Beyond Finisher Medals, Ironman Visors, and M-Dot Tattoos: Why Do We Do What We Do? 1

“So let me get this straight – you swim 2.4 miles, bike 112, and then run a marathon?! All in one day? Why would you EVER do something like that?” As an ironman athlete or an endurance athlete of any sort, I’m sure you field questions such as these from non-endurance athletes on a regular basis. Most probably respond with a chuckle, a smile, or simply a nod of the head. After shrugging off this question from a “casual Joe”, you stand around awkwardly, not quite knowing how to move past this moment of division in understanding. Do you shrug off the question because you think the “casual Joe” just wouldn’t understand? Or do you shrug it off because you actually don’t truly know the answer to his question?

SO, why do you do it? WHY do you swim 2.4 miles, bike 112, and run 26.2 all in one day? Is this an enjoyable, pleasant experience for you to spend all of this time swimming, biking, and running? Maybe you have experienced that “perfect race” where each segment of the race unfolds exactly how you had envisioned it would. Most ironman athletes would admit that the ironman race is rarely a euphoric experience. You swallow murky lake water and get kicked in the head on the swim; you plant yourself on a bike seat the size of a large banana and ride in an incredibly uncomfortable position for 112 miles; and the “run”, which could ultimately turn into a walk or a crawl at any minute, is often referred to as a death march. Fun? You may try to tell yourself that it’s fun. But in the moment, most endurance athletes aren’t reflecting upon the experience as pleasurable… In fact, just last weekend I heard a quote from an endurance athlete in a training run, referring to the experience as a “little slice of hell”!

So why do you do it? Endurance competition is a pursuit that requires so much time, energy, and sacrifice on a daily basis. So it seems logical that athletes would have an understanding of their motivation to compete. However, when presented with this question, many athletes stumble to come up with an answer. If you spend time truly thinking through what drives you to train and compete, you will have a valuable source of inspiration that you can turn to when things don’t go according to plan on race day.

I’ve heard a variety of “canned” responses to this question of “why do you compete?” Here are a few of my favorites:

  • I like to push myself
  • I like a challenge
  • I like the training
  • I like winning hardware
  • I want an M-dot tattoo
  • I like how I look in a speedo
  • Why not?

All these reasons are perfectly valid. However, in order to truly answer this question, you need to dig a bit deeper. So you like to push yourself and you enjoy a challenge. Why? What value do you see in pushing yourself? What about this challenge is so appealing to you? Why do you find satisfaction in testing your limits to see what you are able to accomplish? You can challenge yourself by running a 10K or even a 5K if you push the pace. So why do you feel the need to compete in an ironman or other endurance event? What is it about this “test” that is so appealing? Is it the physical test or the mental test that beckons you?

Perhaps it’s the social aspect of training and racing that you enjoy – the connection to other like-minded people with similar goals. Or maybe it’s the drive to see what you can accomplish if you really push yourself to the limit. Or maybe it’s simply the enjoyment of living a fit and healthy lifestyle that motivates you. Or perhaps you find inspiration in being a model of perseverance for others to follow.

There are no right answers to this question. And you don’t need to succinctly answer this question in one sentence. However, I urge you to mull it over. Really spend some time thinking about your core values or beliefs that fuel your competitive fire. A great time to ponder this question is on a long training ride or run. Ask yourself this important question of why, while you are out on the road — why are you are spending so much time chasing this ironman dream? Come up with some thoughts and write them down somewhere. You may choose to share them with a coach or loyal supporter, or you may prefer to keep them to yourself. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you know what drives you and why.

I wrote this post a week or so ago and have been sitting upon it for a while. I have been hesitant to post it. I think the hesitation stemmed from the fact that I was unsure of how I would answer the question myself. As I was out on a ride a few days ago, the answer that came to me was that pursuing long course triathlon simply “makes me feel good”. I enjoy living a fit and healthy lifestyle. I like pushing myself to see what I can accomplish. And I know that I can accomplish anything that I set my mind to.   The feeling of accomplishment at the end of a race or a hard training session is unbeatable. It simply “makes me feel good” in so many different ways.

I was content with that answer. Until my progression run, which transpired yesterday morning when clarity struck. I set target paces for myself. I started the run, unsure if I could hit the targets. So in my mind, I changed my initial targets to ranges to give myself a bit of wiggle room — more room for success. The targets were aggressive. It was hot. I was tired and my legs were sore. I ran the first couple of miles right on my initial targets. Maybe I can do this after all. The next couple of miles were also on target. It’s within reach, but will get harder. The last three miles were the toughest, with the last one a very hard effort. But I nailed them all. Then I realized what makes me feel good. It’s the process of challenging myself and setting lofty goals. It’s navigating through the period of uncertainty, where I’m not sure if I will hit the targets. And then ultimately, it’s the unparalleled feeling I get when I am able to nail those targets and achieve my goals. That is what makes me feel good.

Do I always hit my targets and reach the goals I set out for myself? Of course not! But dealing with adversity and having the flexibility to change your expectations in the moment make you a stronger athlete and a stronger person. I don’t view those workouts as failures. It’s more a matter of having the patience to adjust my expectations and determine my next move. When I get home from a workout, my husband often asks “how was your swim?” or “how was your ride?” 95% of the time, I respond with “great!” It may not have felt great in the moment, I may not have hit my targets, or I may be sore and tired. But in my mind, all training sessions are great. They all have value. And finding value in each and every workout is what makes me feel good. Regardless of the outcome, regardless of how I felt, regardless of whether or not I hit my targets, I know that I will find value in every training session and race. That is what keeps me going. That is my motivation. That is why I train and compete.

Tonight at our local kids’ weekly summer track meet, I learned about the motivation of my children. In these races, the top three finishers won ribbons while the other participants were given stickers. Our two year old said, “I want to run slow so that I can get a sticker!” Our four year old, on the other hand, had a different attitude. After watching another boy despondently turn around after the start of the race, he said, “you don’t cry, you just run as fast as you can!”

The motivation is clearly different for everyone. It may well change by the day, the month, or the year, depending on what else is going on in your life.  Sometimes it might disappear altogether.  It may come back.  Or it may not.  But it’s important that you keep a pulse on it. Because it is what fuels your fire and keeps you going.

If you can develop a clear understanding of what propels you to compete, this realization may not only help you deal with adversity on race day, but it could help drive you to greater levels of success, and even a greater enjoyment of the pursuit. And then the next time someone asks: “so, you swim 2.4 miles, bike 112, and run 26.2 all in one day – WHY?” you can respond with a sly smile, a shrug, or a chuckle. You probably wouldn’t go into a detailed explanation… But deep inside, you know why.

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