I'm not sure there's a person alive that wakes up in the morning and says, "I want to suck today." There are, however, those of us that will set out on a straight path for a much-desired goal, get so close we can touch it, and then suddenly . . . turn. This has been my pattern with triathlon and, well, everything really. I get hooked on an idea with the greatest of confidence and then when it looks like it might actually come true, I find myself fighting against the urge to veer. Over the years, I've thought long and hard about why this might be. Some might say it's a fear of failure - I would agree that I don't ever want to disappoint myself or others. Whatever the reason, it's a habit that I've been working to stop and, once again, Ironman training has provided a life lesson.
This past weekend, I participated in my longest race of the season thus far - a Half Ironman. 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run. With the Ironman roughly 8 weeks away, this was meant to be an opportunity to gain experience with long-course racing. At least, that's what my coach said. So I started to contemplate the meaning of 'experience'. It's an act of gaining knowledge. In short, my job for this weekend was to figure out what I don't already know - to screw up, endure the consequences, and finish anyway. I began to get nervous. This could hurt!
I started thinking about the commonalities of reaching goals and overcoming fears. Not entirely sure if I was even on the right track, these are the things I did to accomplish both. I'll spoil the ending by telling you that it did hurt and these did work (for me). While my task is not yet fully complete and I am certainly no expert - I'll share with you my secrets from one successful venture, in hopes that you can stay the course to your own destination.
Not really having a clue what I was even trying to manage - I started by listing all the things that I was fearful of. At first I scribbled them just as they sounded in my mind, "I am scared of being close to large sea creatures on my first ocean swim," but I found that the exercise was only escalating my anxiety. I shifted to a different perspective and started listing with a more assertive tone, "I will not be intimidated by ocean life." I didn't have any idea how I was going to make that a reality, but it untied a few of the knots in my stomach just by saying it that way. It sounds a little 'Dr. Phil', but the pro athletes are endlessly promoting the value of visualization and positive mental imagery. Who am I to judge?
So the first couple items on my list became:
I will not be intimidated by ocean life.
I will not get panicked by big waves, directional drifts, or the thrashing of other swimmers
The theme here is obvious. I was terrified of getting half a mile from shore, and getting a firsthand feeling of that water scene from Titanic. As always, my coach wisely suggested practice. So now the only question was - how was I going to do a practice swim?! I got to the race site the evening before and picked up my packet of goodies (race number, swim cap, free tee, etc). Then I made my way down to the shore. The buoys had already been positioned so I could see the exact route of the swim course. I took a picture of it and sent it to Daria, saying something along the lines of, "Can you see that orange triangle buoy? That's 1/3 of my swim. OMG."
Here - let's use the magic of 'zoom' technology:
Now you see it? There, off to the right? For a little more perspective - there's a yellow 'sighting buoy' in the middle and those two dots to the left are people.
Well, I stood on the landing for several minutes observing the scene. Slowly but surely I started to put on my wetsuit. Several other racers came to the waters edge with an awestruck expression. This was a stretch for a lot of us. They asked, "Are you going out there?" "Uhm, I haven't decided yet," I responded while wandering waist deep into the murky abyss. I 'paddled' around a little. It wasn't really swimming. I wouldn't let myself get too far from shore - just in case (reference: the list above).
Finally I spotted one other person, a 40-something man, stepping into his wetsuit on shore. He looked confident, so I did something that is seriously out of my nature - I reached out for help. As he strode into the waves, I feigned a calm smile and said, "Hey, how far are you going?" He indicated he was heading to the first orange buoy. I replied, "Me too. Want to go together - just to be safe?" He breathed a sigh of relief that must've been hidden beneath the layers of neoprene. "Oh, thank you," he said. "That sounds great. It looks a little choppy, and I really didn't want to be out there alone. I'm Brian."
We headed off away from shore, swimming steadily, and the more strokes I took, the more I became settled into the same comfortable rhythm I had found in the pool. Did Brian talk me through my fears or set up an invisible cone of safety? Nope. But the fact that I was looking out for someone and someone was looking out for me was just enough comfort to tackle the unknown. Along the way I came upon a school of little hatchling fish that swarmed to nibble at my fingers and toes as I swam. It felt like air bubbles and admittedly would have completely sent me reeling if I hadn't had this near-stranger at my side. I laughed instead and have since been told that people of some cultures pay for this as an exfoliating treatment!
The following morning, the tide was twice as high. It was difficult to sight and we had to time our breaths with the downward slope of the waves. At the starting line, the same awestruck faces stood there just like the day before. Yet, because of my ability to put pride aside, I was able to start and finish strong (and by the looks of the Results page, so did Brian). Mission accomplished.
