[142] The Year of the Triathlon

Swim: 0 m/112,725 m

Bike: 19.6/1,460.9 miles

Run: 11/742.6 miles

2011 has been a huge year for me, and it’s tough to think about how to summarize all of my experiences in a single blog post. But the more I’ve thought about it in recent weeks, the more I’ve realized that everything I have accomplished this year, and the driving force behind it all, can be summed up in a simple, three-word phrase:

Rethink what’s possible.

After years of living life on a plateau, we can start to think of ourselves in a certain way, to quietly accept the current iteration of ourselves as something that’s final or complete. We settle upon broad labels for ourself – “I’m a runner” or “I’m a [insert occupation]” – or even more specific tags, such as “I’m a 1:45 half-marathoner.” Maybe we’re happy where we are, even if, deep down, we suspect there’s something more.

This year it was time for a shake-up in my athletic life. When I accepted my own challenge to train for triathlons in 2011, I knew it was going to be a long-term proposition – my goal race was nine months away – and that it was going to force me to start from scratch and learn two entirely new disciplines. Training took over my life (or at least the part that was left after work and family commitments). I was fully immersed – when I wasn’t actually exercising I was reading about triathlon, talking about it to anyone who would listen, making virtual friends who shared my new passion. I trained for many hours each week – far more time than I put in for either of my marathons in previous years.

And along the way I started to accomplish things that I never thought possible. My own long-settled definitions of myself started to shift. I was no longer just a runner, but a swimmer, cyclist and triathlete. I started to realize what kinds of things I could do when I was devoted to the cause, and I occasionally caught myself by surprise with the results.

On January 1, I was not a swimmer. I had never learned freestyle and relied upon some cobbled form of breaststroke to get through the water. But with lots of research and about two months of dedicated training I taught myself how to swim. It was hard and very frustrating at times, but once it clicked I never looked back, and my new skill took me to some new and exciting places. Even after completing three triathlons, the highlight of my swimming career remains my first open-water swim, where I crossed the mouth of a river near my in-laws’ house. I had frolicked in the water there many times over the years, but had never really contemplated swimming across. It wasn’t that the distance itself was so impressive, but the crossing represented something that I had never considered within my ability.

Rethink what’s possible.

On January 1, my first bike ride of the year was 6.3 miles in my neighborhood. I considered 12 miles a long ride in those early days, and my pace was around 14 mph. Early in the year I decided to purchase a tri bike, a choice that I’m still very happy with. My speeds and distances steadily increased, I streaked through April and rode 101 miles in one weekend in August. I added a cycling-specific weight regimen to my training. I struggled up monster hills and hit 40 mph on the way down. I ended up riding almost 1,500 miles this year in heat, rain and cold.  I even bought clipless pedals and cycling shorts!

Rethink what’s possible.

I started the year running strong, training hard and increasing my strength and endurance. I felt confident coming into my first race of the year, and ended up setting a 2-minute PR for the 10k distance. I was ecstatic – it was the first race I had ever run at a sub-7 pace. Afterward I calculated my predicted race times off of that 43:12 10k, and found that my half-marathon should be around 1:36 and my 5k time would be near 20:40. I thought about how hard I had run during that 10k and just didn’t see how I could run any faster. A sub-20 5k was just not on my radar – 40 seconds is an incredible amount of time to shave off a race of such a short distance. I felt like I would be flirting with the outer limits of my ability to strive for a 1:35 half-marathon.

But that’s the funny thing about proper training – you start to get more bang for your buck. For what felt like the same effort I expended in that early-season 10k, in October I leapfrogged the 20-minute barrier and ran a 19:12 in my first and only official 5k race, capturing first in my age group in a large field of runners. The next month I came thisclose to a sub-1:30 half-marathon when I set an 11-minute PR at the Richmond Half-Marathon. Then, just for fun, I took another minute off my 10k PR at the tortuously hilly RRRC Turkey Trot two weeks later. And, although it’s unofficial, I ran a 10k time trial in my hilly neighborhood in 40:22, leaving me confident of my ability to run a sub-40 at that distance.

I’m running at paces that I never even strove for – they were so much better than what I was running previously that I couldn’t fathom how I could run that fast. The point here is not to be boastful – obviously there are lots of people who are much faster than me. The point is that I’ve been able to reach levels of performance that the 2010 version of myself (and even the mid-2011 version) shrugged off as impossible. But the huge difference now is that, after an exhausting race, I no longer sit back and think, “That’s the pinnacle of what I can achieve.” I know I can still get better. Who’s to say that, a year from now, I won’t have run a sub-19 5k? Or a 38-minute 10k? A 1:27 half-marathon? A (gulp) sub-3:10 marathon?

Rethink what’s possible.

So, aside from all of the specific minutiae of triathlon technique and running strategies, the biggest lesson that I’ve learned this year is that you shouldn’t hold too tight to your own perceptions of what you can do. Don’t settle for what you’ve achieved in the past – there is always a way to improve, if you’re willing to put in the effort. It’s a lesson that ripples into every aspect of life – not just running or fitness – and I’m excited to see where it takes me in 2012.

As the new year approaches, I urge you to question your own goals. Are you reaching high enough?

This entry was posted in biking, goals, progress, running, swimming. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to [142] The Year of the Triathlon

  1. steena says:

    Awesome, awesome post. Seriously, you got me thinking!
    You’ve had an incredible year, I’m glad I started following in the early stages of your tri training and watched you excell. Definitely an inspiration.
    Cheers to a 2012 full of more possibilities!

  2. Great post! Hope your training continues to serve you well in 2012 and beyond.

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