To better approach this question, I had to think about what I found personally meaningful in my life. Was it relationships? Not at that point. I had long fended for myself on every level- emotional, fiscal, physical- the cards I had been dealt in life put me into a position where I needed to go it alone in so many ways, so I did. Looking for a moral compass, I signed up for Confirmation class and attended church by myself, sometimes running there, but more often than not walking and taking buses in all manner of weather. I applied for and received scholarships, finishing high school with a 4.25 GPA and over 30 college credits, and put myself through school while working in fine dining in Williamsburg. I did not have much of a high school running career, but participating planted a seed in me that remains to this day so strongly rooted that its profundity defies words.
As soon as I went to college and joined the Team Blitz running club, I fell deeply in love with triathlon. Perhaps it was this "tabla rasa" of my identity that created the opportunity for me to fall so hard, or perhaps it was the surge of reading Triathlete Magazine on my lunch break from making sandwiches for tourists, something so fantastic and surreal by comparison, but for whichever reasons, I found in triathlon a fair and just mistress. The essence of this sport was hard work, and the beauty of it was that it enriched the lives of the people who did it in a way that money, sex, and organized religion could not. I had found my religion and proceeded to worship in the form of rigorous training, the more and the harder the better. My buddy Cory Scott and I would ride 100+ mile rides in sub-freezing weather in Surry. Some mornings I would ride a hard 60 miles then run a hard 10 miler around 6 minute pace with one of my runner buddies in the evening or hit the club swimming workout, totally wrecked but determined to bull through. I even took a semester off and rode my road bike for 4-6 hours per day, 4-5 days a week. And in 2007 I began to take on a full course of races, winning a number of events in the Mid-Atlantic events and culminating that year with a 4:02 finish at the 70.3 World Championship in the Fall. My coach at the time seemed to think I was well on my way as a young prodigy (I was too young to drink at the awards ceremony, not that I didn't!) Coach, who was sitting a table full of pros in their reserved section, told me to hop the barrier and join him, which I did. There I was sitting and drinking champagne with Samantha McGlone and Crowie. Had I arrived? Triathlon, albeit black-and-white in only the way a "true religion" can be, seemed to be my perfect match. But this was not to last forever. There was trouble in paradise, and how ironic that it would literally be my "Achilles heel" that brought me a hard dose of reality.
The following year started off with promise, in spite of the Achilles tendonitis that emerged so quickly after the first hill session of the season. I won a hard-fought victory at the Kinetic Half Ironman, running through my tendonitis (at my coach's bidding) to hold off the pro who finished in second place. But I could not walk...for three days after. With every step, my Achilles seemed to flap and pop against my heel. And my world came crashing down. All of a sudden, I could not train or perform the way I had before. My coach grew distant and seemed not to want to hear about how I was feeling at an emotional level given this massive blow to my sense of identity. I was beginning to see the dark side of my "true religion", and in my typically young, brash, Type-A fashion, I began to see triathlon less as a fair, just mistress, and more as a brutal, unflinching taskmaster cracking a whip upon my back. I had gone from one extreme to another, in many ways because of having no one explain to me that I had lost sight of the original shining facet of the triathlon diamond that had brought us together in the first place, that triathlon ENRICHED people's lives in a way that money, fame, sex, and religion could not. And like all personally meaningful things, something as radiant as a diamond could only be forged in a crucible, in the fire and smoke of the pain I was feeling- herein my desire to coach would take root, much as a pearl takes form in an oyster shell, very much hidden for some time.
Fast forward to post-college. I had spent the last year of university recovering from my Achilles injury, licking my wounds, and letting loose in ways from which I had restrained myself before then. I had begun to understand that there was far more to life than day-in, day-out training. While triathlon could enrich a life, it could not replace the joys of life, and from this mixing bowl of life experience I began to drink in furious gulps. I grew to understand others by understanding myself, and by beginning to realize that my passion for training and racing hard was an expression of deeper things, of a strong desire to live, and live fully. Sometimes this desire to live meant being wild and crazy in my own, nerdy way (thank goodness no one will ever see me dance to Billy Idol after a few too many drinks, that video has disappeared!). And in the same vein, that I shared this strong "life instinct" with the other athletes who participated in triathlon. For the first time, I began to see that triathlon could bring me closer to others, whereas before I had seen it through the myopic lenses of my own training and the drive for results. And from this confluence of the post-collegiate existential crisis and the realization that triathlon is best served as a cup of vigor, and not as a cold, sterile, mechanical injection of expectations, a coach was borne.
Being a coach would fill several human needs for me. At base, coaching could put food on the table and keep the lights on. And more importantly, what I had missed the first time around with triathlon would be not only preserved, but re-ignited over and again by working with athletes who shared (and continue to share) this eros and who lived it in their daily lives by training. By getting athletes to view training as a form of catharsis, and not as a mechanical test subjected to a success/failure rating, I could do something far more meaningful with my time than inputting data in a spreadsheet- I could help them to save themselves from losing sight of what had brought them to triathlon in the first place. As I say to my athletes, good results in training and racing are icing on the cake- the primary place for triathlon in anyone's life should be to ENRICH IT, and ADD VALUE, not to DEVALUE anyone's sense of worth. Is this a black and white mantra in itself? At face value yes, but in practice it is an ongoing process that each individual must engage in to get the most out of the sport. Contrary to what ignorant people of limited vision would have us believe, there are not always hard and fast rules for getting an athlete to keep sight of where triathlon belongs in their lives. Like all worthy things in life, finding that balance requires struggle, but having a coach who understands this can make all the difference.