The next couple items on my list:
I will not let my recent stomach issues (nausea & GI pain due to food poisoning) get in the way.
I will try to keep from walking during the run.
I hadn't raced this distance all season. There was really no way of judging what it would take. See, the trick to a three-pronged sport is planning for the third (i.e. to have a good, solid run). That means conserving a little on the bike so you don't completely blow out your energy and leg strength. It's a tough balance to master, I'm learning, as I've had numerous Sprint- and Olympic-distance events that have resulted in walking. And the stomach pain? I have been hyper-sensitive to various foods and workout intensities (jostling=nausea).
I went back to the old standby rule of being prepared. I brought everything with me that I could possibly need or want, including an enormous jug of water and a grocery bag full of peanut butter and jelly, electrolyte supplements, etc. Unloading the car at the hotel was almost embarrassing, as the other racers passed by with one backpack and a bike. I nearly chastised myself for making such a big production, until I saw this:
Races often happen in tiny towns. It's a great way to draw consumers to local businesses and these are the areas where it's easiest to close 60 miles of road for half a day. This beach area typically has some good restaurants as well, but has recently incurred some serious damage from Hurricane Irene. As you can see above - one of the only nearby places to offer even deli-style eats and supplies had limited offerings. Fortunately I only needed some gum.
I'll spare you the details here, but suffice to say - my PB&J went down a lot easier than a liver or a gizzard would have, and my ability to fuel appropriately helped me to meet all my race goals without added discomfort.
The last couple items on my list:
I will not wig out when driving over bridges (yes, this is my one completely irrational and unfounded fear)
I will not let total distances or future races psych me out (i.e. "OMG, this is going to hurt twice as bad during the Ironman")
This race took place in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That means islands, separated by water, that are traversed by BRIDGES. Yes, I knew this going in. I've been over them many times as a content passenger but have always been uncomfortable (to say the least) about driving them. No, I have never had a negative incident. No, I cannot explain it. I have tried the sleep tapes and even hypnotherapy and, as much as I acknowledge the pure ridiculousness of this fear - the fact is that I was not going to be magically cured before this race. My hope was that a friend or my husband might accompany me and I could persuade them to drive. No such luck. So this was going to be a fear that I needed to manage before the race ever began.
That's the one. P.S. the race involved going over this with our bikes 4 times, including a large steep incline at the far end for accommodating commercial fishing boats. Yikes. It seemed that in order to overcome this part of the list, I was going to, literally and figuratively, need to drive through it.
I saw the signs coming along this one-lane highway minutes in advance - "Approaching Umstead Bridge". Ugh. There was no way around it. I tried to focus on deep breaths to keep from hyperventilating; I pressed my knees together to direct the blood away from my face; I turned up the radio and did absolutely anything I could to distract myself from looking over the sides or too far in front of me. The car rocked a bit with each bump of the expansion crevasses. I took them one at a time.
When I got to the other side, obviously unscathed, my body felt like jell-o. I was relieved and actually very proud of myself for having completed this personal feat that most people would tackle without thinking. This gave me a dramatic boost of confidence that I was able to reflect upon the next day during my race.
I had made it calmly out of the water, completed the bike leg with a bit of energy to spare, and set out on the run. I settled in for the first couple of miles but then, as my blood sugar dropped, the thoughts began to creep in. 70.3 total miles - man, that sounds like a long way. And that's only half of what I'm going to have to do in 8 weeks! I thought back to that moment on the bridge and did the only thing I knew how to do - I took it one 'bump' at a time.
At the end of each mile stood an aid station, staffed with volunteers like the local high school cheerleaders, that provided us with water, fuel, gel or cold towels. I forced myself to let go of mile 70.3 and focus only on the next mile or the next aid station. I made deals with myself - If I run hard to the next aid station, I will let myself slow for 15 seconds while I drink/eat. Before I knew it, there were only 2 more to go, then 1, and then suddenly I could see the finish line.
The last lesson that this race taught me was to smile when it hurts. I know, I know - it sounds insane, but here's what happens - other people smile back, and cheer, and pat you on the back. It's amazing! The volunteers and other racers become so caught off guard at the girl who's sweating and limping and still smiling that they can't help but sing your praises! Pardon the pun, but when you are 'on your last leg', this is just the ticket to keep you going. I had total strangers screaming for me, yelling, "You look amazing!", "You're going to do it!", "Keep it up!" Even passersby were beeping and clapping from their cars! I've already told you how us back-of-the-packers like to root for one another, but being a true grin-and-bear-it example can be both inspiring and rewarding. And the best part? Now that it's over and I made it to the finish line - I'll be smiling on the inside for a long time to come.