Last weekend, I found myself shirtless with swim trunks along with 126 other people in a variety of swim attire on the side of a pool. A number written with a black sharpie on my right arm. It was 6:45 in the morning and I was about to swim 450 meters, then quickly throw on some socks, shoes, a shirt and bike 12.5 miles then park my bike and run a 5k. And I paid money to be here!? How did it come to this?
Last September, the gym at work issued a challenge: do a Ironman triathlon worth of workout spread out over an entire month. So a marathon (26.2) miles worth of running/elliptical/walking, 112mi of biking, and 2.4 mi swim (or 15000 meter row). We could attempt either a single triathlon, a double triathlon (twice the distances in the month) or do a double with a team of three. Up for the challenge, a friend and I recruited a third and went for the team version. Even doing 2/3 seemed like a stretch, but in the end, he and I both finished a single on our own letting our third (who is in better shape than both of us) get a free ride – all of us earning a free pair of socks as a reward.
Thinking this was the end, my friend then threw down the gauntlet and suggested we do this every month for a year. Grumbling I agreed. After all, we do need the exercise. So like any good engineers, we set up a shared spreadsheet and rooted each other on each month sometimes competing with one another to see who could complete one sooner than the other. We recruited a few others to join us and have done it ever since last September.
What shocked me was the transition from thinking about “I need to get 30 minutes of exercise in today” to “I need to get in 5 miles and I don’t have a lot of time, I better go faster”. The workouts were more intense and pushed us to go faster. After doing this for 6 months, this activity transitioned from a chore into a hobby. I started looking forward to the exercise and pushing to go faster, further. All this lead to wondering if I could do a real triathlon. Anything close to an actual Ironman seemed ridiculous, but a friend told me about sprint triathlons and that lead to last weekend.
There I was in the warm humid air of the pool, remembering my primary goal: not to end last and wondering if I could actually finish in 90 minutes which is about as fast as I could do any of those activities on their own. So with a new pair of goggles and a heavy mountain bike parked outside, I jumped in the pool and started swimming. An hour and a half (and 15 seconds) later, I crossed the finish line ending 79th out of the 126 people who competed and was 5 out of 7 for my age/gender group. It was hard work but exhilarating and after doing one, I now can’t wait to start training for one twice as long.
Few would consider me in great shape. I’m still overweight and do all of these activities remarkably slowly, but I’ve reflected a lot on this transition from exercise as something I have to do to something I want to do. It now feels much more sustainable to train my body than it ever has been. The following are the three takeaways that seem to have made the difference:
- We set a short term goal (let’s do it for a month) and having succeeded there extended that into something bigger. If someone had asked me to do a triathlon a year ago, I would have scoffed at the idea. Also, it was never the end goal, but progressed in a direction I wanted to head which let me me just push to the next peak.
- The goal pushed the right metrics – distance instead of time. This created a positive feedback loop to work harder and made each moth easier.
- Possibly most importantly, I was surrounded by someone in similar shape that also wanted to change their routine and had the chutzpah to push us both in the right direction. Added to this social pressure, I have another friend that races bicycles and another that runs 2-3 marathons every year. The later encouraged me to join Strava and I’m suprirised how rewarding it is to share and encourage one another toward improving our routines.
All of us wrestle with changes we want to make in our lives and I’m finding that perhaps we need to not seek to bite off everything in one go, but instead surround ourselves with likeminded people that simply want to take the next step.