Sexton’s Scribble: One Step Back, Two Leaps Forward

In previous pieces I’ve written about the addictive nature of triathlon. The processes involved in triathlon participation and competition often become cyclical across all levels of ability and we find ourselves in ongoing revolutions that seem to blend into each other and can last years, even decades. It is my theory that a single cycle of triathlon addiction, or the tri-trap, has a single point that is both the end of one cycle and the catalyst that sparks the next: the finish line.

When triathletes begin their triathlon journey, the finish line is their desired destination. Whether a concise point decided upon before beginning the long process or a summit that develops in the mind as the athlete begins to patiently ascend and realise their potential, and potential limits. Many experienced folk set quite specific circumstances upon which they wish to reach the finish line, a certain time or placing. Others want to cross the line having adhered to a particular race plan (eg race aggressive, race smart or race smiling). Then there are many who modestly and nobly hold that final step across the final threshold from aspirant to triathlete as the zenith of their efforts. And with good reason! Despite an utterly forgettable day out at the biggest race of my career at the London Games, the elation I felt simply crossing the line was unbelievably sensational for an action I’d done uncountable times before. And for the majority, from enticer to Olympic champ, the feeling of crossing the line is an experience that has to be repeated.

But what happens when this cycle is broken? When at some point, during the initiation-build-finish line loop the sequence goes off course? For various reasons fitness can not progress to plan, illness or injury can strike, races can go awry and objectives can become flecked or not eventuate at all. These occasions do happen and disappointment is a natural reaction. Of course it is! Preparing for a triathlon ain’t easy. Hours of effort, huge sacrifice and small fortunes will seemingly vanish and sense of loss will wash over when that disappointment hits…and it always hits quickly.

Triathlon, like any activity that can bring us enjoyment through great achievement, will always carry a risk of unattainability. That’s why the joy of the achievement is so great when the risk is overcome. With this in mind it would be fair to deduce that a more challenging target set by an individual will carry greater risk of unattainability as well as greater sense of achievement if the finish line is reached within the set target. It’s a balancing act of risk and reward. So should triathletes be so disappointed with an undesirable outcome (including no outcome at all) if they take into account the scope of their finish line target and the vastness of achievement? Could they take some contentment from the fact they set a goal that did challenge them and in this instance was too much?

“I never lose, I either win or I learn.” To my knowledge Nelson Mandela never competed in a triathlon but I do understand this great man encountered disappointment in his life. He understood that to achieve the immense change that he visualised there would be setbacks and to move forward he would need these backward steps to learn a better way to push forward. I concede that national and cultural revolution is a slight variance to a splash, pedal and jog sporting event – the risk and reward situation for Mandela does refocus the weight on one’s life when a personal best time in a sprint triathlon is not realised! Though I do believe this mindset can still be applied to triathlon.

Move forward from setbacks, strive to understand what it was that toppled your plans and start to build the reinforcements that will prevent similar occurrences next time you have a finish line in the crosshairs. Initially, disappointment may cause a feeling of uselessness but if you can take ownership of change and improvement you will be a more knowledgeable, wise and well-rounded athlete. Correct the running form that caused injury or formulate a race nutrition plan so energy depletion on the bike doesn’t occur next race.

Owning your own improvement will hold weight when you do round off a full tri-trap cycle and cross the finish line. The unfinished cycles from before will be accumulated and the act of bouncing back from disappointment itself will become part of that addiction.

Facing disappointment may also help gain perspective. Both the major goals and the processes to achieve them can be viewed and reviewed when disappointment takes us outside the bubble of focus and effort. Rather than dwelling on the downfalls and the what-could-have-beens, an athlete can zoom right out and compare their goals, the trajectory they were taking en route to those goals and the processes that were being employed. Do they align with each other and the athlete? When an athlete is deep in the cycle nailing the day-to-day stuff it is difficult to see the big picture but setback gives opportunity to ask if that focus and plan is what they actually want. If the answer is yes, minor changes to processes should be implemented. If the athlete decides the goal or the direction to that goal is no longer their desire, then that’s might be where alteration is considered.

I’ve not ever heard of a perfect preparation in triathlon. Setbacks come in all forms and volumes. Champions are not necessarily those who win a lot but those who have been knocked back only to grit the teeth and leap forward and across the finish line. 


Brendan Sexton

As a youngster, Brendan’s life ambition was to be the fifth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. That didn’t quite pan out. But triathlon did. A decade on, he’s still at it.
Follow Brendan
Twitter: @kung_fu_sexton

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