The first question people ask me when I say I’m a triathlete is: “have you done a full triathlon?” my response is often preceded by a chuckle before I inform them that every triathlon is a “full triathlon”. Make no mistake; one triathlon is no more impressive than any other triathlon, no race victory is any more impressive than any other. As endurance athletes, we all walk up to the edge of what deem possible for our bodies and glance over into a dark and painful place. Yet somehow, we have come to a time in the growth of our sport where there are some rather serious issues with the way we approach it.
I had a conversation in recent memory where someone told me that I “wasn’t a high level athlete” because I don’t run 70.3 or 140.6 events. I want to pose a question to you, yes, you. Why do we place such emphasis on the idea of “going long”? Is it more impressive to run a mediocre marathon instead of a blisteringly fast 5k, simply because of the distance? Are you going to insinuate that Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, Javier Gomez, Lisa Norden, Gwen Jorgensen, Simon Whitfield and Paula Findlay aren’t impressive athletes because they compete on the short course circuit? To state that “going long” makes you a better, more accomplished or more impressive athlete is simply misinformed. I believe that this attitude is deeply rooted in the type of person triathlons attract. I feel (and this is my opinion and my opinion alone) the culture of triathlon right now is such that it isn’t about a lifestyle; it’s about attempting to put the other person down. It’s about diminishing the accomplishments of those who in one way or another are different than your own, in an egotistical attempt to boost the importance of your own achievements.
This is generally where people become furious with me and tell me that triathletes all support each other to the ends of the earth. Are we generally supportive of each other? Absolutely, but we also adopt narratives as a sport which are not conducive to health, well-being and mental soundness. Rather, we are focused on narratives that promote the idea that vomiting during races is entirely normal, that you should suck it up and train through the pain of injuries or that the sooner you do an Ironman, the better. We know our training partners based on whose a strong athlete rather than who struggles with any number of afflictions. We talk about “race weight” as if it’s a totally plausible and acceptable concept, the idea that you should reduce your body’s weight to the bare minimum to maintain performance. Huge numbers of us struggle with borderline eating disorders, often in silence, because got forbid you aren’t entirely in control of yourself as an athlete. I’d say that a significant portion of triathletes who have been in the sport for any amount of time have varying levels of OCD about their training and struggle with serious emotional turmoil on a day to day basis. We are continually more interested in comparing accolades rather with training partners rather than reflecting on how far we’ve come on a personal level. Our support of each other is superficial and often based on the concept of “do another set”, not on the notion of nurturing a healthy body and mind.
If you’ve read this far, I want to applaud you for being able to withstand my extremely cynical point of view on the current state of our sport. I feel it necessary to explain why I think these things. I’m the precise type of person that I’ve described, someone who often has a less than healthy relationship with food, borderline OCD about training and without a doubt emotional highs and lows that are far too closely tied to my self image as an athlete. Triathlon has without a doubt changed my life for the better, but in many ways I have taken it too far. Prior to my second race, I was so obsessed with the concept of race weight that I barely ate enough for the week and ended up vomiting profusely during the race. I’ve ignored my body’s warning signs and trained through knee, back, shoulder and foot injuries. I’ve overloaded my body to the point where I had trouble walking. I’ve allowed people’s arbitrary and uninformed assessments of me mean more to me than my own self worth. I’ve place more emphasis on my training than on fostering relationships with friends. I’ve had moments where I beat myself up more than would ever be reasonable because I missed a workout. I’ve allowed being a triathlete to become the entire part of my identity, which could not be further from the truth. Doing so is a simple and easy way to avoid intimate and difficult self-evaluations. I know for a fact that I’m far from alone in this and I think that in order for triathlon to begin to promote truly healthy lifestyles we need to have open and honest dialogues about our mindset surrounding the sport. It has taken me nearly five years years to come to the point where I’m comfortable enough to even discuss the highs and lows I’ve had in the sport. I do believe that if my discussion of struggles points out behaviour to one person and forces them to ponder they’re habits, then it’s well worth my recording them. I wrote this entire blog post and left it on my computer for a week, contemplating the merits and detriments of placing this out there. In the end, I think that as someone who is a strong proponent of getting new people in to the sport (including teenagers), I had an obligation to at the very least present the honest and accurate narrative about my own short comings as an athlete.
I’d be foolish at this point if I didn’t put particular spotlight on my family and the people who offer me continuous support. Their love, guidance and word of affirmation are what help me deal with my shortcomings as an athlete but more importantly as a person. I am an imperfect being (one of many, I hear) and yet so many people offer me support which is appreciated on a level I’m not able to properly convey. I’m eternally grateful for everything they have done and the aim is always to do right by them, as best I can.
Growing up, my Mom always posed me the question “is that your best?” and often the answer was that it wasn’t. It’s a mantra I continue to pose myself to this day, albeit in different form. I ask myself if I’m the best person I can be, and similar to when I was a kid, the answer is often “No”. I think that triathletes need to pose themselves similar questions such as are we really “healthy”? Do we place value of beating our old time, or just beating the guy we train with. Are we on a journey of self-improvement and betterment or are we simply engaged in a grudge match of egos.
So, you’ve reached the end, I want you to take five minutes and really ponder why you’re in the sport, whether your motivations are healthy and “is that your best?”
For feedback, use the comment section below or contact Scott directly via Twitter: @Scottyharm
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