One of the things that I hadn’t really pondered too much on was a man’s need for a purpose or mission in life. That’s not exactly something that was passed down to me from my dad, and there’s also no man school out there (with the exception of the ‘sphere) that consolidates men’s wisdom for consumption and learning. As such, I sort of stumbled upon various personal missions starting in my mid-20’s. Without a mission, and I mean a real mission not leveling up to 99 in your virtual world, men usually lack the fire and passion to really be a man and their life-force is weak which carries over into parenting and to their marriage. The mission itself isn’t important, it can be bee-keeping, home brewing, hunting, sports, writing, whatever. It also doesn’t matter if that mission tends to shift or change over time, since we as individuals aren’t static and our mission shouldn’t necessarily be static either.
Over the past 15 years I’ve gone from a passionless sack going through the motions, to establishing a long-term goal and working towards that, accomplishing that goal, treading water for several years, back to establishing something else to be passionate about and working towards a mission once again. I’ll briefly share this journey with you today, but when it comes down to it, you need a plan. The plan is something that will establish the roadmap to get where you want to go. At the end of the day, unbeknownst to me at the time, my plan became improving myself in all categories, and this general mission is something I don’t really see changing over the years.
After college and all the built-in social aspects that come with it, I moved across the country and a few years later moved again. Establishing a social network and making my reputation at my job took most of my attention during that time. I didn’t really have hobbies or anything really worthwhile and was in the early stages of being engaged or being married, buying a house and generally meandering along the river of life. I had gotten a little chunky, was smoking maybe a half-pack a day and generally was as exciting as oatmeal. Is it any wonder that when I look back at that time, it seemed like a pretty passionless time in my life and in my marriage – simply going through the motions.
A couple of things happened that lit the spark and guided the next decade of my life. First, Holly started getting in shape and joined a women’s bike team (don’t think I was the only one punching the clock on life prior to that). The second thing was my mentor at work was training for an Ironman Triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run). The fact that Holly was taking efforts to break through the boredom and stop being a sloth meant that the pressure was on me to do the same. I still remember the day I decided to make the change and start running again (I probably hadn’t run any sort of distance in a year or two at this stage, despite enjoying running all through my youth and into my early adulthood). I planned to go maybe a mile, and thought it would be a good warm-up to start running again, not thinking I’d not be able to go a mile. Low and behold, I made it all of a quarter-mile before I had to start walking. Very humble experience. I finished that first run with periods of running and periods of walking. I vowed never again to let myself fall that far, and the spark was re-lit.
Holly had since moved on from her first road-bike, a $100 Trek 1000 that she bought used to get her started on her team, and bought a nice road-bike. Since we’re about the same size, that’s the bike I started to ride. I remembered riding the indoor bike trainer that first fall and winter as I read up all about endurance training. Due to the influence of my friend and mentor, I had already started to form the plan in my head to work towards my own Ironman triathlon. But how the hell do you go from not being able to run 1/4 mile to doing a race that takes a half-to-full day? You start chipping away at yourself one day at a time. Consistency and dedication is the only way to get there, stretching that rubber band slowly so it doesn’t break. That first winter I generally got into better shape riding the bike, running some and getting some time in the pool.
The other part of doing a triathlon is you need to swim, something I totally sucked at. I never had swimming lessons or did swim team as a kid. My swimming consisted of lake swimming (e.g. not drowning or pool swimming when we got the opportunity as a kid. Like the biking, I humbly acknowledged my lack of skill and started from scratch. I used Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way To Swim Better, Faster, and Easier by Terry Laughlin to learn to swim. Yes, I used a book, and did all the boring, boring, boring drills in there and built up a swimming stroke from scratch. It was tedious, and did I mention boring, but it worked. I don’t think Michael Phelps had to worry about me beating him, but I could confidently say I could swim with a stroke that wasn’t too awful.
That next spring, in May, after maybe 8 months of dedicated training, I did my first triathlon (1/4 mile swim, 16 mile bike, and 5k run) on that $100 bike with down-tube shifters. I freaked out in the water a little (the cold water, coupled with my general lack of confidence with swimming at that point) but the rest of the race actually went pretty well (finished in the top 10% of men, and top 10 in my age group out of nearly 50). After that point it was “on”, full steam ahead. I bought a real bike and planned out the next year and a half. I did my first half-ironman that same year and finished second in my age group and again top 20% overall. I’ve mentioned before, but Holly too was competing in similar events and we did a lot of training rides together which, looking back, really brought us closer together, and training/competing together is still something we still do today when the opportunities arise (we won the relay division in a small triathlon recently as a two-person relay team).
