Triathlon: 5 Things I Learned From Panicking... then Finishing

Me with my Dad on our way to breakfast after the race. I would be remiss if I didn't write the obligatory "big personal athletic moment as metaphor for life" blog post after finishing my triathlon. So here I go. Contrary to the story I made up for many years that "I could never do a triathlon because the swimming would kill me," yesterday I completed the See Jane Tri event - a 400-meter swim, 11-mile bike and 3-mile run. And lo and behold I am alive to tell about it, as evidenced by this post.

But there was a moment, within 30 seconds of starting, that I honestly didn't know if I was going to make it to the other side of the lake shore, let alone the finish line. I seriously considered quitting the race, even after everything I'd put into preparing for it.

Eels in the lake were the least of my concerns Part of what I love about big athletic events are the months of training leading up to them. In fact, when I did the marathon last year (another impossible feat knocked down!) I found many of the long runs to be more enjoyable than the event itself - even the 23-miler I did alone, without any of the water stops or fanfare of race day. I appreciate the structure of a training schedule, the incremental "wins" week after week, and the commitment to completing a goal that I know will expand my beliefs about what I am mentally and physically capable of.

Where am I going with this? Given how much I love training, I was shocked yesterday when I got in the water for the first event and panicked. Months of swim training flew right out the window, as if I hadn't even put on (or looked at) a swimsuit in the last ten years.

Seconds after the starting whistle blew, limbs started flying and I started inhaling lake water. I was immediately out-of-breath (mostly due to anxiety), struggling even to dog paddle. Panicked, I tried swimming the way I'd practiced, but between trying to keep my eyes on the buoy and the other swimmers (both not advisable), my head created resistance, my legs sunk too low, and my arms started doing all the work.

I could not relax, and I was really scared. I thought about quitting and that made me sad. Some way, some how, I would do this. No one said it had to be fast or pretty. So I backstroked my way around the course, calmed by focusing on the expansive empty blue sky amidst the commotion of other swimmers around me. I emerged from the water close to last. I didn't care. I smiled and ran to my bike just like the rest of them.

I reflected on the harrowing swim experience during the bike ride (glorious) and wrote the "takeaways" for this blog post in my head during the run (exhausted). With that ladies and gentlemen, I bring you:

5 Things I Learned from Panicking Finishing my Triathlon

  1. Remember to breathe (even if every other breath leaves you chugging lake water). Sometimes the accomplishment is not speed or grace - it is literally just surviving. Finishing. Remembering to breathe.
  2. When Plan A fails, and you're too panicked to find Plan B, trust your instincts. Had I done a backstroke since taking swim-lessons as an eight year old? No. But nothing else was working. Did I care that I felt ridiculous swimming (in what appeared to be a casual leisurely swim from afar) on my back while everyone else powered forward on their stomachs? No. Not enough to quit.
  3. It is all about the story you tell yourself. During a race (just as in life), there is a continual story playing in my head. It's almost like an ESPN commenter but in first person. "I am strong. I trained for this. I know what I am doing. I am panicked. I want to quit. But I am not a quitter." The narrative goes on. In my opinion, the ONLY way to successfully finish a physically grueling event is to narrate a mental story of positivity and success. I learned a great deal about this in the book The Non-Runners Marathon Trainer. When running, there is a huge difference between saying "my legs feel like bricks" versus "I am doing fine, and this is easy." It matters. The negative thoughts will show up, but it is important to replace them with something positive. For a great book on the psychology of success, read Maximum Achievement by Brian Tracy (a new favorite of mine).
  4. Don't half ass something just because it looks hard. This is a subset of the mental narrative point: don't give up on something based solely on the anticipation of hard work. So many women would approach hills during the run and start walking before they even got there. They expected it to be hard, so they gave up before even trying. This is exactly why when I see a hill, I turn ON my burners. I run faster. Hills are mental. They are not that much harder - they just look like they will be. Same goes for life - when you see a challenge, put more heart into it. That's where it counts. You'll get to the top both ways, but feel a hell of a lot better about yourself by taking the second approach.
  5. Pay for the Day. Remember how good it feels. Rinse and repeat. My dad has a phrase, "pay for the day," that refers to building good exercise habits. Think of it like a small entrance fee (exercise) you pay for each day (to ultimately live a long, healthy life). It doesn't matter what time of day you exercise, so long as you "pay" at some point (of course you get some days off - but you catch my drift). Let me tell you something - "paying for the day" by doing a triathlon first thing Saturday morning feels fantastic. Nothing boosts my happiness and self-confidence like exercise, particularly training and completing a big event like that one. Figure out what your currency is - that vital activity that makes every day better (even if you experience resistance to start at times) - and remember how good it feels to pay for the day.

With that, I give another item on my life checklist a big, fat, hard-earned CHECK.