Five years ago, I weighed 250 pounds, smoked a pack a day, and subsisted on cheeseburgers and pizza. Today, I’m down to 185. I don’t smoke, but I still sneak the occasional slice. After five years of swimming, biking, and running I have learned a great deal about myself. But it took a very sudden incident a few months ago for me to reexamine my beliefs. A stranger’s death made me realize that life is a race, but not a competition.
After an extended period of collegiate inactivity, I met my wife in 2003. She was athletic, petite, and graceful. The yin to my yang. At her suggestion, I embarked on a mission to complete a triathlon. Never mind that I didn’t own a bike, hadn’t swum in years, or refused to run anywhere without being chased. Just being around her made me want to try. After a few months of training, I entered and finished my first triathlon. One year later, I completed my first Ironman. Since then, I have completed two half-ironman races, two marathons, and dozens of road races. I am currently training with a team for another Ironman at the end of July.
The spirit of competition had consumed me. I looked at fellow racers with a mixture of pride and hunger. Each athlete ahead of me was my better. The measures of my success were racers passed and pain swallowed. Without a race, I had no reference. Was I faster? Stronger? A winner? These thoughts were the drumbeats to my pedal stroke as I cycled my way upstate on a particularly sunny training ride last spring.
I was running late, and had missed my team at their meeting spot. I couldn’t have been more than ten minutes behind, so I resolved to catch them. Instead, a few miles later, I was swerving to avoid what appeared to be folded bicycle tire on the shoulder. I feathered the brakes and came to a stop, my mind struggling to process what my stomach already knew. A man lay curled up by the side of the road, half of his helmet missing. His breathing was rapid and a small trickle of blood pooled on the pavement by his mouth. A few yards away an SUV had stopped, and a panicked woman was making her way to the fallen cyclist. She bent down as if to shake him, and I pulled her away, settling her back into her car. I stayed with the cyclist while the paramedics worked on him. They cut open the back of his jersey, his ribs moving quickly beneath pale white skin. He died weeks later when his family removed him from life support. But in that moment, as he laid there, his unclothed body struggling to survive against the unyielding road, I saw no enemy. I saw no competitor. I saw myself, as I might have been just a few minutes earlier. A racer unaware of the finish line, riding only for the ride.