I remember way back in the day when my then-girlfriend-now-wife was just getting into the triathlon life. She is one of those people that used to be a couch potato who smoked two packs per day and sometimes even drank alcohol on nights that began with M, T and W. At some point something prompted her to try and get into shape. Lo and behold, she discovered that she was an inherently exceptional athlete.
How exceptional? Well, at her first ever duathlon, she came in third place in her age group. That qualified her for Nationals - which was her second ever Duathlon. She came in third place there as well. That qualified her for the World Championships. She went to Italy for Worlds - her third multisport event ever. Yup, third place.
Three races and already a very impressive trophy case. Me? I've raced triathlon for the better part of my life and the only time I've been to Nationals was as a spectator. Her? Three races, three medals. Boom boom boom.
So where does my wife go from there? It seems like she set herself up for a "thank you goodnight" mic drop moment. She could've gone back to the couch and two packs a day and alcohol on school nights and probably would've ended up as one of those sports myths that everybody wants to believe but isn't quite sure it really ever happened.
But that would be too easy and that's not what multisport athletes do. It's not why we get into the sport and it's not how we are made. Instead, she got certified as a USAT coach and now helps others achieve their goals.
Her story seems like it's perfect. A Disney duathlon dream where the glass slipper is replaced by SPD cleats. But alas, nothing in multisport is a perfect Disney dream.
Though she already had a (short) career that most multisport athletes would dream of, my wife didn’t feel like she had gotten it right. There wasn’t consistency in her races. In a couple of the races she’d feel good in the swim and bike, but be hurting on the run. In another race she couldn’t lock in on the bike and the swim was rough.
As she continued racing, she’d do a little tweaking to the strategy. Maybe ease up on the swim. Maybe go harder here, easier there. Maybe push and rest. Time after time she tried to master the race. But time after time, it never felt perfect.
And back to the drawing board she'd go, trying to tweak the strategy here or fine-tune it there so she had it all within her control - so she had the final truth of how she would rip up the course every. single. time.
It looks good on paper.
Reality? Not so much.
No matter what you do, how smart you train or how good you feel, the truth is that some days you own the race course and some days the race course owns you. It takes awhile to realize this about triathlon, but I think it's one of the most important realizations we can have in life.
Nothing in life is perfect and rarely does it go as planned. Life, like triathlon, is about preparing to do your best, and then quickly resorting to Plans B, C and D when all your best laid plans go off the deep end.
The idea of tweaking a triathlon strategy until you get it right is a little like wrestling a greased up pig. The moment you think you've got it in your grasp, it slips out of your arms and you end up face down in the mud.
Triathlon isn't about tweaking to get it right, it's about confronting the problems as they arise and working your way through them. And that is kinda why we are all in this sport in the first place.
Let’s face facts, bucko, we’re all Type As. We want control. We run, we bike and we swim so we can be the master of everything. We track our heart rates and our lactate threshold. We monitor our watts and our calories. We count strokes and count laps. Count distance we move and time we rest.
We are weirdos.
And we own it.
The triathlon course - whichever one you're on at whatever distance you're doing - is unrelenting. It's goal is to take you down. But we are the people that want to fight it. We will win. We will control it. Because every stroke, every rotation and every step is a battle between us and the course. There is no such thing as a perfect race. That’s merely a figment of a Disney multisport dream. Our sport is about reality. It’s about imperfection and challenges and getting outside of our comfort zone when all we want is to feel comfortable. But doing this helps us to live in the moment. We appreciate ourselves and are proud of ourselves for everything we do to keep moving forward and fight the course.
Perfect? There is no such thing. You might as well try wrestling greased up pigs.
Jeff Matlow is still trying to catch up to his wife. JeffRuns@imATHLETE.com or bit.ly/IAmJeff
This article was reprinted with permission from USA Triathlon. “The Lowdown” by Jeff Matlow runs quarterly in USA Triathlon Magazine, the official membership publication for the National Governing Body of triathlon. To learn more, visit www.usatriathlon.org.