Beginner’s Luck: Falling In Love With Triathlon Again

Illustration by Hunter King.

Keeping the flame burning for triathlon can be tough, especially after a big race.

About four months after my first Ironman, I had a call with my coach, Brett, to talk about nothing in particular and everything in general. I’m sure he enjoyed talking to Debbie Downer, my new persona. Swim, bike, bummer. Swim, bike, buzzkill. I was not to be trusted with people in public. I bailed on girls’ nights out with friends. I refused to respond to most everyone’s texts—for entirely too long. I was trying so hard to engage in my life, but it just was not really turning out so well for me. I was burned out.

And actually, I don’t think I was alone. Regularly, I still see many posts on social media to the effect of “I have no motivation” and “I’ve signed up for this Ironman and I don’t know why.” After talking with my coach, it seemed to be a common theme with us triathletes. Beginners are awesome because they have high levels of motivational mojo (“I love this sport! Bring it!”). But that initial love affair is tough to maintain. After a handful of seasons, especially when a string of them might involve big beasts like a half- or full Ironman, the “why am I doing this again?” rumblings tends to start to run through our heads. Actually, the “why” is a valuable question to ask.

When the motivational well feels completely dry, how do we find the strength to bother with this sport? What puts us back on that trainer at 5:30 in the morning? What laces up those running shoes when we swear that one more run will do us in? Motivation for the sake of motivation is hard to come by.

Falling in love with the sport again—how do you do it?

After my first long-distance race, it took me five months to find the love again, which got me thinking—five months is exactly how long it took my firstborn to sleep more than four hours at a time. The exhaustion, the joy, the pain, the happiness—the parenting roller coaster—so much like Ironman.

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Which in hindsight, I think that is why Ironman is so hard. Yes, Ironman is just hard. Duh. But long-distance racing is an unfamiliar process that involves much crying (me) and whining (everyone else and me), and relief when it’s finally over. Sometimes the original, sweet joy of the “why” behind triathlon can be lost.

I had told Coach Brett after Ironman, “Do not put me back on the bike. I do not want to see my bike ever again.” He spent many hours with me on the phone, talking through my burnout and external stresses. Finally, he said something that clicked: “Find the reason you loved triathlon in the first place. Get back out there and figure it out. Because going forward without the love—that’s not worth it.” Ah-ha.

So I spent some time looking back on it. I took a family trip. I ran on the beach three times without a workout in my plan—just hit the sand and ran and looked at the ocean and remembered why I loved running, triathlon. Those welcome-back runs were not easy. I had gained 20 pounds since the big race, but I was able to remember, in those runs, the reason behind triathlon (not necessarily Ironman—that one was still too close). I was able to remember that triathlon meant freedom. And sense of self, stress management and, above all, joy. All wrapped up into one sport.

The next day, I woke up at 5 a.m. I wanted to get on the bike. I wanted to run. What happened? We have to show up and say, “I’m here.” It’s the same way we must show up to the workout and say, “Count me in. Here we go.” It’s a matter of putting on your shoes and just going, all zombie-like, to the treadmill and doing the run, and dragging oneself to the shower afterward. Getting through the workouts is sometimes all you can do. Then eventually, one day, you wake up and say, “Hey! I am back! Look at me!” That’s often how it happens for me. It’s all about getting the momentum going and keeping the good streaks rolling on. Consistency is such a huge part of finding the love again. When I was training for my first half-Ironman, I rarely missed any workout. I was slow and plodding, but I ticked off workouts and was consistent as I could be. That was a wonderful time in my triathlon newbie life. I could measure the progress, see the changes—all because of my consistency.

With consistency comes a stirring—a sort of summoning of the love—and as your motivational mojo begins to rise, you’ll return to the reasons you took on the sport in the first place.

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Meredith Atwood is a wife, mom, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She is a 2015 Klean Team USA member, lives in Atlanta and blogs at SwimBikeMom.com.

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