Finishing is an accomplishment, not an identity.
I was at a holiday dinner with friends, reflecting on the past year, when someone asked that question. It was a bit out of the blue, so I wasn’t sure what he meant. “You know, being an Ironman finisher. What’s it like?”
It was the first time I had been asked that question. Typically, if my triathlon hobby comes up in conversation, I get reactions tinged with apathy or incredulity:
“140 miles; no way.”
“How many days does that take you?”
And my personal favorite: “Why would you do that to yourself?”
But mostly, I get blank stares or eye rolls.
What’s it like to be an Ironman finisher? I thought the accomplishment would be a bigger deal, like the day my mom bought me my first training bra and I thought all the boys would suddenly fall over each other to ask me out. It didn’t quite happen that way.
But this wasn’t a trip to Bloomingdale’s. This was a bigger deal, a result of months of sweat and sacrifice. When I crossed the finish line of my first Ironman, it was a big effin’ deal. Even the announcer knew my name, booming, “YOU are an Ironman!” to thunderous applause. Surely people would throw me a ticker-tape parade.
The day after my first Ironman, I wore my medal everywhere. I high-fived fellow finishers in my hotel elevator and gave knowing winks to people on the street. That night, catching a flight home at the airport, the TSA agent instructed me to take off my medal before going through the metal detector. I held my medal tightly.
“Can’t I keep it on? I did an Ironman!”
“Yeah, you and about a thousand other people in line. Take it off.”
Huh. That’s right. There were other people who did that race. That finisher’s chute can be pretty deceptive. When I arrived home, I was eagerly greeted by my dogs, Doc and Moxie. I swear I could sense their elation at having an Ironman for a mom. Every tail wag was like cheerleaders shaking their pom-poms.
I took the pups for a celebratory walk, medal tucked comfortably under my sweatshirt, ready to show off to my adoring public on a moment’s notice. They had to be out there somewhere.
Two blocks from my house, the dogs did their business, kicked some grass up, then stared at me, waiting for me to clean it up. “Pshht! Please. I’m an Ironman now.”
Doc and Moxie were unimpressed. I bet Macca’s dogs don’t make him pick up their poop, I thought begrudgingly, as I pulled out a plastic bag.
Life goes on. As my ego shrank to normal size in the weeks after my race, I learned something important: Ironman is an accomplishment, not my identity. Though the swim, bike and run can be a big part of my day, it doesn’t completely define who I am. I’m still a partner, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, community member and an employee long before I’m a runner or triathlete.
Don’t get me wrong—I still relish in the accomplishments that come with running and triathlon. And when I spot others like me out and about, we exchange knowing glances.
(Endurance athletes can spot each other easily. Maybe it’s the fierce look in their eyes. OK, it’s probably their calves.) Either way, that brief smile and nod says it all: You’re an Ironman. You stud, you.
That brief affirmation can mean more than any cheerleader or ticker-tape parade.
This column first appeared in the December issue of Competitor magazine.