Four Sundays ago, I wept. Hard. Like a baby. I stood-up, looked in the mirror, saw how sad I was, and amped-up for more crying. The reason for my unpretty self-pity party? An amateur race.
I choose to do triathlons, obstacle courses and running races. My life has been a fairly common middle-class one. I live in a house, I have an office job, and I drive a car to work. My comfortable lifestyle means I have to add-in exercise in order to stay healthy and fit.
Those who have known me for a while know I haven’t always been particularly healthy. I have indulged in all of the fun stuff: junk food, parties, and (ugh) tobacco.
On a whim in my twenties, I ditched smoking, late nights, and poutine for swimming, biking and running. I decided to challenge myself in an amateur sport to see if I could actually do it. Fast-forward six years later, I competed in over 30 races, train regularly and have begun to expect results.
Like many amateur athletes, my relationship with sport has evolved alongside my dedication. We begin by wondering if we can do it. We aim for bigger races, longer distances. We try to beat our personal bests. Then we go after each other, reaching for the podium.
Competition is revered in our society. We emulate Olympians, reward extra-curricular achievements, and buy soft drinks from professional athlete spokespersons. Like all fun things, competition must be enjoyed in moderation: particularly for us lay folk.
There comes a time when amateur sport can go too far. Identifying that obscure grey line can be difficult. Often, seen only in hindsight. The easiest marker of excessive hobbying is when it ceases to be fun. Triathlon does not hold the monopoly on excess, but it does attract some exemplary cases.
Chris Inch, a local amateur triathlete, announced this year that he had tiptoed across the fun-line. Inch is well known around the area for being a dominating force in endurance events: winning local triathlons, competing in ultra-marathons, and nearing qualification for the World Ironman Championships. In a surprise move this year, he publicly “outed” himself for overtraining, to the detriment of his relationships. It was time to take a step back, he announced. He felt his fixation on training had overcome his priorities.
Last month, Kristen Johnson, an accomplished amateur triathlete, made international news for purposely sabotaging her competitor. Johnson was spotted, and videotaped, letting the air out of another athlete’s tires at the Syracuse Half Ironman. Johnson isn’t the first to be accused of amateur cheating. Another amateur triathlete, Julie Miller, of Squamish B.C., was banned from racing by Triathlon Canada after she was accused of cutting the course. Both women have denied the allegations. Notably, these amateur races rarely offer any monetary prize. Wins are for pride. When competition brings out envy and deception in athletes, there is little to be proud of.
Returning to little old me: I do not have the racing chops of Johnson and Miller. I definitely do not have Inch’s dedication or skill. I came to triathlon to better myself. So why, in God’s name, was I lying red-faced in a pool of self-deprecating tears? This cannot be the “better” Jodie I had sought out.
I had run my best, but I felt weak. I was embarrassed about the mistakes I had made during the course. I felt guilty about training choices. I was disappointed that I was not the athlete I had believed I was. As I stepped out of my tantrum, I sat up for a catharsis. I had become so self-involved, I had forgotten that I was the only one who cared about my performance! Narcissism had overtaken self-improvement, and I was left with emptiness.
Amateur sport can be revealing. It shows us at our best, when we cross the finish line smiling and powerful. When we overdo it, however, reflection on our performance can be as flattering as a Walmart fitting mirror: showing only our flaws. Rather than looking away from the mirror, we can look harder, examine, and work on our weaknesses: fixations, envy and even narcissism.
I picked myself off the bed that day. I threw my helmet and shorts on the next day and, literally and figuratively, got back on the bike. I was not the same athlete I had been at the race – I was smarter, I was more compassionate and I was more humble. Amateur sport can hurt physically and emotionally. Amateur athletes, however, have the capacity to grow.