I’ve been mulling that one over for several years now. I’m usually quite a talker at the salon… well, everywhere… but during that conversation I was quiet. I was embarrassed, after hearing that, to even mention that I had also done triathlons. I was still holding on to some of the weight I gained during my second pregnancy and no one would have looked at me and guessed I did anything remotely close to triathlons. I definitely fell into that category of “these people who just barely finish them.” In fact, the second summer I was doing triathlons, a fellow triathlete said to me “I do them to complete, not to compete” and that phrase made me very happy and carried me through the next few years. I wasn’t alone. It was okay to complete a race without worrying about competing.
I’ve said something like this before but I’ll say it again. Yes, it’s true, in the grand scheme of triathlon distances, a sprint-distance is not grueling mileage that only super humans can complete. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s called a “sprint-distance” because well-conditioned and well-trained triathletes can knock it out by sprinting the whole damn thing from beginning to end. If one is, say, used to the Ironman distance, a “sprint-distance” race is child’s play. BUT… if you don’t race… if you don’t do triathlons at all… if you are one of “these people” who talk smack about how “easy” a sprint-distance triathlon sounds but never get your ass off the couch, or bar stool, to actually do one – shut up.
And that attitude too helped me justify doing races for a few more years. Hey… at least I was doing SOMETHING. Yes, I was slow. Yes, it was still hard for me to finish them. But, at least, I did it. Along with a lot of other badasses who made a choice to get their asses off the couch and bar stool, I did it.
About a year ago, I was having a casual conversation with a colleague, who teaches lifelong wellness, in the hall at work. I have MAD respect for this woman. She is a truly BADASS athlete – and has been working in the fitness field for a long time. I was talking to her about how I was having to step-up my training and she was giving me some great ideas, as always. And in our talk, she said, “well, JodiAnn, you’re an athlete now!” I don’t know how conscious she was of what an enormous compliment that was to me, coming, especially, from someone like her. I was a bit dazed by the statement. I still was not at all thinking of myself as an “athlete.” For a while, I tried that word on. Now, I’m back to not being sure it fits. As I’ve discussed before, identity is a weird thing. It’s one thing to say you’re something – or to hear someone else say it – but it’s another whole reality to FEEL something.
This is very similar to the back-and-forth identification I’ve felt my whole life with the word “Poet.” In high school, adults started calling me a “Poet.” I loved that identification – just as I loved my colleague calling me an “Athlete.” But, mostly, inside, I felt like “I write poetry.” I felt like, “I do some sprint-distance triathlons.” Now, I’ve gotten a couple of graduate degrees in Poetry, I’ve published my poetry pretty widely (widely enough for my taste – the sport of publishing is far more grueling for me than triathlon-training), and I even landed a job ten years ago to teach Poetry (even though it’s only 1/5 of my teaching load). So, I must be comfortable with the identification of “Poet” right? No… and yes… most days, I don’t know.
Here’s the thing. There are two tiers of both Poets and Athletes. The top tier is made up of people whom no one in their right mind would deny that identity. No one can justifiably say that Emily Dickinson isn’t a “real” Poet (though smarmy academic-types waste a great deal of time making such ridiculous claims about various Poets and Writers, usually over a lot of red wine). No one would tell Mirinda Carfrae (who took first place, for women, in the Kona Ironman in 2014) she is not a “real” Athlete. The vast majority of non-smarmy, right-minded people identify Dickinson first as “Poet” and Carfrae first as “Athlete.”
And then, there’s the bottom tier. Everyone else. And, truly, the “bottom tier” is still divided up into probably several smaller tiers. It’s not even worth going into how the bottom tier breaks down in the world of poetry – part of what makes the publishing game so horrific. But… in triathlons, I have noticed, there’s : The local athlete who could, maybe should, compete nationally or internationally; The locally but not nationally competitive athlete; The hard-working athlete who is constantly out there putting in mileage, whether they are truly competitive or not (but they usually are); And then “these people who just barely finish” the races. But, here’s what’s funny about all of these distinctions in triathlons. The vast majority of triathletes (and athletes) that I have met couldn’t care less about these distinctions. They care, of course, where they are – especially if they are competing – they want to know where they stand, personally, in the pack. But… for the most part, defining where YOU stand in all of these tiers, that’s YOUR business.
But I have noticed you get respect for doing. That is, saying you are an athlete – much like saying you are a poet – is a very different thing from DOING the work. Of course, it only makes sense that practitioners of any skill respect those other practitioners that put in the work.
