There’s a bad pun out there in the duathlon world: while triathletes “tri”, we duathletes “du”.
In fact, both disciplines are incredibly tough and merit respect. Triathletes face a challenge of becoming strong in three sports, and stringing them together to make a respectable race. For duathletes, the challenge of the swim is gone, but we have to learn to pace on the first run in order to finish strong on the second. While swimming taxes the body in one way, our bodies have to rebound from the first run and do it all over again a second time. Sorry, legs.
I chose duathlon as a pursuit out of a desire to push myself harder. I was enjoying road cycling and covering pretty good pavement as a runner, but competing in either sport on its own didn’t hold any real draw. I don’t know how I heard about duathlon in the first place, but at the end of the summer a few years ago, after getting in some great mileage on my road bike, I declared that the next year, I’d like to try the duathlon. I have a bike, and I can sort of run, I reasoned, so why not try stringing them together?
So while I can’t swim, and readily admit it, my choice of duathlon over triathlon wasn’t based on that little fact. Funny, and yet so typical of me.
In fact, duathlon requires that I double up on my weakest discipline. I’ve come to joke that I chose the sport that tortures me twice. I am not a natural runner, never have been. But that’s part of the challenge that I wanted.
I knew nothing back in the early spring of 2014 about training for a duathlon, nor how races panned out. Thanks to the power of the Interwebs, I was able to put together some semblance of a training plan. That supplemented my years of sports experience, which at least gave me base knowledge of some training principles. And I also learned as much as I could about what to expect while racing. And before my first race, I went out to the site and sussed out the set-up, translating the race organizer maps into real vision.
My simple goal for that first race was to finish, and not finish last (F,DNFL became my mantra). I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Five races in, this remains my goal heading to each start (although admittedly I was so unsure I would be able to battle through my injuries at the first race I did this summer, the mantra temporarily became JFF, for “just f’in finish”. Last would have been okay at that point – as it turns out, it was my best race ever).
For someone who grew up playing various sports, all with a goal of winning, it’s odd to compete in one where winning is out of the question. Triathlon and duathlon events in the series I race are open to pros, elites, and regular folks. It’s quite something to watch the pros and elites go. But their very presence at these races means the top spots are pretty much locked up – barring all of these speedsters having mechanical failures at once, the podium is going to be full of them. So there is them, and then there is the rest of us.
I remember my physiotherapist gently warning me as she taped me up for my first race – because I do have a history of competing injured right from the start – that triathletes and duathletes don’t fade as they hit their 40s. She was right. My age group, the 40-49 group, is rife with dudes who have years and years of experience and competition behind them and don’t appear to be slowing down. At Belwood, my most recent race, the winner was a blazingly fast 40-something who bested the second place finisher, an elite from the 20-29 age group, resoundingly. It was an amazing show of resilience and speed.
I’m simply not that fast. That might be because I’m still 10 pounds heavy, or because I haven’t been doing this since I was 20-something. It might be that I’m competing with injuries most of the time, or that I haven’t joined a club or signed up for coaching. It might be that I don’t yet have an aero/TT bike, although a faster bike won’t help me run better.
It might be all of these things combined, and frankly, that doesn’t matter. What I have to work with, I have to work with. The point isn’t, it turns out, that I’m supposed to be that fast.
What my wise ultra-running friends like to pass along to me at opportune moments is to remember that I’m out there on the course to compete with myself. That racing isn’t about finishing first for the majority of us. It’s about finishing. Other friends, the ones who don’t do marathons or ultra-marathons but are still very wise, say pretty much the same thing. Being out there in the first place is a win. Finishing, in any position, definitely a win.
So when people ask me after a race how I did, I have to stop thinking they want to know my placing. Even if they do, they wouldn’t realize how irrelevent it would be. I’ve placed fourth in my AG, right behind the speedsters, but that doesn’t capture the race at all. Nor does saying I have placed 13th or 20th or Nth overall. What they mean, and what I need to hear, is whether I was able to finish, and was I happy with my effort.
I’m competing in an endurance multisport. That means the challenge is in training hard, in more than one sport. And I do. Hours and hours a week of biking, running, strength training, and physio add up. My cross-training, ice hockey, serves a distinct purpose to support my sport. My weekends are planned around my longer training sessions. I even train on vacations. I make tough decisions on a daily basis about what to eat, what the next workout is, how hard to push it, and when and how to rest. After each race, I put together notes about what I did right, what I could have done better. I track my times, make training plans, and set goals to improve. My investment in this sport is in money, but more so in time, blood, sweat, and tears.
And on race day, it’s just a matter of putting all that investment into action. Sure, running and cycling through these races is hard on the body – but quite honestly, even in my deepest self-doubting moments on a long run in the blazing heat with elites blasting past to finish just as I’m heading out on my second run, I can tell myself half-convincingly that I can likely physically survive. Barring severe on-course injuries, I know that I’ve trained and put in the miles and have already proven that covering the distance isn’t likely to be the issue in finishing.
What I have to win each and every time is this mental battle. There are at least a dozen times during any race where I want to stop, where I question why I’m doing this crazy thing, and where I doubt my abilities to some degree – if not my ability to complete, my ability to do better. When I finish, and see my ranking relative to everyone else, I should not question why I didn’t do better, but rather appreciate what I did accomplish.
Overcoming that mental struggle is a big thing, and unbeknownst to the me of a few years ago, that’s the point of duathlon. For me, at least, what I’m proving goes beyond physical fitness, beyond “look at me 70+ pounds lighter”. I’m proving to myself that I can finish. F,DNFL.
Five races in, and I think it’s getting better. While I would love to hit that podium for an age group placing in the top 3, I’m fully coming to terms with the fact that what’s important isn’t where I place. It’s that I place. The fact that at 40, I chose to pursue this crazy hobby that sucks up all my time and challenges my body to the hilt is itself a win.
And the fact that at 41, I signed up to “du more”, that’s most definitely a win.
There are, of course, other lessons to be learned in pursuing endurance sports. But we’ll save that for another time.