Friday, June 24, 2011

Definition of an Athlete

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of traveling to beautiful Lake Placid, NY to train on their harder-than-average Ironman course. I love training there. There is something special in the air that screams, "Go and workout." It is the only place that I know that triathletes gather in high concentration with a single goal in mind. There are several of these havens scattered across the US, but this one is within driving distance and is mine. Being in LP leads to easy conversation about the sport, mostly when I am procrastinating the commencement of my workout (just because there is screaming does not mean I jump).

As I stood on the shores of Mirror Lake, the swimming hole for the race, I struck up a conversation with some guy who looked at the water with awe and timidity. Newbie. I send a nice, sarcastic remark in his direction, "It won't get any shorter if you look at it longer." He smiled and we started talking. IMLP will be his first IronDistance event. He had done a couple of other tri's or varying distances but had his heart set on running distances such as the 1/2 and full marathon. "Why do the Ironman?" I casually asked. "I want the tattoo!" he said with a sardonic smile. Having been motivated by his own mantra, he stepped into the water and disappeared into the collage of brightly colored swim caps.

His comment had made me cringe inside. It's not because I hate tattoos (I do) or that I hated him (I don't). I just don't feel that he deserves it, even if he finishes. Even if he beats me, I also don't feel he deserves it. Before you start with the comments (which I highly encourage), hear me out. If at the end of this rant, you disagree with my philosophy, by all means tell me. I do love an intelligent debate.

Defining an Athlete
There was a time in my life that I was a swimmer. I call this period 'college.' I swam in high school as well. But, I also ran cross country, played baseball, and ran track. While running CC, I was focused on that sport. I put in the time and sweat. I would have defined myself as a runner. As I look back, I no longer feel that way. I was not a runner. Because seconds after CC ended, swimming started. I would jump into the pool, learn my drills, attempt a flip turn, scoff at the butterfly, and do it again tomorrow. I was a guy on the swim team. There were some swimmers on the team, some of whom I was faster, but I was not a swimmer. The big, end-of-season meets ended and I traded my speedo for cleats and leather. Off to the baseball field. Or off to the track. I was just a guy on those teams. I was neither baseballer or tracker.

So, what's the difference? Commitment to the sport. Participation in the sport does not an athlete make. Skill in the sport also does not define the athlete (although it helps). Athletes are defined by their attitude and commitment.

The guys on cross country who were runners made a year out of it. They started running and never stopped. Their running season did not end. It just changed into a new running season. The same for the swimmers. They swam year round. If not on their high school team, then they were on their local club teams. They had long season, short season (which are distances, not times), high school season, summer season, etc. They were always swimming. They were swimmers. Baseball was the cool sport for the spring. The cool kids (not me) were also on the football and basketball teams. Based on these definitions, I never met any true baseball players in high school.

I did eventually become a swimmer. College costs money and I was able to swim myself into a small scholarship. Then I started getting a little more serious. Swim season for college is August through late February. After collegiate season was over, I joined the local club team. That team was coached by my former high school coach. He was just as surprised to see me show up for practice as I was. I had finally become a swimmer.

Defining a Triathlete
I am no longer a swimmer. I do get in the water and swim. This does not make me a swimmer because I am committed to another sport which just happens to require swimming. I am a triathlete. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a cyclist. Riding my bike is just a means to an end. A triathlon end. I am not a runner. I have written on this in the past. Running is just something I do during a triathlon.

I train year round for this sport. I enjoy it. It is fun for me, not work, even when it is hard. Taking a couple of weeks break after the big race is part of the overall triathlon plan. When I lift weights, I do it with a triathlon focus. If I were to stretch, which I normally do not, I would do it with a triathlon focus. If I participate in a running race, it is only to benchmark my triathlon training. Starting to see a trend here?

The Banter-in-Law is a triathlete. He started this sport last year and has given it his full commitment. He is neither swimmer, biker, nor runner. He wants to become better at all three because he knows it will lead to a better triathlon. I am proud that he is a triathlete, just like me.

The Wife, on the other hand, is different. She has done more triathlons in her time than the BIL and even owns a tri-bike. She does not train for the sport. She does not care about the sport. She could go the rest of her life without competing in a triathlon. She is not a triathlete. She is still really awesome. I don't make the mistake of thinking any less of someone just because they participate in my sport without the commitment. I love hanging out with those that do the sport for pleasure or for the experience. I do other non-triathlon races. I do them for fun. There's nothing wrong with that. I don't think the real athletes think less of my for hanging out with them for the day. We both know that I am not an athlete of that sport, just a recreant.

Am I an Ironman?
These days, I am defining myself a little more narrowly. I am an Ironman. This is not because Mike Reilly has yelled out, more than once, "Banter, You are an Ironman." I grant you that this is one of the most glorious sounds I have ever heard. Since I have never, nor will I probably, father a child of my own, this is the pride and joy that I envision is reserved for parents upon the birth of their baby. There's nothing else like it. Having done a few of them now, hearing Mike yell at me again has not diluted the experience, in much the same way I envision it feels to have a second or third child. It's still really, really cool.

