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.