Tri Harder, Panda!

(Craig Campbell)– Every summer, we are assailed from all the corners by the same inevitable question. By old ladies at church, by classmates at school, friends’ parents, people at parties – everyone inquires about our summer plans.

For the past three years, I’ve answered this question by padding my response with something slightly more interesting than “swim coaching” – I always add “triathlon training” to my short list of summer activities. As for the actual race? I never seemed to get around to it. Each year when a competition approached, it was either too far away, or I had work that day, or it was too expensive. As far as “training” went, I never worked out with any formal program. While most triathletes stick to a rigid schedule of swimming, biking, and running a set number of times every week, my training schedule revolved around vanity. I worked out nearly every day, but did only what felt convenient. During work, I’d sometimes hop in the pool and swim a few practices a week. Or, after work, I’d spin on the stationary bike in the gym. I viewed running as more of a stress-release activity.

Throughout high school, I entirely devoted the September through March school year to the sport of swimming. My diet was rigidly in check with my training needs; I ate the exact balance of lean protein, minimal fat, and simple carbs that I needed to perform my best. Weight lifting was all about strengthening what I needed to make me go faster through the water. I didn’t notice (or care) then, but at the end of swim season, when my body was at its physical peak of strength, it was also its most shapeless.

My summers, on the other hand, were all about looking good. My diet was made up of meals haphazardly placed all over the day, consisting mostly of ultra-high fiber granola and a lot of milk. My first year coaching out in the sun was the first summer my skin turned any color other than red. I went to the gym and went hard on my biceps, triceps, and chest, while my legs meanwhile atrophied, growing thinner by the week. I biked only because it was the most efficient way to burn calories. I swam only when I was bored enough while working. I hid behind the excuse of ‘triathlon training’ to distract myself from my fixation on my belly’s flatness.

But something must have changed during my freshman year at school. This year, unhappy with my summer career choice and bemoaning my lack of meaningful productivity, I signed myself up for the 3-Disciplines Triathlon in Petoskey, Michigan, which I completed this past weekend. The only issue was that unlike other years, this summer I didn’t have as much drive as in previous years, and I was not as prepared for the half mile swim, 20K bike, and 5K run as I had been in the past. I borrowed a road bike from a friend of my parents; I read race tips online; I spent 60 dollars on a triathlon suit. Despite this nominal preparation, I took five days off of training for a visit to New York about a week before the race. I wasn’t exactly in shape.

But race I did, nonetheless. Suspecting that my swimming, the first leg of the race, would give me an edge, I plowed into the water at full speed. Although I stayed at the front of the pack, my 6-minute swim was only one thirteenth of the total racing time. (Biking took 40 minutes.) It was a struggle, but I finished 18th overall. During the awards ceremony, I was surprised and excited to learn that I finished 3rd in my age group. For my first triathlon, how great is that! Only later did I find out that there were only about 8 other competitors in my age group.

I was glad to race in an athletic event again, but I had this nagging sensation of dissatisfaction knowing that had I competed in the same event two years earlier, I would have performed far better. My 17-year old self would have kicked my ass! It was a sad realization that, at the ripe young age of 19, I’m already on the descent. I didn’t even warm up in the water before my swim, a rookie mistake my former self would have scoffed at. It’s not just that I wasn’t in great shape – what alarmed me was that my attitude toward fitness has changed.

Is the investment in a sport worth the massive commitment of time? Extensive deliberation over this question led me to quit the Amherst swim team last winter. The three disciplines of a triathlon are each very individual sports, and being alone is something I have consciously tried to minimize at school. But to see the older athletes compete, and to see the shape that they were in made me ask myself how could I not attempt to maintain my peak fitness. By staying as active as they do, it’s as if they completely stop the aging process: there was a man who won his 61-65 age group race and didn’t look a day over 40.

I’d like to get back to that intensity about athleticism I once had, but, especially at school, there always seems to be something more pressing than working out that I need to attend to. I find that my biggest complaint about the immutable rules of life is that there are simply not enough hours in the day to do everything I want.–which I guess isn’t really such a bad problem to have after all.