People always ask why I do triathlons. They are particularly curious about Ironman as it is so demanding and 'extreme' in their minds. I have thought about this for a long time and the answers are many but one clear reason I would like to talk about is what the sport gives to me. What I learn about myself, if you will. There is something about doing something very challenging that gives a person piercing insight into what he/she is really made of. Triathlon is really a microcosm of life and I find I learn and re-learn lessons in a profound way as I participate in the sport.
Last Sunday's Ironman Arizona was a day of some deep learning for me and I want to share some insights that will hopefully provide some perspective and maybe even help anyone that chooses to read and think about these concepts. They are really life lessons for me and I find these experiences help me way beyond the actual swimming, biking and running. In no particular order….
Planning and preparation are essential. The logistics and preparation just to race are daunting. Getting the right stuff at the right time while not having too much is a combination of science and art. I think I packed and repacked my equipment three times. I also got my bike checked and rechecked to make sure it was in perfect running order. I ended up having a few too many things on the bike and in my special needs bag but nothing major. I also spend my time writing out my race plan. My race "mantras" and thinking about what I thought could happen and how I would respond. I especially knew that there would be several times in the race where I would ask myself, "Why in the WORLD are you doing this! Stop! Quit and it will all be better." I prepared for those moments and decided BEFORE that I would not listen to those voices. I have also found in life that when you prepare for challenges and decide first how to respond and how you will overcome, it makes all the difference. A close friend always says, "Adventure and doing amazing things always come with hardship and sacrifice. It is just the price you pay." (thanks, Mark Bishop). Plan and prepare for it and you will overcome.
Sometimes plans don't work. Despite pretty good planning, I ended up having some stomach issues for the 1/2 the bike and most of the run. Something happened to my nutrition plan, even though it had seemed to work fine during all my long days training prior to the race. I had to make some changes on the fly, not knowing if they were going to work. I chose to back off the nutrition, at the risk of bonking, until I felt better. On the third lap as we were coming out of the reservation, a dog decided the stream of cyclists going by were a threat and he attacked us - he hit a cyclist a few yards ahead of me. Fortunately the cyclist stayed upright but he ran over the dog's leg… I, and others, had to swerve to miss the dog and avoid a wreck. You just can't plan for that!
You never know who will help you. Keep your eyes open. Although the race conditions were almost perfect, it felt hot as I started the run. I was tired and the sun had been out all day. I started to tell myself that "I could just walk this thing and it would be OK" - a sure sign of giving up. As I was resigning myself to walking, I saw a sign that said, "You are Stronger Than you Think." It was not a new saying to me - I have heard it before. But there was something about reading it at that moment that stuck with me. It motivated me. I believed it, and it worked. That random person has no idea the impact they had on me. Thankfully, I was aware enough to notice… I stopped walking and started to run again.
Family and friends are powerful motivators. Both are powerful and they have different positive effects. My family saw me 10 times during the race. It's amazing how I could find them - hear their voices and see their faces amidst the sea of people and noise. There is some deep truth in that, if you think about it. They ran back and forth over the Mill Avenue bridge to see me over and over on the run - especially when I needed it. Seeing them made me happy (another real truth) and move a little quicker and forget about the aches and pains I was feeling. It was like a jolt of caffeine and a motorized scooter all at once! As for friends, I saw Joe Zitar twice - both at really pivotal times. I saw my bike mechanic and even my physio therapist, Nate Snell, working at a aid station. He gave me a big hug and pushed me forward. Friends say things that family can't sometimes. Like 'suck it up' - 'You aren't dying' - things you probably know but can't admit it to yourself. They provide a candor that you really need sometimes. And I needed it on Sunday!
Lose yourself in times of trouble. It's so easy when you do a race like Ironman to get completely focused on yourself. It is inherently a selfish sport, unless you make a concerted effort otherwise. During the race, you hurt! You feel like quitting. Your muscles ache and you want to scream out and tell anyone that will listen. That is exactly the time where you must lose yourself and focus on other things. I like to talk to people around me. Make jokes about how hard it is. Try to get distracted and help someone else. I met so many wonderful people over the almost 14 hours or Ironman Arizona and I wouldn't have done so had I not forgotten about myself for a while. To me this illustrates one of life's greatest paradoxes - lose yourself and you will find yourself. True happiness seems to come from helping others instead of focusing on your own problems, needs and wants. I always remember this during a triathlon race...
Live in the moment. We all know this but so few of us practice it on a regular basis. Bottom line is it is so easy to take for granted the here and now, focusing on past mistakes or future plans. I knew this would happen during the race and I resisted it. When I caught myself thinking too much about how man miles or laps I still had to go, I clawed back into the 'now' and looked around at the beauty in my backyard. At the other racers and volunteers doing their thing. It was so wonderful so see so many people pushing for a similar goal and supporting each other. As the sun set at dusk, I was running around Tempe town lake. The city started to light up and the shadows on the mountains were simply gorgeous! As it got darker, there was a full moon to light our way through the course. What a blessing.
Things will get better and conversely, things can get worse. I am not sure why but it feels like we humans believe that whatever is happening at any moment or however we feel will stay that way forever. When we feel great and things are going well, we believe that it will always be that way. Also, when things are bad, there is a crisis, etc., we act as if it will never get better. It is really not that way at all. Things always change - sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. We have to learn to expect it - to not overreact and become irrational when things are good or falling into a deep depression when things stink. We need to remember, things will change. After the first lap of the bike, I felt invincible. Things were going very well and everything was clicking. I told myself, "this is great but it will probably change!" Sure enough, half way into the second lap, I started to feel sick to my stomach and didn't feel so good. I dealt with a sick stomach the rest of the day but I was able to overcome it towards the end of the run.
We are tempted and challenged when we are at our worst, not at our best. Despite all the support from family, friends and strangers, there were parts of the race where I felt utterly alone. The Beeline highway is beautiful but it can be barren when you are out there by yourself. As Tempe got dark during the run, there were stretches of pavement where the lights were dim and there was no one to push you along. Those are the most challenging times of the race. Those are the times where I had to dig very deep and remember the end goal. It reminds of how in life we seem to be 'tempted' (if you are religious like me) or challenged when you are at your worst. It's easy to be good when things are good. It's hard when they are hard. Lonely parts of the course, etc.
Don't get too cute or cocky or you will be put into your place. This has always been the case for me. Ever since I was a kid, anytime I thought I was too cool or could do no wrong, things would come crashing down - it seems like clockwork. As I was finishing the race, coming through the finisher chute, I got so excited my brain told me to do a little cute dance as I finished…. Mistake. I twisted my knee and ankle! It was my only injury of the whole race… Note to self, don't try to be too cute!
There are more nuggets of truth I learned during the race but some are reserved for just me. I end by saying I am extremely thankful for the support, love and assistance I received to even get to the start line, let alone the finish. It has been a wonderful journey and I loved every minute of it.