It occurred to me after a couple of weeks on the Camino de Santiago that I was supposed to be asking myself the purpose or meaning of life or at the very least ‘finding myself,’ the most popular reason for solo hiking 600 miles in a foreign country. Through all the places that I wandered, I never had to look hard to find myself- I was always there! It was the only constancy during my month in rural Spain, my unwavering presence, wanted or not. To me, finding oneself is an expression of the desire to discover what one likes to do or what brings individual happiness. Little things like walk or bike or drive, pink shirt or yellow shirt, smoothie or ice cream (or both). But also big things that carry across years and characterize oneself, that other people comment on at introductions ‘They’re Australian/former professional put-put champion/expert shell-collector/6-star cook/avid cyclist… etc.’ Hiking was not going to tell me where my future was headed amongst the vast array of professions that lay like a buffet before my fast-approaching university graduation, but as I walked beside the deserted and rugged, northern coast of Cantabria, I smiled at the thought of past races. Triathlon did make me happy!
Fortunately, I did not have long to wait upon my return to my family’s home-base in Berlin, Germany. In less than 30 hours, I was setting up transition at a local sprint tri that my family was competing in for the fourth year in a row, with a super-sprint relay as a warm-up. The fact that hiking five weeks does put a dent in triathlon-related fitness, hit me full force when I got out of the water after the 200m sprint and handed off to my brother on the bike. I keeled over in the transition area, catching my breath for a full five minutes, shaking and horrendously nauseous. When the horn sounded for the start of the sprint distance forty minutes later, it was all I could do to swim at all! Having won this race that past two years, I felt a selfish ownership of the title and was solely responsible for any pressure I felt to compete well that day. It quickly became all too clear that simply finishing would be a fortunate circumstance, especially given my proud and somewhat reckless preparation efforts the night before that resulted in a large proportion of the ride with my bare feet on top of new bike shoes clipped to a centurion red racing beauty from the 1990s that I ‘tried out’ … well, last night.
In the ensuing fortnight, I had to adjust my expectations a little as I nursed my ego and aching body in preparation for the half iron I’d promised to do with my mom. After ten days, my feet finally quit collecting water at night, a remnant from the hike that resulted in a somewhat painful, ginger hobble out of bed in the mornings, and I began a funky taper feeling calmer. In the states, I’d gotten used to being a relatively strong cyclist and weak swimmer. Interestingly, the reverse is the case in Germany! All through the bike I was getting regularly passed by a fancy ‘whoooom!’ at 7 or 8 km/h and when I’d glance down, my own speedometer read 35 or 36 km/h and I was far from comfortable. People we’re trying to bike 93k here, what are you doing?!?! Despite cars on the course, the race spirit and support was fantastic, providing gu’s, bananas, cookies, granola, water, coke, isotonics, water-bottles frequently, and saving me after I lost my salt and granola within the first hour of the race. When I finally collected my last rubber band on the furthest point of my third lap on the run, I tried to joke that next time, the volunteer could just give me all three at once, but I surprised both of us with a ‘hubhuhubuhub’ stammer. As I waited to embarrass my mom at the finish, I was routinely touched by the will and gratitude of my fellow finishing triathletes. Tired as I was, I was occasionally teary-eyed seeing how far they pushed themselves. The ultimate reward that the both of us enjoyed was excellent massages by friendly physical therapy volunteers under tents in a light drizzle with fellow triathletes munching on chocolate cake and comparing experiences.