I see myself today.
A friend texted me the other day, “retirement looks good on you.” Yes, indeed, I think “retirement” can look good on all of us. Whether it’s trying a new endurance sport, or sticking with the same sport, accepting gracefully that we aren’t as fast as we once were but that our best training is still ahead, we can still keep enjoying the sports we love.
Remember, you define your ‘best self.’ Happy racing.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.