Over the past few years, I’ve coached a few friends as they trained for various races. One couple in particular stands out for me as the perfect examples of how different two athletes can be. Now, I’m not talking personality nor am I even talking about athletic prowess. Instead, what makes this husband-wife team so different is what fuels them to train and race—and what they take away from it. You see, the wife (a friend I’ll call Suzy) is an “experiential” runner. She has numerous marathons under her belt and has stored up so much fitness over the years that she can go from recreational jogging to marathon-ready faster than a fiber addict to a porta-potty. If she wants to run fast, she can. But what really motivates her is the experience of training and racing. For the most part, she runs because she loves to run—not to check mile splits, beat anyone, or qualify for anything. The joy is in the experience of it for her, not in the results.
Now, her husband (who I’ll call CJ) is a whole different ball of wax. Like his wife, he’s a darn good athlete who’s now tackling triathlon. But the fun for him is in the competition more than the experience. Like most competitive triathletes, you’d have to shovel off a layer of various tri-geekery to see what he actually looks like (heart rate monitors, Garmin watches, GU packets, power meters, etc.) And when he goes back to a race, it’s to beat the pants off the results from the first time he raced it. In other words, after any race, you’d find Suzy celebrating with friends and enjoying the post-race after-glow while you’d find CJ making out with a computer in hopes to coax race results out of it more quickly.
Of the two, I identify more closely with CJ. I love results and competition—it’s what fuels me. But lately I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that there’s a bit of a dark side to racing competitively. A sense that if you are competitive versus experiential (or if you transferred from experiential to competitive), it can be quite difficult (emotionally) to go back to enjoying the experience without results. And this, in turn, makes me wonder: do experiential athletes have greater longevity (or a longer shelf life) in sport than those for whom PRs and/or podium finishes reign supreme?
So I sent an email to a handful of my fellow competitive triathlete friends asking this question: If the day comes when you are no longer able to race competitively (due to injury, burn-out, time constraints or something else in your life), would you still be happy participating in the sport or will you walk away from racing altogether?
The answers ranged from “Yes, I’ll walk away” to “I’ll try participating but I know it’ll be depressing to not have the results I’m used to” to “I think it will be okay if I have something else lined up to focus on .” What these answers have in common is an admission that there would probably be some emotional fallout. Whereas for an experiential athlete, the approach is not so “all or nothing.”
Let me offer even more proof. For years I entered races just to complete them. And I was happy, truly happy, when I did complete them. I never looked up my results on line, splits meant nothing and I rarely bothered to check my placement because, well, who cares? I wasn’t competitive and I knew it. So the fun was the experience. Then, four years ago, I decided to “get serious” and connected with a great coach. I trained crazy hard. And I started getting on the podium. It was amazing. It was a rush. But now, as I look forward, I’m not sure how many more years I can commit to “serious” training because it’s at the expense of so many other things. I’m not done yet, but I know the day is coming. And I worry that when that day comes, it’ll be hard to go back to that place where I just enjoy the race and don’t even bother to check splits. It might just be so depressing that hanging it all up would be easier.
So I find myself wondering if it’s possible to get back to being grateful to just experience triathlon without racing it. Rationally speaking, yes, we should be able to do that. But sometimes what the head deems rational, the heart rejects.
But then I think one of my friend’s responses had a good point. Maybe, as competitive athletes, our sense of self gets more deeply embedded in results than our experiential counterparts. And maybe what’s required is a successful transfer of this sense of self into something else before we can happily let go of our racing egos—something different on which to focus. (Hot damn, if Freud were still alive he’d be high fiving me and saying things like, “You go, girl!”) But seriously, maybe competitive athletes do need to have more of a transition plan in place to successfully let go.
Or, perhaps it will be more akin to life with small children. When you’re in the baby/toddler stage, it’s all encompassing and exhausting yet you fear that time is passing by too quickly. Then, when your final kid toddles off to preschool, you shed a small (and genuine) tear, entertain a wee bit of nostalgia and then slam that chapter shut with a very definitive thud.
p.s. Would love your thoughts on this topic! Please visit The Tri-ing Life at www.thetri-inglife.com and leave your thoughts in the comments section.