For those who see triathlon as nothing more than an inconvenient road closure and some “you are an Ironman!” sound pollution, it’s hard to imagine why thousands of people subject themselves to an entire day in the hot sun and punishing wind, pushing themselves to the point of utter exhaustion.
This type of skepticism makes me laugh a little bit. Not because they’re wrong, but because the race — no matter how hard it is — is one day.
They think we are crazy because we suffer for one day. But really, the race is the reward, not a punishment. When I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Hawaii last year, it wasn’t the prospect of covering 70.3 miles of ocean and ground that frightened me; it was the idea of training every day for six months. It was waking up early to swim before school, spending entire Saturdays on my bike and the constant exhaustion I would feel — that’s what had me worried. When I decided to do my first triathlon, Lavaman Waikoloa, two years ago, it seemed impossible. So when I did it, I proved to myself I am capable of much more than what I expected.
Five Lavaman finishes later, I was ready to tackle another impossibility: a half-Ironman. More than twice the length of my previous races. That my friends think I am crazy is a given, but they still wonder how I can stand so many hours of training.
“Don’t you get bored,” they wonder, “just swimming, biking and running in a straight line every day?” Again I find this silly; of course I don’t.
There is so much more to triathlon than the physical aspect. It’s a mental game, like a puzzle. There are hundreds of pieces that go into forming a “perfect” race, and part of the fun is figuring out where they go. After all, if you didn’t enjoy putting together a puzzle, you’d just buy the picture.
This is the reason why people keep coming back to races year after year. Once they prove to themselves they can do it, they want to know if they can go faster. They want to know what would happen if they drank more water or used compression socks or integrated speed work into their training. See? It’s fun.
If on a Sunday morning you walk into my house, you shouldn’t be surprised to find my dad with his eyes glued to the flat screen, watching a high definition picture of a circular track, cars zipping around it. Next to him, you’d find me with my laptop, reading text updates of an Ironman race.
In a car race, regulations make sure that every engine, bumper and ounce of gasoline is up to code. Paint jobs and sponsor logos are some of the only disparities between vehicles. In triathlon, no two engines or bodies are alike. The only thing regulated is illegal drug use. Each person fuels differently, taking different things at different intervals. And, though it’d be nice, we don’t always have a pit crew to change our tires. Car racing is often about luck.
One driver’s mistake can take a dozen other cars out of a race. In a triathlon, it is you against the elements — the wind, the sun, the rain — every athlete faces equally. We race on a level playing field.
As a NASCAR fan, my dad would probably give his left foot for a chance to drive with the best in the sport. To feel the exhilaration of lining up next to Dario Franchitti and getting the chance to see how his driving skills measure up.
Well guess what? On Saturday, I get to race head to head with a three time Xterra world champion, a seven time Tour de France victor and an Olympian. At 6:55 tomorrow morning, if I push and shove hard enough through the crowd, I — No. 1855, the person with the highest number in the entire race — can line up next to Chris Lieto, No. 1. And on my other side? It just might be Sister Madonna Buder, 82.
While self empowerment is great, many triathletes race for something greater than themselves. While most sports are filled with corruption, drugs and scandals, triathlon is a platform for people to raise funds and awareness for great causes.
If you’ve ever witnessed Lavaman Waikoloa, you’ve noticed the hundreds of racers sporting a purple kit. Team in Training athletes raise funds for Leukemia and Lymphoma, and have collected millions of dollars.
Age-groupers aren’t the only ones making a difference. Chris Lieto created the foundation, More Than Sport, and is making a positive change in local communities where triathlons are held. Lance Armstrong is raising money through the Livestrong Foundation to find a cure for cancer.
So now you understand, I hope, why 1,800 crazies have paid to toe the line on Saturday, shoulder to shoulder with 25 professional crazies as well. And while you could spend the day being upset that the road is closed, maybe you could come cheer us on instead. You never know, you just may be inspired.