Tastes like diesel, smells like chihuahua: A day in the life of a professional triathlete

"Can I have your autograph, sir?"

I looked around me. A small boy was staring straight at me with hand outstretched, holding a small pad of paper and pen. He was nervous and uncomfortable, yet enraptured by all of the exotic foreign athletes around him. As it happens, so was I.

It took me a moment to figure out it was MY signature that he was after. I've never been asked for my autograph before. Probably never will be again. But for that one brief moment, I was interesting enough to warrant a request for something that would last longer than our conversation, longer than the race, potentially even longer than myself. I smiled, tried to pen something stylish, and handed it back.

That night, when the little boy looked back on his day at the triathlon race, he may have compared his collected signatures with a copy of the race results. If he did, my best scrawl probably ended up in the waste paper basket. At the end of my day, however, that signature kept me awake, thinking. I wondered what it is that fascinates us so about professional athletes. And I wondered about my own life, as a triathlete attempting to shoulder the implications and associations of the word "professional."

The life of a professional triathlete is a mysterious one, rife with myth and stereotype. A professional baseball player probably doesn't live in your hometown, but a professional triathlete might. Do you know what makes these people tick? Do they go home and drink Clif Shot shakes all night and sleep in hyperbaric chambers? Do their children have superior stamina and their wives exceptional lung capacity? Wives: Do they even have wives? Or husbands?

Just like the first Ironman competitors in the late 1970s, the world may never understand us. Upon the conclusion of my first year as a "professional," sometimes I feel like I don't even understand us, whoever we are. I do know that many conceptions of the professional triathlete are false, at least as far as my experiences are concerned, and I'm here to set the record straight. So clear your head of all that you know about your friendly local professional, and allow me to take you on a guided tour of my own season as a pro.

Which brings us to Professional Triathlete Myth #1: Professional triathletes lead glamorous, pampered lives.

First off, not all professionals are at the very pinnacle of our sport. Take me, for instanceI have done well enough to meet the requirements of a pro card, but there are some who would argue I should not be out there competing with Simon Lessing, Chris McCormack, and Craig Walton. I would argue that I am not really competing, per se, I am just using the same course at roughly the same time. I can hold my own at the PenVelo club ride down on the peninsula, and I've been known to lead the lane during swim practice, but I'm not world-class and I know that. I'm not alone, either we're the minor leaguers in a sport with only two divisions, amateur and professional. So we take our swings with the big boys and dream of one day making the big jump, all the while trying to Figure This Thing Out.

I turned pro for a single reason to attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials. To make the trials, you need a world ranking, and to get a ranking, you need points. How do you get points? You scour the calendar looking for International Triathlon Union points races in such impossible places as Ishigaki and Tiszaujvaros, then you get out your passport and schlep your stuff there to do battle. If you're fit and fast and sometimes lucky, you'll crack the top ten and get some coveted points. Otherwise, you're closer to the poverty line but potentially have some good stories about trying to say "electrolyte replacement powder" in Spanish.

In pursuit of points but not good enough to be competitive in the big-name ITU races, I selected a mid-April triathlon in Guatemala as my indoctrination into the world of draft-legal points races. I reasoned that the top pros wouldn't bother coming to this one with other races offering points in more palatable locales, so I boarded the plane with world rankings dancing in my head ... albeit procured through the back door.

Little did I know that many other pros, most of them notably faster than myself, had this same idea. Because of the unexpected popularity of the race, all of the homestays were taken but the race director's son, Willy, offered to let me stay at their house. While the other pros spent restful nights in beds of their own, I spent one night on the couch with a chihuahua resting comfortably on my stomach and one night accidentally stepping on another chihuahua in the dark on the way to the bathroom. In case you are wondering, chihuahuas are not quiet creatures when trodden upon.

I had arrived a few days early, so the race director himself drove me to the quaint colonial town of Antigua to spend a day cavorting with the Spanish-language students and other tourists. I went for a training run along the narrow cobblestone streets and found myself vying for space with big diesel trucks with zero emissions requirements. Good thing I was tapering for the race, because anything more than that half hour would have killed me. I mentally consulted the scorecard: So far I had a severe kink in my neck from a night on a couch infested with hyper chihuahuas and possible emphysema from breathing pure engine exhaust. I was feeling neither glamorous nor pampered.

Race day, along with all of the other athletes, finally arrived, and we were transferred from the din and ruckus of Guatemala City to the heat and squalor of Puerta San Jose, the race site 100 kilometers to the west. I was transferred in a private vehicle because the bus couldn't hold everyone, but that was OK because the car had air conditioning and could do more than 30 miles per hour up the hills. Even better, we would be staying in a resort hotel in San Jose perhaps my luck was changing. I braced for an avalanche of perks.

The ITU points race followed the local age group race on Sunday morning, with a swim start at 11:30 a.m. sharp. How wonderfulwe'd be racing during the hottest part of the day, on a course devoid of trees. Never have I been more uncomfortable in my life: The harbor's water was 89 degrees for the swim, and the air temperature was a stifling 108. I had arrived on the star-studded stage of my first international high-stakes triathlon, and my heart was at AT simply trying to keep my organs from failing. The Brazilians went by me, the Mexicans went by me, even the Canadians went by me as I trudged, deliriously, toward the finish line. All delusions of earning points fled my mind and I re-focused on simply not passing out.

About the only positive thing I can say about the "race" is that it finally ended. I had toed the line with some of the best in the world, and they had soundly thumped me. With tail tucked between my legs, I sheepishly made my way back to the hotel and arrived just in time to watch the waiters clear the dinner buffet. Sheesh.

But wait: We still had to get back to Guatemala City. As with the drive out to San Jose, there was not enough room in the bus so I ended up in a car driven by the race director himself. As luck would have it, the power had gone out in town (a regular occurrence, I would later learn), and there was no gasoline to be bought for dozens of miles for our thirsty vehicle.

The next three hours were spent sitting in a dark parking lot of the local navy base, waiting for someone to find enough gas somewhere to get us home. Thoroughly dehydrated and exhausted, I finally made it onto the couch with my beloved chihuahuas at 1:30 in the morning, a fitting end to another glamorous day in the life of a mediocre professional triathlete.

Jeff Henderson is a regular contributor to Slowtwitch.com

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