How Buddhism Helped My First Triathlon

At first glance, Buddhist philosophy seems incompatible with running, cycling, and swimming in a fierce, competitive environment. Students of Buddhism meditate. We are still. We practice yoga and mindfulness and non-attachment. We agree with mantras like “The greatest effort is not concerned with results.”

Triathletes are all about results. They too have mantras, but their words of wisdom encourage participants to set challenging goals, achieve PRs, finish strong, and kick serious ass.

“If triathlon were easy, everyone would do it.”

“You run? So do I! After I bike and swim.”

“Look in the mirror…that’s your competition.”

Not exactly “Namaste.”

When I first started running, I recognized compatibilities between the two world views. Long runs are all about mindfulness and embracing the suck. Feeling my body get stronger led to more meaningful and comfortable meditation. After a few months, I even put my iPod away and followed my breath for six, ten, or twenty miles at a time.

I found the combination exhilarating and life-affirming.

Then I forgot about bodhicitta and karma because damn, a sub-2 hour half-marathon was badass. Maybe I could get even faster! I went all in and on a beautiful November day last year, I ran the St. Augustine Half-Marathon and never noticed the charming, historical town around me. Was there a water view? No idea. Too consumed with finishing at a particular time. Too consumed with results to practice mindfulness and gratitude.

Then I found myself seriously injured and struggled through months where everything I’d ever been taught just went completely out the window. If someone dared to be all “You only lose what you cling to” I’d “ohm” them into another stratosphere.

I needed to relax.

I needed a break.

Later, as I made my way back, picking up more group runs and 5K races, someone suggested triathlons.

The idea of competing in a triathlon scared the shit out of me. I got into the ocean for an open water swim and heard the Jaws theme in my head. I climbed on a bike and remembered what it felt like to crash. And every time I ran in the heat of a summer day, I wondered how I’d do it without injury, especially after a swim and bike ride.

So naturally, I hired a triathlon coach and signed up for a sprint.

This time, instead of forgetting my Buddhist teachings, I applied them. Here’s how it helped:

Buddhist value: Patience

Helps when swimming through waves, seaweed, jellyfish and sea lice. So does meat tenderizer and vinegar spray for when, not if, you get stung. It will get better, just keep at it. Upside: You’re not thinking about sharks anymore.

Buddhist Value: Humility

Helps when strangers write your age on your legs for the world to see or when you swallow two mouthfuls of ocean and then accidentally fart sea water in front of an Ironman.

Buddhist value: Mindfulness

Helps when attempting to dismount, after accidentally clipping back in, without falling flat on your face. Take a deep breath, calm yourself, and mutter “fuckfuckfuck” while regaining your balance. Works just like “ohm.”

Buddhist value: Determination

Helps when previously effective goggles stop working and fill up with water. You try to adjust them, realize you’re literally in over your head and can’t remember how to tread water. Either forge ahead or quit. (Hint: Don’t quit. You don’t have to see to swim. Open your eyes every few strokes to make sure you’re not halfway to Mexico. I lived to write about it, so it must have worked.)

Buddhist value: Humor

Helps when viewing pictures of yourself in a two-piece tri suit you bought at Target.

Buddhist value: Compassion

Helps when running in summer heat and giving your all. Feeling gentle and compassionate toward strangers is sometimes easier than directing that love inside. Smile at yourself and provide some inner high-fives. You’re kicking ass when you could be on the couch.

Buddhist value: Gratitude.

Helps when crossing the finish line, feeling strong, injuries a distant memory, and with the knowledge you’ve done your absolute best.

I had a blast and hugged my husband at least twice. I didn’t even think about my times, genuinely surprised to learn I placed third in my age group.

I climbed up on that podium, smiled, and flashed a peace sign, proudly wearing my tri-suit from Target. I think the Buddha would be proud.