Why I love triathletes

A few years ago, Dutch and I were watching a major, Olympic-distance triathlon on television. The women were finishing up with a 10k (6.2 miles). As we watched, a woman who had been leading began to slow in the final miles. First one woman passed her, then another. Her stride began to come apart, turn into a stagger. Then, as her coach, who had been trailing watching her from the sidewalk leaped over a concrete barrier, she crumpled into his arms, completely spent. In the matter of a few minutes, she went from front runner to non-finisher.

Vaclav Havel once wrote that hope “is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” I think about that whenever I watch triathletes. Because from everything I have seen watching them, and from being married to someone who has done several sprint triathlons, those words seem to describe their experience.

When someone embarks on a competition that will take her through more than two miles of open-water swimming, followed by more than  a hundred miles of cycling, to be capped off, just for the heck of it, with a 26.2-mile run (otherwise known as a marathon), the odds of things turning out well in any conventional sense are not high. Even professional triathletes, such as the woman Dutch and I watched, have no certainty that they will finish any given triathlon they enter, let alone win. They can be sure that, at best, they will spend hours, days, months, even years training with perhaps nothing tangible to show for it but fatigue. Those amateurs of all ages labor in the knowledge that most people will not even understand, let alone celebrate, the effort they put into their training.

In other words, they train on hope. But not blind hope or dreams. They give that hope tangible expression in the form of the work they do with no guarantee of glory or recognition. To them, this training, in Havel’s words, “makes sense.” It’s value is the value they invest in it, and the value they invest in themselves.

So much of what so many of us engage in we do because of the chance for some external, recognizable payoff. We exercise to lose weight and look cuter; we work for pay and accolades; we donate to charities to get that pat on the back (or for the tax write-off); we do what’s expected, because it’s what’s expected, and doing what’s expected makes us respectable. It’s nice to be reminded that it’s possible to do something not for the outcome but for the experience. For the journey. For the sake of putting their hope into motion.

What do you do the sheer pleasure of the act, no matter how it turns out?

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