The Pilgrimage of Triathlon

author : sbkass
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How to focus on the journey and not the destination

By Stephen Kass

Well, here we are, in the midst of another triathlon season.  I am sure many are looking at their calendars eying the first triathlon of the season in the next month or two.  If you are like me, I have been training pretty consistently since October with my first event coming up in three weeks.  For some, the events coming in the next several weeks may be your first or your fifty-first.  Either way, there are always some butterflies that go with the territory.  After all, no one gets up at 5AM to squeeze in a workout day-in and day-out for nothing.  It certainly isn’t easy to fit all of the training that we want to get in, in addition to balancing other commitments.  Believe it or not, most don't do this as a full-time job, although sometimes it seems that way.  It’s natural to feel a little apprehensive about upcoming events, but I have learned one thing a long the way in this triathlon journey that might put one’s mind at ease a little bit. And what I have learned, is, in my opinion anyway, quite paradoxical.  

Focus on the daily changes

I really hope that I do well in my upcoming events this season...and I have the confidence that I will.  But that is not the "be-all-and-end-all" of the last several months/years of training.  It would certainly be the icing on the cake...but even if I don't do well or don't finish, the most important thing to me are the daily commitments and changes that have been made.  Often, we focus (almost exclusively) on the event, the test, or the exam.  But does one exam really measure the complete knowledge one might have of a subject?  Maybe...maybe not.  Just like one athletic event doesn't capture all the preparation that goes into it. These singular moments/events do not measure the daily calculus of change. My time in my events is important, but it is not everything.  I think the most important question everyone needs to answer is: what does it mean to do “well.” I think we suffer from a distorted notion of what this means.

What does 'winning' mean?

My prayer is that when people hear the word “winning,” an image of Charlie Sheen, in the midst of one of his pharmacy-assisted harangues, is not the first thing that comes to one’s mind.   Often, and especially in our hyper-competitive culture, the word “winning” seems to suggest obtaining something at the expense of someone else.  The one “winner” is the singular individual who has defeated all of the competition or has achieved some degree of special recognition based on some performance measure.  We do seem to be obsessed with measuring things don’t we? I offer a slight variation on Renee Descartes,' “I think, therefore I am,” which in this context might be, “It can be measured, therefore it is.”

I am not sure real “winning” has anything to do with anything that can be measured.  To be clear, I am not one of those people who thinks that everyone who participates in any activity is a “winner” and deserves a medal for their participation.  There is a tremendous chasm that exists between just showing up and fully participating.  It has occurred to me that “winning” has more to do with how much of oneself is committed to something that is greater than self.  In a paradoxical sense, winning really might be how much of yourself is lost or given to something or someone else.   It seems to me that the real measurement in winning comes from within and how much of what is within is poured out in an activity.  In other words, the real measurement is relative.  I believe that winning has more to do with the degree to which one is pushed to their mental, physical and spiritual limitations.  Anyone who has ever watched any physically challenged athlete knows what I am talking about. If you stop and think about, anyone could stand on a podium and claim to win – it all depends on the competition that day.  Heck, even I could take first place in road race today if I were competing against a pack of three-toed sloths.  I really do think it is all relative, to some extent.

Are you a pilgrim or a tourist?

I think that the most important part is the journey itself that is made vice is the arrival time at the destination.  It is like the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim.  A tourist takes in the sights and takes a souvenir home to remind themselves of the trip they went on.  Often tourists ask – “are we there yet?”  A pilgrim, on the other hand, seeks to be changed by their journey.  They don’t need souvenirs or medals for finishing because they are not the same as they were when they started the journey.  For me, triathlon is like a pilgrimage - the transformation that happens along the way is equally as important (and at times can even be more important) as what happens at the destination.  I think the truth is that pilgrims never really arrive at a destination - they continually grow and evolve.  And that is what I have learned over the last couple of years. This is not a proclamation intended as a hedge in case I don't finish or do well in any of my events this season - trust me!  But it does capture something that I didn't really expect before I started this triathlon pilgrimage. 

On the surface, it might seem that triathlon is a completely individual activity.  And while the competitive activity on the day of the event certainly is individual, there are often plenty of others who help us get to that finish line.  They can be spouses, friends, parents, coaches, or training partners – and that list can go on.  Thomas Merton wrote, "My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors is not my own...Therefore the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements.” It is those people who join us in our pilgrimage to the finish line that make up the totality of the experiences that define who we are.   

If your first triathlon is coming up – have faith in your training and relax.  Rest in the knowledge that you are part of journey of transformation that is bigger than yourself.  And most importantly, enjoy the pilgrimage with all of those other people in your life.  Many fun and interesting stories come from pilgrimages  - just ask Geoffrey Chaucer and the cast of characters who went on pilgrimage together in the Canterbury Tales!  


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date: July 12, 2012