Since 2011 I have not enjoyed the open water triathlon swim. Each time I find myself again in the competitive swim environment I question my motives: why I do keep signing up for Xterra Triathlons? My mental mantra had been “I do this because it allows me to get to the bike and run.” Biking and running are two events that I quite enjoy.
A couple weeks ago, I participated at the Rock hopper Xterra, a pre-season 2017 race, in Tempe, AZ. For the first time ever, I experienced enjoyment in an open water competitive swim. My previous lack of enjoyment never stopped me from competing, but I envied friends who actually found this part fun.
There was nothing factually different about this swim from all other triathlon competitive open water swim events; I got elbowed, kicked, grabbed and edged out by larger competitors. I did some feet grabbing and nearly pulled out my water polo flip over the back of a competitor maneuver, not yet used in competition. However, what was completely different this day was that I felt at peace in the water. I had a sense of ease with the waves and the other bodies thrashing around me. Simply, nothing bothered me. I felt calm, protected, safe and in the moment. I flowed with the currents and enjoyed the feel of the water.
I made my way to transition. I felt strange, I had a new experience, “fun” in the swim. I shook off the odd strangeness and refocused myself for the bike event.
Once on the bike, I used my pacing strategies, drafted off a competitor into a head wind, and took each obstacle as it came. I have dreamed of passing competitors up hills, for years, and trained on hills, but typically this was where I got crushed. On this day, my dream came true! I felt astounded, and it occurred not just once but several times.
I passed four girls and held my lead on the downhills. I made solid advances. Quickly I found myself riding with only men. I know this is an excellent sign of a solid lead and a potential podium. I felt excited about that possibility. Thinking about results, in the moment of a sport performance, will make those results more elusive. I refocused my thoughts to the moment and put results thinking aside. “Just have a fun, solid ride,” I told myself. I’m an auditory person and mantras work better for me than visual images. “Be here, now,” “ride and have fun.”
I was alone out on the course during my second lap. This was unusual and I argued with myself internally about whether or not it was a two lap course. Doubt, started to creep into my mind. Doubt is cancerous to a solid sport performance. It is completely self-destructive and many athletes attack and destroy themselves when they allow doubtful thoughts to drag them down. Clients call this, “the spiral of death,” “the black hole,” “the dark side of the force,” I’ve heard all sorts of names for it. I do not typically fight with doubt, but there it was. I decided it was time to get it out of my head.
I used lyrics of a modern pop song my teenagers listen to, ”My name is NO, my number is NO, No, No, No,” I sang to myself to stop the mental argument and return to the moment. I decided if I did an extra lap, I could be proud of myself for a longer workout. It’s my job to know the course. It was a two lap course two years ago, but I didn’t check, I assumed the course would be two laps again. This assumption opened the door for doubt to grow and deteriorate my confidence.
I rode into transition, and I knew I had a very solid lead on my competitors. Turns out it was a two lap course and doubt was gone—for the moment. But like cancer it can go into remission and return to rear it’s ugly head when you least expect it.
It was time to pace my run at 85% up until the last half mile and then go full out. This course is a sprint distance and counts towards Xterra Points for the 2017 season, a course that works towards my strengths. I enjoy running, but it’s not my best of the three events. I had not been training for speed leading into this race, I settled myself with “just do the best I can, it’s a pre-season race, plenty of time for speed workouts before next season.”
The most amazing thing happened, again for the first time ever, I passed a girl running uphill. I used to lie to myself and say, “I am a strong uphill runner,” something I wanted to be true. It helped ward off hopelessness, doubt and depression about giving up the lead I had from the bike while I was passed by competitors on the run. However, this day, I actually was a strong uphill runner. I ran down, not just one girl going uphill, but I overtook two more. This was truly unbelievable! How I have longed for this experience, and there it was! I could hardly believe both the bike and the run, I must have gotten stronger this year—finally. I felt proud, stunned, strong and pleased with my progress.
I was solidly in qualifying position for a slot to World Championships.
