When Trial is Joy

trial_joyMany men push themselves to unimaginable extremes. An Iron Man competitor helps us to understand why.

by Tim Doherty

I’m poured out. Ninety lengths into my Thursday swim workout, and I’m done. I arrived at the pool already tired. And with at least 90 lengths still to go, I’m utterly drained. I want to go limp like a noodle in a tepid pot. I had a plan, but now I’m done. But I don’t stop. Why? I don’t know.

I love this sport. I have been a triathlete for most of 20 years. But why? In recent years the question has become significant because so many men are pushing themselves to extreme limits in so many ways. The 10k road race used to be the standard challenge; now it’s a mere beginner’s effort. Now many ordinary people want to run a marathon. And the one-to-three hour versions of triathlon—once seen as only for extremists—have grown exponentially among ordinary people.

Then there’s the big one: Today if one desires to race one of the eight “Iron Distance” races in North America, you pay $500 a year in advance for the privilege of spending 10, 12, even 16 hours with 1,500 other people pushing your body through what’s been described as “swimming 3.8 kilometres, biking 180 kilometres and then trying to come up with enough reasons to run a marathon.”

And then there’s the Deca Iron Triathlon—10 Ironmans in a row. Are there no limits?

It’s April and winter is supposed to be past. But today the wind is absolutely howling. The plan says I’ve got to get in a four-and-a-half hour ride. The thermometer says 1°C and the wind chill is minus a million. Why am I out here? A few times I’m nearly blown off the road and inside my numbed head the self-talk chatters away that if I stop I’ll freeze. Spandex and nylon aren’t nearly enough to survive out here if I don’t keep pedaling. Good times.

Why? I recently asked a few friends why we do this. “An enormous amount of my life is about control,” responded one. “People expect me to be perfect at my job. And in my life I can’t say what I really think, or somebody would be offended…. I can’t hit anyone or I’d be arrested. And this is good…. But that’s why I need to pour all my energy into something…. That’s why I love red-lining it.”

For him, extreme sport is a kind of freedom to be himself. There are other motives. Some guys do extreme endeavours as a stress reliever. Others are addicted, trying to fill a bottomless hole. Some are trying to prove something to someone who told them they didn’t measure up. Others go to extremes just to discover what their body and mind are capable of. Still others do it for the discipline.

I have known these motivations. Some endure. Others pass through like Gatorade. Yet in recent years, another reason has settled in. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…. We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind…. But God…. made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him…. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works…that we should walk in them” (from Ephesians 2, ESV).

I have learned that God expresses Himself through those who know Jesus. And so in Him I persevere. In Him, trial is joy. He is, ultimately, my reason why.

As I swim, bike and run, I grow in knowing the One in whom I am truly alive. It’s not because my heart pumps, arms splash, legs mash the pedals and feet pound the pavement. It’s not because I might do it better than some guys, or because I achieve goals. I do it because Jesus is my life.

Triathlon is one way by which God empties me of me. Many times I have gone limp in the water, lifeless in the saddle, flat on the road. I die. But He has resurrected me in Christ. He shows weakness. He hems in strength and trains the sluggish will. Do others see Him and His work? I pray they would. Yet this is mostly about me being poured out in Him for His glory.

A few weeks ago I got to race again. It was a glorious day: Sparkling water, churning arms. Climbing hill after quad-busting hill on the bike, whooshing past towering maples and fragrant pines, exulting in God who made it all. And then finding legs less like tree trunks, and more like hinds’ feet, to get off the bike and actually run! O joy! God, this is yours.

Tim Doherty is husband to Monica (his greatest cheerleader), father of two wonderful girls, coach to disciples of Jesus and a leader in church multiplication at Kingsfield, in Huron County, Ontario. Tim competed in the Lake Placid Ironman on July 26, 2009, finishing within his personal time goals for each of the segments. He completed the 3.8 km swim, 180 km bike and 42 km marathon in 12 hours 19 minutes.

The article above was featured in the September 2009 issue of SEVEN magazine.