I wrote the below post to record my initial reaction after an extremely disappointing trip to Burlington, Vermont this past weekend for the Olympic Distance National Championships. With high hopes, I was overcome by illness the day of the race. Below there is a lot of self doubt in the purpose behind racing. I frequently highlight the silliness of the sport and that there really seems no real purpose behind it. I have never been one to remain in bliss to remain ignorant. Instead, I have always questioned things. One question I briefly highlight below is the question of life’s purpose. I essentially leave the question unanswered and establish that simply because I cannot directly pinpoint the answer does not mean I will cease living. Instead, despite a confidence in the near purely physical nature of this universe, I live my life as if I were completely aware of why I am here. The question of purpose is still there and arises every now and then but when the answer does not present itself, I do not hesitate. This is an attitude that I questioned this past weekend. After feeling that winning was the most important thing in the world just a couple of years ago, my attitude has evolved. Every time this doubt arises, training holds firm in my mind as a logical and respectable activity. To work, to test, experiment, challenge, and observe the body and life itself is an amazing, very spiritual process. But the purpose of racing is what was in question. I am an innately competitive being. It is a desire of mine to win and despise being mediocre at anything. The post below is raw and unedited. The words are exactly what was written in the hours after the race. But much of it has evolved in the time since then and I imagine it will continue to do so as the pain of loss fades and the glory of winning again comes into view. The process of answering this question of purpose happened in the amount of time that it took me to write the words below. It is not necessarily defined but when I reread these words, I get excited for my next competition.
You may see a triathlete show up to work or class on Monday with remnants of numbers from the weekend’s race. They didn’t necessarily scrub around them in the shower. They are bold sharpie or tattoos that take a long effort to scrub off and even then will leave black splotches. But it’s only Sunday and my tattoos are gone, the only sign that I raced this weekend the defined, unique sunburn from the trisuit.
Yesterday after the race another competitor commented on my sunburn in passing. “That’s the least of my concerns right now,” I mumbled back. I didn’t even feel my pale skin blistering on my back. I didn’t feel it and I didn’t care. A few minutes later after hanging up the phone after updating my dad a volunteer sitting near me commented, “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation and you really should just be proud to have finished.”
I looked back at her and said, “Honestly, I am just glad to be alive right now.” Little did I know how fitting my statement was. A participant had actually died just hours ago amidst the chaos of the intensely physical triathlon swim. While I had made it through the swim comfortably, I did however fear something was very, very wrong with my body out on the bike. The beginning of my strongest leg was going well. I was moving up in my age group after coming out thirtieth on the swim. I was fighting to set myself up for a top 10 age group finish, a very reasonable goal. A rare feeling, I had another cyclist pass me. I am usually far enough off the pace on the swim that I am reeling guys in constantly. But this day seemed different. My swim maybe went well enough that I was up at the front with the top guys. With my power meter not synced, I thought I was crushing the course. But my confidence was very misplaced. With ignorance of my power and avoidance of viewing the ever fluctuating speed on the hilly, windy course, I had no idea how slow I was going. The guy who passed me would end up riding a 1:01:30 40k bike leg, a time I haven’t ridden in over three years. I wasn’t actually going very fast at all.
But my blind confidence wouldn’t have made a difference anyways. Something was not right with me physiologically, despite how stoked I was to believe I was racing well. Halfway into the bike I realized something was incredibly wrong. I had already gone through both my bottles of Gatorade and had half the race left to complete. I always carry extra fluids because of the fear of running out but had even gone through this reserve. I reflected on where it all could have possibly gone and realized I had vomited every ounce of it along the course. My body was rejecting every drop and calorie of nutrition that I was feeding it. But still, I kept hammering, thinking my body was holding up. Soon, however, my body began showing many symptoms of shutting down. The cool Vermont air felt hotter than a desert in midday. Sweat flooded out of my pores. Moments later, my skin was dry and cold. A layer of salt had accumulated on my eyebrows and my shoulders. I licked my lips which had become dry and were cracking. My heart rate spiked as I did everything I could to keep the rider in front of me in sight. He was slipping away and soon the stabbing pain in my head broke the elastic and he rode away.
I nearly ran into the back of another participant because of the pounding headache. My face was stuck in a tense grimace because of the agonizing pain. I couldn’t think and couldn’t even hold my bike in a straight line. With those limitations, going fast wasn’t even close to being a possibility. I kept pounding on the pedals trying to troubleshoot my body into working. But without any resources to put my body back in shape, it was a fruitless effort. I rammed head on into pothole after pothole and nearly wiped out slower riders’ rear wheels as I came up on them. Soon, after having yelled “on your right” at dozens of frustrating triathletes on the way out, I was now hearing those words shouted at me. I blamed my bike position might be causing the headache, refusing to admit my body was spiraling out of control. I sat up on the bullhorns and kept pushing the pedals. While not providing me with relief from the agonizing headache, it did help keep me from causing a collision. I made it to transition with an average speed of 21.8 miles per hour in a time of 1:08, nine minutes slower than what I had expected to do. My race was over. Even if my body wasn’t in the process of completely shutting down, a 10k was not enough distance to make up a significant amount of time. More likely, the 10k that lay ahead would put me in the hospital.
I walked through transition and a medic spotted me. He rushed over and with his nervous and concerned tone that was frankly just stressing me out, I reassured him that I wasn’t going to die on him. He calmed down long enough so that I could tell him what was going on.
“My head just hurts so damn bad,” I said clenching the sides of my scalp sporting the pain face that I thought might become permanent. I told him about the dehydration and he saw my white eyebrows and my dry skin. It was pretty apparent that I had some sort of illness. Never would my body just completely shut down like this for no reason. I had a bacteria or a virus ravaging some tissue somewhere in my body. But right now that didn’t matter. The medic wanted to know what I wanted to do. It was pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to drop dead or at least we hoped. A cancerous tumor residing up there in my scalp or a blood clot posing like a dam in my artery could be the cause and those possibilities killed my inspiration. I may have some mysterious illness. Certainly something isn’t right. But it didn’t seem pressing at the time. What was facing me was whether, at the end of the day when the results when online, I wanted DNF next to my name or not.
I despise that acronym. I hate it more than a three-hour international distance triathlon. I’ll take DQ over DNF any day. DQ is forced, a mandatory exclusion from the race. But DNF looks voluntary. I remembered watching the coverage of the Ironman World Championships. I thought of Normann Stadler, a racer notorious more for his DNF’s than his wins. And while I may have acquired a reputation for failing when it matters most, I refused to adopt such a willingness to abandon. I also remembered Rutger Beke walking much of the marathon in the World Championships in 2007. I respected his refusal to quit so much and there was no way I was going to hand that timing chip over until I crossed the finish line. I began my walk. I made it about two-hundred meters before body relegated me to the curb. With cup after cup after cup of much needed Gatorade, I was beginning to feel alright again. The competitors passing me dwindled as I sat there. It went from a fury of competitive athletes to the shuffling legs of those overweight or older participants just looking to finish the event. After over ten cups of Gatorade, I joined them. I passed athlete after athlete. I was still worried about the potential for everything to fall apart, even at the gentle pace I adopted simply to keep me from being out there all day. But at the next aid station, I was back to walking.
One of the middle-age athletes from an earlier wave that I had passed in the first mile on the run caught me back and said, “Come on man, steady does it.” My head was pounding again and I was dripping with sweat. Despite it only being seventy-five degrees, my body was cooking. My muscles ached and cramped. It was apparent in his frustrated tone that my inconsistent pace was annoying him. I wanted to punch him in the face. He had no idea what was going on and certainly was no expert on pacing. But I acknowledged just that and understood I probably looked like a silly boy to him. I let him run up the road a ways and kept my pace below his ten-minute miles so he wouldn’t have to deal with me again. After two hours and forty minutes, I finally crossed the finish line in seventy-ninth out of eighty-one competitors in my age group. I was happy to have finished and took the finishers medal with gratitude. It meant a lot to me and is certainly a medal I will keep forever.
But less than an hour later, the despair that I had so strongly fought overcame me. Standing in an unusually empty area at the race site, the tears slipped out of my eyes to be quickly wiped away. The back of my hand still had chunks from the depths of my stomach residing on it and ended up on my face. This only acted to increase the flow of tears and soon enough they were uncontrollable. I regained composure quickly but one of my teammates was walking by and trying to keep the sadness in secret was a failure. However, having himself had three triathlons this year go wrong for unpredictable reasons, he fully understood how I felt. I am so thankful to have him as a friend and he really helped remind me of the unpredictability of this sport. It was beyond anything I could have hoped for that he came along right when I began to lose it.
After enjoying having familiar company for a while, I opted to stay at the race site while everyone else was heading out. I felt non functional. I felt like I was bound to the place that most reminded me of my failure. That is when I began making the phone calls to my coach and my parents. After I talked to my dad and the lady told me I should simply be happy to finish, I called my mom. In the process of telling her what had happened, the gratefulness for finishing dissipated. I remembered all that I had done to get here. In the days before the race I had reminded myself of all the training sessions that I had committed to in order to build confidence in my ability. I thought about all the suffering and sacrifices. I thought about how strong my body was, the speed that my muscles could produce.
