This weekend I traveled to Calgary, Alberta to race in a half-IRONMAN. This wasn’t my first race of this length and I was fully confident in my ability to complete the race and even possibly put up a time I could be proud of. Little did I know, I would need all my courage and strength of will just to finish the race. This reminded me of why triathlon is my sport of choice. It’s not because it’s always fun or enjoyable, but because of the lessons it teaches you or, better yet, reminds you of in this case.
From the very beginning of the race, something was off. I haven’t done a cold-water swim in a few years and I didn’t check my wetsuit before leaving for the trip. Always check your equipment before a race! I can’t stress that rule enough and I should have known better, since this wasn’t my first rodeo. Though typically nice in the summer, this being Calgary, there’s always potential for cold weather, even in August. Rain was falling with temperatures in the 50s. The wetsuit was necessary for the lake swim. Swimming is my strongest event and I didn’t really consider this lake swim to be too much of an issue. I’ve completed the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon and the Hawaii Roughwater and done plenty of ocean training, so, there was no reason for me to worry about this lake swim — I thought. So, I didn’t get in the water during the practice time allotted the day before because of the cold and rain. I let my confidence get the best of me and it made me lazy. This race would remind me of so many lessons, and this was the first: Always put in the work, never be too confident.
My wetsuit was too tight. I could barely breathe, but I jumped in the water anyway. My confidence started to thin rapidly. I had recently gotten over an upper respiratory infection and that, combined with the cold temperature and the tight wetsuit, began to make breathing difficult. No matter how uncomfortable I felt I had to work hard to avoid panicking, which would have severely restricted my breathing and potentially caused me to pull out of the swim. Though it was extremely hard, I had to fight to stay calm amidst the chaos.
When you do a swim in a big group like this, there are hundreds of swimmers swarming all around you in the water. In these situations you are never, ever supposed to stop and look up. Just follow the swimmers in front of you and you’ll be fine. But I stopped and looked up several times. I had to in order to breathe. I even floated on my back to get a breath of air a few times. It was awful. From the start my thoughts of finishing with an impressive time were out the window, now I just wanted to survive long enough to get out of this water.
At this point, my confidence was fading fast. I needed to dig deeper and lean on something else entirely: courage. In the words of Bruce Lee, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to act in the presence of fear.” I was worse off during the swim than I ever remember being, but I knew I could find the strength to continue if I had the courage to take one stroke after another until I reached my destination. I took it one stroke at a time until I completed the first lap.
Fortunately, this race featured an “Australian swim” in which all the swimmers start on a beach, complete one lap, and then get out of the water onto the beach before jumping back in for the next lap. Once I got out of the water, I unzipped the top of my wetsuit and my lungs ballooned full of air. I was able to complete the second lap of the swim much faster. Grateful to finally be rid of that wetsuit I hoped my problems were behind me and that the rest of the race would be smoother.
Unfortunately, the difficulties were just beginning.
Biking in rainy weather is challenging in any situation, but yet another equipment failure was lurking around the corner. The vest I was wearing came unzipped while I was riding and began flapping in the wind like a parachute, creating an incredible amount of drag. That, combined with the rain, the cold, the headwind, and the semi-trucks that were zipping by me on Highway 22X made this one of the least pleasant bike rides I’ve ever been on.
So, with a little fear and trepidation, I quickly attempted to grab the sides of my vest to zip it back up, but I got wobbly and had to grab the handlebars again. I pedaled a little farther and tried again with the same result. It was really scary. I thought about the fact that if I fell I could seriously injure myself. But I also knew that I wasn’t going to be able to finish this bike ride with this parachute behind me. So I tried one more time. This time I got it! Taking that chance was scary, but taking a chance is always a little risky. You’ll never accomplish something if you don’t take risks!
Now, suddenly much more aerodynamic, I hoped the ride would be smooth. But it was far from easy. I got lost and had to turn around at one point, I lost a water bottle, and I was freezing cold. There was no getting around it: I was miserable. I again had to dig deep and decide that being comfortable wasn’t my goal, finishing the race was and I had to come to terms with it and move forward.
One thing that triathletes and successful entrepreneurs have in common is that they embrace being uncomfortable. Stressful situations often bring about the best opportunities for growth and I am all about getting everything I can out of each opportunity. When I have struggled the hardest and been the most uncomfortable is when the lessons have been the most meaningful and victory the sweetest.
Oftentimes in life you will be in uncomfortable situations. And while you may be working to improve that situation, you may be stuck in an uncomfortable place for a long time. That’s when it becomes important to embrace your situation and figure out how to become content while constantly striving for improvement. Find something to be happy about. In this race I thought about the fact that I didn’t have a flat tire, or even the fact that I didn’t get run over!
Focusing on this mindset and coaching myself every step of the way, I finally completed the bike portion of the race.
But the hardest part was yet to come.
