When I decided to sign up for a triathlon back in June, my baseline goal was simply to finish. The distances all looked doable and I figured that as long as I didn’t get hurt, finishing the race was just a matter of pacing myself well.
What I hadn’t counted on was 2-3 foot waves during the swim. On triathlon day, there was a storm blowing in, which created swim conditions that were worse than my imagined worst case scenario. Worse than anything I had practiced in. Worse even than I thought the race organizers would allow us to swim in.
As a “first timer” I was in the last group of swimmers to start. That meant I got to stand on the beach and watch as dozens of swimmers–all experienced triathloners–signaled the lifeguards to be pulled out of the water and paddled into the shallows on one of the rescue surfboards.
Suddenly just finishing didn’t look like such a sure thing. As they say, “man plans and God laughs.”
Rather than the nice smooth freestyle I’d practiced for 8 weeks, I did a quarter mile of breast stroking, long dog paddling, side stroking, head-up freestyle and any other thing that kept me moving in a forward direction. It was a long 9.5 minutes.
But I made it and along the way I learned a little about what I’m made of. That got me thinking about what else my triathlon experience has taught me.
Sometimes just not quitting is a victory.
There was a point, about two-thirds of way into the swim, that I considered signaling a lifeguard that I was in distress. I was physically exhausted from fighting the huge, weirdly swirling waves and feeling kind of sick from all the seawater I’d swallowed. Not to mention the mental exhaustion and fear I was wrestling with. All of my swim training felt futile at that point and I was really beating myself about how poorly it was going.
Looking around, I saw that all of the guards were busy helping people who were in worse shape than I was. That’s when it hit me that no one’s swim was going according to plan and getting back to shore any way I could would be a victory.
Corollary: Don’t a pick a fight with Mother Nature.
Ironically, 3 days earlier I had cut my final swim workout short because the ocean was too rough. I figured it wasn’t worth risking an injury or a stomach bug to get in one last swim. My swim training had gone well. I felt ready. It didn’t seem wise to pick a fight that I was going to lose.
The Scientist was surprised at how easily I made the decision to get out of the water. A year ago, I would have pushed myself to do whatever was on the schedule, no matter how inadvisable the conditions were.
Structure is my friend.
Part of my decision making process prior to signing up for the triathlon was researching training plans. The ones I’d seen in the past involved hours of training per day and I was hesitant to get myself into something that would push the limits of my reconstructed knee.
Thankfully I found an 8-week plan designed for runners doing their first tri (me!) that looked reasonable. I taped it to my office door so I would see it frequently. Each night before bed I looked at the next morning’s schedule and mentally framed my preparation and training. After the day’s training session, I highlighted the workout and noted anything that felt significant.
The structure the plan provided kept me on track when I was struggling to find the energy to train every day in weeks 5 and 6. I didn’t have to think about what to do each day or worry that I was doing too much or not enough. It wasn’t a big surprise that I thrive on structure, but it was a valuable reminder. My life is loosely structured right now and since the tri I’ve been looking for ways to bring some more structure into my days.
To get different results, do something different.
One of the great things about the training plan was that I didn’t create it. It was designed by Hal Higdon, who has written 36 books about marathoning and other long distance race training. If I had written my own training plan it would have looked much different–no short runs, more biking (which I added in anyhow), less swimming–and I wouldn’t have made the huge gains that I did.
When I first looked at the schedule, I thought the short runs were pointless. What could I gain from running for 10 minutes? Being an overachiever, I decided that if I was only going to run for 10 or 15 minutes, I’d run as fast as I could. Within weeks, my mile times started dropping drastically. I went from the 8.5 and 9 minute miles that I’d been running the 3.5 mile race distance in 27 minutes on a good day. That never would have happened without those short tempo runs early in my training.
Sometimes a radically different approach can bring radically different results. Of course, figuring out what to do differently is no small feat.
Sensory overload goes down with each repetition.
Most of concerns going into the race had nothing to do with my actual athletic performance. I knew I could run, bike and swim the required distances. But would I be able to find my bike among 900 others? Would I be able to manage the various clothing and equipment changes quickly when I was tired and surrounded by chaos? Would I get my bike out of and into the transition area without running into anyone or tripping over the pedals?
I know from experience that the more I do something, the less likely I am to screw it up. Repetition, rehearsal and visualization are essential for me when it comes to learning something new and being able to perform it under stress.
There was no way to duplicate the exact conditions of race day, but I was able to rehearse what I would do at each stage of the race. By the time race day arrived, I wanted as many of my actions as possible to be habitual. I practiced packing my bag, setting up my transition area, putting on my socks and shoes quickly after swimming, getting off my bike and running it 50 yards to the imaginary bike rack, using the same clothes/equipment and putting them on in the same order every time I trained.
