Me, Triathlon, and the Seven Deadly Sins

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Me as Aileen, my alter-ego in the Society for Creative Anachronism. What does this have to do with triathlon, you ask? Bear with me awhile and we’ll get there.

Over the past 9 months, while triathlon training, I learned a lot about how I handle physical stresses. At one point I compared the training to being pregnant, with similar emotional reactions to the physical demands. At another point, I felt that I was being assailed by the Seven Deadly Sins.

The first sin I had to deal with was Fear, or rather, Cowardice. Fear itself is a totally legitimate survival mechanism, Cowardice is a sin which isn’t on the classic list, but it should be! So I’ll combine avarice and envy to make room for it. Biking was scary! I was afraid of being dropped off the tail of the group rides and being lost in the wilds of Pungo, afraid of clipping into the pedals, afraid of falling and crashing, and therefore afraid to draft too closely. Forget anything resembling a peleton, I didn’t want to be closer than 10 feet! Fortunately, my friends didn’t let me get lost, and the times I fell, usually from a dead stop, I realized that it wasn’t all that bad, just a little embarrassing to lie there like a cockroach with the bike, still attached to my feet, on top of me. And in triathlon, drafting isn’t legal, so I didn’t feel too pressured to learn how to draft. It took until the last two weeks before the race to develop the bike-handling skills enough to overcome most of my bike fear, which was cutting it terribly close. But it all came together there at the end, especially when I did the two shorter races, MonticelloMan in Charlottesville and Kinetic Sprint on Lake Anna, which were both on hilly courses, and enjoyed those legs the most of the three.

A lot of my fear came from the sin of Pride, fearing that I would fail and embarrass myself, fear that I wouldn’t comport myself as well as I thought that I should. I was used to being at a certain level in running, and now I was far back in the pack. I realized how much it bothered me to be “not good” at something.

Anger quickly followed, or more often, Anger’s minions, Irritated and Annoyed. Wounded pride made me cranky, as did fatigue. Nurses talk about being “hangry,” angry from being hungry. I felt “fangry,” angry from being fatigued, all too often. When my co-workers commented on it, it was time to take a couple of rest days and eat more.

Which brings me to Sloth and Gluttony, which presented themselves differently in this situation. Sloth came up with excuses to not push myself in workouts, which was fairly easily managed. Much worse was the way Sloth encouraged me in mental laziness, not paying full attention to the world around me. Like Sloth, Gluttony is easily justified when you’re burning an extra 5000 calories a week, but now it also got all subtle-like. C.S. Lewis wrote about a different kind of gluttony, a kind of over-delicacy, saying “oh no, I could never eat THAT!” which is probably more what athletes are prone to, always looking for the perfect diet. Or instead, feeling smug if we do have iron bellies and can eat anything and still perform.

So, what’s left? Ah, Lust. I forget that one, because it’s the only one that wasn’t a problem. Okay, TMI, move along, nothing to see here, these are not the droids you are looking for…………

And finally, Avarice/Envy. They really aren’t the same thing, but as I said earlier, I wanted to squash Cowardice in there. Avarice, or Greed, is always wanting more. “Just one more” hill repeat, or interval, lap in the pool, or mile on the bike, can be a real problem. It’s hard to maintain discipline to stop when the workout is done. As my mother would pray: “May she know when to stop.” On race day, the answer is obvious – 5 feet on the other side of the finish line, duh! But on training day, that extra lap might be a really bad idea. Avarice could also combine with Sloth to present as a kind of obsession, where I couldn’t think about anything else, which wasn’t exactly fair to my family, patients, or coworkers.

And really, finally, Envy, the green-eyed monster! This is one of the hardest for me to deal with, and like Pride, the most painful. I readily admit to “bike envy,” admiring the sleek light beautiful tri bikes, with the tubeless tires and aero bars. It’s too easy to envy my friends’ performance also, their speed cutting through the water, their grace on their bikes, and their running stride. 

So, now the Seven Deadlies are identified, how did I, and how will I, face them?

One of the things I did in the SCA was fight, armor up in leather and metal plate, and have at it with bamboo swords. Here’s a picture of a group of us at war – I’m in the middle back, in the big straw hat, and you can’t see my armor, but it was definitely there!

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One of the best tournaments I remember was the Tournament of the Seven Deadly Sins. Different fighters played the parts of the different sins, and we took turns challenging them, or being challenged in various ways. For example, there was a Friday night pre-tournament party, and Lust and Gluttony showed up the next day with all the party attendees in tow as their new minions. I came to the tournament after a night shift, so in my sleep-deprived state, all I could do was laugh when I was attacked by Wrath’s minions, Irritated and Annoyed. Lady Temperance chose to recognize this as an effective defense, and awarded me the win. Interestingly, for some time after this tournament, I noticed that I was much more even-tempered and less likely to grouch and snap.

One principle of cognitive behavioral therapy is that habits and behaviors can’t just be stopped, they must be replaced. The Seven Deadly Sins must be replaced by Virtues: Fear with Courage, Pride with Humility, Anger with Temperance, Sloth with Diligence, Gluttony with Patience, Lust with Chastity, Avarice with Generosity, and Envy with a mix of all the above. It takes practice, and lots of reminders. I’ll always be a work in progress, but I’m enjoying the process, both in life and in training.

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