“Happiness is not the absence of problems, but the ability to deal with them.”  ~Stacey Charter

I finished a triathlon last summer with the worst results in my race history, yet I am more proud of this race than any other. (Oh – spoiler alert – yep, despite extreme adversity, I do actually finish the race.) And I have a finisher certificate as reminder proof that I didn’t quit when every fibre of my body and brain were screaming at me to do just that.

PS – This is a longish one.‘Ten Things I Learned From My Worst Race are at the end as a reward for finishing today’s post.

Pre-race… the jitters I’m used to, but stolen sunglasses and a forgotten helmet were a new dilemma. However,  my new goggles didn’t leak so on with the fun…

Let me take you through it … my worst triathlon race ever… 🙂

Within the first few minutes of the swim, I have trouble with my breathing technique. This starts some mild panic which, in turn, makes my breathing irregular. It’s a vicious cycle. People start bumping into me, pushing me off course and leaving me behind. More panic. I look up and see how very far I have to go…for the first lap. I start to cry.

Ever tried to swim and cry at the same time? Kinda like trying to sing and chew gum at the same time… while hopping on one foot with your eyes closed and your ears plugged.  

Bottom line is, I know I cannot do this. I’m treading water and looking over to a rescue kayak with full intentions of telling them to take me back to shore. I’m done.

And then the most ridiculous thought enters my mind…  “I ate soooo much pasta last night.”

I had carbed up so I’d have energy for this race and if I quit the swim I’m pretty sure they won’t let me do the bike and run portion just so I can have a workout. I’m even more sure that I won’t go biking by myself later.

I start to swim – more of a doggy paddle really – and then slowly, with no thought in my head other than burning some calories, I put my head down and imagine I am training in the pool. I sing the mantra, (in my head), that I always sing when I am swimming. Each word is one arm stroke and I hum as I exhale into the water – “slow down, it’s ok, just breathe”.  And on the word breathe I tilt my head and do just that.

The mantra and the humming noise calm me.

After forever has lapped itself, I look up. I am far off course and sure I can hear the spotters in kayaks laughing at me. I know spectators on the shore are wondering what business I have being in a triathlon when clearly I am so unqualified.

I start to cry again but this time I don’t panic. I go back to my mantra and tell myself I just have to finish the swim and then I can quit. People from the next heat begin to pass me because I am so far behind. “Slow down, it’s ok, just breathe.”

An eternity later I emerge from the water as those laughing volunteers point the way and congratulate me. I find my bike easily in the sea of mocking, empty stalls. Throwing up seems like a good idea. Instead, I put my borrowed helmet on. I bike – sans sunglasses. Man, do I bike.

For the first time I actually pass people instead of being passed. Some of the men whizzing by me on their space-aged bikes tell me I’m killing the course (and I don’t think they are being sarcastic).

I start a cheering section for myself at one portion of the 3 lap route. I stay hydrated despite a malfunctioning water bottle. I have my best bike time ever…And then I get to the bike finish line.

I get off my bike. I take a step. I fall over. Seriously. I literally trip on my own feet and fall.

I begin to wonder if I have ever done a triathlon before. Fall down seven times, get up eight… that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? So I do. (Well, actually I fall over once and stand up once, but you get the gist.)

Bruised and bleeding I hobble into transition to change my shoes and run. Spoiler alert – I have the worst run I’ve ever had … EVER!

In reality the run time wasn’t that bad but it felt awful.

Running is supposed to be the part I can do. Swimming – I’m a fish out of water, biking – the goal is to not crash, (and usually I don’t), but running? Running I can do.

This day, however, I had a cramp in my back and it was agonizing. Some one passed me. And then another. And I just could not give anymore than I was already giving. It broke my heart and I desperately wanted to walk. Walking would be bliss. Walking would be the end of the world. Walking would be understandable. Walking would be regret worthy.

The argument raged on; my feet scraped on. As I waged the war in my head and I vowed to never do another triathlon, I overheard a bystander comment to his friend about how these athletes made running look easy.

I was an athlete? I was making this look easy??!!

Perhaps it was out of desperation, perhaps it was a moment of clarity, but I accepted that athlete label.

People attach positive adjectives to us all the time and we seldom fully accept them. I am just as guilty of the, “ya but…” as anyone, but this time I felt the word cover me and I owned it.

An athlete trains, an athlete tries, an athlete is strong. I am an athlete. Wow.

I don’t know if I have ever accepted a title as fully and unashamedly as I did in that moment. Walking, running or crawling, an athlete finishes. And I did. Proudly, slowly, painfully, alone… and yet not.

From the divers stationed in the lake, ready to lift me up if I sank, to all the athletes before me that have mixed tears with sweat to push beyond their limitations, I felt that satisfying sensation of belonging. And I cried.

Ten Things I Learned From My Worst Race:

  1. Run your own race – Trying to keep up with the pack in the beginning of the swim was a mistake. Swimming is not my strength. Having someone who pushes you to try harder is great but the only person you have to truly compete with is yourself.
  2. Your brain lies – My panic attack was all in my head. There was nothing wrong with my body. Your brain will quit 100 times before your body ever will.
  3. Take small steps – Looking at how far I had to go in the swim was daunting. Looking to the next buoy was doable – and the kayak was always right there if I needed it.
  4. Training prepares you – Sounds obvious right? But I mean in more than the physical sense. Practising something over and over until it becomes second nature gives your body something to fall back on when your brain takes a hike. All my boring pool swims were worth their weight in gold.
  5. Find what works for you – Really? I ate a bunch of pasta and need a workout? THIS is what keeps me going? I’m laughing now but at the time it was the fake out my brain needed to outrun the excuses. What excuses do you have? Know them and find your own fake outs.
  6. Realize that you are an inspiration to someone – Trying is all it takes to inspire others and you will probably never know you’ve done it. That bystander making a comment to his friend that he doesn’t even know I heard redefined how I thought about myself. I’d like to think that my botched swim inspired a spectator to try because, “if she can do it, surely I can :)”.
  7. The world doesn’t end from one bad race – Your hard work and effort don’t disappear from one bad day… or one bad week. Sometimes things go well and sometimes they don’t. Accept it ’cause you can’t change it. When the results you want are not matching the effort you’ve been putting in, it does not mean the effort is wasted.
  8. Excuses are a waste of effort – They are an escape route, your easy out. Easy and worth it rarely play in the same sandbox… and your brain lies.
  9. Find your finish line – This means set your goals. Your goals are unique to you and may have nothing to do with a triathlon. Set them and decide how important they are to you… now…while things are good. When things are not going well you will want to change your finish line. Be very clear about WHY you are doing this. The why has to be more important than the excuses.
  10. Redefine yourself – everyday. This is the hardest one of all and possibly the only one that really matters. We constantly berate ourselves with not good enough’s and not strong enough’s. We compare ourselves and we don’t measure up. We’re not as good as we were last time and we’re full of “ya but’s” when anyone has anything nice to say about us. Give yourself permission to become the person you want to be.

If I could do one thing for you it would be to change the verbal flow in your head and leave out all the negatives. They impact more than you can imagine.

Or maybe I would wish for you so many positive thoughts that they weed out the negatives.

But this is your journey alone… and yet not.

During the worst race of my life I became an athlete. I fully accepted a positive label for myself without a single ‘ya but’. If I could tell you how to do this I would, but only you can decide who you are – despite what your reflection says. 

The positives are there for the taking. The support is all around you. All I know is you deserve your finish lines, so when it feels like you will never get there, repeat after me… “slow down, it’s ok, just breathe.”