On the morning of the race, I walked through the transitions a couple of times so I would know what I would be seeing as I came out of the water, which way I needed to go once I had my bike out of the rack and how the transition area would look as I entered from the bike course.
While this kind of preparation might look obsessive to an observer, each repetition filters out some of the unnecessary sensory data, helping me focus better on what I need to be paying attention to–like not falling when I dash through the kiddie pool to clean my feet as I come off the beach.
Small accommodations can have a big ripple effect.
These are the cool shoelaces that I got for my running shoes:
Called lace locks, they’re stretchy laces with a sliding clasp that quickly tightens the laces in place of tying them. Shoes that don’t need to be tied are a minor accommodation when you think about how much goes into a triathlon. For the average person, they’re probably a nice convenience that saves 20-30 seconds.
For someone with my impaired fine motor skills and exquisitely well-developed ability to catastrophize, they’re far more. Yes, they allowed me to quickly slip on my shoes and go, which was awesome. But they also kept me from 8 weeks of obsessing over how much time I would lose tying my shoes when I was tired from swimming and in a hurry to get on my bike.
The type of girl/guy who was crummy to you in high school will still be crummy to you in adulthood.
One of the great things about a road race or triathlon is how friendly most of the other athletes are. Where else could a total newbie like me set up her gear next to a professional athlete and have them congratulate me on doing my first triathlon? It’s a great feeling to have a tiny bit of respect from people who are there to win when my goal is simply to finish without hurting myself too badly.
Notice that I said most of the other athletes? There was a woman setting up on the other side of me who started chatting me up about how many races I’d done and her leg injury and such. Then her friend (partner? husband?) showed up and her whole demeanor changed. When I asked her a question, she brushed me off with a curt, “I don’t know.” After the race, I saw them in the finish area and said something congratulatory, much like other participants had said to me. She looked at me like I had 3 heads and then looked away without even acknowledging that I’d spoken to her.
That’s when I realized that she was that girl – the one from high school who would talk to me when no one was around and she was feeling bored or insecure, then treat me like the freak she clearly thought I was when her friends were around. Sadly, those girls (and guys, I assume) grow older, but they don’t seem to grow up.
Support your tribe.
The rest of the competitors, though–the support and energy on the race course was contagious. People cheered each other on. More than once, when I passed someone they said something like “go get ’em!” Although we were all competing with each other in theory, most of the people who were on the course with me were just excited to be there and happy to be getting ever closer to the finish line.
During the swim, people were checking in with swimmers near them, asking others if they were doing okay and grimly joking about how awful the conditions. At one point, I saw a guy clinging to the turn buoy and making unintelligible noises. Another one woman nearby noticed him too and we both shouted “are you okay? do you need help?” a few times. When he didn’t answer or even seem to know we existed, we both frantically waved the lifeguard over and she paddled him out to shore.
The same was true of the run–lots of people encouraging others to keep moving and checking in with those who were having a harder time. There was a strong sense of “we’re all in this together” and it wasn’t just the newbies. Some of the early finishers came back out onto the last half mile of the running course to cheer in the later finishers. It feels pretty awesome to be struggling through those last few hundred yards and see someone who could be chilling in the parking lot instead standing by the side of the road yelling things like “almost there” and “looking strong, 336!”
These people haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be the new kid and they know the importance of supporting your tribe. That trickles down through the other racers and creates a climate of support in the most unlikely places.
“Screw everything” is a valid strategy too.
Somewhere around week 3 of my training I was really frustrated with my swimming progress. Although I’m a good pool swimmer and confident in the water, I found myself panicking at the slightest bit of rough water. There’s a big psychological difference between swimming laps in a pool and swimming 400 yards in a straight line in the ocean. I’d watched Youtube videos and tried different techniques but nothing seemed to be helping.
Then one morning I was so frustrated with myself that I just said “screw this” and swam as hard as I could. No thinking about technique or “feeling the water” or any of the strategies I’d been counting on. And it worked. In spite of the waves tossing me around, I felt strong and confident. That’s when I realized that thinking and planning and having a strategy is good, but sometimes you just have to say “screw everything” and follow your gut.
As I was drafting my list of what I’d learned, it became obvious that a lot of these lessons also apply to the extreme endurance activity of being a disabled adult. Of course, it’s easier to apply the lessons in relatively isolated athletic training situations.
In the bigger scheme of life? That raises some interesting questions.
How often do I remind myself that simply not quitting when things get rough counts for a lot? Probably not often enough. How willing am I to acknowledge when the smart thing to do is walk away? More than I used to be, but maybe not willing enough. How actively do I use the coping strategies that I know work for me? When things are going well, a lot; when life is rough, it’s harder to create things like schedules, plans and accommodations and keep them in place. How well do I support my tribe? This is something that I always feel like I could be doing more of.
There’s a bare spot on my door where my training schedule used to hang. I’m going to turn the bolded parts of this post into a one page list and hang it there as a reminder of what I learned.