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September 7, 2007

The Dog You Feed (Part 3)

One administrative note before finishing this series: thanks to everyone who contributed comments or e-mail in response to the last two posts. When I started, I wasn’t really sure where they would lead me. My primary goal was to throw some ideas out there, and hopefully trigger some sort of thought process beyond typical tri-blog fare. Thankfully it worked – so well, in fact, that much of what I’m going to say here has already been mentioned in comments to the last two posts.

However, it’s about time for me to wrap this thing up, so we can resume the normal frivolity next week. And so …


Day in and day out, I like to think that I generally pick the right dog to feed. However, there are times when I find myself wondering.

Although I usually keep my act together, there are days when the line between doing the right thing and feeding my destructive dog feels razor thin. My customarily stable footing sometimes feels like a tightrope - like it might only take one poor decision or lapse of judgment to throw me off balance and drop me into the abyss (not necessarily to the degree of DMX or my convicted swindler acquaintance – my problems are relative small potatoes - but it’s nerve-racking nevertheless).

That’s where my training comes in handy. Like many other endurance athletes, I find that one of the most effective methods of feeding my good dog is to put myself through a solid workout.

Each day I decide to exercise, take another small step towards my goals, to prepare myself for an upcoming challenge, it feels like I’m feeding my good dog. Each workout reinforces the value of discipline, ambition, and determination towards a worthwhile task. There’s also a carryover effect, in that it seems to trigger the right behavior in other areas of my life as well. Strengthening my body is a vehicle by which I empower my will.

(Anecdotally, there’s a whole psychological theory of addiction to support this idea. Most of us know someone who was a former smoker or substance abuser, who now pours the same energy and compulsive behavior traits into something more beneficial – like exercise. But that’s probably all that my two undergraduate psych courses qualify me to explain with any kind of authority. Let's move on ... )

Yet, for others – like my former training partner - workouts and races have the opposite function. Triathlon is a parallel world where personal faults or shortcomings are overlooked or justified. In many cases, the compulsion to train is merely a coping mechanism for something more serious – like willful ignorance of work or family stress, compensation for perceived shortcomings, desperation for peer approval, or something more ominous.

Triathlon should be a fun escape from everyday life. It’s a joyful diversion, and a healthy competitive outlet. But it’s not salvation. And when it’s used to provide asylum in avoidance of personal issues, it can be a destructive dog unto itself.

And that’s the final twist to this extended parable: the notion that we not only have to choose which dog to feed, but also recognize which dog is in fact the good one, and which is destructive. Telling the difference isn’t always as easy as it seems.

So the question is …where is the line that indicates when training goes from being fun to being a cause for concern? And more importantly - have I already crossed it?

I ask myself this question a lot, and I come up with a different answer almost every time.

On one hand, I’m completely hooked on triathlon, and I enjoy the training process. I love how exercising and racing makes me feel. I love the lessons the sport teaches me about myself, and how it helps me relate to others. I love how it shapes my perception of the world.

On the other, a strong case could be made that I’m addicted to having a workout regimen - and being an addict of any manner probably isn’t the healthiest way to thrive. It leaves me just one injury or accident away from being chronically withdrawn or depressed, and fosters an overly inflated sense of importance about every workout or race. It also steals time and energy from the more meaningful and productive things I could be doing.

(To summarize it another way, from my family’s standpoint: when I’m in training mode, I’m a much more enjoyable person to be around - but I’m not around nearly as much as I should be. Call it the triathlete’s version of a Catch-22)

We all have different rationales for our training – and on the surface, it’s impossible for anyone to judge the motivations of another. So the responsibility for identifying and feeding the proper dog lies with the individual. It all comes down to the decisions we make: countless small ones on a daily or hourly basis, which reinforce where our priorities lie, and whether our purposes are noble.

I’m fairly certain that for the vast majority of triathletes, the sport provides them far more benefits than drawbacks. Yet in the back of my mind, I’ll always recognize that some of us dedicate ourselves to the sport for the wrong reasons.

I don’t ever want to fall into that latter category - and that's the daily tightrope I walk. I guess the trick is to know which side of the fence you want to stand on, then be constantly vigilant to prevent drifting towards the wrong side.

Because it’s important that we continually feed the good dog – but in most cases, that’s the easy part. The more challenging imperative is to ensure that our good dogs always remain good.


Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here


jen 9/7/07, 9:36 AM  

Very interesting posts, Donald, and really well written. I'll let it sink in for a bit... Thanks for sharing your thoughts. :)

Phoenix 9/7/07, 10:23 AM  

I think we all have both good reasons and bad reasons for training. Makes the water muddy - but the pursuit of discerning the good from the bad and nuturing the good is a lifelong thing.

I would venture to say that those who continually feed the wrong dog - intentionally or not - do not put the same amount of thought into the distinction that you do.

Deene 9/7/07, 11:12 AM  

Thanks for sharing the pubby chow series!

Dying Water Buffalo 9/7/07, 11:47 AM  

Brilliant brilliant writing. Post of the week! You articulate so many things I have tried to congnisize in my own mind, training plan, and life. So happy to be reading your blog again. I, too, oscliate btween training being a positive and negative factor. A few of these paragraphs are worthy of being transcribed in my "inspiration journal" (cheesy but hey). :)

Paul 9/7/07, 12:27 PM  

Interesting stuff. Like many things in life, it's about balance, or a lack thereof.

Backofpack 9/7/07, 12:48 PM  

I met a guy once that told me his wife divorced him because she didn't understand his running. Yet, from everything he told me, I think he had slipped over to the point of obsession, and not just for a little while, but for years. It cost him his marriage, and the sad thing is, he sees it, but lays the blame at her door for "not understanding". That sounds like bad dog behavior to me!

I loved this series Donald. Very insightful and thought provoking. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

21stCenturyMom 9/7/07, 2:19 PM  

Well said!

I have no such issue with my training bad dog. For me the bad dog is the one that tries to talk me out of a planned workout - one that has a real purpose in my life. I could sleep in just about any day if I didn't know how to say "bad dog! go lie down while I get up and train!" It is a very bad dog, though and if I don't fight it off I get a case of full blown lethargy so it's good to know the dogs - both the good and the bad.

Spokane Al 9/7/07, 7:59 PM  

I appreciate your comments on positive addiction and obsession with this sport. I suspect we all possess some measure of excess in those areas. After all, I think if we were honest with ourselves, we would agree that training for an IM is not perhaps a bit of overkill.

Someone once said moderation is the key to a happy balanced life. If I truly embraced that I would be marking off my thirty minute, three to four times a week exercise program and calling it good.

Instead I enjoy steady 15 - 25 hour a week training program all year. And I am with you concerning the results of all that training - I am more pleasant to be around, when I am around.

But in the end analysis, I suspect there certainly a loss worse dogs I could be feeding.

miki 9/8/07, 7:28 AM  

I have definitely been on the addict side of training. Primarily 2005 and 2006 to be exact. I was obsessed with training and was pretty unpleasant when I could not get them in. I was having the time of my life too. Racing made me higher than a kite.

Come the end of 2006 and to mid 2007 I was forced to pretty much do nothing due to injury. Luckily, it taught me how to finally sit back and realize that my world would not end if I could no longer train. That I did not *need* the intensive momentum that I had kept up for years. It's very nice actually. I feel more at peace somehow. Not that I don't look forward to getting back up to the level (not competitive mind you, just fitter) that I was last year, but I don't think I feel as manic about it.
Good post. Thanks.

Addy,  9/10/07, 7:01 AM  

Donald, Thanks so much for these posts! I've found them really interesting and do really connect with that idea of positive versus negative obsession, since I am, by nature, a sort of obsessive person (even as a child I would get really into one specific thing, from a television show, to a musical to, now, running). I feel like running has been the healthiest, but you definitely make sacrifices for the training. I was much more regimented when i first started running and have become less so, but at the same time, I'm putting in a lot more hours and probably spending just overall a lot more time doing running related things.

But I feel happier and more stable than I really ever have before, so I'm going to go with this being a good thing :) And hopefully if i slip over that edge, there'll be people who will let me know it, so that I can come back :D

momo 9/10/07, 5:28 PM  

i thought this might be where this was going and i'm glad it did. it took me awhile to comment because i really had to think about this one. so here goes, hopefully it will makes sense.

for me, triathlon is both good dog and bad dog. i am one of those addicts that throws myself in completely - mind/body/soul - often to the detriment of everything around me and personally, i see nothing wrong with it as long as there is intermittent down time to create balance. i have (especially during my training for imfl) spent hours preparing and not just physically. for imfl i wanted to know everything there was to know so that come race day, i wouldn't be caught off guard. i read books, searched the internet for triathlon articles, read blogs, talked to people - you name it, i did it. on one hand, this was good - i was feeding the good dog because triathlon was something that was good for me, mentally and physically, and i went into imfl feeling completely prepared and that felt GOOD.

HOWEVER, i have a family. a family that requires attention and nurturing and clean laundry. i also have a job and friends that aren't into triathlon and don't really understand the desire to ride 100 miles or run 20. so being completely wrapped up in the sport caused problems. big problems. hence the bad dog.

what i have learned through the course of training for cda and since is that its ok for triathlon to be both good dog and bad dog for me as long as each dog gets his time. it's like riding your bike - sometimes you're working to go up and sometimes you get to coast on down. training is the up - the bad dog (according to my family) - where i have to rely on others to understand that i just can't do everything for them all the time, where triathlon completely consumes my life. recovery (between races) is my down - my good dog, where i don't think about racing, triathlon or anything and i just try to enjoy what comes my way.

funny thing though - in reality for me - the training is my good dog and the recovery is my bad dog. and for my family, the training is the bad dog and the recovery is the good dog. each individual's perception of what is good and what is bad is unique i guess when it comes to the sport.

and the other bad dogs - the lying, cheating, doing the illegal thing ones? i try to stay real far away from those ones. if traithlon can be my only bad dog - i might just be ok.

Makita 9/12/07, 7:55 AM  

Excellent!!! :)

a.maria 9/12/07, 10:13 AM  

this is definitely one for me to ponder. i've been thinking a lot lately about my motivation to train, and where it comes from.

i'm not sure i even fully understand it myself.

interesting... very interesting.

olga 9/19/07, 10:02 AM  

Recognizing which dog is a good one is much more difficult than even to decide which dog to feed and following through with it.
I am glad I am back.

ULTRAILNAKAMAN 9/29/07, 5:30 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
ULTRAILNAKAMAN 9/29/07, 5:31 AM  

Went to your blog via Olga, and just read all 3 (now the end of September). Great writing, very thought provoking, applicable to lots of aspects in life, not just the endurance training. Thanks.

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