But while those thoughts were confidence builders in the days leading up to the event, they had now returned to haunt me. I remembered all the nights I had slept in my car so that I could compete or more recently sleeping in a friend’s closet for a few days. That lady could not understand what she heard when I told my dad about the race. She could not see what went into this race. It is one thing to go to the gym every now and then to be able to finish a triathlon but that wasn’t my goal. I had suffered immensely for this. I had invested so much of my life and at times my personality and emotions for this race. Those are not things someone does to simply finish. She couldn’t see that though. The weeks, months, and years invested were not in her consciousness and even if they could be viewed from third person, it would appear an absurd investment. I didn’t drive fourteen hours up here to participate. I didn’t sleep in my friend’s closet for the past three days to participate.
With all these sacrifices becoming aware to me, I knew a question would propose itself. The question was one I would attempt to shove away every time it came to mind in the next few days. It couldn’t be answered unbiased right now. Of course none of that sacrifice seemed worth it right now. But that could not be my abandonment of competing against the best. That is no way to go out.
The whole race site was near empty of athletes and locals replaced them, out for their afternoon walks or bike rides along the lake front. My tears flowed freely now but only with my face hidden in my elbow as I sat, resting in the shade of a tree on the waterfront. Periodically I looked up and around the race site and eventually acknowledged that the site of an event that meant so much to me, was near empty of activity. I remembered something I said after working a local triathlon less than two weeks earlier. I had helped set up the race site the day before and had helped tear it down less than twenty-four hours later. After we were done, the only thing that remained were the spray chalk arrows marking the course and a list of names in a certain order with numbers next to them.
I had planned on staying another night in order to soak in the glory. I would probably have avoiding scrubbing my numbers in the shower. Ben & Jerry’s was to be the location of my celebration. But plans had changed and I began the trip south. On the ferry to cross Lake Champlain from Vermont into New York, I had a magnificent view of the Adirondack Mountains. I looked over the deck into the lake and watched the water flow past the hull. On the way up I had listened to several audio books about the universe. I had attempted to grasp the vastness that is utterly beyond comprehension. I had contemplated the origins of the universe and was overwhelmed with the beautiful cosmic expanse. And here I stood on a boat, headed for an opposite shore, unable to even contemplate the vast volume of the lake below me and the mountains ahead of me. This world is even beyond my comprehension. Everything around me seemed overwhelmingly insignificant. The list of names and numbers didn’t mean much to me anymore.
The question of if all the sacrifice was worth it was a strong and powerful “no”. The thirst for competition that was once there could not be found anywhere within me. It seemed my performances had been running on sheer love of physiology and testing of my own body. It all seemed silly to me. Had it not been such a difficult journey, I would have smiled. This may seem a cop out and is in reality often used by people as exactly that. The insignificance of our lives can lead us to great discoveries as well as great tragedies and depressions. This belief of the silliness of sport has been within me for a long time and I have often wondered if I still have it in me what it takes to win. I train daily like any hardcore competitor would. I love training and I thoroughly enjoy racing. But the thought of being the best among a small fraction of a tiny population of beings in an obscure competition on this little planet in this average galaxy in this vast cosmos just does not get me going anymore. So why do I still train so hard?
I guess part of it could be attributed to my fascination with the adaptations within the human body. The physiological changes that I can trigger seem to me one of the few things that is as amazing as the universe itself. Life trumps competition any day of the week. But thirst for winning currently seems as silly to me as war. But I know there is something deeper about competition that fascinates me beyond belief. I know there is something about it that triggers me just as physiological adaptations or human relationships or the universe do. But right now, after such a challenging and trying past few days, I am unable to pinpoint it.
It may on the surface look like a cop out and I honestly can’t argue against that appearance. I didn’t perform well so instead of challenging myself, I’ll challenge the purpose. This is like an atheist committing suicide because he believes nothing happens when he dies and thus his life is insignificant. Simply because racing is insignificant is not enough basis for it to not exist. Just because nothing of real deep physical consequence results from winning does not mean it isn’t valuable. In fact, I think it may be the opposite. Lance Armstrong wrote “I believed in belief, for its own shining sake. To believe in the face of utter hopelessness, every article of evidence to the contrary, to ignore apparent catastrophe…To believe, when all along we humans know that nothing can cure the briefness of this life, that there is no remedy for our basic mortality, that is a form of bravery.” I respect that statement and respect any intelligent being for living despite not knowing why. Maybe that can be applicable to my respect for racing.