One Step at a Time
Running is not my favorite activity and for me it doesn’t come naturally. As a result, the running portion of a triathlon is all about mental and physical toughness. Exhaustion sets in early and it becomes about pushing beyond what I thought I was capable of. This was taken to another level in Calgary. I started the running portion with excruciating pain in my shins. Anyone who knows me will tell you I have an absurdly high tolerance for pain, so to call something excruciating is next level. Before I really even got into a rhythm with the run I had to stop and stretch. Then I walked a little way and had to stretch again. This repeated over and over again before I was finally able to start running.
The running portion brings together so many factors such as nutrition, hydration, and rest from your preparation in the week prior. How well you were able to pace yourself in the swim and bike portions of the race also play a part in your ability to complete the final leg. In life, nothing happens in a vacuum. The way you prepare yourself and behave in one area of life will absolutely have an effect on the way you are able to perform in all other areas.
Several hours into the race with pain shooting down my legs I just wanted to quit. I am almost always an optimist with plenty of confidence in myself and my ability to get through any circumstance. Typically, I can coach myself and motivate myself to overcome pain and difficulty, but this time I needed some extra motivation to continue to push forward. That’s when I started to remember all the people who believe in me and support me. I thought about my friends who encouraged me, I thought about my husband who helped me train, I thought about my daughter who was so excited for me to do this race. Her enthusiastic text messages before the race were replaying over and over again in my mind.
I had to finish this race. I have a little mantra I say for exactly this type of situation. “We don’t stop when we’re tired, we stop when we’re done!”
This phrase was the fuel that got me through that final mile. I didn’t set any speed records that day, I didn’t place in my age group at all, in fact, I posted my worst time ever. We can’t win every day — sometimes it’s enough to just show up. The hardest line to cross is the starting line. I’m proud of myself for finishing this race despite all the issues I had. I also consider myself fortunate that my challenges weren’t as bad as some others. Many people didn’t finish the race because of flat tires, injuries, or other unexpected challenges.
I was reminded of so many lessons during this race that triathlon has taught me over the years, from the very practical need to check every single piece of equipment before a race, to the broader lessons of the importance of courage.
I did an interview a few days before the race where I discussed the difference between confidence and courage. I said that sometimes confidence isn’t enough, but that’s when you need to have courage. Little did I know that less than 48 hours after saying that my tight wetsuit would eliminate all of my confidence. It’s always good to practice what you preach, but sometimes it’s not very fun!
After a race like this people always ask me why I put myself through these experiences and reading this you might be wondering the same thing. While I understand that from the outside looking in it might seem like I’m a glutton for punishment, I do triathlon because of the lessons that it teaches me. I’m a lifelong learner and I love learning new things, but some things are worth being reminded of and practiced often.
1. Don’t Be Lazy — Often the most damaging side effect of overconfidence is that it breeds laziness. I should have checked my equipment before the race, there was time on Saturday to practice and I could have tried on my wetsuit then, but it was cold and rainy and I didn’t think I’d have any problems. I didn’t put in the work. That can be such a common problem in life and business too. When we are good at something, we don’t feel the need to put in the extra work and that’s when problems begin to creep in. Overconfidence breeds laziness which leads to so many other problems.
2. Confidence vs. Courage — I had all the confidence in the world as I flew up to Calgary, but that all disappeared in seconds once the race started. That’s when I needed to pull out the courage card. Courage got me through that swim and helped propel me through the rest of the challenges that awaited me. It didn’t mean I was unafraid. I was certainly scared I wouldn’t complete the swim or that I would crash my bike when I took my hands off the handlebars at such a high rate of speed in the rain, but I had to be courageous enough to do it. So many times in life our confidence evaporates and we can feel like we have nothing without it. That’s when fear really sets in. And that’s precisely when you have to dig deep and find your courage, acknowledge your fears, and push forward anyway.
3. Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable — Being uncomfortable is a necessary part of growth. Without discomfort and stress we don’t change and become all we can be. Athletes and entrepreneurs know this and embrace it and leverage the lessons discomfort brings to make themselves and their businesses better down the road.
4. Stay Calm — Panic was never going to help me during this race. If I panicked in the water I would have completely lost the ability to breathe. If I panicked on the road my bike could have gone sideways and I would have ended up injured. Remaining calm and adapting to challenges is the way forward in business, life, and in triathlon. The natural reaction in any stressful situation is to panic. But the best steps to take are to stay calm, strategize for success, and execute that strategy.
5. Motivation — Often, my ability to motivate myself gets me through most difficulties. But in this instance, I had to dig deeper and that’s when the encouragement of others helped. Surrounding yourself with positive and uplifting people pays dividends even when you aren’t with those people. And encouraging others can help them in ways you may never see.
As strange as it may be to say this, I am grateful for this experience. Of course, I would have preferred to set a personal record, but failure brings a beautiful gift: the gift of experience. I can promise I won’t make those some mistakes next time!