IT never occurred to me to ever provide a long-winded explanation to the question, "Why do you do it?" in reference to the endurance races I’ve joined in the past five odd years. Unless I was being interviewed by Sports Illustrated, ESPN or Triathlete magazine, there wouldn’t be any other reason besides the short and sweet ‘Because It’s There,’ since no one is really that interested to know why I do it. Besides, there are times when I’m just feeling snarky.
The reaction is almost always the same. Friends, family, old schoolmates and acquaintances alike are boggled and flabbergasted when they learn that I’ve done a marathon, an ultra-marathon, or a triathlon. I think it’s often because this same group of people can’t imagine themselves ever doing, say, even a half-marathon (21 kilometers). But I digress.
For the uninitiated, the thought of putting oneself through a race that requires you to run a little over 42km (marathon) or swim 1.9km, cycle 90km, and run 21km (standard half-ironman distance) can only be viewed as voluntary submission to creative self-flagellation on account of temporary insanity. And when I think about it sometimes, I do agree that there’s a certain possessed madness that goes into participating in endurance sports.
Let’s take a closer look.
Months before the actual race, training begins. I wake up ahead of Mr. Sun while most of the population is wrapped up in blankets and dreams, and I jump in the pool, hop on the bike, or hit the road for a run. On a typical week, I’ll be swimming, biking, and/or running six days out of seven (Yes, there’s actually a rest day!). Weekends are reserved for longer rides or runs with teammates, which gives us the chance to fraternize as well as share everything from nutrition tips and training techniques to the latest gossip and domestic news. And speaking of nutrition: I have to monitor my food intake, careful to eat the right food (Nice knowing you, Chicken Joy, Piattos, Snickers, and Dairy Queen) and hydrate throughout the day (water, mostly). There’s the occasional cheat with chocolate ice cream here and an everything-on-it burger there, though I don’t consider myself deprived—most of the time, at least.
Unlike some other endurance athletes, I don’t have to give up a lot of nights out with the boys since I’m basically a homebody. But there are still those darned DVDs (from TV series to foreign flicks) and the internet (Facebook, anyone?) to contend with, and these petty indulgences easily keep me up way past midnight. Come the next morning, I pay for these dalliances by slogging through the day’s program, feeling the effects of lack of sleep and promising myself for the nth time to get enough rest.
Training for long-distance races also requires a patient partner/spouse who (eventually, or is it hopefully?) learns to accept the fact that you’ll be scarce on early weekday mornings, and virtually invisible for the better part of the day on weekends, going for those long rides or runs that are part of endurance building. This is not the time, but I’ll speak more about the lives of tri-widows and tri-widowers in a forthcoming blog.
It helps a lot to train with a teammate or a friend, because a number of us need more than personal motivation to get out of bed, or to run an extra 5km when the sight of that air-conditioned convenience store up ahead or the thought of climbing back under the covers clouds our concentration. I’ve had the good fortune of having various training partners who bring out the best in me during these sessions. So even if the ride may be long or the weather conditions may be far from ideal, having someone along makes the swim, ride, or run seem easier and sometimes shorter.
Then there’s the race itself.
So I’ve trained for weeks, even months to get to this point. Am I ready? Maybe. Race days always have a way of throwing curve balls at you despite all the preparation. Of course I'm speaking here from a mere mortal’s point of view, and this is by no means a disclaimer, but I still have a day job and other responsibilities that take me away from a life dedicated to joining races of all kinds. But so does every age grouper out there. So no excuses here. When the starting gun goes off, so am I. Together with a horde of MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra), I put myself through hours of sweat, discomfort (that sometimes escalates to the level of pain), and endless aid stations, which test the limits of my patience and will power. Oh, and endurance, too.
And there’s always some point during the race when that small voice in my head cries, “What the hell are you doing, putting yourself through all this punishment for — again?” which touches off a minor debate of sorts between the supposed-sensible me and the stubborn I-refuse-to-admit-I-am-old maverick me. We go back and forth with arguments that could put Senate hearings to shame, as the distinguished gentlemen from Logica and Dementia present their cases, each one refusing to yield his position. The onset of muscle cramps and heat exhaustion furthers the prosecution’s point that this exercise can only be doing more harm than good. But the apparent approach of the finish line, no matter how far it seems, and the satisfaction of having hurdled another trial to body and spirit provide the best closing arguments for the defense.
Every crossing of the finish line exudes a plethora of emotions, thoughts, and visions that is uniquely personal and satisfying. In the end, there are only two thoughts that consistently stand out when I finally press the STOP button on my watch and head for the nearest hydration station: vindication and the morale-boosting inner cheer "On To The Next One!" Certainly far from the awe-inspiring cries of William 'Braveheart' Wallace ("Every man dies. Not every man really lives.") or Sparta King Leonidas ("Give them nothing, but take from them everything!"), but just the right pinch of motivation I need to sign up for the next race.
So after surviving yet another test of physical and mental fortitude, the other short answer to the same "Why do you do it?" query is likely to be: Because I can.
Follow Bobby Go on Twitter @startlinebob