I am not an Ironman because I attempted and completed a 140.6 distance race. I am not an Ironman because some MC gave me that label. I am an Ironman because the race defines me. I am committed to this goal. I made the mistake of thinking, a long time ago, that I would keep training for the Ironman until I qualify for Kona. Then, I would fly to Hawaii and play on the lava fields, return home, and hang up my IronJacket in pursuit of something else. I am not sure that is possible anymore. I am an Ironman and will be so for a very long time. Even if I never make it to the big show.

Back to the Tattoo Guy
Being a runner, a swimmer, a cyclist, a triathlete, a soccer player, a musician, or whatever is not defined by your skill or by the number of tasks you have completed. It is defined by your life style. You are what you do on a daily basis, not in what you did on one day or even in 6 months. 

It took several years to realize that I was an Ironman. Before that, I was a triathlete. And it took me several years to don that label. Triathlon, and now Ironman, is as much a part of me as waking up and brushing my teeth. My friends and family are no longer astonished by my continued participation in the event. OK, they might be a little astonished. But their wide-eyes are mostly when they envision themselves trying to make the commitment. When they ask if I am doing the race again next year, I respond with, "Of course, it's what I do." I am not that good. Maybe I am better than average at best. But, I am a triathlete and an Ironman.

So Mister "I want the Tattoo"- When you do the race to get a tattoo, you are doing it for all the wrong reasons. You have every right to go to some salon and have some bloke inject your dermis with various hues in the shape of a block M with a hovering dot. This has become the defining symbol of the Ironbrand. You could put it on your forehead for all I care. Finishing the race is a grand accomplishment in which I am proud of you for even attempting. Crossing the line does not an Ironman make. Please do not brand yourself with a symbol in which you are not fully committed. Yes, you are awesome. Yes, you did the deed. If I see you on the course, I will root for you, even if you pass me and beat me to the tape. If I see you in the finishers pit, I will smile and shake your hand like triumphant warriors at the end of a battle. Victory is ours! But, in my opinion, you are not an Ironman. Not yet anyway.

Stuff happens during training and racing. You could get injured. You could DNF. You could, heaven forbid, crash. You could have a family emergency. I could go on but none of these are important. If you are fully committed. If you are dedicated. If you know you will train and compete next year and in years to follow. If, when you bleed, you feel a little bit of Ironman leaking out, you don't even need to finish. Go and get your tattoo NOW and proudly display it before the race. Announce it to the world. You are already an Ironman.


  1. I'm sorry Banter, but I have to disagree wholeheartedly on many of the issues you brought up.

    First -- Your definition of an athlete is based on his/her "attitude and commitment"

    Who is the judge in deciding if you are committed or not? Must you train everyday? Must you train for 60 minutes or more? Must train 350 days of the year? Who is one to say to another that he/she is not committed? In some situations it may be obvious, but in many other situations I would argue not.

    Is Mr. or Mrs. Smith not a teacher because they take the summers off and do absolutely nothing related to teaching during that time? Are they not fully committed to being a teacher since July and August is complete down time. Does that make Mr. Jackson a more committed teacher because he does elect to teach year round?

    Was Bo Jackson an athlete? He was not committed to Football year round nor was he committed to Baseball year round. I want to say he is as well as many other people are ATHLETES.

    Second -- Is Mr. Tattoo an Ironman. If he can do what maybe .01% of the world (and I may be overestimating) cannot do, and he crosses the finish line with a time that meets the necessary requirements, heck yeah he's an Ironman. If he wants to get a tattoo to celebrate the occasion, more power to him. Damn skippy, he has the right to call himself an Ironman.

    He's no Chrissie Wellington by any means, but he's definitely an Ironman. I don't think one has to devote his daily life to be considered an Ironman. Is he a triathlete? I would give you that if it's sole purpose was to complete one Ironman race.

    That's my rant for the night.


  2. phortitoo- you bring up some good points. Here's my counter (admitting that you may be more right than me)
    1. You know if you are committed or not just as I know when I am committed or not. The commitment piece is about me in all reality. I did not consider myself a triathlete until several years into doing the races. I participated but wasn't all that serious about them. I have met people who teach and are not teachers. Bo Jackson was committed to 2 sports and was an athlete in both.
    2. If Mr. Tattoo is committed, he is an Ironman even before he finishes the race. Contrarily, if you and I were to wrestle, just so I could say that I did it, I would not be comfortable calling me a 'wrestler.' Lots of sports are hard but your participation doesn't necessarily qualify you as an athlete. You attitude and commitment do.

    (Again, I'm admitting that you might be more right than me.)