Happy or Fast?
by Sarah Barber
I turned forty last fall, and now that I’ve aged like a fine wine, I’ve had to shift my focus to match that same kind of quality. Quality in my training routine, yes, but also quality of life, and that’s where this question of “happy or fast” arises. The concept has been brewing for years, as it has been a frequent topic of discussion between one of my best friends and me. She’s an accomplished endurance athlete herself--a pro mountain biker and an Ironman finisher, she’s also a PhD and thus, a critical thinker. But over the past six months, several factors have conspired to bring this debate to the forefront of my consciousness even apart from texting back and forth with my buddy.
For starters, I seem to be surrounded by athletes experiencing the frailty of the human body; temporarily sidelined, they are neither happy nor fast. A herniated disc here. A separated shoulder there. Don’t even start on cardiac dysrhythmias. It’s enough to make me want to smother myself in KT Tape and bubble-wrap while I cling to the illusion of invincibility that is youth. Clearly, sport is a frigid and murky sea of risks that might not yield the reward of happiness.
Despite these risks, I decided to shed the comfortable insulation of my metaphorical wetsuit and plunge headfirst into the question “happy or fast.” Could I keep swimming until I found my answer? Would I rather be happy, or would I rather be fast? My quick answer: “Both!” But can the two co-exist? And more alarming, are the two mutually exclusive?
Fast feels awesome. Fast might win races. Fast might invite sponsorship and admiration from peers, but if fast results in happiness, it’s usually fleeting. The SnapChat of emotions, happiness as a consequence of being fast lasts about as long as the sprint that produced it.
Sometimes being fast isn’t even possible. Mental fortitude withers under pressure. The body defies the will by offering muscle cramps or GI distress instead of a new PR. A double-flat or a dropped chain costs a victory. And then there’s that annoying fast-enough-to-win-a-race, but still slower-than-goal-pace. Only slightly more annoying is faster-than-hoped-for-pace, but somebody-else-crosses-the-finish-line-first. In these circumstances, being fast isn’t fast enough, and being fast doesn’t correlate to being happy.
So when there is a choice—and there always is—I choose happy.
If being fast is about a goal, then being happy is about a process. While most competitive athletes are goal-oriented almost to a fault, most of us also really enjoy the process of training and preparing for our events. Consider the process of training, day after day, all in the interest of a mere handful of days each season when there is a race—a goal. On those days, we convince ourselves that being fast really matters. It doesn’t. What matters more is that we are happy with our process—that we enjoy paddling through sometimes frigid water, or turning ourselves inside out to stay on the wheel of the scooter in front of us, or gasping through 800-meter repeats on the track.
There are days when a workout feels more like a burden, but I promise you that the minute the strain of the process outweighs the joy of it, I will abandon this sport so abruptly and so violently that my Garmin won’t know what hit it. Also, there will be a flash sale on eBay for those of you who are still out there killing it. Let’s face it: we’ve spent enough on gear to equal the gross domestic product of a small nation.
But happiness can’t be bought. It can’t be trained. It can only be lived. It is magnetic, it draws people in, and it makes people want whatever it is that’s making you smile (hint: it’s not being fast). Being happy is winning every time—the other way around doesn’t work. Are you winning? I am. Every day!