Being triathletes, the question we get asked most often is “why?”
Why do you do it? Why put yourself through all that effort? Why get up at 5am to go swimming? Why give up a nice cozy bed to go cycling for hours in all weathers? Why go swimming in a freezing lake? Why run so far or fast that you virtually collapse? Why give up your night out because you are too tired to move– or because you have to train the next morning?
Like most triathletes, “why” has never troubled me. I’m more interested in “what”. What was my time for that last lap? What is the weather going to be like for the ride? What kit should I wear? What can I do to get stronger towards the end of races? What will happen to my weight if I eat that biscuit? What is the price of those wheels? The only “why” that I’ve ever dwelt on is “why don’t girls seem impressed when I tell them about my marathon splits at the end of an Ironman….?”
My channel swim, however, forced me to consider the thorny question of “why in the name of God am I doing this?” There’s nothing like having the feeling you’ve bitten off more than you can chew to give you a moment of self-awareness – a rare thing for triathletes given we are mostly too busy training to work, dress or sleep never mind think.
At first I wondered if was because I want to fit in? There’s part of me that certainly enjoys fitting in with people whose athletic achievements I admire. I enjoy listening to someone talking about being “on the rivet on the K10/10 in a 53/12” and knowing exactly what they are talking about. There’s also part of me that delights in joining in conversations about this Ironman or that marathon and sharing that windswept, flinty look of being a “Finisher” with them.
Then I wondered if it’s because I want to stand apart? Try as I might I can’t help but glow with smugness when I hear someone talk about going to the gym or jogging the Race for Life as the pinnacle of their fitness without thinking “Christ, that’s not even a warm up!” And, yes, I confess to disgusting, shameless smugness when I’m at a pub or party and I see all the drinkers, the smokers and the bellies. I take pleasure in thinking “I’m not like you…” But it’s not these. I’ve realised I swim, cycle and run because it makes me feel alive. So much of modern life insulates you from the real world. It cossets you, sedates you, it keeps you warm and safe and free of risk or pain.
We are encouraged to buy our way to a better life, and that just for a few pounds more we can purchase everything to make our lives complete. But there’s nothing that anyone can ever sell me that can ever compare with the sheer joy and freedom of being alive that hurtling downhill on a bike gives me, or swimming in a lake gives me, or running through the countryside gives me.
I’ve been so cold while cycling that frost formed on me. So hot after running that I jumped into someone’s ornamental fish pond. So tired I’ve fallen asleep in a plate of food. I’ve been soaked and sunburned. I’ve had heat stroke and hypothermia. I’ve crashed, fallen, punctured, tripped, collapsed and got hopelessly lost. And I’d take any of these and more ahead of any TV programme or download or theme park ride or video game or virtual world or iphone or shopping centre or tweet. Because there’s nothing artificial that can ever give you the same thrill you get from winning or finishing. And even when it hurts, I’m still out there in the big wide world…. living life.