The Four Stages of Athlete

The more races and challenges I attend, and the more newbie athletes I watch develop, the more I see the pattern of growth falling into four stages. Some people stay in one stage their entire lives, some blow through all of them in the blink of an eye.

We usually start out from a place of boredom and a sedentary lifestyle. We break out of it, start looking at fitness, find our first race and enter:

Stage 1: The Hobbyist


Having fun, racing with friends, but not taking the racing or the training all that seriously. This stage can be ingrained enough that I have read several running training books that say something like, “Keep your daily training under 30 minutes. This is just a hobby, you don’t want it to become a job!”

Many people stay here, and that is fine. Many add fun silly touches to it, tutus, silly wigs, costumes. Keeping fit, having fun, who can fault that?

But a few of us continue to:

Stage 2: The Explorer


Oh, Warrior Dash was a good time, what else can I try? Ooooh, if I do three Spartans I get a special medal. I can do that. How hard could it be? And I want to try a marathon. Dean Karnazes’ write-up of the Western States 100 sounded awesome. I wonder if I could work up to that? Wait, what is GORUCK? What is Badass Dash? How many of these can I fit in before my loved ones put out a missing person’s report on me?

The Explorer is a fun stage. Having discovered some cool new things that you like, you develop a borderline obsession with finding out what else is out there, and trying to do it all. Eventually things are divided into done it, couldn’t get to it, and still working on it. The still working on it challenges lead you into the next stage:

Stage 3: The Knight Errant

knight errant

In this stage you are going toe-to-toe with challenges that are a little bit tougher than you are. You want to prove what you can do. You train hard, make many people wonder why you want it that badly, and your failures, even small ones, tend to hit you hard. You fall down, get irritated with yourself, get back up, and go at it again. And while you may not get it the second time, you keep hammering at it until you do.

As you conquer some and are beaten back by others of the various challenges you enter, one of two things will happen: You will eventually have your fill and go back to one of the earlier stages, or you will move on to:

Stage 4: The Warrior Monk

warrior monk

This stage, from the outside, looks similar to the Knight Errant, tough challenges, heavy-duty training. But inside, much different. You no longer worry about proving yourself. You know what you can do, what you have done, where you have failed, where you are still developing. You are calmer, more focussed, but even more fanatical in working toward your goals.

Challenges at this point tend to develop to the level that would cause the Hobbyist to swoon. 48 hour trail runs. Events with “Death” “Suck” or “Hell” in the name. Events that require you to carry survival gear. Events that even previous finishers tell you that they would never go through that kind of torture again.

It has become less about proving what you are and more about building yourself into what you want to be. Using your self-training and challenges to remake yourself, the way fire and hammer blows remake iron ore into a sword. The bragging nature of the earlier stages has left now, replaced with frank discussions of what you have done. Less, “Oh, I did this, isn’t that badass,” and more, “Yeah, they gave us a 15 mile forced march 24 hours in. We made it, but damn did that suck.”

And somewhere along the way, an odd effect comes into play. While your days of calling yourself a badass and holding out your accomplishments for praise are behind you, the recognition now seeks you out. New athletes come to you with questions. You watch them and giggle at, “oh, I remember that stage.” You no longer feel your accomplishments are special, just what you can do if you apply yourself. And you constantly hear that THAT is why they are special.

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