This is part of a series about extraordinary experiences in personal health. Share yours at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It only lasted for a second, but I will never forget that moment. Amid the chaos of my first open-water swim, sandwiched between the splashes and kicking feet, bumping into neoprene-clad bodies with anonymous goggled faces, I looked up at the blue sky, saw the beauty of the silhouetted backdrop of the Niagara Escarpment and asked myself: "Who is this person flailing his way toward a fluorescent orange buoy in the middle of the Kelso reservoir? Is he really about to crawl onto land, jump on a bike and then run through a forest?" An elbow to my ribcage reminded me that yes, it was me. And although this reality felt a bit insane, I was alive – and I was having fun!
A decade earlier if you had asked me if I was capable of completing a triathlon, I would have stared at you in bemused disbelief. Although I hid it well, at 19 years old I clocked in at 210 pounds. Suffering from asthma, I routinely joked that, "I don't run unless somebody is chasing me!" My impression of endurance sports was that they were something that only "fanatics" did. Fanatics such as my neighbour, growing up. He would routinely ride his bike more than 250 kilometres in a day as part of his training for Ironman. My dad would say: "Why would anyone bike that far when they could drive?"
I cannot say for sure what the catalyst was. Maybe it was breaking up with my high school sweetheart, maybe it was the powerful marketing of the day selling me all those "fat-free" products, but I slowly came into being my own person, and making healthy changes – starting with nutrition. Gone were the days of eating three double Big Macs in one sitting. Five years and 60 pounds later, I had uncovered a new person, unrecognizable to my teenaged self in body and mind.
Although I was comfortable maintaining this weight throughout my 20s, my cardiovascular health was still mediocre (the only endurance activity I performed was sleeping in until 11 a.m. on weekends). Then one summer evening while visiting a friend in Muskoka, I listened to his story about a sprint distance triathlon he'd done earlier that year. He broke down each segment into its simplest form, painting a picture of swimming "from here to that rock", biking from my house in the city to the highway and back and running for about 30 minutes. It sounded doable, so right there on the dock I declared that I would complete a triathlon before my 30th birthday – the next summer.
I signed up for the Milton sprint distance triathlon: an event that included a 750-metre swim, a 30-km bike ride and a 7.5-km run.
Over the fall and winter, the race played on my mind, but when spring hit I really hunkered down on my training. I swam in circles, thinking that if I touched the ends of the pool lanes, it would be cheating; I rode the preprogrammed Lifecycle stationary bike in the gym and I was "That Guy" running downtown, jogging on the spot as I waited for the lights to change. It was just enough to prepare me for the race and despite dragging my last steps across the finish line, I still mustered a huge smile and a genuine feeling of self-worth. I was now a triathlon devotee.
Ten years have passed since that race (I just moved up to the 40-44 age group – gulp) and the sport is now as everyday-normal to me as buying fruit. My perspective on training and racing has shifted completely, from believing any triathlon to be impossible, to now completing Ironman distances myself. And from this passion I have found a profession, starting my own business as a triathlon coach, so that I can help others discover their own capabilities, set new goals and overcome adversity.
I sometimes dream about having a sit-down with my 19-year-old self and painting him a picture of what I might have achieved if I had found this passion earlier. But if I hadn't travelled this twined and twisting road, who knows if I would have ever learned to swim, bike or run just for the fun of it.
I can't reach back in time to my younger self. But there is something I can do: last summer, when my five-year-old daughter asked, "Dad, can you teach me triathlon when I'm older?" my heart nearly exploded like an overinflated buoy marker.
She might get older and change her mind, just having our three children witness my wife and I lace up for an early morning run or accompany us to a triathlon, swim meet or running race shows them that endurance sports can be part of a healthy, everyday lifestyle – that they're not just for extremists. Or at least that's how I see it now.
Jason Hervey lives in Toronto.