I signed up for the 2013 Chicago Triathlon as the only sensible thing to do because running hurts my back and I’d never swum more than sixty three consecutive feet in my life. So why not sandwich a 14 mile bike ride in between two athletic events for which I had demonstrated zero competence. T
he event was just too exciting to pass up!

My yearlong path to the event was illustrative to say the least and life changing to say it all. Here are nine lessons I learn on the way:

Lesson 1: The All-American Diet does NOT work.

My journey as a triathlete started with a defective full length mirror and faulty scale that reflected a fat guy gaining weight year after year. Fortunately the good folks at Hostess had the decency to run an American institution into the ground thus forcing me to abdicate my addiction to the legendCycling2ary chocolate cupcake with a white squiggle on top…although, they’re baaaack. I started rationing my portions of deep fried foods to only one helping per day while limiting my consumption of Lay’s potato chips to one bag per grocery shopping experience.

In spite of my diligent adherence All-American diet of convenience store pastries, high fat salty snacks and red meat, my mirror and scale continued to lie as the months passed.

Lesson 2: Success ain’t an easy road.

I did what many people do after setting an important goal. I procrastinated. With only three months left before the race, I stepped out my front door on a cool morning in late May to initiate my training with a two mile run.

I envisioned myself as Rocky Balboa, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger playing in my head, as eventually I would run up the steps of the Chicago Art Museum, my arms raised in victory. The inspirational music in my mind abruptly stopped after my first eighth of a mile. I buckled over with leg cramps while panting desperately for air. An accusing heart tried beating itself out of my chest, reprimanding me for my foolishness.

Who was I kidding? A half-mile swim followed by fourteen miles on bicycle and a five kilometer run was impossible.

Lesson 3: Long-term success is a series of little decisions.

Truthfully, my goal was not just to finish the Triathlon. I kept thinking of the Kevin Spacey line in the movie, American Beauty, when he says, “I just want to look good naked.” Isn’t that what most “exercisers” want?

Three weeks into my training, my defective scale said I was gaining weight, although people insisted it was fat being converted to muscle. If that’s true, I had big muscles in my belly. I suffered from the delusion that I could eat continue eating Arby’s Roast Beef sandwiches (extra horsey sauce) with impunity while guzzling my sugary 7-11 beverage, which leads to the obvious question. When will car manufacturers learn that we need to replace cup holders with the more practical 44 ounce Slurpee holders? If I were to lose weight, it would require a discipline of both diet and exercise. One or the other is not enough.

It was about this time I discovered myfitnesspal.com, a life-changing app for the iPhone. For the remaining days leading up to the Triathlon I used the app to track my exercise and eating habits every day…every day…every food…even a small snack. A Dunkin Donuts blueberry muffin didn’t seem like much in the moment until I learned it was 25% of the permitted caloric intake for a 53 year old man trying to lose 1 pound per week.

Big long-term goals are achieved by a series of small, daily disciplines. If I would succeed, it meant I would have to take a leap of faith.

Lesson 4: Success is unnoticeable in the moment.

Nothing worked! Faith be damned! Every day I looked the same as the one before and never noticed any increase in stamina on a given day. It was ridiculously unfair, until…

I one day realized I was running up to 4 miles at a time without stopping, cycling 20 miles at a brisk pace, and swimming ½ mile distances with regularity. I can’t tell you the “day” it all came together because I never noticed. People told me I looked slimmer too!

Success is silent. It creeps up on you when you’re busy sticking to a plan.

Success is unnoticeable in the moment.

Lesson 5: Teammates are the best!

My training partners, Barb, Andy & Meg (Pictured), pushed me into Lake Michigan where the Triathlon swim would take place. I panicked after fifty yards of swimming in the big waters, convinced I would fail. I sat depressed on the Chicago beach while Barb Triathlon 2013 Partnersand Meg assured me, “This is why we’re training now.” Andy happily called dibs on my new bicycle if I drowned during the swim…this is actually true!

It helps to have a team that keeps you motivated.

Lesson 6: Turn headlong into obstacles.

I allowed my self-pity party to last an afternoon before I went online to determine if water wings were permitted during the race. You might not believe this, but they are! They’re called “wetsuits” and they help you float. But that would only get me on top of Bathtub Swimmingthe water. I still needed to figure out how to move forward. An online search brought me to Kathy Kelly, the swim coach who would prepare me to swim in open waters with Total Immersion Swimming techniques.

It turns out that facing your obstacles rationally provides an opportunity for learning and the gratification of overcoming a serious challenge.

Don’t run from obstacles; run to them and you gain opportunities for growth.

Lesson 7: Perfect practice makes perfect performance.

On the day of the event, I experienced perfect calm after jumping into the water while waiting for the starting horn to blow.

I spent then next period of my life swimming over and under the bodies of perfect strangers. A wave of 150 swimmers starting simultaneously is like swimming in a crowded bathtub. But I used the techniques I had rehearsed with Kathy and my partners for weeks.

As she prescribed, I extended my arms and laid out flat with my head down in the water, prior to commencing arm strokes. I rehearsed the controlled slow kicks to preserve leg strength for cycling and running. I started my controlled arm motion and moved forward. I periodically spotted my visual markers to keep my direction and found safe locations in the crowded waters. Twenty three minutes later, a formerly inept swimmer emerged triumphantly from the water.

I think Vince Lombardi said it…or some great coach – “Perfect practice makes perfect performance.”

Lesson 8: You gotta laugh at yourself.

1:48:19

  • Half Mile Swim Time: 23:01
  • 13.8 Mile Bike Time: 43:50 (18.7mph)
  • 5K (3.1 mile) Run Time: 30:04 (Just ahead of a 6mph pace)
  • Finishing your first Triathlon: Priceless

You probably summed up the times and notice they don’t add up to 1:48:19. My abnormally slow transition times were the subject of much joking with my team. I confessed they were slow because I struggled to get my wet suit off, got lost looking for my bicycle, had to catch my breath, and (truth be told) had to wait in line for my turn at the port-a-potty before cycling. Nothing reminds a man of his first childhood difficulties using a urinal like having to desperately peel down a wetsuit prior to the act.

Lesson 9: What you become is more important than what you get.

I weighed 218 pounds. My clothing fit poorly. I was self-conscious standing in front of audiences because of my appearance. My hyper-critical cardiologist said I was overweight. My alarmist internist told me I was at serious risk for stroke. I felt lousy. That was less than four months ago.

Today I feel energized. I weigh 193 pounds and my cholesterol, formerly at level (360) which led my internist to comment that I was might be an egg yolk, is now 160. I never starve myself, but have become nutritionally aware enough to enjoy eating healthy food that can be delicious and filling while still enjoying chocolate and wine in moderation. Exercise is now a part of my life and, instead of a chore, a daily event I cherish.