Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
I was in Canada in March 2020 when I learned that my colleagues and I would be working from home because of COVID. At first, I was excited about the idea of my kids in school, my wife at work, and me working from home with the flexibility to get some much-needed swim practice in at our local pool during the day. But by the time I left my bubble at Fernie Alpine Resort in British Columbia, school had gone remote, my wife was working from home too, and our local pool had closed. Shit! Training for my first triathlon (an Xterra sprint at my local ski hill) was going to be harder than I had hoped.
When I was a kid, growing up in Wisconsin, I lived in the water all summer. So I wasn’t afraid of the first tri discipline. My parents were both teachers, and my family had a cottage on a lake. I was swimming, snorkeling, tubing, water skiing, knee boarding, and, generally, in the water all day. But I’m not a swimmer.
For the second leg of my off-road tri, though, I was more prepared. I spent my teens biking, including mountain bike racing in high school. And it’s remained one of my go-to sports.
And running? Well, I was a fat kid who once “ran” a 13-minute mile in elementary school and joined the track team in middle school as a shot putter. Running isn’t my go-to idea of fun.
But doing a triathlon—Note: I didn’t say doing triathlon. I said doing A triathlon. Singular.—has been a goal since high school when some friends and I almost signed up for an on-road relay.
So when I learned of an off-road tri at my local ski hill (Eldora Mountain Resort), I signed up right away—which was about three months before COVID reared its ugly head. With pools closed, I turned my attention to transforming my dad bod into a dad machine with trail running when trails were dry and building leg strength via a homemade plyo-box I planned to make. Only I dropped an entire sheet of 3/4-inch plywood on my left foot, breaking two or three toes (I never went to the doctor to confirm), sidelining my running and most other activities as I tried to keep weight off my foot. It sent me spiraling into a deep, dark mental place.
Once my little kids were out of school, though, and COVID started being more “normal,” training is what actually pulled me out of that dark place. At least for a couple months.
I was in decent shape, feeling strong, and feeling like I’d be in a great physical and mental place to race by the end of summer. Training was going well. Then, right before a family trip back to the Midwest, where I’d spend a ton of time learning how to open water swim in my wetsuit, I found out my triathlon was cancelled.
Boom! I was crushed again. It took everything in me to keep riding and running; to keep doing laps at my local pool while my family was splashing around with friends. Just like the first time, my training, mixed with the hope that I’d get to race in 2021, saved me from another downward spiral.
And now, finally, it’s race time. I gave up on my DIY plyo-box, I haven’t done as much strength training as I should’ve, and I haven’t followed my own advice of drinking less booze and doing less scrolling on my phone. Instead, I’ve buried three family members and been the primary daytime caregiver to my kids. I’ve helped my pre-schooler stay busy and excited for school (which ranged from a 20-minute virtual call once a day to in-person four days per week to everything between). And I’ve made sure my second-grader was navigating the same in-/not-in school mix, while still being academically challenged and having fun. I was dropping off and picking up my kids from school, quarantining and getting COVID tests a couple times a month before seeing sick family members, trying to hold down a full-time job (PS: I love my boss, and no, not just because she may read this), and trying to balance the needs of others while occasionally training. But training wasn’t my first priority or obligation.
For me, and probably many like me, racing in 2021 looks very different than it did a year ago. Going for an early morning trail run or mountain bike ride has been my savior. But it is also my nemesis, because it’s been much harder to get outside than it was a year ago. Despite that, I swam 8.8K in nine days while in the Midwest this summer, and I’ve spent a ton of time shredding my local mountain bike trails. Am I ready to race? I’m as ready as I can be. And my goal has always been to show my kids that I can work really hard for something while having fun. And this year, that’s all that matters—even if I finish last.
Editor’s note: Ryan took first place (of three) in his age-group, and finished the mountain bike portion with the fastest time of any sprint racer—besting the next fastest rider by 35 seconds. But he says he got smoked on the swim and did OK on the run—especially since he hadn’t swum since early July and hadn’t ran for nearly two months because of a suspected metatarsal fracture.
The conversation with his kids turned from, “Dad worked really hard and had fun, even though he didn’t do so well,” to “Dad worked really hard and had fun. Yeah, he did pretty well, but it doesn’t always happen that way.”
Plus, having his family there to shake cowbells and cheer for him (and all racers) was the icing on the cake.
Ryan also works as an instructional content video producer for our parent company, Outside Interactive, and spearheaded production for our 10 Weeks to Your Best 70.3 course, as well as ski and backpacking courses.