As kids, most of the sports in which we participated were those involving others, whether as teammates or opponents. We either had someone to throw the ball to, or to take it away from. Something to hit to someone, or to hit past them. Bodies were in motion in direct competition with other bodies, whether they were driving to the hoop, blocking at the net or sliding into a base we often had some direct interaction with others, either helping some towards our collective goal or trying to keep others from theirs. Be it as teammates or competitors, we were all part of a common community on a field of play.
In triathlon, on the other hand, save for the relays, we generally don’t compete as a team. It’s just us out there against everyone else and against ourselves And except for the beginning of the swim, physical contact with others is not only uncommon but often means disqualification. We’re out there by our lonesome with no one to pitch, pass or kick to. We swim unaided. We follow the bike rules and avoid drafting. We run alone with our thoughts.
Yet in the midst of all this aloneness (poetic license – aloneness is not really a work), triathlon has an extraordinary sense of community which in my opinion is one of the things that makes it so attractive. From the moment we arrive at a race, we are embraced by a huge community of staff and volunteers, genuinely happy to see us and help us. Incredibly dedicated people get up really early to mark the course, set up bike racks, place the swim buoys, handle check-in, mark our bodies, maintain the all-important porta-pottys. They sit in the cold water on their paddle boards there to rescue us should we need it. They are at at the intersections making sure we go right instead of left. They are at the aid stations handing out equal amounts of water, electrolyte replacements and words of encouragement. They are at the finish line cheering us home, calling our names and placing our finisher medals over our heads. And long after we have gone home, they are cleaning up and packing up. That’s one hell of a community.
And for many of us, it is community that has gotten us to the race in the first place. For those of us fortunate enough to have people with whom to train, we draw strength and support from that community even when we are out on the course all alone. I am very lucky to belong to a YMCA triathlon club made up of some of the best people I know, with skills and experience all along the spectrum, but who collectively pull together to propel each other forward. When I am getting tired near the end of a swim, or grinding up a difficult hill, or plodding through the end of a run, I have my coach’s voice in my head reminding me to extend my arms, engage my core, relax my shoulders, lean forward, kick my feet. That voice is a comfort and never fails to make me suck in my gut. I know that without this community, the likelihood of my training and racing on my own would be much smaller. This too is one hell of a community.
Funny how life’s little dichotomies manifest. In a sport that is so predicated on individual effort, it is the collective efforts of a broad community that makes it all happen and makes it all so worthwhile.