Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why do I Tri?

I can’t start this story without thinking about my dad, who grew up, literally, on the streets of Detroit, wanting to be a major league baseball player. My dad used to tell us how he would stay out until it got dark (or even after that), having his sister throw balls at his feet, so he could develop the fearlessness that was needed to be a superb defensive ballplayer. To this day, at the age of 75, my dad won’t let a ball get by him! Baseball dominated my father’s life, to the point that he didn’t care about school, or studying, or anything else. Needless to say, he didn’t make it to the major leagues. Interestingly, there are pictures of me swinging a baseball bat when I was two or three years old, but by the time I was five, my dad had undergone a renaissance, and decided that he didn’t want his children to have the same singular focus on sports that he had growing up. He wanted them to read, study and, at least for me, to become doctors. If he attempts any revisionist history on this story, I will quickly remind him of the chickens he had me dissect when I was nine years old!

I did become a voracious reader. I did decide at the age of nine that I wanted to become a doctor. But I also spent many hours reading about our country’s sports heroes. To this day there is nary a sport that I am unfamiliar with. I stayed out late throwing balls against the wall or up in the air, on one memorable occasion, missing the ball and having it hit me in the eye (I was never the most coordinated kid). When I was eleven, I’d stay out late playing basketball with my friend Mark Goldman. As I got older, I’d play baseball, football and basketball with my brothers. I have always loved sports and it’s in my blood.

Ironically, while both of my brothers played little league baseball, the idea that I might do that never really came up. This was all probably complicated by the fact that I had asthma as a child, but more likely, it just wasn’t encouraged. I once suggested to my parents that I might want to try playing football, and I think the response was along the lines of me having made some kind of a joke. I didn’t help my cause, when finally at the age of 13, I tried out for the freshman basketball team. I had skipped the eighth grade and was already at a disadvantage because of that. I was not the most coordinated kid, and I couldn’t figure out how to do the “weave” for the life of me. I got discouraged pretty quickly and after getting quite winded after having to run in practice, I quit. I blamed having to quit on my asthma and no one questioned me. It’s ironic that my brother, Craig, was discouraged from quitting the football team and then praised for having stuck it out.

So, I ultimately became relegated to highly competitive games of basketball and ping pong with my brothers and father as I grew up and went through high school. I went off to college and a funny thing happened. I gravitated to playing intramural floor hockey. The first year I stuck to the coed team, but by my second year I played on an all men’s team. My confidence was in playing defense, where I was tenacious and gave it everything I had every second I was out there. I actually love telling the story about how I went to a Genetics mid term in my floor hockey outfit and with my hockey stick, finished the test as fast as I could, and made it to the start of one of our big games. I began spending most of my spare time practicing and eventually dropped out of college towards the end of my sophomore year.

One of the ironies of all of this is that throughout all of these years I had never run a mile without stopping. When I was in high school, my dad briefly jumped on to the running craze and I followed him to the track a few times. I even tried to run, but generally started out way too fast and stopped way too soon. It never took.

After taking a year off and coming back to college, I continued to play intramural basketball. My favorite basketball story, perhaps of my entire life, was captured on video, when playing in the semifinal game of our hospital’s league during my residency, I was the “1” in a “3 on 1” fast break led by the opposing team’s star player. I got position at the top of the key and took the “charge”, his head hitting me squarely on the chin. I needed 13 stitches, but I always love telling people that he was never the same and we won the game, putting us in the finals, which I played in, all bandaged up, just a few days later.

My internship, residency and fellowship years were a blur, though I usually made time for some sports. I then started practicing with Kaiser Permanente. I was thirty years old, and quickly found my way into the Kaiser basketball league, where I found myself getting injured more often than not. Ironically, this was certainly related to my propensity to forget that I was smaller and weighed less than most of the other players. I also began having trouble with my knees swelling up. I decided that this wasn’t the best direction and I took up recreational swimming. After doing this for awhile, I somehow figured out that I needed to strengthen my knees and I began working out on a stairmaster. I always did this while listening to music, and built up to going about 40-60 minutes at a time. From there, at the age of 32, I began running on a treadmill, first for a mile (my first mile straight in my life), then for two and finally for four miles. My knees were holding up, I still needed to listen to music while running, but I was ready to run outdoors. I ran my first 5K, using what was going to become my typical pattern of going out way too fast, dying in the middle, and hanging on at the end.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I had carried around the picture of Julie Moss crawling across the finish line at the Hawaii Ironman. I was now swimming and running, so adding in a bike ride and doing a triathlon just seemed to be the right thing to do. I did my first tri in Cerritos in 1992 at the age of 32. It was a run-bike-swim, and I was hooked! I wanted to do an ironman! This actually fit into my life long pattern of wanting to push myself to the highest goals as quickly as possible. I signed up for tough tri at Castaic Lake, and truthfully, was not fully prepared or trained to do it. Fortunately, in retrospect, my wife woke up sick and I didn’t do the race. I was disappointed, something she recently reminded me of. I’m not sure what disappointed me the most, just not getting to do the race, or the fact that my dad was going to be there watching and I’m sure I wanted to impress him. Nevertheless, I pressed on, and figured out that I was sure that I could swim 2 miles and bike 112 miles, but had no clue if I could run the requisite 26.2 miles necessary to complete an ironman. So, my next goal took shape. I needed to run a marathon. This began a journey that led to me running nine marathons in the next six years. I also signed up for my first half ironman in 1993.

