Credit: TriSports University

I’m training for an Ironman

But why?

There are a lot of reasons not to do an Ironman. The reasons not to do an Ironman have a lot in common with the reasons not to do a marathon, or any other event classified as an endurance sport. The Huffington Post came up with 26 of them, in fact. They include adverse affects on health, finances, social life, and a horrifying image of nipple chafing.

There’s more. The (ridiculous) Slate article, “Don’t Run a Marathon”, boils down to “You have better things to do with your time.” Despite the author’s snark, this is a point worth considering. All those hours spent running, biking, swimming, traveling, resting, packing, shopping, registering, and any other auxiliary activity related to preparing for an endurance event could be better spent doing good for the world.

I will not attempt to argue any of these points. An Ironman distance triathlon consists of 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and 26.2 miles of running, all to be completed within 17 hours. The description alone is off-putting; anyone can imagine any one of those legs to be a difficult, painful task. To complete them in succession sounds pretty much impossible — it did to me, at least, when I first heard about it as a kid.

It’s even harder to envision the sustained will and effort required to prepare oneself for an Ironman, which typically calls for months of training several hours a day leading up to the event. All this translates to suffering, something most of us wouldn’t wish on ourselves.

So, why do it?

Ask almost any triathlete who has finished an Ironman-distance event or has decided to do one in the near future and they’ll almost all be happy to tell you why. I can’t speak for all, but a common thread is:

I can’t imagine not doing it.

In my early thirties, when I started in triathlon, my life began to change for the better. Discovering the sport coincided with my career finally taking off and, most importantly, with me falling in love with and marrying the woman of my dreams. I spent my twenties metaphorically adrift, but somewhere along the way, I found purpose. Triathlon is a natural extension of this — few sports so simply capture the spirit of dedication and resolve than those that involve preparing for a “big race.”

Despite opinions like those in Slate, I believe triathlon has improved my ability to do good in the world. Though it requires a significant time and energy, it is a sport that has supplemented my health and self-confidence in return. I believe I am better at my job, as a husband, and as a father because of what I’ve learned about myself during hours spent out on the road and in the water.

Perhaps I’ve got better things to do because of triathlon. And yet I know I’ve got a lot more to learn.

My wife passed away unexpectedly last year. I lost my partner and best friend. I had to tell her parents. I left my job. I’m left to raise our son as a single father. Things have not gone according to plan.

In the moments immediately after I learned of her death, I had two thoughts:

I want to give up.
I can’t give up — our son needs me.

I’ve been trying to heal to be the best father I can for our son. It’s been hard to define what this means; I suspect I will spend the rest of my life trying to understand. Though, I can say, I have learned through counseling that a critical part of the healing process is self-care. I wouldn’t be able to resurrect my career and do meaningful work or be a good father without taking care of myself; it’s the real-life analog of “Secure your own mask first.”

One thing missed by opinions like those expressed in Don’t Run a Marathon is that to do good for others, to do our best work, to excel in our career—this comes at a great cost if we can’t accomplish these things without staying physically and mentally healthy. How many of us have fallen into a trap of unhealthy eating, drug or alcohol addiction, or make some other self-destructive choices while placing other needs ahead of our own? I believe many of us turn to marathon and triathlon to fulfill such a need, to balance out the cost of giving ourselves away to other worthwhile endeavors.

Many have said that sports like triathlon are selfish in that it’s an individual endeavor pretty much from the start. (To finish a triathlon, the rules quite literally state that athletes cannot receive outside assistance.) I agree — that triathlon is selfish — but only partially.

Training for and competing in triathlons is suffering. Some days, I’m utterly exhausted by the end of a workout (some days, before). I suffer. I ache. I feel sick to my stomach. I’m cut to pieces. I am broken. To exercise is to tear musculature down, to injure. But I have also learned the human body is a remarkable machine, capable of not only repairing but rebuilding itself stronger than before. Stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally. This is healing. This is transformation.

For me, triathlon is self-care. Ironman, the ultimate commitment to that end. I am training for Ironman to be a better me. That’s a good thing not only for myself but for a beautiful boy depends on me.

I’m doing Ironman Wisconsin on September 10, 2017. Follow me on my triathlon journey here.