A long while ago, I read a blog post by a wildly smarmy young writer called something like, “Why You Are Not A Writer” that proceeded to call-out, make-fun and generally kick the shit out of other young writers who CALL themselves writers but don’t write ALL THE TIME. The voice was SO smarmy that it was mean and hard to listen to and I rejected the post at the time. But, this young writer made a good point. You can’t CALL yourself something and then not DO that thing. I mean, that’s basic math, right?
I think the difference between a top tier “Athlete” and a bottom tier “athlete” or a top tier “Poet” and a bottom tier “poet” is the extent to which they DO. Once you are DOING something so much that everyone who sees you can see you DOING that thing, that’s when your identity grows beyond your own personal identification of self. Once you are DOING constantly, consistently then no one questions, wonders, contemplates who you are – including yourself – because you’re just BEING that thing. Kind of cool, how that works.
Another cool thing is getting to the point where you can see how much work the DOING takes. When I was MUCH younger, “being a poet” seemed like the easiest thing in the world. Until a few years ago, I thought “Athletes” were people for whom their sport was simply easy or natural. It took me a LONG time to realize that being a poet is WORK and that being an Athlete is WORK. Anything you want to do SO well that maybe you will one day be in the top tier, is going to be WORK. And, isn’t it a strange and lovely twist that those who reach that top tier make it look like it isn’t work. Once you’re DOING something so much, once you’ve WORKED at it so long, it seems to others that you were born to do that thing, like it’s the most natural, easiest thing in the world for you to do. That’s beautiful.
It is occurring to me, right here, in this moment, that I might not ever be a “top tier” anything. Ha! It sounds like a depressing realization but not really! Hear me out. I’m many many things. I’m a mother. I’m a teacher. I’m a writer (notice the lower case). I’m a runner. I’m a fitness instructor. I’m a swimmer. I’m a sister. I’m a cyclist. I’m an Aunt. I’m a Spouse. I’m a friend. I’m a RECREATIONAL triathlete. I’m an artist (not really at all, but I like to pretend to be one sometimes). I’m a dancer (in my living room, in Zumba class and at dive bars). I’m a dog-owner. I’m a singer (on karaoke night). I’m a yogi (again, in my living room and sometimes, on my kitchen floor). I’m a cook (in my own kitchen). I’m a writer (of this blog). I’m a newly forming businesswoman. I’m sure I could keep going on and on. And all of these identities are equally important. That is, one of them is always primary but it depends what I’m doing and who I’m with which one that is (though Mother is pretty hard to escape as the truly main and consistent identity – I would stop being any of these other identities in the moment either of my kids needed me – that’s just how being a mother is – I think it’s called a “Primary Role” in Sociology).
But…the thing about the top tier is that it requires, what Napoleon Hill called, “singleness of purpose.” I have never had this kind of “singleness of purpose.” I have long sought after this “singleness of purpose” with much self-shaming and self-punishment. The truth is, most of the very best people in the history of people have this “singleness of purpose” and they are amazing, astounding, super-human, enviable, wonderful. I want to be them. Truly. But the truth is, I’ve secretly never much liked “singleness of purpose.” I have always preferred multiplicities of purpose. It’s a trade off. Have the diversity but don’t get to the top tier where almost all the most amazingly best people are… or, give up the diversity (at least to some extent) and get to the top tier – and finally be superhuman stupendously, everyone-loves-you awesome. But, my multiplicities of purpose is not something I’m willing to give up – not even a little (though, damn, it’s been a long long long time since I’ve karaoked and danced at a dive bar!) – at the moment.
For the past several months, I’ve really been questioning my need to do triathlons, to do any kind of racing. I’ll deal with this more in upcoming posts. I’ve thought about giving them up for a lot of reasons – not the least of which is that if you don’t have your head on right, being in the bottom tier of the bottom tier and “just barely finishing” does kind of feel like a bummer sometimes. But, now that I’ve identified that being a recreational triathlete is just one of my many multiplicities of purpose, I’m thinking that’s cool. I’m thinking I have a right to complete, if I want to, without worrying about competing. Of the hair stylist who got down on my “people who barely finish” I’m thinking: “haters gonna hate.”
When I call myself an “athlete” or a “triathlete” these days, it is in lower case. And, I usually add the word “recreational” because that’s just what it is. It’s recreation. It’s fun. And, as long as it stays that way, I’ll keep DOING what I do, among ALL the other things that I DO.
I feel like a lot of my posts revolve around the subject of Identity. I suppose I’m fascinated by how we identify ourselves and, less importantly, how others identify us. I think there is great power (potentially positive and negative) in both.
So, today, beloveds, I hope you are identifying yourself with love, and DOING who you are.
Do You, Baby.