Saturday, September 17, 2011

A sum of the parts

Like most people, I am multi-faceted, complex and ever-changing.  I may be an accountant, but I am also a daughter.   A sister, an aunt, a spouse, a friend, a dog mother, a mentor, a mentee and a partner. 

I am also an athlete.  For my entire life, I have dabbled in sports and did not really identify as any particular kind of athlete.  I figure skated for eighteen years, have skied for as long as I can remember, played soccer until university and did my time as a gym bunny post-university.  Oh yes, I am also a bit of a tomboy.  :)

At some point during last three years, I have also evolved into a bizarre creature known as a triathlete.  Runners, swimmers and cyclists alike make fun of us (come to think of it, most everyone makes fun of us).  We are a spandex-clad, compression wearing, gear-loving oddity - a hybrid of each of the aforementioned sports, yet universally maligned by purists in each discipline.

Becoming a triathlete is a slippery slope, and honestly I don't think that any of us really sets out to become as deeply imbedded in it as we end up.  I started off with half-marathons, then marathons, bought a road bike, learned how to swim and signed up for my first triathlon because it looked like it might be fun.  Each successive step seemed at first an impossibility, but add a little can-do attitude to each thing you do in this life, and it is amazing what one can achieve.   

After the typical first triathlon near-drowning experience, I was hooked.  Yes, you read that right - I royally sucked at it, and I was hooked.  A unique form of sadomasochism?  Only if you view it as such.  As a person who believes that hard work is rewarded, this sport is indeed a challenge.  Throw in three very different disciplines, as well as the fourth ever-important discipline known as nutrition, and you have a geeky addiction for type-A corporate weekend warriors like myself.

While you can dabble in triathlon as a hobby, it is very easy to become entrenched in it.  I am often asked by others, particularly people whom I work with, why anyone would ever possibly want to exercise so much.  It is so hard to explain training to those who simply don't understand.  What I do is more than just being "fit".  I do it because I love it and I am passionate about it.  Triathlon, even more so than running, has been an experience of developing friendships with a community of like-minded people I have met along the way; it is about being committed to my goals and about pushing past self-imposed limits to achieve things I thought previously impossible; and most of all, it is about learning to exercise will, strength and discipline.  

It seems hard to find fault with those reasons.  

And yet, I still find myself constantly defending my choices to those who view that a 36-year old professional should stop trying to be Peter Pan and start creating a life more traditionally acceptable.  (Ironically, the concept of 36-year-old professional female is still so relatively new that it is unclear what this "traditionally acceptable" cultural role entails, particularly in light of many who remain subscribed to the stereotypical image of the WASP-white male professional!)   What is it that certain people find so offensive about a triathlon-loving accountant?  Is it the commitment to something in addition to my job that is an issue, or perhaps an uneasiness with the non-traditional role of a spandex-wearing female who is comfortable in her own skin and loves sports?   Why is it that physical challenge considered trivial and non-essential by certain people?

I see this criticism as narrow-mindedness, a complete inability to see that a person can be passionate and committed to something in addition to the traditional roles of work and family.

While I can certainly respect that endurance sports are not for everyone and probably rank as being a bit extreme to the casual observer, I have no doubt that triathlon has made me more goal-oriented and has taught me dedication, perseverance and even humility.  These attributes serve me well in my life, particularly in my career - I also find it hard to believe that anyone could possibly believe that these attributes actually detract from my career.

There seems to be cognizance and general consensus that exercise is important, but the common excuse of most people is that they don't have time.  This is such crap.  If you are passionate about something - whatever that is - you make the time.

Although triathlon can be a social sport, the workouts are truly individual and can be scheduled with regard to professional commitments without the risk of disappointing an entire team.  It is not that swimming, biking or running ranks in importance to work, family or any of my other commitments;  instead I meticulously carve time out of my schedule to make it all fit in.  It would be easy to make excuses and say I don't have the time....but with some ingenuity anything is possible. I schedule my workouts the same way I do any other meeting, and I stick to the plan - as a result, my life is ridiculously regimented but I'm happy that way.  I've learned to wake early and be efficient with my time (it is amazing how much one can get done before 7am!).

There is a huge commitment that comes with the goals I set for myself.  It is weeks, months, years of effort that go into training - not one day.  I have good days and bad days, and just because I am tired doesn't mean I am burned out and need to give up.  You get out there, you do what you have to do, and you commit yourself to being better.  This is not all that different from anything in life - it is not a single deal that makes a career, but rather the culmination of years of effort and the ability to consistently perform over time.  Does taking an hour from my day to run negate my success as a professional?  Not when a career is measured in terms of resilience and fortitude over the span of a lifetime.

The sense of personal accomplishment I have achieved over the past two years is thrilling and anchors me with an infectious love and passion for this sport.  I'd never have imagined that I would toe the line at Kona, but I got there.  I've pushed myself to the limit and prevailed. Triathlon has taught me that I am my own biggest obstacle, and that in order to achieve my goals, I need to be determined to take ownership over my own success.  Does this make you mentally tough?  You bet.  There is no corporate training session that could ever achieve the same mental toughness that running an Ironman marathon through lava fields in forty degrees teaches you.

At a conference this week I was reminded of a favorite quote that really echos how I feel about the criticism I get - 
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt  

Perhaps it is my own naive belief that a successful person needs to be well-rounded, and perhaps someday I will stop being Peter Pan long enough to see the error of my ways.  For the meantime, however, I will continue to be passionate about all the roles that I play.  And those critics?  Well, they can just try to keep up.  :)

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