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Jessica Oldham {August 2007}

Three days after my first triathlon, I complained with mock frustration that the race numbers still hadn’t faded off me. Truth be told—I wasn’t exactly trying hard to scrub them off. Still high in my post-race glory, it thrilled the athlete in me to look down and see these numbers on my arms and legs. They served as reminders of this first feat in what was destined to be a new infatuation, and I was secretly grateful to my body marker for having done his morning duties so well.

Active from day one, I grew up a tomboy in the Midwest. Refusing to don skirts, dresses or uncomfortable shoes, I spent many childhood hours running barefoot in the backyard with my dog—letting the imagination run wild. Childhood games soon morphed into soccer, taking on an assortment of sports as I grew, and eventually taking a real liking to cross-country. As it turned out, I wasn’t half bad at it, and it soon became a daily love of mine. Intrigued by the appeal of cross-training and encouraged by the notion of finding some lower-impact hobbies, it wasn’t long before a college professor and avid triathlete swayed me to compete in a local triathlon. Borrowing one of his bikes to race, I took the plunge and officially caught this ridiculously infectious bug.

I tri because I find it’s often easier to roll out of bed and go for a run than it is to conjure up the energy required to sit behind a computer screen, in a cubicle for 8+ hours of the day. I tri because I hear that chocolate milk is the perfect recovery drink, and I now have an excuse to drink it to my heart’s content. I tri because a nemesis characterized by four walls and a roof drives me to spend as much of my day in the great outdoors as possible, and because there is an odd degree of satisfaction that comes from seeing coworkers gawk when recapping my weekend activities. I tri because when the little masochist sitting on my shoulder persuades me to run another interval, the rest at the end is that much more gratifying. I tri because I love getting a full day in when most people are just stirring from their beds, and because those mornings when you allow yourself to sleep past 7:00—nothing feels sweeter.

I tri because, quite frankly, I’ve become addicted. Anyone who’s ever lived with me can attest to the fact that I tend to get a bit testy and suffer from some bizarre sort of withdrawal when circumstances force me to sit idle for too long. The rush of endorphins that flood over me when active is a high that I keep coming back for again and again. I’m addicted to the sense of freedom and clarity of thought it provides. I’m addicted to the reviving energy it gives you and the feeling that you’re doing something your body will thank you for later. I like the grainy feel of salt on your skin, and waking up a bit sore, knowing you’ve put in a good day’s work. I’m addicted to the simplistic beauty of running and the near meditative state you slip into when you find your rhythm in the water. I’m addicted to the indescribable vitality and total liberation found sweeping through the countryside on two wheels—the wind dancing at your face and over your body. I love feeling your body work in unison as you rise from the saddle to summit a steep hill, and I love the view that awaits you with a pat on the back at the top.

I tri because I like a challenge, and I think it’s safe to say that being physically fit provides a constant one. While the races provide goals and mile-markers on a grander scale for us to work towards, it’s the training and whole crazy lifestyle of this sport that I love so much. Fitness is not something you can simply achieve and put away for safekeeping. It is more like an old friend, constantly beckoning you to come out and play. Granted—this friend may have the audacity to drag you from your cozy bed on cold, dreary mornings—but, this friend also pushes you to test your limits and unveils the discipline and will power you have within. This friend constantly encourages you to seek out improvement and shows you the strength that comes through sacrifice, and even a little bit of pain. Nevertheless, it’s oftentimes hard to say “no” to a friend. I’ve learned the dangers of becoming a slave to your training and just how critical balance in life is. Among other things, you must guard against letting the beloved activities in your life take priority over the beloved people in your life.

While this crazy sport may earn you an absurdly low resting heart rate and a toned physique, it’s undoubtedly the psychological benefits that keep us in it for the long haul. When my day-to-day routine grows a little stale on the edges, and I find myself lost in a torrent of e-mails, errands, projects, meetings, and even happy hours; wondering how 24 hours of my life have managed to slip away from me, I can strap on my running shoes or hop on my saddle, and it somehow brings everything back into focus. My feet carry my mind to a personal sanctuary of sorts where everything is whittled down to the fundamental basics and you realize just how fleeting and insignificant your problems are in the grand scheme of things. It quiets the background noise of the world and allows you to listen to yourself. I think it’s also taught me to look at the world a little differently and helped me develop a keener eye for seeing beauty at times when others may overlook it.

Triathlons have the ability to return us to the world of play and competition that many wrongly believe ended in their younger days. While I may not be able to find many peers at the age of 40+ who would be up for a pick up soccer game any day of the week, triathlons will allow me to compete until my body says otherwise. In a sense, we’ve tapped into a fountain of youth that’s accessible to just about everyone. Triathlons provide a means through which anyone can accomplish something that at one point seemed unattainable. Anyone can again feel those same nerves and butterflies mustering in their stomach in the minutes before a race; and, in crossing that finish line, everyone can feel that heroic surge of pride. Yet, even when there is no finish line to speak of, I’ve found that escaping to uncharted territory—either in the physical sense or by venturing away from the usual routine—appeals to my sense of adventure and exploration. It awakens that inner child occasionally napping just beneath the surface and reminds us how fun it can be to do things merely for the sake of doing them.

Despite the individual nature of this sport, the camaraderie I’ve found in this club and through other athletes I’ve met is unlike any I’ve experienced. There is an unspoken bond between one triathlete and another—an understood respect and acknowledgement of the sacrifices and struggles you’ve each undergone to get to where you stand today. Moreover, it applies to everyone from beginners, trying their hand at their first sprint, to accomplished triathletes, training for their umpteenth Ironman. There comes a point when the human body tickles it limits, and the heart and mind must take over. It’s here that the athlete in all of us really surfaces. While everyone’s answer to “why do you tri?” differs, there is a commonality in this sport that unites us. We’re all fundamentally working towards similar goals that seem to revolve around attaining a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in the person we’ve become…and are becoming.

I tri, because I am able to tri. I’m quite close to a number of people who have not been dealt such a lucky hand in life, and these relationships have taught me to appreciate what we have. I think about how much joy an active lifestyle has brought me, and if it were to be suddenly stripped from me, I’m not quite sure how I’d handle myself. The mere thought of injury sends shivers down my spine, and I’m constantly humbled and inspired by these people’s strength. The human spirit continually amazes me.

I tri, because I have come to identify myself as a triathlete. It is now simply a part of who I am. I love what this sport has done for me and I’m immensely proud to be a part of it all. It is a privilege and honor to have the ability to do what we do, and it is one that I intend to never take for granted. I tri, because I love to tri. Even today—I let those race numbers linger as long as possible.