Back when I was in school it was always my number one dream to become a collegiate athlete. I idolized them for the way they looked, how they carried themselves, and most of all what they stood for, walking around in their varsity blues. So when the opportunity came up I was always in the coach’s office asking for instructional videos, spending time in the racket ball courts with a ball for hours, hitting the gym late at night or getting up early for morning runs and extra core. A point came when I had requested additional work from the trainers so many times they finally asked me “why Welby, what do you want, why are you doing this?!” At the time I resented them for that question, as I knew it was one reserved for me and none of the top athletes, but looking back I understand it more completely. I was never to be a Lee Catchpole or Dan McKenna, I was never meant to win races or score the winning goal, and in their eyes it made my hard work and sacrifices something less.
That is what I feel it is like to be an age group athlete, in a way even harder than pro, because a pro can justify time spent, opportunities sacrificed, and all the money and work that goes into this sport. Meanwhile, for the age grouper, it can be difficult to validate getting out of bed in the dark, heading out on a rainy day, leaving your friends early on a weekend, or devoting resources to equipment and racing rather than any number of more enjoyable things. A pro can say I’m doing this for a podium spot, top three finish, even a win, chance at Kona, Vegas, prize money or whatever other substantial achievement that makes it all worth it. For an age grouper on the other hand it might be to qualify, it might be just not to walk, or even cross the finish line at all, in front of family and friends.
I’ve spent a good portion of the last year thinking about why I do it. For fun?? Not at all!! Fun for me isn’t a 5-7 hour bike ride/1 hour run most Saturdays, getting into frigid water when it’s still dark out, or averaging over 200bpm in a road race. Fun for me is a beer on the beach with friends, driving in the Jeep with the top off, getting air on my snowboard or playing a good game of pick-up soccer. Is it for a sense of accomplishment?? Maybe. However short of Kona or a pro card there is a lot of grey. I’ve won a handful of local races, got on the podium in some more major events, but the spectrum of athletic relativity that exists in amateur age group races makes it difficult to be distinguished. I know there will always be age groupers better than me, and if that’s not the case then I’m just at the wrong race. I thought that maybe it was more internal, an element of mind over body while battling a number (XX bpm) on a 5 hour solo trainer ride or run in the dark cold snow of Buffalo. More quantifiable than accomplishment, as my mind has always been the same competitor, but still not the reason. The reason came to me only in the last few months. Training, and in this case triathlon, has fulfilled one of the most inherent underlining needs I feel as a human to possess, PURPOSE. Whether it’s that last lap, waking up early, or pushing through pain, there is always a reason that wins out, and that’s to be better tomorrow than I was today.
We are conditioned to it our whole young lives, as students aspiring to get into a good university and ultimately land that dream job. As athletes competing to make the team, from Kindergarten to the collegiate level. But something happens, generally around 25 for most, say 99% of the population. We stop striving and start settling, perhaps starting a family and passing the torch, or maybe just out of lack of will. I believe it to be most likely a loss of an avenue to continue once structure is over and the real world starts. I don’t know how people do it though. I would rather suffer 99% of the time to accomplish that 1% goal then be content 100% of the time just to feel comfortable. In college I suffered anxiety, building each day, until Saturday’s 8k cross country race. It was the most painful experience of my life every time. But the feeling that followed was one of complete elation, and justified every bit of suffering. I don’t hurt as much today as I did then, the lows are not as low and thus the high’s are not as high, still I am always chasing that feeling. I’d like to think I’m not alone. It is in this way, how I live my life, that I would prefer to be defined, not as “triathlete” or even “athlete”.
So this thought leads me to the crossroads portion. I have always considered myself strong willed, but these last few months have really put me to the test. Twice I have been robbed, first of all my gear, and a second time of a bike. Yesterday I took my race bike to the shop and was told the frame is damaged, not safe to ride. I competed in Ironman Lake Placid, after a year of dedicated training, and suffered an injury an hour prior that inhibited me from having my race. I’m broke from the LA move and am struggling just to compete in races a year from now. I’ve got 70.3 Worlds in two weeks, a race I worked very hard to make it to, yet don’t even have a bike at the moment. I’m stressed out of my mind and 90% of it is self-induced from a need to hold on to this sport. Part of me wants to back off, lose coaching, take a break and maybe not do any Ironman brand races next year. But a greater part of me understands that I will never be satisfied with anything less than 100%. I spent a few years of my life doing that, giving a little bit of myself to multiple passions, and was always unsettled. I cannot concede, but at the same time I can’t take any more. I moved out here to become a more complete athlete, but this city has since stretched me to the very limit!!
I don’t have an answer at the moment. I think of my life as I did Lake Placid. “Don’t focus on the outcome, just individual objectives. Expect the worst, prepare for it, and know how you will react.” One day at a time. I will keep asking questions and continue to look for answers, but I am holding onto the belief that it is still worth it! These lows will only lead to that high I am in search of and every challenge will only make victory that much sweater. My first step was an unlikely one, signing up for the 2014 Ironman North American Championship in Mount Tremblaunt. Even if I have to borrow a bike, suffer through another 140 mile painful injury, or whatever else the future holds, I will learn from the past, push through and share the highs or lows with my family at the finish line. Despite everything I have lost I still consider myself very fortunate and the support I have received from friends and family throughout continues to show how lucky I am.
Here’s to keep moving forward!