There is a stereotype that all triathletes are Type A. Unmistakably, annoyingly Type A. In every aspect of life and sport. However, I have heard that—based on various studies that I cannot quote to you here—the best athletes are actually a very rare breed of Type A. They are painstakingly rigid about everything down to the minutest details that matter to their sport, but are easy-going and utterly unconcerned about most everything else.
I do not know where I fall among these categories. I seem to possess most of the negative Type A qualities—high stress, an overly-competitive nature, etc.—and lack the useful ones, like organization and neatness. I usually say that I am not Type A enough to be neat and organized, but that I am Type A enough to be really annoyed when my room is not clean. And as far as the “perfect elite athlete personality” goes, I am probably the exact opposite—I don’t pay enough attention to the details that matter, and I worry obsessively about the ones that don’t.
As a soon-to-be professional triathlete, I have had to work to be more Type A in some areas. My coach, Zane, calls it “attention to detail” or “doing the things that matter.” I call it “being anal” or “doing what Zane tells me to do.” However, over the last two years, I have seen enough fruit from paying attention to the seemingly-insanely-anal details that I have tried to adopt Zane’s terminology—most of the time.
Last month I travelled to London for my first international race—the ITU Age Group World Championships. The idea was to go for the experience. No pressure; I just needed to back up the progress I had made throughout the season. And—you guessed it—I needed to work on minding the details.
What are the little details, you might ask? Things like printing out the course maps a whole month prior to the race and learning them by heart. Like renting a flat instead of a hotel so I could cook my own meals (and by “I,” I mean “my-mom-who-so-generously-slaved-away-in-the-kitchen-while-I-was-out-swimming/biking/running-in-Hyde-Park”). Like getting up an hour earlier each morning the week prior to departure to make the time-change adjustment easier (and you ought to know that I already have to get up at five most mornings). Like paying for a taxi to look at the entire bike course. Like writing a detailed race script and packing anything I could possibly need.
A few days before my departure, I was so stressed out I broke out in a weird rash. Zane asked what I was so worried about, listened to me jabber for a bit, and then said, “Calah. Just prepare well, and then relax.” Sound familiar?
It turns out that, as usual, Zane’s advice was sound. Surprisingly, though, this trip I learned more about the “relaxing” part than about the details. I learned that, no matter how much I prepare, something will probably go wrong or surprise me. Or maybe more than one thing.
Surely you can see where this is going?
The first thing that went wrong: my bike didn’t come. At least not for almost two days, which was enough to throw off my workout schedule slightly (not really a big deal) and make me fret endlessly (more the big deal). Long story short, my bike eventually came, and was fine, and I realized I had used quite a lot of emotional energy worrying about it, even though I couldn’t have done anything about it.
Next thing? After looking my transition area over again and again (seriously), I put on my wetsuit and stood, shivering, by the staging area. And realized that I had forgotten to put my bike computer on my bike. And that transition had closed a long time ago. The bike computer helps me to gauge my speed and effort on the bike leg of the race, and not having it in a previous race had proven quite detrimental. On the verge of freaking out and beating myself up at this silly mistake, I realized that I couldn’t do anything about the situation at that point, and that worrying about it would only make things worse. Maybe I had learned something from the bike episode.
Then, as the first wave was lining up to get in the water, they informed us that the swim distance was going to be cut in half due to the combination of air and water temperatures. By this point, I hardly even flinched, even though the decision seemed quite silly to me. (And now anyone who may have been stalking my results will be crushed to realize that, given the revised distance, I did not, in fact, race faster than last year’s Olympic gold medalist.)
So what did I learn in London? Am I saying that the details don’t matter? Of course not! (And if I did think that, I certainly wouldn’t post it online—Zane might see it!) What I learned, I guess, is that I probably have as much to learn about being flexible as I do about being more detail-oriented. Which means I still have a lot of learning left to do…
Calah Schlabach (’09) is a Calvin graduate who—let’s just be honest—majored in cross country and track while minoring in English and writing. After a year or so of global wandering, she discovered the sport of triathlon. Calah is currently working as a professional triathlete.