The Athlete: Nature or Nurture?

A few nights ago coverage of the Ironman came up as a listing on the cable guide. I immediately clicked on it and settled down to watch. Big Red was out of the room and when he came back in he basically took one look at the TV, did something like roll his eyes and then smile a knowing smile at me. And then busted out his laptop.

I have had a longstanding fascination with triathlons, especially the Ironman World Championship held each year in Kailua-Kona, Hawai'i. It is a freakishly mutant event in which one swims for 2.4 miles in the open sea, bikes for 112 miles and then runs a full length marathon. It is a 140.6 mile endurance test unlike any other, and anyone who finishes rightly deserves the title of "Ironman."  Some years ago I competed in sprint triathlons. The sprint is the neo-natal version of the Ironman. A paltry half mile swim, 12 miles on a bike and a 5k run. I did it twice, writing about my 2008 experience here and here.

But the seduction of the Ironman still lingers tacitly tucked away, only to surface every now and again.

And I don't know why.  I've tried to explain it, mostly to Big Red who finds the whole concept of competing against yourself ludicrous, let alone paying an entrance fee to be allowed to swim, or bike, or run, or all three. I try to illuminate the notion of a self-imposed challenge, the deep-seated quest to see how far you can push yourself - the chance to be your own personal hero. He still thinks I'm crazy. Then I have to remind myself that not everyone thinks like an athlete. That is my history, so it is the perspective from which I sit. Big Red does not share the same experience. Which begs the question: is the mindset of an athlete innate or learned? Would I still be the same me with the same physical drive had I not participated in sports?

An article in Psychology Today suggests that motivation is the key factor in the success of an athlete. Motivation is "the only contributor to sports performance of which you have control." It is that fire that carries an athlete through the "grind" when things get tough. But how do you get motivation? It's not clear at all. The only thing I can say for sure is - I've got it. Whatever that thing is a person requires to push themselves - it's in my skin. Granted, the capacity of drive I had in high school to be the best of the best has since waned and I've moved into a more comfortable post-competitive athletic space. Being that kind of driven, that's a shit-ton of pressure to put on yourself, and it is exhausting. Exhilarating, but definitely exhausting.

Yet the athlete in me remains. She hasn't gone anywhere, she's just a more balanced adult version. I have mollified and appeased her with occasional races, a marathon in 1999, the two sprint triathlons, a few 5ks and a 10k, and a couple of stints as part of a marathon relay team. But every now and again she surfaces, whispering ever so faintly I want to do an Ironman someday, to which I reply:

That's the dream. The goal. The ultimate personal challenge. I don't know when, or how, but I'll get there.
Someday. Definitely.


Gabby said...

Love this article, Ilene. Absolutely love it. I believe there are those few who are truly born into athletic legendry and no matter what or who was a part of their upbringings, they would still go on to become amazing sports heros. But the majority of us were taught to be athletes. I would not be the person I am today and possess that consuming need to constantly push myself if it were not for all the years I spent competing as a young girl. Sports teach us to expect more from ourselves and to always strive to break our own personal records and reach new personal bests.

ilene. said...

Thanks Gabby! I think you're right about sports teaching us to expect more from ourselves. I wonder if those who don't get that/want that are those who are afraid to fail? If you never push yourself, then you can never fall. It's all a bit crazy, but it's an addictive kind of crazy. After every event I do, I say, "never again." And then a week later, I say, "well, maybe one more time..."