What does it mean to "get better" in triathlon? Does it mean "go faster?" I think that would be the obvious response. But there's something else, something deeper.
No, to me getting better in triathlon means being smarter. By "smarter," I mean developing an innate sense of body awareness that transcends the data we gather on our sophisticated training devices.
I believe this now more than ever, three days after participating in the Bandit Trail Run 30k in Simi Valley (my hometown). The 30k race features 3,900 feet of climbing along some of the most treacherous paths I've ever run on. If you're not careful, you will get hurt.
I'm not the fastest of runners, nor one of the prettier-looking runners. I would describe my running style as "rumbling." My hips look like they're bearing the weight of the world with every step I take. Some of my teammates look like gazelles on the track. I envy them. I probably look like a wildebeest. Yet on race day, I tend to outperform my own expectations. Why? After analyzing Sunday's run (which I've embedded here to check out) and past races I've competed in, I think there are two key factors. First, I hate losing. Whether that's failing to meet my own expectations or losing even to my teammates who are good friends, it doesn't matter. If it's a race and there's a start and a finish, I want to win. Which leads me to the second factor, and this is where I think I have a slight advantage: I'm willing to suffer to reach my goal. For close to 3.5 hours on Sunday, my heart rate hovered in the mid-160s. That's high for me. While it's true I didn't go anaerobic for long stretches (perhaps a better definition of suffering), I maintained a state of relative discomfort without any thought of slowing down or stopping. I ran through annoying pebbles in my socks causing blisters on my left foot, and cramps in my calf muscles in the final two miles of the race. If I saw someone in front of me on the course, I did everything possible to pass them. I took offense to them even though they were total strangers. Anger can be a powerful motivator. Pain could wait. I'd rather reach my goal and pay the physical price than coast and think about what could have been.
That's what I enjoyed most about the Bandit Trail Run, along with spending a beautiful day with a throng of my Fortius teammates. Rocky Peak Park gave me the perfect opportunity to see how hard I could push myself in hills I used to bike as a kid and come out victorious on the other side. And instead of listening to my new Garmin Forerunner 910XT watch tell me that my heart-rate was too high, I ignored the data completely and just ran the race I wanted to run. I ran as hard as I knew I was capable of running for 20 miles and left almost every ounce of energy I had on that course. I ran hard, but never out of control of myself -- and data never dictated my race strategy.
As a result, I beat my goal time by eight minutes and honestly think I couldn't have run a better race. There's nothing I would have changed about that day. I finished 18th out of 98 competitors, and fifth out of 17 in my age group. A couple years ago, I probably would have stared at my watch, panicked that my heart-rate was too high, slowed down or quit on myself all together. That sums up my LA Marathon experience, in fact. Now a couple years later, I know my body, what it's capable of, shut out the pain, and just keep moving as fast as I can for as long as I can.
Smarter can sometimes outpace faster. Combine that with sheer stubbornness and that's what keeps me moving.
It ain't pretty, but it'll do.
There are always faster triathletes than me, no doubt. But they're beatable. I think to be a better triathlete, sometimes you simply have to want it more than the other guy and have the guts to go after it -- trusting that you know more about yourself than anything that overpriced racing watch can tell you.