The actual Ironman training took a lot of time. Over that winter I did a lot of indoor training, which was more mentally fatiguing than anything, and ended up at a bike/triathlon camp in California the spring of the year I was to compete. It was a really great experience with some really good athletes and showed I had progressed pretty far in a short time. The camp was led by a pro that I became friends with, and we were biking probably 4-5 hours a day in some great wine country with actual Cat 1 or HC climbs (if you’re a fan of the Tour de France) that were man makers. Coming back, I was ahead of the training curve, which was good since I got shipped out of town for the entire summer prior to the race and had to live, work and train out of a hotel. For me, training was still building my body. I didn’t want to do a lot of racing or “testing” since I knew where I was at and racing was actually detrimental to my overall goal due to recovery afterwards (again, plan the work, follow the plan). Race day went as great as could possibly be expected on a day that reached the 90’s and I finished around the top 5%. A glutton for punishment (or continuing my passion at that point I suppose) I signed up again for the following year, and again did very well, this time qualifying for the world championships in Hawaii, which I turned down (as amateur athlete, you pay your own way for the privilege to compete against the best in the world, and with a new born and tight finances it wasn’t happening).
So in about 2.5 years I went from not being able to run a quarter mile, to qualifying for the world championships in Ironman distance triathlon (a race some triathletes compete their whole lives to make), through dedication, perseverance and a solid training plan. At one point, I was considering going into coaching as my knowledge on long-course training was very sound, very deep and I was totally geeked out on various numbers you can now take out of endurance training (won’t bore you with the details).
After the last race, I was pretty burnt out and we had a new baby. At that point, running and biking were a part of me, but the passion was gone. I went through the motions for the next 5 years or so, competing locally occasionally but just doing enough to keep boredom at bay. Holly and I didn’t really bike much anymore, though we had the jogging stroller out pretty frequently, since she seemed to constantly be training for some running race and getting back into shape after the babies. As you know, new babies are hard and two close together in age take a lot of effort. This contributed to my lack of purpose during this time as I was the supportive husband sacrificing for the good of the family, though I’m sure my lack of gumption took the wind out of our marriage sails as well. I put on a few pounds again and grew generally complacent as I once again started drifting and going through the motions.
With the kids getting a little older, Holly again spurred me into action by her behavior and found a new groove once again. She started doing a body-weight boot camp type deal, and eventually started training with weights (Crossfit). Coincidentally, I started my own self-improvement journey (mental and physical) and like learning to swim, learned all I could on going back to square one to improve myself and my mental attitude which subsequently improved my marriage. Holly’s new focus spurred my own weight lifting action (I followed Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, which I highly recommend for laying the foundation for strength and more complex body movements). We both competed in a local weightlifting/fitness competition (with about 100 athletes) and continue to work towards bettering ourselves through various means towards those types of goals. Right now, I’m following a free training plan called Outlaw that focuses on heavy weights and short hard conditioning sessions and am letting someone else do the heavy thinking on an actual plan. But the body improvement is tangible, and something that I enjoy seeing and my wife does too.
What can you take away from my story? First, who you are today isn’t who you have to be tomorrow. Decide to make a change, make a plan to improve a little each day, and follow through on that plan. Second, find something that lights your spark. My “Movie Spark” post from a few days ago may fire you up short term, but you’ve got to look within and find what you’re passionate about (passive or active) and run with it for as long as you’re loving it. I have a number of other irons in the fire that I enjoy doing but nothing so much as pushing my body to see what it can accomplish. Find your purpose, plan the work, work the plan. It can happen, but be realistic, be patient and stay positive when times are tough. Look long-term and not short-term and you’ll see a difference…. and hopefully, if you’re in a relationship, you have a partner who responds to your challenges, and challenges you in return. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have a wife with similar interests, even if we don’t often get to do them together, our common goals and drive provide a great foundation for our life together and an example for our kids.