Over the years, I thought a lot about my journey with endurance sports and what has been important to me. Here are nine guiding principles that anyone taking up endurance sports should consider:
Nothing is impossible (almost). One my working assumptions is that you are capable of achieving amazing things, within reason. When my son was 12, he dreamed of playing NBA basketball. Growing up around Carolina basketball, the hallowed ground of Michael Jordan, that dream was understandable. I tried not to squelch that dream but the odds were against him given his height, jumping abilities, and the genes he’d been given by his mother and I (lots of nerd genes; few athletic genes). But the world of endurance sports is different. There is plenty of room for mere mortals to pick the sport and focus on a goal that will challenge them. Sure, a podium finish at the Ironman World Championships in Kona may be out of reach for most of us but finishing an ironman-distance triathlon is well within your reach, as much as swimming 2.4 miles, riding 112 miles, and then finishing it off with a marathon may seem daunting now.
Understand your motivations. Why are you doing this? Understanding your motivations will help during the darker, more difficult moments of trying to achieve your goals. Everyone’s motivations are different. Some are complex (You’ve got demons to exorcise through beating your body up) while others are simple (I think it would be cool to do a triathlon). Also understand your motivations relative to your goals. Short term goals (finish this race) are different than long term goals (lose 25 pounds, qualify for the Boston Marathon). And your motivations will change over time as you get further into endurance sports and learn more, about the sports and about yourself. You might love the community vibe of racing and the party afterwards or groove on the solitude of being alone for hours on end.
One person’s epic is another person’s easy workout. You’ll need to calibrate what epic means for you now, as you dive into endurance sports, and in the future as you become confident and proficient. This was driven home for me at a local sprint triathlon. I had pushed myself hard but was using the race as preparation for a much longer triathlon later in the season and to keep my racing skills sharp. Standing at the finish line, some of the last racers were crossing the line, totally gassed as they crossed the line. It was clear by their tears, smiles and emotion that this was an epic event for them, one that they would remember for a lifetime. Decide what’s epic for you and like your motivations, epic today may not be epic several years from now.
It’s a Journey. Goals are great. They give us something to shoot for, a milestone to aim for that demarcates achievement. But think of this as a journey where the goals are mileposts along the way. When we focus so much on the goals, we sometimes lose site of the journey, the bigger picture. This is especially important when we set aggressive goals and fail to meet them. Often we need to step back and not only understand why we didn’t achieve the goal but take in the lessons learned. As my son’s kindergarten teacher told my son on the first day of class, “Mistakes are for learning”. Make sure your journey is a learning journey.
Think sustainable, think long-term. As you think about engaging in endurance sports and the kind of things you want to achieve, it’s tempting to work toward a goal, give it all you’ve got, achieve the goal, and call it done. This one-and-done attitude does not lead to a life of enduring fitness. It’s similar to trying one diet after another; it does not create a sustainable way to eat. Likewise, endurance sports can be an unsustainable diet to achieve a weight or can be a lifestyle for life-long fitness.
Variety is the spice of life. One way to create a sustainable lifestyle of endurance sports is to think about sampling the broad menu of activities. I started out road biking and then got into cyclocross. The competitive nature of cyclocross led me to triathlons which reintroduced me to running, something I had done earlier in life. Then I decided to explore mountain bikes. A few seasons of endurance MTB racing and I found myself doing an Xterra triathlon (an open water swim, a mountain bike, and trail run). This led me to an ironman triathlon and then back to marathons. And so it goes. For me, the variety helps keep me fresh.
Be prepared to re-examine your self-image. When I started endurance sports, my self-image was not that of an athlete. I saw myself as science nerd posing as an athlete. Slowly over time my self-image changed as I accomplished goals and achieved things I thought impossible. I remember finishing a half-marathon in 1:35, a PR for me and 7th in my age group. I was talking to a buddy about my finish and he said “I had no idea you were a runner”. Neither did I. But over time, I’ve realized that I might not be God’s gift to running, but with proper training and dedication, I have become a runner.
An attitude of gratitude. When I started into this endurance sport thing, I failed to recognize the many blessings I had. My engine wasn’t as big as some of my buddies. My running stride was fairly uncoordinated. My swimming was awkward. It’s easy to focus on the negative instead of being grateful for what we have. Just getting out of bed pain-free (most days), being able to ride a bike, run, and swim. Those are real blessings we need to be thankful for every day. Which leads me to my last point.
Don’t forget to give back. All this training and racing and fitness stuff can be quite narcissistic. We can get so wrapped up in our little world of power meters, intervals, and finish times that we forget the folks around us. The immediate ones come to mind: spouse and kids. Spending time with them, of course, is important. But an even better gift is helping and encouraging them to make a health and fitness a part of their lives too. You can serve as role model. Beyond your family, you can give back in so many ways: Volunteering at a local event, helping with registration or working one of the aid stations. Be a volunteer coach for a youth triathlon team. One of my personal causes is “more kids on bikes” based on the supposition that more kids riding bikes will make the world a better place. Kids today don’t have freedom, due to helicopter parents, and flexibility, due to too much structured activities, to strike out on their own into their woods and neighborhoods.To that end, I’ve organized a youth cyclocross team and weekly mountain bike rides for elementary and middle school aged children.