A little over two years ago, I did my first triathlon as a result of my mom’s prodding. She had done her first tri while I was in Hanoi, where I spent most of my time fearlessly sampling every new exotic dish I could while becoming progressively more out of shape. From the time Mom signed up for her tri, she could talk about nothing else, and her enthusiasm didn’t wane in the slightest once the race was over. So, I agreed to try a tri when I returned to the States, figuring I would really need to start exercising again sometime—at least if I was going to keep up my eating habits.
I had pretty much put my running shoes away when I graduated from Calvin’s legendary running program two years before, thinking, rather bitterly, that my competitive days were over. I can’t say that I didn’t train for the tri—I had started swimming a few months before and had borrowed a bike from a family friend. But I ran as little as I thought I could get away with, was carrying around a few more pounds than I had in college, and considered myself to be terribly out of shape.
However, ten years of running doesn’t just disappear from one’s lungs and bitterness doesn’t drain the competitive juices from a girl who once rated herself a ten on a scale of ten when her coach asked her and her teammates to rate their competitiveness. So, of course, I did okay. And by that I mean I won my age group and was the second overall female to one of those freakishly-fast 45-49 year olds. I was happy—I thought it was the most fun I had ever had and I had met my goals (other than my secret goal of winning the whole thing, of course). But, naturally, I was not satisfied—I had woken the beast.
So here I am two years later, working at trying to make it as a professional triathlete, and, in the process, trying to make ends meet financially. There are people who think I’m wasting my time, that I’m a slacker who should get a “real” job and contribute to society, or that I’m just crazy. They wonder what the point of triathlon is, what good it really does. I can see their point (usually on the days when I’m so tired all I want to do is cry), and sometimes I even agree with them—but I choose to carry on. This is made easier by the fact that a lot of people are very supportive of me. More than that, some think I am some kind of superstar living a glamorous life. They are impressed by my dedication, by how much I train, by how hard I work. Well, I do work pretty hard, or I think I do. And sometimes I slip up and become too impressed with myself—although I’d be the first to tell you that the life of a wanna-be-pro triathlete is far from glamorous.
This past Saturday, I was humbled. I did what I think was my fourteenth triathlon. I won the overall female award by quite a margin—would have beat all the men, too, if I hadn’t brought my boyfriend, Matt, along. But there was a much more impressive performance at this race.
I never would have gone all the way to Gallup, New Mexico, to do a small sprint triathlon, but, once again, my mom was behind it. When she was visiting my sister-in-law there in April, Mom jokingly challenged her to do the Gallup Triathlon. Much to everyone’s surprise, Blair quickly agreed. So Mom, Matt, and I went to Gallup to support Blair in her endeavor.
When I saw Blair cross the finish line, I recalled my first triathlon and realized how much more impressive a feat this was for Blair. I thought I was out of shape when I did my first tri, but I really wasn’t. I could have finished the race without training much at all. In contrast, when Blair accepted my mom’s challenge, she didn’t have a past athletic background to draw from. She was legitimately scared. She went from never exercising at all—ever, as far as I know—to training religiously every day. Furthermore, she did so in the midst of the depression and loneliness she has been fighting for the almost two years since my brother died. Training for the triathlon gave Blair a goal, a reason to get out of bed when she had trouble finding one.
Blair didn’t win a medal on Saturday, but with every stroke and breath and step she took, she beat down her demons a little more. And when I watched Blair finish, I thought, now that is hard work—I’m pretty sure I’m not the one who really won this race today.
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.