I stayed focused in the moment and was a half mile from the finish. It was time to kick it into full gear and give my 100%, making certain to leave everything out on the course. I’m having the best race of my life, I’m running at full effort, I was .3 miles from the finish line when I saw the trail turn off to the right and on some deep level I knew it was the right way to go, but I would have been alone, again.
A large pack of male competitors I had been trying to chase down, all went straight onto the concrete, missing the trail. I did not hesitate long enough. The cancerous doubt returned, corroded my confidence, and I abdicated my deep inner truth to follow the crowd. I have always been more of a follower than a leader, valuing my easy-going nature, yet in this moment…. I did myself a disservice. And it’s not the first time that following a crowd has gotten me in trouble.
Shooting pain in my hamstring stopped me dead in my tracks, a cramp. I paused to walk, gripped my hamstring with my hand and waited for it to release. The group of men turned back and passed me as I stood frozen breathing through pain. I never cramp, luckily the pain was subsiding. I could run again and I took off, only this time I decided I would not make the same mistake twice, and I would not follow the men again. And that was my second major mistake. I took off running towards the trail, up the sidewalk where I thought I could get back to the trail, but it turned out to be a dead end, the sidewalk was fenced off for construction and I was stuck, off course, lost and walking. Dazed and confused I walked an extra mile. Struggling with subsiding hamstring pain, mental confusion and heart ache. I slowly made my way back towards the finish line. I threw away my position for Worlds. Disbelief and curiosity filled me as I slowly found my way to the finish line. Why haven’t I completely mastered this life lesson?
This is what I love about athletics, and why I continue to sign up for races. I grow as a human being through my sports. If we look closely at our life themes, they will cross multiple areas of our lives. I can assure you I have been learning to trust myself, risk following my own path, not abdicating my power to others in multiple areas of my life, for many years. This life lesson is by no means isolated only to my athletics.
Am I upset? Not anymore, but of course I felt upset, particularly at myself for not trusting myself in a crucial, defining moment. Will the discomfort I feel be enough to teach me to listen deeply, to trust my inner voice and to be willing to go against the direction of a crowd next time? If it is not, I will be presented with another opportunity in the future, to learn this same lesson. It is often our pain and discomfort that are our biggest teachers, not our successes.
People who know me, know that I often talk about focus being a choice. I stand at a crossroads. I can focus on how I threw my qualifying spot with three tenths of a mile from the finish line or I can focus on the amazing zen-like swim, which I have longed for, the personal progress of actually passing people uphill on both the bike and the run.
Where I place my focus greatly influences my experiences in life, and focus is a choice. I find this choice empowering and freeing. It’s like a secrete key to success. I always thought that where I lacked in athletic talent, I made up for with a solid mental game. I have developed my mental game mainly by choosing where to place my focus.
Feelings come and go, and I have had a lot of feelings about this race over the last couple weeks. One friends suggested I allow myself to be upset, angry, disappointed and hurt for 24 hours and then let it go. I liked her idea of giving myself a time-frame. I felt so conflicted initially and for the remainder of the day.
How could I stay upset? I had one of the best races of my life! I felt proud, amazed, astounded and my progress was so apparent; And yet I don’t have the results to show for it. Ultimately I stand at the cross roads ready to make a choice, how do I want to feel about this event? Since my focus is a choice, I allowed myself to feel upset and then after 24 hours, I moved towards acceptance and let go of all negative feelings. I could nurse my grudge towards myself, but to what end? It will only hurt my personal progress and block me from important personal growth. Wouldn’t it be more valuable to spend my energy wondering how I generated that blissful, fun swim experience? If I created it once, I can do it again. If I choose to focus on the lessons learned, I will solidify my progress and personal growth.
There will be more races in the future and more opportunities to qualify. The more important question truthfully is, how many more opportunities will I need, in the future to learn to trust myself, or have I fully learned this lesson, such that I can move on to mastering the next one?
Want to grow personally through your athletics? Not an athlete but want to work with Karen Quigley? She is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist, a life coach and sport psychology consultant in private practice. Karen@TrueFormCoaching.com 520-955-9503. Define yourself!