On the day Gabby Douglas won the gold medal in the women's gymnastics individual all-around, she was inspired by a letter from her mother, Natalie Hawkins, quoting Scripture reminding her that no one runs a race without the goal of winning. Olympians aside, is it true? Do we all run to win?
A few weeks ago, I took part in my first sprint triathlon. I came home with only a T-shirt and a goody bag full of free stuff, but I did learn a thing of two about myself and about competition for the average woman athlete.
Lesson One: The answer to the question, "Do we all run to win?" is resoundingly "No!" For many normal, well-adjusted, smart, athletic women, competing in a race is not about the win at all. One example: in the car on the way to the race, my friend explained that during the transition between biking and running (T2 to my triathlete friends) she took a bathroom break and waited for her friend to finish the biking portion so that they could run with each other, finish together and get their picture taken as they crossed the finish line. For this wonderful woman, and many others like her, the triathlon was a means to better health, being with and supporting her friend and happiness in the accomplishment. These women embody the first sentence of the Olympic Creed, which states that what is most important "is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle." I passed them by in the first leg.
Lesson Two: I am not one of those well-adjusted women. In training, I thought it was about completion, not the competition. That is what I told everyone, and I even put it in writing. But I lied. Just before the race (perhaps I should have figured it out as I shaved my legs to assure minimal water resistance), I realized I wanted to fight like hell out there. For me, that meant not waiting for anyone who might slow me down. When my friend asked me pre-race if I would join them for the run and the picture, I either had to fess up to being a competitive jerk, or lie and pretend to lose them in the transition (as in, "I was going so slow I thought you must have been ahead of me!"). In the Olympic spirit I decided to tell the truth: "I don't think I can do that," I replied. "I just can't wait. It's not me." It is good to know thyself.
Lesson Three: You can be old, fat and asthmatic and still compete in and enjoy a triathlon. If you resemble the first part of that sentence, I suggest reading, "Slow Fat Triathlete," written by Jayne Williams. Williams will tell you how to do it, and believe me you can, because you will not be alone. You will be loved, encouraged and supported along the way. Women I thought would be much more comfortable running to get to Brigham's Ice Cream before closing time kicked my butt in the swimming portion. Resembling seals, soaking wet in black Lycra, they biked those hills like champs, and then ran, walked or just about crawled past the finish line for the running portion. They wore their Sharpied race numbers proudly upon fleshy upper arms, and they knew -- we all knew -- that they had earned their stripes. We were able to congratulate a few of the larger women after the race at Dunkin Donuts, while we stood in line for our non-fat iced coffees. You can't make this stuff up.
Lesson Four: Women (and by women I mean females over 30) are fabulous. They are kind and supportive of one another. This all-women triathlon event was the most wonderful, girl power environment I have ever witnessed. Positive energy and words of encouragement were everywhere -- not just from complete strangers, but from the other competitors (something I doubt you will find at a men's event). Teenage girls really do clean up nice about 15 years out of high school.
Lesson Five: Supporting others is contagious. I'm not a "You go girl!" kind of gal, and while I started out with "How ya doing?" as I passed people on my bike with just a hint of a smirk, by the end of the race, I got it. I didn't even have the urge to trip the women that passed me on the run (OK, I did, but just a little, and I suppressed it). "You're awesome!" I screamed out to their backs, using up precious energy. "You're looking strong!" I shouted to the women at the back of the pack (this came easier to me), and I meant it.
The Olympic Spirit, embodied by the Olympic Creed, stresses that it is not in the win, but in the taking part. And that is what it is really about, especially as an amateur athlete. But next year, I'm not fooling myself. I jump into the next age category, and I'm going for the gold.
Read more from Better After 50: