Coming to the Crossroads of Two Loves

By Desiree Ficker – May 14, 2012
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

I have two loves in sport. These two loves have crisscrossed and complimented one another, enabling me to experience some of the most thrilling moments of my life. They have taken me to fascinating places in the world and have awarded me extreme feelings of elation and despair. Competitive running and triathlon require huge levels of commitment, a buckling down of self and a single-minded focus that can interfere with many of life's other “fun” times. I have embraced every moment of self-imposed suffering along with the friendships acquired and the many warm-spirited souls met along the way. My time in sport has been a gift, something I hope I can have in my life until I am too old to run or “tri” and have to take on a third love…competitive walking!

Triathlon requires diligent time management. Time is always fleeting, so much so that, even during "off" days, there is usually an overwhelming task list to attend to. Meanwhile, your body begs you to ignore this pesky list, shovel down the most fat-filled and highly caloric foods you can get your hands on, and crash into a nap. The days of training full bore are intense and can be emotional, interspersed with crying and woe-is-me moments. It’s not enough that you must push through the earthly elements of heat, bitter temperatures, or rain; on most days, you are also battling a crop of emotions. What little downtime a triathlete has is spent attempting to recoup for the next slugfest. Massage, yoga, foam rolling, and eating take the place of social time out with friends and family. I can only imagine the balancing act life becomes trying to fit this all in while working full-time or having a family.

Once the training is in the bank, racing a triathlon is intricate, exciting, and addictively-wicked fun. Walking up in the dark to the first chummy volunteer for body marking creates a feeling that cannot be replaced; it is the beginning of your adventure. There’s a magnificent adrenaline rush as you begin to anticipate jumping off a dock, shore, or pontoon. The bike is a time to let your thoughts wander, make up time (hopefully), pass your buddy up the road, and fuel your body for the upcoming run. The run is where most of my highs and lows take place. The first few moments off the bike are not enjoyable; images of William “The Refrigerator” Perry often come to mind. I tell myself to be patient for a mile or two and inevitably I begin to feel like I’m running as opposed to dragging an appliance. Getting to the run in a triathlon is markedly rewarding because you have already come so far. You can pat yourself on the back because who at such an ungodly early hour has already swum, ridden a bike, and is off running? There is a collective level of pride attained in every attempt at a triathlon, and crossing the finish line is all that much sweeter because you have suffered not once or twice but THREE times over. It’s a feeling to savor, much like all the food you will be able to consume in the subsequent hours. Bring on the TexMex!!

Run training, like triathlon training, requires a similar mental focus as well as that tenacity to keep pushing through the next pain barrier. However, pure run workouts are less time consuming and allow time for other activities. During my marathon-specific run training, I train twice daily. My workouts include running and an accompaniment of cross training, strength, and core training. In contrast, triathlon training requires three to four workouts a day. Fewer daily workouts provides for a much more balanced life. I should not generalize, though, and say that every runner has more free time. During my times in Boulder, I have seen Japanese runners long-distance walking during their lunch hour. I have never adapted this to my training, though I do think it could be an effective way to get more “time on your feet.” However, there are only so many hours a day you can actually spend on your feet, and muscle breakdown and ligament and tendon wear-and-tear are limiting factors. My body has the tendency to break-down easier under the duress of pure run training. The addition of biking and swimming that you get in triathlon training gives muscle groups a break and relieves tension on ligaments and joints, while the repetitive motion of running requires more diligence when it comes to stretching and eccentric damage control.

The races themselves are a study in contrasts. The bag packed for a running race feels incredibly light, as in “I am so sure I forgot half of my things” when compared to the gear schlepped for a triathlon. I do not miss the chore of lugging my monstrous box containing my 17-pound bike through the parking terminal. Less gear also makes the morning start far more relaxing. I never have to worry about a tire exploding at the last minute, forgetting a bike shoe, or having my wetsuit zipper rip up the back ten minutes before the gun (yes, this has happened!). At the start of a running race, I look at the people green with stress and think if they had been through a triathlon start, they’d be jumping for joy right now.

Then there’s the pain; the pain in a run race, particularly a long one such as a marathon, is more of a gradual build toward constant pain as opposed to the highs and lows interspersed within a triathlon. I often spend the first ten miles of a marathon in total enjoyment because my legs feel so light and fresh after a proper taper. It’s synonymous to the feeling of getting away with something when you are a kid. I love it. The feeling of discomfort, though, sets in quickly, like an attack, as the repetitive motion at a high intensity gradually begins to grind your muscle to pulp, and you must reach into your box of tricks to keep moving forward at the same speed. The pain in the last few miles of a marathon can be equated to a thoroughbred running out of steam, while the finish of a triathlon is more like a work horse whose plow is becoming too heavy to bear. Both have extremely rewarding finish lines with metal blankets, lovely volunteers willing to literally handle your sweat, and all sorts of delicious-looking food you would not normally dream of eating. And then the soreness sets in. The soreness from a tri is much more glute and quad-based, accompanied by chafing in the neck and thighs. A marathon aftermath is more of an evenly dispersed leg pain with less chafing and sunburn but more of an “I just got whupped” feeling. I find myself thinking about my next tri within mere minutes of crossing the line whereas there is something more intense about the marathon pain that keeps it fresh in my memory.

See you at the races!

Desiree Ficker began running at an early age with the encouragement of her parents, avid track and field fans. By age nine, Ficker was competing in cross country/track and field at the Junior Olympic level. Her running career continued throughout high school and college, where she ran on scholarship for the University of Alabama. After completing her degree in 1998, Ficker was inspired by watching the triathlon Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, and began competing as an amateur while teaching and coaching in Maryland. In 2001, Ficker began her professional triathlete career, moving to the Colorado Olympic Training center for training. She moved to Austin eight ago, where she has continued her racing career as both a professional triathlete and runner. In addition, Ficker has also founded the Ma Ficker Foundation, which raises money for colon cancer research, in honor of her mother.



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