Last year, I noticed something curious at a lot of the smaller local triathlons. The races often had categories for elite/open racers – meaning they all start in the first wave and race against each other for overall positions, regardless of their age – and the men’s elite/open waves would have a dozen or more triathletes.
The women’s elite/open wave, though? We’d be doing real good if we had four triathletes signed up for that wave.
Well, I didn’t like seeing that one bit. I know triathlon as a sport tends to skew sausage, but I also knew there were tons of really fast women racing as age-groupers who would be right at home in the open/elite wave.
Part of it, I’m sure, is just a lack of awareness about the option. My friend Yova, who is one of the best local triathletes in the area, found out about it the hard way when she posted the fastest time at a sprint tri but lost the overall female spot because she wasn’t aware she could sign up to race as elite/open.
But that’s only part of it, and I’ll get to that in a bit.
Anyway I decided I was going to be the change I would like to see in the world. (Bumper sticker wisdom!) I thought maybe if I signed up to race open/elite, it might send a signal to other female triathletes to consider it as an option, and that hopefully the days of a two-woman open/elite field will soon be in the past.
So earlier this year, I set a few goals for myself for the coming triathlon seasons, and one of those goals was to get fast enough so that I could race in the open division without, quote, “totally embarrassing myself.”
I figured I’d go for one of those smaller local races – not one of the bigger world-class ones like St. Anthony’s or Escape from Alcatraz – where I’d actually have a fighting chance against the rest of the field. (And definitely not something like an Ironman-branded race, where the faster racers are superhumanly fit freaks of nature who think nothing of riding a five-hour century on the weekend for funsies.)
Well, that smaller race is next weekend – an Olympic distance triathlon in Siesta Key. I checked the start list, realized the women’s open division was incredibly small and I thought that maybe this would be a good opportunity to try. I emailed the race director and asked to be changed to the open division, knowing full well that I was trading in my opportunity for a likely AG award in the process.
Plus I’ve also been feeling pretty fit and fast lately. I ran a 5K in heat and humidity and was the 12th woman out of nearly a thousand. I raced a sprint triathlon last weekend and was the fifth female age-grouper across the finish line. I’m a decent local-level athlete, so why not, right?
The truth is – I could think of a lot of reasons why not. For one, am I really that fast? When I think of elite/open triathletes, I think of the elite racers on my team, of the woman who started racing pro after cleaning up at every local race, of Yova….but not really of me. I’ve written in the past about my struggles with thinking of myself as one of the faster local athletes. It’s still a struggle for me to think of myself in those terms.
But here’s the real fear underlying all of that – what if I embarrassed myself? What if I was so far behind the other elite/open racers that I looked foolish? What if I failed? And compounding it is the fact that it’s a public failure, not a private one. I’m making a public claim about myself – I think I’m good enough to be at the front – and if I fail to perform well, then I’m exposing myself as full of hubris and unwarranted ego.
Elle recently published a couple of things about failure – including an essay by Melissa Harris-Perry and one entitled Why Women Are Afraid of Failure – that caused me to really think hard about the way I was thinking about all of this. Check out this paragraph on the introduction to the MHP essay:
Nobody likes to fail. But women take failure particularly hard—studies have shown that women are so averse to failure that they don’t apply for jobs unless they feel 100 percent qualified. This hesitancy is understandable: When they do fail, women are judged more harshly than their male counterparts. Men, on the other hand, throw veritable failure parties; they’re more likely to embrace “what doesn’t kill you …” and plow ahead.
I totally have that hesitancy too. I mean, when I was applying for my new job, I had to choose between positions as an assistant editor and a managing editor. I ended up applying for the assistant editor position because I was 100% qualified for that job, and passing on the managing editor position because I was only about 70% qualified for that one. (My new bosses apparently recognized this without me even having to say anything, which is why they hired me as an mid-level editor.)
But that’s, you know, a JOB, which means regular paychecks and benefits and other things that go a long way towards having a stable life, and so I was fine with going for the safe option.
But racing…racing is really not that important. I mean, yes, it’s important to me, but in the grand scheme of things? It’s a fucking hobby. It’s like knitting or gardening – an enjoyable way of spending my free time. It’s not that important.
I talked about this with my friend Scott, who races men’s open at smaller races, and he told me that his attitude is basically, “Who even cares? No one.” And then he quoted Tom Cruise to me and said, “Sometimes you’ve just gotta say ‘What the fuck.'”
That “what the fuck” attitude, the veritable failure parties, the mentality of just going for something, outcomes be damned – I think that’s why you see five times as many amateur guys sign up as open/elite than women. I think a lot of women are like me in that they only want to go for something if they feel like they’ve checked off all the boxes and hit all of the prerequisites, whereas a lot of guys are like Scott and they say “what the fuck” and they just go for it.
(And I may be wrong about this but I suspect the same dynamic is at play in the ranks of the pros, where there are a ton of men and not nearly as many women. This, despite the fact that triathlon’s superstars are pretty evenly split between the genders.)
When I thought about it, I realized that Scott’s right – who really does care? I am the only person who cares. No one else cares! (Seriously, the spotlight effect is a real, documented thing.) Okay, maybe Brian cares, but that’s really about it.
At most someone might give my failure a passing scornful thought, but unless they’re coming up to me to talk shit to my face, I’ll never know, which is functionally the same to me as no one actually caring.
It’s such a liberating realization, to understand that the person likely to judge my failures the most harshly is me, and thus the person I have the most control over.
And OK, say I do fail – what’s the worst that can happen? I feel embarrassed for a while? Disappointed? Those feelings fade with time. Trust me, I know from experience.
Plus if I’ve learned anything in my 36 years on earth, it’s that I’m capable of drawing tons of motivation from drawbacks and obstacles, so taking a hard swing at something and whiffing – as much as it might suck in the moment – would actually do me good in the long run.
No doubt, I’m nervous about the way this will all turn out, but I’m always a little nervous before races because I care so much about doing well. And I’m also mostly excited, because it’s going to be fun! Racing is loads of fun – that’s why so many of us keep doing this.
Best of all, I’m excited about trying something new and pushing myself a little harder and being a little more ambitious. I hope that racing with the fast kids will help me become a little faster in the process.
And yes, part of me hopes that maybe I’ll inspire other women like myself to consider doing the same – or at least making it a goal for the future – at their own local races. That’s why I wrote about that in the first place instead of just keeping it to myself.
I want more women – myself included – to feel comfortable with ambition and also with failure, as the two things often go hand-in-hand. And if we can get comfortable with these things on the race course, just imagine what’ll happen when we take that confidence out into the rest of the world.