More Than Numbers

More Than Numbers

More Than Numbers
Written by Coach Amanda McCracken

Upon returning home from my disappointing Boulder Peak Olympic distance triathlon last summer, I was greeted by my housemate with, “Hail to the conqueror!” In tears I responded, “Thanks, but, I sucked! I croaked on the run and was nine minutes off my best time on that course.” “But you finished!” she continued, sincerely impressed with my effort of which I thought very little. In my head I didn’t think it was enough to have finished. Having competed in many triathlons of varying distances, my perspective had changed and I was at a loss to know how to measure my success. I struggled to feel good about my two hour and 39 minute effort after five months of training geared to succeed at that particular race by bettering my time. I had left myself no other way to measure success and had downplayed my effort despite the 100 degree heat. I cynically concluded that competing and training was a gamble, like playing the stock market: you never know if what you are investing will make a profit, break even or go belly up. My oversimplified analogy was not a fair comparison. In order to properly gauge my success, I had to reflect on what makes me “me”. At the time, I believed in the statement “what I do is who I am” rather than “who I am is what I do”. In other words, I should have realized that how I value myself determines my performance and not, how I perform determines my self worth.

Are we too focused on what we are achieving (numbers) rather than who we are becoming? We have to slow down long enough to see whether our activities and goals support our purpose in life. Have you identified your life purpose and your related purpose in doing triathlons? We should identify a variety of targets and goals for triathlon that are both consistent with our life philosophy and fluid enough to be measurable based on our potential at a given moment.

To compartmentalize or to thread

Defining the “who” in the success equation is what seems most significant. It seems perfectly natural to me as a triathlete to compartmentalize my definition; after all, I do this for each of the three disciplines. I’m assuming that very few readers of this magazine identify themselves as solely athletes. Many are professionals, parents, spouses, volunteers, students, etc. Does one’s definition of success have to be tailored differently for each role? To succeed as an athlete means achieving X; to be a successful mother is to be Y; and to succeed in a profession is to perform Z. Or, is there a thematic thread that weaves the roles together to support an overarching purpose in life?

Abraham Maslow’s theory says that once we have secured the basics of our hierarchy of needs (air, safety, food, means, security, love and belonging) we are left to reach for the ultimate goal of human existence: to be self-actualized. This is the thread. This means to be involvedin identifying and fulfilling our life’s purpose by utilizing our potential. Isn’t this process what we, as triathletes, need to employ to define our personal success?

Potential and the moment

Becoming self-actualized is a progressive act that often requires one to stop and consider potential in the moment.A former athlete of mine, suffering from severe depression, says “not giving up” is the definition of success for him at the moment. According to two-time Olympian Alan Culpepper, success is doing his best with the potential he has on any given day and having the ability to shift perspectives as his potential changes. There is a necessity to consider “the moment” in each of these definitions.

Purpose set: now what are you going to do?

Measuring success in the sport of triathlon is difficult because there are so many factors, many uncontrollable like the weather and our equipment. Balancing three disciplines and the time, intensity, and duration of workouts are other variables to be thrown into the success equation. However, a prepared athlete ought to have a variety of targets and goals that are controllable.

Targets are statements of what we physically want. Consider the metaphor Bobby McGee uses in his book, Magical Running: Targets are like magnets that pull us along in a particular direction. Consider the possible following targets:

-win your age group at a particular race

-qualify for Kona

-finish in the top 10% of a race

-improve your power output on the bike

-improve your lactate threshold on the run

-improve your mechanics in a discipline

-increase your heart rate at which you enter your lactate threshold

-finish a season injury free

-complete a new distance

-improve your time on a familiar course

-register for a race!

-feel comfortable in own body half-naked body in public

-set a variety of goals unrelated to time or place!

-incorporate more family time in your training

Goals, McGee says, are characteristics that you require to achieve targets. For example, in order to achieve target X, I need to practice and exhibit the A, B, and C characteristics in competition, training, and daily life. These characteristics might sound like, “I need to be assertive, love my body, and remember I have options as situations change.”

Goals should create awareness, serve a purpose (not hold you back), and be realistic but high. Remind yourself of these goals during the day, not just prior to and during competition. Try writing down key words to create a steady script in your head to remind yourself of the characteristics you are seeking to embody. For example, you might repeat, “body love, assert, options” in your head during training and racing. Better yet, write them on your body during a race!

Writing it down

Go ahead, the registrations are opening and there is a buzz in the air of a rapidly approaching new triathlon season. Before you rush online to sign up for a fistful of races, overestimating your body’s potential, your available training hours and your family’s patience, take time to identify how you will define success this season. There is an endless list of possibilities, but how many of us clearly state these before the start of a season?

1. Identify your purpose in life and then specifically in the sport of triathlon. Answer the question, “Why do I do triathlons?” Write it down!

2. Write down three targets that address your purpose in doing triathlons (for this season) and take ownership of those targets. Don’t create a target based on someone else’s expectation.

3. Write down three goals for each target. Consider the question, “How do I want to feel and act before, during and after a race?”

4. When determining success for the season or a race, focus on who you are now and are becoming rather than what you are achieving (place and time) which is a very narrow perspective on success. Why limit your chances of feeling good about yourself?


It’s easy to lose perspective on why we train and why we started doing our sport in the first place. It takes a step outside the athletic world of age group rankings, lactate threshold data and race times to better understand one’s athletic identity (the who) and appreciate the exploratory beauties of the sport (the why) that often get buried beneath the gear, race schedules and statistics. When finding success in consistency seems impossible (due to uncontrollable factors) and finishing a race doesn’t seem significant anymore, remember overall success equates to a combination of achievements at particular moments and actualizing one’s purpose. When you feel like the permanent marked race number on your arm makes you just that, a number, remember who you are and where you’ve been. These, not your race statistics, make you a success.

Amanda McCracken is a triathlete, coach, and freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado. She coaches individuals to success at and can be reached at


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