I’ve been second guessing myself. Who doesn’t? Ever since I did that crazy thing, paying an outlandish sum to do something even more outlandish. I’ve been wondering. How did I end up here? Do I belong here? This iron distance triathlon is not small potatoes.
I’m often around athletes who’ve gone longer or faster and sometimes both. Sometimes they make me doubt my athleticism.
I’ve coached women of all ages and backgrounds. Sometimes they doubt me when I tell them they are athletes.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about who is an athlete. Not just who is athletic, but who is an athlete?
I recently had the opportunity to coach at the Can-Am Paralympics Swimming Championships. Here were people of all kinds of physical states (blind, paralyzed, missing limbs, it goes on) who were elite athletes. What felt remarkable was how unremarkable it was. Wheelchairs, guide dogs, and limbs on deck didn’t change that they were doing what all athletes do everywhere. Speed or strength or distance is not what made them athletes. I could see it in their focus, in their preparation, in all the hours, weeks, months, and years of training. They helped me understand myself as an athlete.
Racing doesn’t make me an athlete.
Registering and showing up to races is not what makes me an athlete. There are times when I’ve shown up untrained and unprepared and simply participated. I did an athletic event, but I wouldn’t say at that time that I was being an athlete.
Winning or being faster doesn’t make me an athlete.
I’ve won because I was the only one in my age group. I’ve won my age group when the faster people were at a different race. Sometimes winning is well earned, but sometimes it’s mostly luck. I’m faster than some people. I’m also slower than some people. It is a shallow pride in comparing against others. It is not how I will define myself as an athlete.
Losing or being slower doesn’t mean I’m not an athlete.
There is no way that the paralympians who came in last, or those that came in first with “slow” times are not athletes. There are not time requirements for being awesomely inspiring. To disqualify myself as an athlete just because I’m slower than someone is a disservice to the athletes slower than me. And I know a lot of inspiring athletes slower than me.
Exercising doesn’t make me an athlete.
It makes me more athletic. It makes me fit and healthy. This is a good and admirable thing, but it is not what makes me feel like an athlete. Exercising is like eating, it’s necessary to keep us healthy. Making a salad is good for me, but doesn’t make me feel like a chef.
Training with intention makes me an athlete.
I have a plan that is progressively challenging. It is hard, and just when it feels easier I will make it harder again. Pushing to failure is a success. Sensations of burning, heaviness, fatigue, and soreness are positive signs. Rest is not laziness but an important part of the plan. It is not about the workout, but how the many pieces build towards a greater goal.
Testing myself to perform at races makes me an athlete.
Once I cried tears of disappointment after a triathlon. As my boyfriend (now husband) hugged me my father-in-law was confused. He later asked “Didn’t she do well? She was fast, she got a medal. What’s wrong?” I hadn’t paced myself on the bike, I hadn’t known the course well enough. In 26 years of racing I’ve done a lot of crying. Performing has been about the process of learning how I can do my best. It is a test of how well I know myself and what I will endure for myself.
Vision for the long haul makes me an athlete.
I think I was 14 at an indoor all-comer Meet of the Miles at the U of M. My dad pointed out a woman who was a masters champion. I think she was in her 60’s, in my eyes she was old. He told me if I stuck with her I could break 6 minutes. I raced my heart out to stay with her. It was the first but not the last time I was awed by a woman decades older than me. From that point on I knew I wanted to be an athlete my whole life. It would never just be about the next race, or that season, or even that year.
In the workouts, weeks and months of training to come… When the doubt creeps up and I ask “Why did I do this to myself? Do I belong here?” I will have to remind myself that I do this because I am an athlete. It is part of who I am to seek challenge. And that is what bonds athletes of all speeds and abilities. Or at least that’s what I’d like to think so it’s less scary.