Triathlife: What’s My End Game?

Illustration by Matt Collins.

Have you ever thought about what happens when a pro triathlete retires? Do they swim, bike and run into the sunset?

If you’ve never made it to the end of one of my articles, you don’t know that five years ago, my wife Lauren, her friend Steph and I started an energy bar company called Picky Bars. At the time, I was a post-MBA independent consultant and thinking about doing something dumb like becoming a professional triathlete. Lauren and Steph were both professional distance runners, injured, aquajogging, bored out of their minds, and wanted to make me a gluten- and dairy-free energy bar from real-food ingredients that didn’t taste like dirt.

The three of us were admittedly “idea people” who had fun “projects” every couple of months. Most fizzled out with our interest and didn’t amount to much. And, to be honest, that’s what I thought Picky Bars would do as well. But something different happened. People liked them. Lauren became obsessed. Steph accidentally told Runner’s World we were starting an energy bar company. So basically we had to do it. We took it at our own slow pace and stuck with it, and it grew. And somehow, I’m now the CEO and co-founder of a nationally distributed brand with nine employees and an office in Bend, Ore.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I have a love/hate relationship with Picky Bars. Don’t get me wrong—it’s mostly love. I’m a super passionate entrepreneur. I thrive on the challenge of building a business, developing a team and creating products and a brand that people love.

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s that I’ve got this other job called being a professional triathlete that actually pays me. You can ask Pearl Izumi, ROKA, Red Bull, Jaybird and Dimond about it. It involves mostly training, racing and helping those guys and other companies sell cool stuff. It doesn’t involve a whole lot of spreadsheets, employee meetings and bank loans.

And while Picky Bars is great for me personally, and even my triathlon career in some ways, it definitely takes its toll. It limits my time to train and recover. It increases my stress. It creates lots of friction with the “ideal” professional triathlife.

So if it’s interfering with my real job so much, why not just quit, or step aside and leave it to someone else? Well besides the dozens of loyal customers who would be devastated, there’s another reason to stay involved: It’s my most likely end game.

What’s an end game? You’ll find out in a few paragraphs. Have you ever thought about what happens when a pro triathlete retires? Do they swim, bike and run into the sunset? Do they become judges on “American Idol”? Does an angel get his wings?

To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve never retired. But lately, for some reason, this question has been on my mind. Not because I am considering retiring—I’m hoping for at least another 3–5 years—but because I have been around long enough now to see sponsors come and go and see many guys I raced retire. Tim DeBoom, Chris Lieto, Bevan Docherty, Chris Legh, Simon Whitfield, Rasmus Henning. Craig Alexander and Chris McCormack kind of. And many others who retired under the radar because they weren’t superstars.

RELATED – Retired Pros: Where Are They Now?

As I’ve written before, even the most successful, high-profile athletes don’t get paid enough during their careers to kick back, do some announcing and play celebrity golf the rest of their lives. So what do these guys and girls do when the glory of training 30 hours a week and racing in skintight Lycra is over? What’s their end game?

It’s a mix of stuff as far as I can tell, but it doesn’t seem easy. Many will go into coaching, some will become agents and/or remain an ambassador in the sport of some kind for some company. Those jobs are mostly reserved for the few people who have built a big enough name in the sport and/or want to pursue those careers. What about the guys like me, who don’t have any world titles or Olympic medals?

Unlike “normal” careers, there is no social security, and you haven’t spent 35 years building a retirement income. You’re probably around 40, have a young family and a mortgage, and if you did, well maybe have some money in the bank. But you’ll likely be forced to start over again, while many of your friends in other careers are in the peak of their productivity and financial success—for another 20-plus years.

Plus, you could be up to 15 years out of a “normal” work environment. I think about where I was 15 years ago and all I can remember is I got my first Nokia stick phone with a green screen. Think about if that was the last time you had a “real” job. Whoa. You can see how it would be a little disconcerting and intimidating. What the hell are you supposed to do?

If you’re lucky, you unpurposefully started an energy bar business that is a lot of times a pain in the ass for your triathlon career, but in the end does help you keep your professional skills mostly current and just maybe will amount to a real job when all is said and run. (Sorry about that pun.)

I definitely didn’t understand the impact Picky Bars would have on my life and triathlon career when we started it, and thank God I didn’t. If I knew how much work it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have done it, and the title of this article would instead be “What’s My End Game? Seriously, Please Help Me Find One.” But luckily we did start it—and stayed with it. And luckily it’s become more successful than I thought it would be. And regardless of if it ever “makes it,” I’ll have spent real time working on real problems in a business that will help me down the road when I can’t swim, bike or run fast anymore.

So what’s the takeaway, besides I’m lucky? Well, I guess it’s this advice to any current or aspiring pro: Think about your end game. And probably the sooner the better. You certainly don’t have to start a business, and if you’re serious about being a good pro, I honestly wouldn’t recommend it. There are easier, less stressful, more balanced ways to juggle work and training. But you should spend some of your free time maintaining or developing skills in a professional environment. Yes, it will probably make it harder to become the best of the best, and you’ll have to balance it with a mix that’s appropriate for you. But it’s a long life and worth it in the end.

And my last piece of advice would be not to underestimate how much people will be willing to help you. While we still have a long way to go, Picky Bars, Lauren, Steph and I have received tons of support along the way and clearly could not have gotten to where we are today without it. Many employers love athletes because they’re self-motivated, reliable and competitive, and the employers are athletes themselves. I know because I employ a bunch of them. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your community, whether local or through triathlon, to see if there’s something available, even if it’s just a few hours a week. Maybe someone who read this article all the way to the end will be inspired to reach out as well. Good luck!

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a four-time Wildflower Long Course champion and the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).