These challenges to racing do not present any conclusions. Rather, this is a series of unanswered questions, ones that I do believe will decide my fate as a triathlete. But it is true that the status of these as unanswered will prevent me from doing as well as I could with utter confidence. I feel that for a while now I have been doing pursuing something for others or for my own fame, two very superficial reasons. If you had talked to me months ago, these troubles were brewing beneath a collected and vocally competitive athlete. But now, they are public and I hope they will challenge everyone to find true reason behind their passions.
I have already answered that I love the training and I do attain a good feeling when I am the best on a certain day as superficial as the feeling may be. But this is not a question of enjoyment or winning local races. This is a question of sacrifice and dedication and competition. Do I have the competitive nature that it takes to be the best? Or am I just content with being better than I was the preceding day? It takes the former to win races but I can’t go on lying to myself. My competition will pray on that doubt. I am near certain of how this question will be answered and I believe with that confidence, I will be a force to be reckoned with. But for now, my competition will pray off that weakness and I will be eternally second place.
Despite finding my glimpse of life on this planet extremely insignificant, I find worth in living it. At times this overwhelming knowledge has buried me. I have looked to theology and superficial pleasures for purpose or distraction. But none have been satisfying. Despite my confusion, I have continued living as if I were totally aware of why I am alive. I wholeheartedly believe this to be the only way. While these questions of purpose may seem like they appeared overnight after a bad race and will soon dissipate, they have in fact been with me since the beginning. I have always feared becoming a businessman who never knows when his paycheck is big enough of when there are enough cars in the driveway. I have often considered that as a metaphor to my desire in triathlon but fought it and shoved the belief from my mind. But from that metaphor, a lot of confident beliefs have arisen. I do find sport a valiant purpose. I do find sacrifice in the name of betterment as a real, deep, blind, and respectable lifestyle. And in writing these purposes, I am already even beginning to satisfy the question and the future is looking less dark. But with a challenge as great as this past weekend’s it may take a more immovable purpose.
To a non-athlete and the occasional watcher of the Olympics, these questions probably look like an admittance of defeat. Some people may be moving on from me and abandoning the belief in my potential because of such statements as above. They see purpose as blind and with the high proportion of athletes who raise their hands to the sky after a win, it is evident that many athletes do find purpose in that way. But I am not content with that and I am confident that my conclusions will produce a much more powerful athlete than a strictly blind following could. Originally I raced with child-like ferocity to assert myself as strong. Then I wanted to win to be remembered. It was for fame and glory, two things that I find rather silly now. I saw racing as my way to get recognition and hopefully to leave something of myself as less than average after I am gone. Recently I have been racing for a confidence that was not my own. I believe that if I can answer this question of purpose, then I will be untouchable.
I will race for myself, for the glory of humanity, not for some supernatural being. I joked a week ago that I would love to give an interview thanking my actin and myosin for being there for me when I needed them most, for my genetics for expressing those and other proteins, for ATP for providing me with energy day after day, and so on. But really what I would want to showcase is the human as a whole, physically, emotionally, and mentally. I want to display a human on its best day with body processes function to propel the being faster than ever before. But it is not solely a physical exertion. It is a dedication of heart and desire as well. To overcome absurd amounts of pain and fatigue to continue, to deny the body of its superficial desire is necessary to be a champion. Having done what I have done for what I now consider to be silly ventures, I am very excited to see what will result from pinpointed confidence.
2 thoughts on “Finding Purpose”
A good read (as always), but let us pretend for a minute that I was someone that gave a shit about your performance. It would be your continued use of the word ‘sacrifice’ that would trouble me. “Excellence is not about sacrifice, it’s about commitment. Sacrifice implies that you’d rather be doing something else, that you’re sacrificing the things you’d rather be doing for the things you’re doing right now. Committed athletes don’t sacrifice anything because there’s nothing they’d rather be doing” – Coach Paulo Sousa
Dave, I appreciate the comment and I may be changing out the word sacrifice. I do not reflect on my training as sacrifice. There is nothing I would rather be doing. But sleeping in closets and cars, I cannot consider them as anything other than sacrifice. Those things that I have done for some races are not enjoyable and make the experience very difficult. I don’t think I’d like to do them much anymore and would rather like to stick to local races to save some money to do a national championships the right way- after a night in a bed.