The world had come to a standstill. And like everyone else trying to keep their sanity, I tried to keep mine by doing what I had always done – weightlifting. But that old repetitive action now felt more like pumping my ego as I pumped my muscles.
Resisting the temptation to stay with what was familiar, I reflected on my triathlon journey, which had its humble beginning in late 2019. Maybe I had forgotten about it. Maybe I buried the memory. Either way, it was time to bring the memory to the surface, as lessons had not yet been learned. Back then, I was competing solely for external validation, I decided to enter a sprint triathlon, mostly for a quick hit of adrenaline to temporarily overcome the emptiness I felt in the constant pursuit of big moments. The result? A broken bike and a jolted ego as a sixty-five-year-old woman passed me near the finish line. Sure, I walked – ok, limped-away with a participation medal around my neck. I felt like all the kids who receive awards for showing up – and then craft a new narrative to post their Insta-moment. But that photo op offered no solution to any of the psychological problems I was avoiding – and at the top of that list was self-worth.
I was a boomerang millennial living at my parents’ house. Near broke, recently broken up with, needing to find a sense of independence. I knew the time had come to stop making excuses for where I was in life and for my failures. I needed to own up to every single reason that I had failed to align my expectations with my actions, my ‘brand’ with my true achievements. I knew that I was responsible for where I ended up — deep in debt, alone, and dependent. I had to release the pain and the suffering to move forward. But, I had to locate the pain first in order for the healing to begin.
The triathlon starting line called me back, I just got up one day and I started to run. When I’d get home I’d look up videos for inspiration of people completing the Iron Man competition — from the “Iron Nun,” ninety one year old Sister Maddona Buder, to Chris Nikic, the first person with down syndrome to complete an Iron Man, and everyone in between. I fantasized about what crossing that finish line would be like. After days of looking for the motivation on YouTube, I finally decided to take the risk of action. The next days I’d go for a swim, or fumble around on the bike for about an hour. Until one day, I just said to myself, “There’s no way around this anymore, you need to do a triathlon. Train properly. Don’t cheat the process. Don’t curate the outcome before you hit the starting line.” As I trained for my first Olympic triathlon, I don’t think there’s any way I would have been able to prepare for how it would completely change my life. Every facet of it opening up new insights into myself, and each serving as the perfect metaphor for the necessary change and growth that is to be my newest chapter of my life.
Meditation in motion.
The swim, I felt, would always be my strongest part. I felt that after watching a few videos on YouTube about proper technique, I could figure it out.
The first 500m, no problem. 800m? Starting to get a bit questionable. The Olympic length? 1500m (0.93 mi). How the hell was I going to do that?
Each conditioning session I got into the pool; it was like I was in there to solve a problem. My brain would go into a state of relaxed work. Problem solving time without the mental effort that we have when we’re caught in a directionless rut. But the pool soon felt too comfortable. After all, the competition was an open water ocean swim. No safety net to touch the floor or feel comfortable. Just me and the Pacific.
Living near an open water swim course, I put on my wetsuit, swim cap, and goggles and hopped in. Freezing. I tried to swim at the same pace as the pool, but was hard pressed to move at all. I swam harder trying to go faster. Fighting desperately to get to the next buoy, while feeling like I had never swam before in my life.
If you try to fight nature, nature will fight you. And you will lose.
As I looked down in the murky water, I saw only my hand in front of me. A reflection of what my life had felt like for so long. Trying so hard, feeling like I was drowning, in a world so murky around me, no gateway to be found. Flailing desperately to hold onto something. Trying to fight against everything that I needed to be.
For life to be different, I had to stop fighting it. Yes, the world would be murky, but if I listened to what was my true nature, and stopped worrying about how the world viewed me, I’d still be able to swim. That’s when I found myself very suddenly at the next buoy. Then the next and the next and the next. When I stopped resisting nature, and I became one with it, I found myself exactly where I wanted to be.
I didn’t have much experience biking before my first triathlon. I foolishly rode a cheap mountain bike, whose tire went flat and seat broke during the race. Absolutely user error, as much if not more, than equipment failure. So, I trained at the gym on the stationary bike. Pedaling harder and harder at each interval. Trying to replicate what I thought I would need for the 24.8-mile bike ride. But it never felt enough – because I was trying to cheat the development that would come with actual bike rides. All the learning that comes with this seemingly primal machine. Powered only by me and not by the mechanics of gym equipment. Perhaps, mildly scarred from my experience during the sprint triathlon, I would have to face that failure eventually, in pursuit of righting the wrong.
I bought a proper road bike on Offer Up. It’s a bright yellow 90s Giant Bicycle. A far cry from the high end multi thousand dollar bike the more seasoned triathletes use. The moment I hopped on it, it felt like me. It spoke to my sensibilities. It was loud, no frills, and all function. A perfect representation of what I needed and wanted to be. What I felt I was missing.
My first test ride on some hills and I was SUFFERING. I had trained so hard on the stationary bike that I thought I’d be somewhat acclimated to the hills. Not a chance. These were real hills, not factory-programmed ones. It was brutal. I was at a complete loss. With only a few weeks ahead of me, I felt nowhere prepared. I pushed and I pushed and I pushed, only to take baby steps forward. Was it going to be the sprint triathlon all over again?
