Friday, May 30, 2014

The Napa Triathlon…and why I compete in endurance races

I recently participated in the Napa Triathlon (Olympic distance) in Napa, CA. This was my first triathlon and I enjoyed it, though it was more challenging than my running races. The Olympic distance triathlon was 1500m swimming in Lake Berryessa, 25 miles biking through the surrounding hills, and 6.2 miles (10K) running through those same hills.

Why did I do this triathlon? That’s an important question that I will address further down, but the short answer is that I did this race because I wanted to try something different from running, and liked the variety of this event. Training for biking and swimming puts you in different shape than just running – biking works your quads and hamstrings while swimming tones your back and arms. You come out looking like more of an all-around athlete.  

In training for the race, I focused on swimming and running to a certain extent. Lake swimming was my most challenging event, and I find swimming in the pool hard enough. In the lake, you can’t see anything in the water and you have people swimming all around you and you are at risk of getting kicked in the head. Not to mention it’s tough to swim in the right direction to each buoy.

Biking was almost as difficult. I hadn’t practiced cycling at all in training, nor had I ever truly ridden a road bike before this race. Despite all of that, I managed to complete the bike portion though I truly hit the wall (worse than any of my recent running races) at the turnaround point for the bike.
The run was my best leg, as I passed many of the people who passed me on the bike. I have a lot more experience with running and it showed in the race. I finished in just over 4 hours, with long transition times as I had no real plan for this important part of the race.

Lately, I’ve been getting the questions (and asking myself the question) – why do you do it? Why do you run long distance, and why do you do triathlons? Will you do more, and what is your goal? What are you trying to prove?
My philosophy - return to a Natural state

These are good questions, and the answer has changed somewhat over time. The first time I raced was the Boston Marathon in 2004 (a story you are probably familiar with). Then, I raced because I wanted to part of the event, to experience the thrill as a participant and not a spectator. In a way, that same sentiment has driven me in all subsequent races, and even in my career. I chose Product Management as a post-MBA career path because I wanted to be in the trenches, “in” the “experience” rather looking at in from the outside (which is the way I perceive professions like consulting, investing, etc.).

Of course after Boston, I took a long break from racing, only to resume my career with the Big Sur Marathon. There, the motivation was to do the marathon properly and to enjoy the stunning scenery that I knew would wait for me. Now, the desire to be one with nature drives me as much as other factors. In a long endurance race, the participant gets to know his scenery intimately. Route 1 in Big Sur will have a special meaning for me that is different for someone who is simply driving it. In Napa, I swam “in” Lake Berryessa, at sunrise no less. It’s humbling to stand next to a 64 degree lake as the sun rises over it to lift the mist on the lake. I had the privilege to swim in it. I now look at endurance racing this way - that it is my “privilege” to participate and to be one with nature. When submerged in the lake, you can’t see anything but an algae green color. But that is nature, unfiltered in all its glory. I want the real thing – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I race, I feel alive. I am focused but I transcend to another state. Maybe it’s the endorphins but I when I connect with nature I also find myself connecting with …… myself. I become more conscious of each of my limbs, my breathing, and my muscles. Each morsel of drink or food during the race becomes that much more valuable. Unlike normal life where we take eating and drinking for granted, when endurance racing, we return to a more natural caveman state when food and drink were hard to come by. When it came, you were eternally grateful. When it was gone, you longed for it again and fought to get it back (i.e. run 3 more miles to the next aid station). The natural challenge of finding food, and earning your food, exists in endurance racing.

Competition and cooperation are also part of the equation. Sometimes you want to beat the person next to you, and sometimes you want to help them. Racing mimics life and career like that. But through it all, you know that everyone is in it together. It feels like my MIT experience where everyone is suffering together and trying to finish and achieve their goals. It’s not about being sadistic or torturing yourself – it’s about challenging yourself in a collective experience. There’s a significant difference here.  

The health benefits of racing and training are obvious and probably need the least explanation. Suffice it to say that I like to eat and workout, so this is how I try to stay fit.

So, in the end, what am I trying to prove? That I can run 26 miles? That I can swim ~1 mile? No, I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone. Anyone can do these things if he is focused on it – in fact people do much more. The human body was built for it. I don’t do this for the approval or praise of the outside world. I do this for myself, for all the reasons above. And I choose a distance and venue (like Malibu in September) that give me the connection to nature and myself that I’m looking for. It’s about being in the moment, actively living life rather than passively existing in it, and returning to a more natural state of being. I hope you can see why this is more than just a hobby for me, and how it relates to my overall philosophy towards life.

Up next – Malibu Triathlon (Olympic distance) on my birthday (9/13) and the Chicago Marathon on 10/12, and probably some smaller events along the way. I’m hoping to raise money for the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles for the Malibu race.
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