Last month, I competed in the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships. The event pits amateur triathletes with the best finishes in qualifying events in the past year against one another. I got crushed. But the story of how I got to the National Championships illustrates the incredible power of doing.
I started doing triathlons once I outgrew other sports. Before 2010, when I turned twenty-five years old, I was never a competitive swimmer, cyclist or runner. I played a variety of sports growing up and eventually settled on baseball. In high school, I was a defense-first shortstop. In college, I rode the bench for the better part of four years at Division III Pomona College, with the occasional appearance at shortstop, third base or catcher. I loved playing baseball and I was pretty good at it. But by the middle of my college career, I knew I wasn’t going to get much farther in the sport.
As it turned out, baseball took me farther than I ever imagined. As my senior year came to a close, I didn’t have any concrete plans for my post-college future. So when my college coach told me a baseball team in Sweden was looking for a player-coach for the upcoming summer, I jumped at the opportunity. Less than a month after I graduated, a team in the small town of Sundsvall, Sweden paid for my flight across the Atlantic Ocean, put me up in a vacant college dormitory and gave me enough food and spending money to survive the summer.
My baseball odyssey didn’t end there. During college, I had spent a semester abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. There, a fellow student at the University of Cape Town introduced me to his local baseball team. I played a handful of games for the Grassy Park Crusaders during my stay and after the Swedish season ended, I returned to South Africa to play a full season with the Crusaders. In the cumulative ten months I spent in Cape Town, I fell in love with the city. If you ever have a chance to visit, it is one of the most beautiful and culturally vibrant places on earth.
I loved playing baseball and I managed to pretty much make the most of my talent. I was a good player, compared to all the people who have ever played baseball, but not a great one. But playing baseball for as long as I did opened the door for me to visit Sweden and South Africa. It gave me opportunities to see places I would never have seen and make friends I would never have met otherwise.
My time in Sweden and South Africa marked the beginning of the end of my baseball career. I would never play the game at a higher level than I had in college. The teams in Sweden and South Africa had players ranging in age from sixteen to forties or fifties, and the average talent level was definitely below that of American Division III college baseball. I no longer practiced or played for two or more hours every day. Even in less competitive leagues, I was no longer as good as I used to be. It was time for me to think about the next stage of my competitive life.
In Sweden, I started running long distances. As a baseball player, I never had to worry about running more than 360 feet at a time (the distance all the way around the bases). In high school and college, I trained for speed, agility and power, not endurance. But I thought building up my cardiovascular capacities would serve me well in the future. I started out by running thirty minutes at a time and increased that duration each week. By the time I returned from South Africa the following spring, I was going for ninety minute runs every weekend.
I wanted to have the best race I possibly could, but the experience mattered far more than the result. That, I think, is the power of doing.
The following year, I competed in my first triathlon and marathon. I trained hard and—despite having no background as an endurance athlete—did well in both events. I managed to qualify for the Boston Marathon in 2010 and 2011. And in a sprint triathlon last summer, I qualified for the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships. Triathletes qualify for Nationals by finishing in the top ten percent in their age group in an eligible race. I was the only competitor in my age group in the race in which I qualified. So I finished in the top ten percent, the bottom ten percent and every percentile in between. But, I figured, why not go to Nationals and see what happened?
What happened is that I finished 153rd out of 157 triathletes in my age group and 2,179th out of 2,892 total competitors. Yes, I lost about ten minutes when my bike got a flat tire a half mile from the end of that leg of the race. But a smooth ride wouldn’t have made much difference in my overall place. I was an above-average triathlete competing against the best in the country.
But I wasn’t surprised by my finish. I had a pretty good idea I wasn’t going to come close to the top half of the field. I was excited to be there, to be competing on the same course as athletes who had dedicated many years of their lives to swimming, biking and running as fast as possible. And I had the opportunity to compete in that race simply because I had gone out and challenged myself in a few other triathlons. Sure, I wanted to have the best race I possibly could, but the experience mattered far more than the result.
That, I think, is the power of doing. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins warns Frodo, his “first and second cousin once removed either way” that “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” While the rest of us don’t need to worry about facing Tolkien’s fantastic villains, it sometimes requires a little bit of courage to step out the door and sign up for a triathlon, travel to a different country, start a new relationship or change careers. But these experiences are the very fabric of life. There is no danger in forever staying inside one’s own home, but that’s not much of a life either.
Getting “swept off to” unknown places and experiences is really what life is all about. I had no idea the first time I picked up a wiffle ball bat that baseball would take me around the world. I had no idea the first time I competed in a triathlon eight years ago that I would one day be competing for a national championship. At no point was I the best of the best in either of these sports. But the simple act of doing, of trying, of experiencing, opened new doors for me.
My experience provides another example of how physical activity offers insight into other spheres of life. It’s easy to visualize “doing” when the activity in question is playing baseball, riding a bike or traveling to foreign countries. Even those who haven’t experienced those activities can imagine the difficulties and joys of the experiences. The consequences of non-physical decisions like changing a career are harder to envision. There are complications we can’t even imagine.
But practicing “doing,” “going out your door,” and being “swept off” to unknown places help establish an open mindset that translates to the non-physical realm. Doing allows us to see the myriad possibilities; it shifts our mindset from complacency to adaptability. That’s not to say we have to act on every possibility, pursuing dead-end jobs and toxic relationships. But being willing to try and looking for open doors to leap through provide the opportunity for a richer and more fulfilling life.
2 thoughts on “The Door-Opening Power of Doing”
So proud of your perseverance and ability to be so self disciplined! Congratulations on your nationals despite your finish and being so humble to say the flat tire would not have changed things.Thanks for the inspiration to always persist!
Thank you very much!
Comments are closed.