Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Triathlon as an Expression of Free Will

Why do we do the things we do? Our hobbies, our beliefs, our occupations? Far too often the answer is a lamentable "convenience". For me, I fall into this convenience pattern for long stretches - then snap myself out of it with radical, grand gestures.
I am a professional software engineer. That came easy for me because I was good at math, and I enjoyed computers. So I got an engineering degree, studied computer science and started working. It was the path of least resistance, I just did what came naturally to me. I moved to Chicago because that's where the jobs were, it all just made sense. I don't mean to say that any of that was easy - my undergraduate degree was the toughest thing I've ever done, it made Ironman look like a game of paddy cake. And moving away from everyone I knew was tough, as was living on my own and being broke. Don't get me wrong - I love writing software, and embedded systems is my passion. I found the right career for me, no doubt. But I got there by taking the easy path - by using my god given strengths.
I had been an athlete as a kid. I focused on basketball early on, and though I was short I did OK. I played at the high school level and then very briefly in college. I was 18 and learned quickly that I did not have the talent to play at that level, and the amount of work I needed to put in to compete would have destroyed my grades. So I quit basketball during the fall of my freshman year, which would end up being the most heart wrenching breakup I have ever suffered. That day I stopped being an athlete, and became an engineer. It was a good career choice, I have a low VO2max and a high capacity for technical learning. I started drinking soda, I started eating pizza and fast food, I started watching TV, I started living like an engineer.
I took all of these habits with me when I got my first apartment and started working. I had blossomed up to 190 pounds or so when I graduated college, from the 165 of my basketball days. It was no big deal to me, I didn't feel fat and I was now more of a thinker than a laborer. That first year in Chicago I was broke and working long hours, so I ate out at lunch and my dinner was always something easy. Mac and Cheese or frozen pizza. I would sometimes eat a family size Jello pudding box as a treat. Eventually I had disposable income, and in came the luxuries. I bought a lazy-boy recliner and an overstuffed couch, holy crap do I love those. I bought a large screen TV, and subscribed to the NFL Sunday Ticket - and spent every Sunday watching 10+ hours of football, to the point where it gave me headaches. I was exhausted without ever leaving my couch. I bought a Tivo the first day it was on the market (at the early adopter price of only $750!) and instantly fell in love. This new toy allowed me to not just watch TV, but to watch everything on TV. And I did. To paraphrase Dean Karnazes "I was so comfortable I was miserable".
Eventually I moved in with an old college buddy of mine. I don't remember why, but we started working out together - mostly jogging. We were never very consistent, and I hated every minute of it - so eventually I bought a bike. A mountain bike, to ride on the pavement in Chicago - brilliant. I rode it on a 12 mile loop in a nearby park pretty regularly (until the snow got deeper than a few inches) and even to work a few times. Eventually I stopped riding. I moved to California with a new job, and started working harder than ever, which returned me to my slovenly ways.
Then in June of 2006 I got the dust off my mountain bike and rode it to work. I don't remember why - I probably saw someone riding on the road as I was driving to work one day, or maybe it was high gas prices. I weighed 210 pounds that day. The seven miles from my apartment to work felt like a million. But it was great - I bragged about my epic ride to all my co-workers. I started riding to work regularly for the next month, almost every day. There's something magical and deeply rewarding about being a bike commuter - I recommend it to everyone. Then, it happened. A college friend who also had moved to San Diego recommended I get a road bike. He told me those knobby tires were slowing me down, and I needed to upgrade. So I started looking, and like most first time bicycle purchasers I was shocked at the prices! What happened to getting a $100 bike at Wal-Mart? I bought a medium end road bike for twice what I originally wanted to spend - and began riding it both to work and with a local bike club on Saturdays. I fell in love - head over heals with cycling. As an engineer I liked the practical brilliance of a bike - the sheer efficiency of it all - the precision of the components. But there was more, something visceral about riding a bike. Everything looks different when you're traveling by self locomotion. I started to think of my body as a machine that turns food into rotational motion, and my bike as a machine that turns rotational motion into translational motion. That lead me to eat a little better. And each week I got a little faster on those club rides.
I talked about cycling with everyone who would listen. My good friends NS and SP suggested that I do a triathlon. Me? A triathlon? I had seen Ironman on TV - triathlon was serious. Plus, I hate the water. I'm scared of the ocean, and I hadn't been in a swimming pool in 20 years - and I was only 28 years old.
So I thought about it. I couldn't swim. I liked to cycle, but was far from being competitive. I couldn't run a mile without wheezing - and I cursed every step along the way. As a geek at heart I have always admired NASA and the Apollo moon missions. I thought back to a speech John F. Kennedy gave that launched the space program in 1962:
"We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy - but because they are hard! Because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win!"
I had no ability - no talent as a triathlete. And that thought clinched it. I chose to become a triathlete not because it was easy - but because it was hard. It was ludicrous. I signed up for Wildflower and didn't tell anyone other than NS and SP - because it was so ridiculous an idea that everyone would laugh at me. And I secretly thought I wouldn't be able to do it. I had moved cities three times since the last time I did anything athletic. None of my current friends would have believed that I was training for a triathlon. Even NS and SP whom I had known for over 10 years had never imagined me as an athlete, and were shocked when I told them I had played basketball.
I learned to swim. I became a cyclist. I survived my running. I raced Wildflower and kicked ass. I discovered ocean swimming. I lost 40 pounds. I became an Ironman. I lived one more piece of my dream.

That's why I race. Because my life is my own. To prove I'm not bound by the restrictions and stereotypes of my career. That I choose the person I will be tomorrow. To push myself beyond the limits I once believed I had. To prove that I can do anything I choose. That I don't fit in a box.

Go ahead, try to box me in. I dare you.


JMoTriBella said...

Chris -

I'm loving your blog! Great entry....almost made me cry! :) Keep writing. See you Sat at Alison's!

ps - congrats on kicking my ass at Ironman. I remember swimming with you in early 2007, and we were the same pace. You rocked the IMAZ swim! Teach me please!

Chris said...

Thanks J - hopefully I can keep writing when my free time disappears again.
Congrats yourself on IMAZ, you were great out there!
I think a post on my 2008 swimming breakthrough might be in my future :)

rocketpants said...

Great post! You have come quite a long ways and you should be proud of where you have come from and strive to achieve what you dream of. As I've said, if you love then training then there is nothing wrong with it.