That’s when I figured out that my bike had gears. Yes, idiotic I know. When I’m tunnel vision, I only see one solution. I had to learn this lesson. Sometimes to climb a hill, you must switch gears. Go into lower gear to climb and a higher gear to slow down and keep my bike and energy under control that I needed to finish. All of it, a perfect mirror of the balance that I knew I had to live to find true transformation in the process of achieving a goal my heart desires. I can scratch and climb my way to the top, feeling exhausted and internally defeated when I get there, or I can learn to switch gears for the steady climb, feeling even more energized when I reach the peak, ready for the next one
Being a fast twitch sprinter, I have always HATED long distance running. This goes against everything I’ve always craved – explosive, quick results.
The Olympic triathlon run length is 6.2 miles. Much farther than I was adequately prepared to run. I have lived my life by the credo, “If it scares you, that’s probably what you should do.” And so, I did. I owned that it made me uncomfortable because I wasn’t good at it. And being not good at a physical activity was not something I was prepared for. I had a shell I had to maintain and couldn’t run the risk of being wrong. I based my life on this shell of perfection and this activity would expose a big part of my fragile persona.
At first, I started the runs with no headphones, it was a masochistic approach – depriving myself of any distraction, any auditory pleasure.
One day, it dawned on me, “What if running is not about experiencing pain, but exploring its roots?” That’s when I popped the headphones in. Made a list of songs that all had some sort of deep meaning to me — somewhere between the movie score from Rudy, Laura Brannigan’s disco hit, Gloria and the Broadway stylings of Liza Minelli’s, Maybe This Time, and Eminem’s Lose Yourself, the list spoke perfectly to some sort of deep pain that I had experienced in the past, or some visceral memory of wanting more but not feeling like enough. I started my run and within minutes I was celebrating wildly one moment, tears down my face the next, as I released years of self-inflicted pain with each step I took. No longer paying attention to what could have been, just to what was in that present moment. If I was someone looking at me running — a guy with his headphones both yelling at the top of his lungs one moment and crying the next, I must have looked absolutely batshit crazy. It was the cathartic release that I found over the first month.
As the runs got longer, and more intense, week after week, my mind started to shift. I was no longer on emotional highs and lows. I found a sense of peace. With each breath, each step, I was getting closer to who I wanted to be. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other and focus on the work. The work of running and the work internally. I lost the headphones again and suddenly, there wasn’t any pain. Just a focus on the present moment. Giving everything I had to it. Presence would be my answer. Engaging with the world around me, knowing that no matter how much I felt that I failed, no matter how tired I was or how defeated I felt, all I needed to do was take one step forward. One foot in front of the other. Leaving my past behind me, while allowing it to help push me forward. It would no longer imprison me. It would free me to run where I chose.
All this training I soon found out would not be enough. Why? I had a production slated to shoot the same time frame that the Malibu Triathlon (my first Olympic event) was going to take place. There was an excuse, an easy way out. But, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had brought myself this far, and I hadn’t even reached the starting line.
The Santa Barbara triathlon is a 1 mile swim, a 34 mile bike ride, and a 10 mile run. Tacking almost two times the distance on certain parts of the Olympic triathlon. This course, a significant amount of hills as opposed to the mostly flat roads of Malibu. To top it off, it would be one month earlier. There was no way I would be prepared for this.
But, I had to find a way to be. My life was calling me and it was at that starting line.
That’s when it hit me. All of this training. All of this work. All of this slow paced endurance work was the thing I was most afraid of — consistent effort with no assurance of result, just the confidence that I was ready for a challenge. That’s when I really started to understand what confidence was. What really loving me for me, not some fantasized version of myself meant. There would never be any reward, nothing I could do that would bring me the overwhelming gratification I would feel from finding that confidence. That sense of knowing that I’ve prepared and that no matter what, I deserved my chance to be at a new starting line for any part of my life because I always showed up.
Not once have I missed a workout or shorted it. I may have missed a day, but I catch up with a two-a-day. Never really feeling that much pain with those days because I felt like I owed it to myself, as a gift of love. This journey was for me. This journey was about giving to myself the love, total accountability, and sense of self that I always needed. Finally, I was ready for it.
I ran the triathlon. I finished in four hours and twenty-three minutes. Earlier than some later than others. I finished the swim, bike, and run in all my fastest times ever. I had an enormous smile on my face throughout the race. When I crossed the finish line, I broke down in tears. I felt this immense sense of pride that I had never felt before. One of knowing that I had finally taken ownership over my life and that I had found a new sense of appreciation for myself. I knew for the first time in my life there was nothing that could take that feeling of knowing who I am away from me. I had earned it and I was going to keep earning it every day of my life.
….And yes, there were Insta-worthy photos in spades. My favorite one? Crossing the finish line with two men in their mid-fifties crossing it before me. A participation medal waiting for me just beyond the line. It is the greatest trophy I’ve ever received.
This post is republished on Medium.