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I know a lot of runners and triathletes, and I've flirted with both sports. Though I'm probably the slowest runner on the planet, and I think triathlons would be better if they completely changed the format, I still read a lot about both sports. In a world where I didn't have messed up ankles and knees, and which I wasn't such a wimp about falling on a bike, I'd love to alternate my swimming with some running and biking. Reading a lot of this is just fantasy for me, but it's fun, and gives me things to talk to the bikers and runners about.

Every couple months, somebody publishes an article about how newbies to running or triathlon are too focused on the distance races (marathon, ironman) when they should focus on getting faster at shorter distances. Some of them are snotty about it like this, and some couch it in concern that the slow athletes are somehow doing themselves harm, though the message is the same. Get fast before you go long, and it's not worth going long unless you go fast.

I call humbug. The naysayers just don't understand the joy and amazement some of us feel when we realize that we don't have to stop.

When I started swimming a few years ago, I couldn't go further than 100m front crawl without stopping. I had no clue how fast I was going (other than realistically knowing, not very), but distance I could measure. I strung together 8 lengths of the pool, then 20, then, one magical day, I swam about two kilometers front crawl without stopping, and then stopped because I needed to leave, not because I couldn't go on. I was hooked. That's when I joined masters' swimming, and when I found out about open water races, I knew I had to try them. I want to go further, maybe try a 10K sometime. Now, I'm getting to the point swimming butterfly that I don't need to stop. I'm amazed and love the feeling.

Going fast over short distances doesn't give that sense of accomplishment for me. People can beat you by one one hundredth of a second, and you can race for less than a minute and feel exhausted before the race is done. Going far can hurt, but if you keep going, the hurt goes away. Going fast over a short distance keeps hurting after you stop. Maybe you get a bit faster, maybe not, but for us late starters, it's still not fast. Nobody can argue with long.

Maybe training for a marathon is hard on the body, but so is speed training, or anything that challenges us. The body is meant to be in motion, lying in bed all day will stop you from getting an overuse injury, but your bones and muscles will become weak and fragile. Maybe moderation is the best bet, but there is no way to keep yourself from every single risk, you just aim for awareness and management. The things that make life worth living come at some cost, some risk. Maybe I'll get hurt. Maybe I'll fail. Without the risk of failure, there's no achievement.

At least for some people, including me, exercise can't just be about getting in the recommended activity to keep our hearts strong. We need to accomplish something, to feel good about what we've achieved. For me, it's worth months of motivation to get up in the morning to be able to look off into the distance and think "I swam all the way there and back." I expect that my thinking "I could do that butterfly, maybe next year" will keep me going to the pool all winter. Speed just doesn't capture my imagination the way finishing an impossible distance does.

Despite what some people write, nobody can complete a marathon without some preparation, or complete a 16 hour ironman on a whim. It's the genetically gifted who don't realize that some of us are trying our utmost to finish far behind them. My opponent can't just be the person who wins the race, or tiny, inexperienced me is bound to lose. My opponent is, to some extent, the race itself, and I do my best not to let it beat me.

"I could keep going" is a challenge I have to take up. I think for some of the much-derided slow marathoners and ironmen, it's the same thing. They see the distance, and are frightened, but something in them thinks "I can keep going, I can finish that", and it takes them beyond their limits. Who is anyone to fight the power of that?


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