It was “Mike and Rob’s Most Excellent Triathlon”. About six weeks before the race my front wheel came off my bike while riding to work. I needed some stitches in my chin, bruised my shoulder and broke a bone in my wrist. I got a removable cast so I could get back in the pool and kept training. I finished the race and can now look back and realize that my training was never fully ideal for the distance, but I had finished.

I then got on with the task of marathon training so I could pursue my ironman goal. I chose the 1994 Los Angeles Marathon as my target race. True to form, I did the first mile way too fast and crashed and burned when I “hit the wall” at 18 miles, staggering home in 4 hours and 47 minutes.

We moved to Denver in the summer of 1994 and I was truly excited to be moving near the mecca of triathlon, Boulder. Ironically, there were far more tri’s in California at the time and I ended up focusing more on running marathons over the next several years. I achieved my best marathon time in 1997 in Philadelphia, running 3 hours and 35 minutes, but 2 years later, after doing 3 marathons over the course of several months, suffered a herniated disc (L5-S1) and stopped running. I fell into a bit of an exercise funk over the next few years, gained almost 20 pounds, and added considerable work related stress to my life.

The timing of this was both ironic and metaphorical. I had set a goal for myself of doing an ironman when I turned forty, and here I was, turning forty, with a herniated disc and getting out of shape. I was also commuting from Denver to Orlando every week and living a life completely consumed by work and stress. I decided that I should put off doing an ironman until I was fifty. My ability to rationalize my training became my ability to rationalize not training.

It was around 1999 when my dad told me he wanted to get in shape. I put him on a walking/running program and a funny thing happened, after 45 seconds of running, he felt very short of breath and had to stop. I told him to see the doctor. He did, and was set up for a treadmill. He cancelled his appointment and didn’t say anything to me. He came to visit us in Denver in 2000 and we were walking outside and he grabbed onto his chest. I told him he needed a treadmill, which he got an appointment for when he went home. This story ended with an aortic aneurysm repair and a triple bypass. My long held excuse for not worrying about heart disease because I didn’t have a family history was now long gone! I used this as my stimulus to get back into exercising and once again gravitated to doing triathlon’s as my goal methodology. I started cycling and doing some running and swimming and in 2003 resumed my triathlon quest.

As I look back upon my life, it is clear that I have a love for sports. There isn’t a sport I enjoy watching. I also love participating in sports, although the “safest” are non contact sports. There has clearly been an affinity to triathlons for a number of reasons. I’ve always said that the people who do triathlons are amongst the nicest you’ll ever meet. They tend to be focused on a healthy lifestyle and generally are more laid back. The fact that triathlon focuses on three different sports allows for variation, and this reduces boredom or any feeling of getting stale.

It’s taken awhile to really love swimming, but I love being in the water. It’s relaxing. As I’ve learned better technique, I’ve finally begun to develop that “feel” for the water that some swimmers talk about. This has helped me to enjoy swimming even more, and has helped me become a better swimmer. Prior to my last race (and bike accident), I was feeling like I was really coming into my own as a swimmer and was really looking forward to ironman swim training.

The science of becoming a better cyclist involves proper technique and effective training. Riding outdoors can be relaxing and enjoyable. I certainly look forward to the long lower intensity rides needed for ironman. I am clearly going to be relegated to long rides indoors for awhile, but can generally manage these by watching my favorite movies and just being happy about the physiologic progress that I’ll be making.

Running is clearly its own joy. There’s nothing like running on trails and just enjoying what’s around you. I will miss running for the next couple of months and will have to be careful when I come back to it. It’s going to be hard to not go out and try to run too much! When I started running seventeen years ago I needed headphones and music in order to withstand what I considered the tedium of running. I will never forget a long run I did a couple of years after getting started. It was in a nature reserve in orange county on the way to the beach. I was out for a long run with my headphones on. During the return part of the run, I took my headphones off and just began listening to the birds and appreciating the surroundings. I never wore headphones again! While I listen to “The Best of the Beach Boys” when I’m on the treadmill, I don’t need any outside stimulus when I’m running outdoors.

I haven’t even mentioned the transitions we do in triathlons. These add an additional component, and I see this as yet another discipline. I also consider myself to be somewhat of an aficionado when it comes to transitions, and my transition times support this.

Yes, I’m competitive. Yes, historically, I compete primarily with myself. While I am now more competitive with other people due to the improvements I’ve made over the last few years, at the end of the day, I enjoy participating. I enjoy the different disciplines. When I get too caught up in my times and my results, I find that I can be disappointed even when I “do well”. Winning my age group doesn’t have the joy and excitement that just giving my best effort has. Triathlon became a metaphor for the rest of my life, rather than being about my love of sport.

So, why do I tri? I tri because I love sports. I tri because it feels good to swim, bike and run. I tri because I like to see what my body can accomplish. I like the feeing of giving it my best, of trying my hardest. I tri because I love the sport of triathlon. Finally, I tri because I can. And I will continue to tri.

1 comment:

Fern said...

I truly believe I now know my son better then I thought I did. He is more like his father then I ever thought. Why they are both predisposed to push themselves is beyond me. But I love them both