Triathlon: the Ultimate Self-Reflection

Getting back to Taitung over the weekend marked my 1-year anniversary of triathlon, and 2-year since I first participated in a triathlon relay. Taitung was where the journey started. It is therefore fitting to devote a blogpost (instead of FB it) on the one question that my non-triathlon friends ask constantly: why do you do triathlon?

They ask with various legitimate reasons. They ask because they are my teammates. “Is triathlon more fun than tennis or ultimate frisbee?” They ask because they are my colleagues. “Aren’t you supposed to relax after a gruelling week of lab work and meetings?” Some ask because they know about my herniated discs and Thalassemia  anemia.

Let’s get the simple and straight forward reasons done: for the love of nature and to embrace the God-given-body. To immerse oneself in water, sun, air, and sometimes rain, along with the scenery that mother nature presents, and at the same time exerts (or display) one’s fitness and energy to the fullest, to me is an act of appreciation. It’s fulfilling, gratifying, and exhilarating.

But the reasons go deeper than that.

I love triathlon because it’s the ultimate self-reflection.


Nobody can fool, or get away, in triathlon. It’s a pound for pound, inch for inch, output-comes-from-input sport. It’s unlike tennis where if you don’t have the touch, you can improvise different strategies or rely on talents to get away with a victory. Or you can just luck out and get a weak opponent. It’s unlike basketball, if you have an off-day, you can focus more on assisting, defending, rebounding, and fastbreaks. Even in ultimate if you aren’t feeling the disc, you could do more safe passes, and D hard to get that important interception. In triathlon, there’s no room for alternative get-aways. If you train hard, your time would improve. If you slack off, your legs would let you know. If you don’t sleep properly, as in my case this time, your temporal pulse would hunt you down. It doesn’t matter if you have world class talents or are born wrecked; athletes can’t defy physiology.

Swimming, the first obstacle for most in general. It’s a challenging threshold because it has the highest technical skill requirement, in addition to the fear of swimming in an seemingly bottomless and open-field body of water. I can still recall clearly of how determined I was in preparing for my first tri over a year ago. I knew I had to do 750 M in an open-lake, yet the most I had ever swum in one trial at the time was probably 200 M, in which I alternated between froggy and free-style. Therefore my goal was simple: to free-style 800 M under 20 min, period. I swam twice per week and had to gradually work from sets of 200, 400, 600, and eventually 800 M. Although on game day I couldn’t orient and had to pretty much frog it all, the process leading up to the test gave me strength and confidence. It was through those endless tile watching (man, endurance training in the pool is the most boring one of all) that I could feel my body joints, the pulse on my temporal, the immobile body, and my weakness. Do I have the mentality in me, to overcome the boredom of swimming, and obtain fluidity?


Cycling, the speed limit challenge. Cycling has never been a problem to me. I have always enjoyed cycling since the day I learned how to bike. Cycling was how I participated in my first tri-relay 2 years ago, in the pouring rain. It’s fun to train because of the de-stressing effect of getting out of the lab, and it’s even more exciting to race because of the thrilling speed and the stay-focus-or-you-will-crash-setting in combine. Yet at the same time, without proper training and supplement of energy (or BCAA), the sudden on-set of vulnerability in the legs could lead to helplessness and doubt, leaving little choice but visually bidding farewell to your opponents while they blast you away in seconds. It is scenes like these that makes you wonder, and regret, of how much better it would had faired, had you just pushed yourself that much harder on that last trip out.


Lastly, Running, the grind. My worst enemy of all. In high school the 2 testaments of “strong will” were the start of school Terry Fox Run and the end of the year inter-house cross-country run, both of which were merely 5k. They felt endless back then. Endurance running has been a nightmare all my life. Never could I imagine myself getting off from 40 k cycling and pushing off another 10 k on legs. And there’s one losers’ trap in running: it’s too easy to go slow. Because it’s the last part of the tri, because you’ve already done 1500 M + 40 K, because you pushed too hard on cycling, because the sun is too hot. And when your opponents are surpassing you from behind, you have a few seconds to decide whether to keep up (with the possibility to vomiting in pain in minutes) or sending them off in distress. Running is also the time where your mind can either go blank, or have flashbacks of everything and anything. You try to recall that one time where your legs were feather-light for once and recorded the best time ever, or the gratification of overcoming the most physically demanding trail in a life time, and hopefully these memories could serve as the positive rejuvenators.

Most frequently, ask any triathlete, the body is in Pain during the race. The pains are not necessary derived from injuries; on the contrary, they feel like metaphysical pains. These pains more often act as stimulants, initiators, and messengers, to open conversations with your own body. I describe them as metaphysical because, through mind-body talks, they remind you of the hardship you have endured, how much you have achieved, maybe a little bit of regrets from personal weakness, and at the same time how much more is there, to push. If the great forebears had gone the distance to experience and live to tell their everything-changed-since life and death stories, maybe for me and other triathlon enthusiasts (probably endurance fanatics as well), we do triathlon to go through lapse of mental breakdown and reborn like a spiritual salvation in a relatively safe and controlled manner.

Podium at Kenting

So here I am, a year later after my first half-distance triathlon. Without a doubt I had grown mentally stronger, ever than I could imagine and believe. So I thought personal time wise, my time must had improved. I mean, after all these mental relapses and salvation in more than 10 tri races and road runs, I must had physically improved, if not “transformed,” right?

No, my time this year actually worsened by 2 min compared to my rookie trial last year. For whatever reason. After some calculation, I’ve learned if I were to return to the podium again and make that as my mission in triathlon, I would have to improve by 15 min in the half-distance and 30 min in full. Obviously there’s still room for improvement, but I have a feeling that my vsRBCs (very-small red blood cells) have worked their best. I can probably still extend the distance (Ironman 70.3 in the future?), but probably not increasing the intensity to improve my time, at least not by much.

So maybe there will never be another day for me to make podium. And it’s ok. I would still and always have my own record, my own mind, and myself, to beat, to talk, and most importantly, to reflect.

I can always do triathlon; and that’s grace from God for more than I have ever needed.
Bible Verse

“Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” – 3 John 1:2


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2 Responses to Triathlon: the Ultimate Self-Reflection

  1. Wow, I din’t know you can write this good as well? Such an inspiring piece, makes me want to try out triathlons even when i havent tried racing in a single sport. You end it in a sad way though, turned my 🙂 into :(. All in all, well done and keep pushing.

    • harnh says:

      Thanks Belinda, I’ve always enjoyed writing, just haven’t allocated enough time to do so. Start running or cycling regularly! You’ll understand why it’s so fascinating and addicting. I am really not the first one to write about the addictive nature and the elevated state of mind in doing endurance exercise, there are tons out there, and I’ve been inspired. I am just sharing my part of the love, really.

      You thought I ended it in a sad note? Ha, it’s very interesting that I made you feel so…the anti-climax. But really to me that’s meant for the best. Everyone can enjoy triumph, yet how many can cherish a downturn? Of course I’d be extremely happy if I didn’t have thalassemia anemia and my endurance can improve with training and time, but just like the underlying message of this article, on the surface it talks about triathlon, yet there’s a lot more than just triathlon. In a way I’m glad I could embrace what I considered as the more important value, and thus, “I ain’t sad, so don’t you be!”

      Keep pushing, like you said.

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