I won’t waste your time here with a treatise on the benefits of exercise, of getting in shape, or of having an athletic goal. Once you set foot out your door, having conquered the temptation of an extra hour of sleep, or of the sofa and a nightly cocktail, you will understand…Instead, I want to share some thoughts about getting that foot out the door: getting started.
I happen to run, bike, and swim for a living. That is, my job is training for, and competing in, Ironman-distance triathlons (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run). It has only been my job, however, for the past five years; prior to that, it was a hobby that I juggled with work and other commitments.
I often think that I arrived in this place---making a living doing what I love--as the result of a healthy but prevalent sense of delusion. Both my career in triathlon and my previous one in competitive swimming were propelled by my inability to be deterred from goals to which I probably had no business aspiring.
As a teenage swimmer, I envisioned myself someday being part of the historic event that is the U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials; I watched the videotape of the 1992 event so many times that I would recite the words along with it. While a number of the athletes I idolized were teenagers themselves, it didn’t seem to occur to me that I was “behind.” In fact, far from being headed towards Olympic-hopeful status, most would have considered me a lost cause: a fifteen-year-old breaststroker who had been at it for seven years and not yet attained the Junior National level. When I made the decision at this age to join a more competitive team that required spending four hours each day traveling to my four hours of training, even my new coach seemed to doubt that this was a smart decision. While implying that he respected my work ethic, he informed me that I would “never have enough speed” to qualify for even the Junior Nationals.
I don’t think I bothered to argue with him, instead just smiling and nodding while planning to prove him wrong with my actions. It took 10 years of swimming for me to become a late-bloomer, finally qualifying for Junior Nationals, then Senior Nationals, a college scholarship, and the 2000 Olympic Trials. And my old coach was more than happy to see me prove him wrong.
My triathlon career was marked by similarly humble beginnings; I completed my first Ironman in 2001 in 12 hours and 29 minutes. I was absolutely thrilled simply to finish; it wasn’t until I had actually made it to the pro level a few years later that I realized that most of my peers had Ironman debuts of 10 hours or less! And when, as a young pro, I finally enlisted the help of the world’s winningest triathlon coach, he was also accustomed to working with more naturally gifted athletes: he was quoted as saying that he “believed I was sent to him as a true test of his coaching genius.”
In fact, the first time he watched me running on the track, this normally gruff man seemed overcome with an uncharacteristic sympathy. “Love, how did you decide to get into triathlon?” he asked, as if this must’ve been the most unlikely choice of profession for someone who ran the way I did. After listening to my unconvincing response, he replied, “Well, we will get you in the top-5 at an Ironman somewhere, and then we’ll see what we want to do.” As in, “I’ll find some obscure race with a weak field for you to achieve at least one of your triathlon goals, and then we will have a reality-check talk and I will convince you that it is time to find a job for which you are better suited.”