Last week I did something pretty special. I did something that I never would have imagined I’d ever do, nor did I think it would be possible. I achieved a major milestone, crossed off a bucket list item, reached a life goal. Last week, I competed in a triathlon for the first time.
I’ve talked a little bit about it before (you can read about it here, here and here) and I’ve shared some insights into my journey on Instagram, but now that I am on the other side of it, things look different. Back in December, I made the impulse decision to sign up for a triathlon after spending years of never having done any organized races of any kind. It all stemmed from a silly post-it note list of things I aspired to do by the time I was 30 years old. I wrote the list when I was fresh out of my teens. I had very few life experiences, but the one thing I did have were big dreams. I wrote down the biggest dreams that I could think of and then tucked them away in my desk drawer. Though I had forgotten most things on that list, competing in a triathlon was one that seemed to stick.
When I signed up for the race, I was not a runner, a cyclist, or a swimmer. I wasn’t even a regular gym-goer, so it’s pretty amazing for me to look back on that decision now and see how far I’ve come. To me, a triathlon was this shining goal that seemed so unattainable, but it would be the “one day” kind of thing. Of course, that time would never come if I didn’t take some kind of action toward it. It wasn’t until a conversation with my naturopath that I finally decided to take the first step.
Within a week of that conversation I had registered for the race, signed up for a new gym membership and started researching everything I could about triathlons. I bought all the necessary gear, including a brand new bike, and started training. Once I started, it was intoxicating – I couldn’t stop. Working out felt different now because I had something to work towards instead of just going into the gym. I woke up extra early in the mornings to go for a run, drove out to the pool at night for swims and gave up free time on evenings and weekends to bike. It didn’t feel like I was investing a lot of time into it even though I was doing some form of training 5-6 days a week in most cases.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however. I hit my fair share of hurdles in just about every way imaginable. If it wasn’t the weather delaying my outdoor training or a neck injury that kept me out of the pool, it was my overwhelming fear of failing. It became very clear early on that the physical aspect wasn’t going to be the most arduous task, but rather the mental training. Logically, I knew that I was capable of doing it. I knew that if I worked hard and was diligent, I could make it happen, but whether or not I actually believed the things I was telling myself was another matter entirely. Just when I thought I was doing really well, I’d encounter some kind of setback that would put me back a few steps.
Two weeks before the event I attempted my first open water swim to devastating results. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t snap myself back to reality. My instinct was to panic and I let it take over. I started hearing that voice of doubt whisper in my ear, “How are you going to do this in 2 weeks?” My head was right – if I continued thinking that way, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I wanted to give up, but my resolve to beat this was stronger than my fear. A couple of days later, I was back in the water with much better results and a few days after that I had found my confidence again.
In the days leading up to the race, I had so many thoughts running through my mind. I was waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the swim leg, worrying about every aspect of it – how many people will be in my wave? Would I be able to swim the whole distance without tiring or panicking? Would I have enough energy to get on the bike after that? I don’t know about you, but I hate the feeling of worry and doubt. It’s a feeling that eats away at me, makes me feel sick and occupies every thought in my mind. I used to deal with it by just brushing it off, casting it to the far corners of my mind, but that only lasts for so long. See, if you hide it away, eventually it will creep back in stronger than ever. So instead, I realized I had to deal with them head-on. I needed to figure out where the doubts were coming from and talk myself through it.
What was I really scared of? Did I really worry that I would drown in the water? No. I knew I was a good swimmer. I knew I had trained for it. So, what was it? My goal from the onset was to finish, but once I realized that would be more attainable that I thought, I could feel myself wanting to prove I could actually do well. The problem was that I hadn’t clearly defined what that meant for me. I didn’t have a definition of success that I was working towards. So, of course, nothing ever felt good enough – everything felt like failure and that was what I was really scared of.
Finally, race day arrived and I still didn’t have a clear goal. I woke up feeling sick to my stomach. I had to force myself to eat breakfast while I fought back tears of anxiety and nervousness. When I got to the venue, I headed to the athlete area to set up my transition zone. I ran into another athlete that I had gone to elementary and high school with and chatted for a bit about the race, our nerves and hoping to have fun. As we chatted, I could feel my nerves slowly dissipating.
Before the race started, I allowed myself a few minutes alone to gather my thoughts and set an intention for the race. I didn’t want to pick a time-related goal because, to me, it was bigger than that. It wasn’t about finishing in the fastest time possible, or beating a certain number of other athletes. It was about the journey I had been on. I set out to accomplish this massive goal of competing in a triathlon months earlier and had actively taken steps to achieve it. It was about facing some of my inner demons, confronting my anxieties and working through them. It was about embracing the fear and using that to fuel my energy. While running through everything I had been through in the past several months, my intention became clear: I wanted to do my best, remain positive and believe in myself. My goal would be to keep a positive mind, banish toxic thoughts and enjoy the experience. I closed my eyes, said a little prayer and walked down to the water.
I knew the swim was going to be the most challenging for me, both physically and mentally. As I got in the water, I waited for the initial shock of the cold to hit me, but it never came. The water was warmer than I had expected which was a welcomed surprise. As I waited for the sound of the horn, I thought to myself, “Relax. Take deep breaths. You got this.” I kept reminding myself that I was capable of doing it. Then, the horn went off. My mind for the next 11 minutes and 26 seconds was laser focused on one thing – finishing the swim. There wasn’t a single negative thought that ran through my mind. I don’t know what happened, but it was as if my brain knew to shut off its inner critic and let my body do its thing. It wasn’t easy – there were several times when I had to swim on my back to catch my breathe, but I made it through. The only time during that part of the race that I can actually recall what was going through my mind was toward the end, maybe the last 50m or so, “You’re doing it” echoed in my brain and pushed me to finish strong.
A huge wave of relief washed over me as I ran up the stands, passed my friends and family cheering me on and toward the transition area. Once on the bike, I was able to catch my breath and relax a little. For the remainder of the course, I kept thinking about how grateful I was for this experience, for the chance to push myself out of my comfort zone, to do something that I never would have thought possible before. On the bike and run sections of the race, I continued to focus on the positives, visualizing how amazing it would feel when I got to the end and how proud of myself I was for making it that far. After an hour and seven minutes, I crossed the finish line to cheers from my family, friends and fellow competitors.
It was an emotional end to a journey of ups and downs. It didn’t quite hit me until I was gathering up my belongings exactly what I had done. I felt proud, exhilarated, relieved and exhausted all at once. It’s been a week since the race and I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience. I learned so much from the race itself, but also the months of training, which I will be talking about in my next post, out later this week. Signing up for this race and training for it wasn’t about the physical transformation. I didn’t set out to lose weight or change my body in any specific way. Did I want to be a better swimmer, cyclist and runner? Yes, but my bigger goal was to challenge myself to do something different. What I didn’t realize was that it was going to change so much more than my body. It changed my heart and my mind and that is an experience that I will never forget.