I think we can all agree that one of the easiest aspects of competing in an actual triathlon is stopping at the end of the race. All you have to do is get to the finish line, let the race official tear that little tag off your race number, and then, well, just . . . stop. There really isn't much point in continuing to run after that, unless you're trying to find a secluded area so you can throw up in private.
It’s ironic, therefore, that outside of an actual race, stopping seems to be one of the single hardest things for a triathlete to do. Stopping, as in retiring, calling it quits, hanging up the wetsuit and racing flats. Admit it, we’ve all been tempted at one time or another. Some of us have even tried it a couple of times. But few of us have ever been successful.
One of the reasons retiring is so difficult for most triathletes is that there’s no natural stopping point, no final event that marks the end of the season. There’s no Super Bowl, no NBA Finals, no triumphant culmination of our career where we can go out in a blaze of glory. Sure, there’s the Hawaii Ironman, but for most of us that’s not even a remote possibility. For us, there’s always another race, always another opportunity to shave a couple seconds off our time or to move a couple of spots in the race results. There’s just no time during the year when a decision to call it quits doesn't seem completely arbitrary.
And then there's the age-groupings, which also help keep us coming back year after year. We convince ourselves that once we make it to the next age group, all of a sudden we’ll be invincible. There’s no way, we tell ourselves, all those old geezers in the next age bracket will be able to hang with us. A couple years back, when I was in the 30-34 age group and routinely getting my butt kicked every Sunday morning, I remember being convinced that I would dominate once I moved up to compete against old guys in their late thirties. What never dawned on me, of course, was that, by that time, I would be an old guy in my late thirties too! The result is of age groups is that triathlon starts to look a little like golf, which has a Seniors Tour, where you can actually turn on the TV and watch a tournament where the players look like they need a walker to get from tee to green. If baseball had age groups, I'm sure Ted Williams would still be out there trying to take Nolan Ryan deep on an outside fastball.
But an even more serious to obstacle to retiring, and those of you who have attempted it will know what I’m talking about, is that most triathletes have absolutely no idea what to do with themselves once training and racing disappear from their lives. While we’re competing, of course, we whine constantly that triathlon leaves no room for all the other important things in our lives. But once we give up the training and racing, suddenly we can’t figure out what any of those other things are. Training is what gives structure to our daily lives. We know we’ve got our weekly running group on Wednesday evenings, our Masters swim program on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Yes, we generally go to sleep at 10:00 on Saturday nights -- but that's not because we have nothing better to do, it's because we have to get up early on Sunday to race. Take all these things away, and we’re lost.
And then there’s the purely physiological aspects of retirement. Over time, our bodies have become very accustomed to the virtually constant vigorous exercise. This allows our bodies to get away with things that other people’s bodies can’t even contemplate. How many times, for example, have you been eating lunch in the office cafeteria, a huge pile of pasta and two pieces of pie on your plate, when one of your colleagues says something about how “lucky” you are to be able to eat like that and stay so thin. You want to tell her it isn’t so much luck, as it is the ten miles of trail running you put in that morning. But once you stop training, you’ll need a whole lot more than luck to keep those 5,000 calorie lunches from taking their toll. And it isn’t just your waistline. Once that energy output disappears, things start getting ugly in a hurry. Your hair starts falling out, your skin turns yellow and clammy, your whole body begins to change in all sorts of bizarre and mysterious ways.
Because retiring poses so many physical and emotional difficulties, most of us just keep on training and racing, training and racing, year after year, long after it ceases to be exciting or even particularly enjoyable to us. We're doomed to end up spending our social security checks on entry fees and geriatric cycling shorts. Our friends marvel at our dedication, but the reality is that, like addicted smokers, many of us just lack the courage to quit. I have triathlete friends who have attempted to retire more times than Muhammad Ali. “I’M RETIRED!” they’ll say, much louder than necessary, when you ask if they want to go for a quick run -- as if retiring from racing means they’re prohibited from ever running again. Then, a week later, you’ll spot them out at the track, helplessly running mile repeats.
In own my case, I have to admit that after finishing my first (and hopefully last) Ironman last fall, I thought long and hard about calling it quits. But I guess I’ll stick around another couple seasons. If I can just make it to the next age group, I’m convinced there’s no way those 40-year-olds can beat me.