Welp, I am long overdue for a blog post. And this one, I’ve written, deleted, and re-written so many times. For a while I considered just not writing it, pretending like everything was great. But….I’ve always wanted to be honest (as much as I can in a public space), this blog serves much like a journal for me, and writing is cathartic, so this while this may seem self-indulgent and silly, it’s me and it’s my blog, so here goes….
I did an Ironman a few weeks ago in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. More accurately, I started an Ironman. I quit halfway(ish) through. And then I stayed totally silent about it, here, on Facebook, on Twitter, to some extent in real life, because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to tell the truth, and I wasn’t sure I even knew what the truth was. I didn’t know what people would think and I feared being judged. It’s fun and easy to write and post pictures when things are going great, when everything is effortless. It’s a lot harder to talk about it when it’s a struggle.
It’s also hard to talk about the Ironman because I still am not entirely sure what happened. I was fit and ready for this race. I wasn’t injured. I wasn’t overtrained. I wasn’t any of those things.
I had, however, completely lost the joy of the sport.
In hindsight, my plan of doing Eagleman and Coeur d’Alene back-to-back, and treating both of them as “A” races, was perhaps overly ambitious. When I got that Kona slot at Eagleman, it was suggested to me that I re-consider Coeur d’Alene and instead, rest up, recover, re-build, and do some lower key races while getting ready for Kona. Ironmans take a huge mental and physical toll on anyone, and especially on me. The zombie-like state I’ve remained in for weeks after every Ironman I’ve done is remarkable. Some people can just do Ironman after Ironman after Ironman, barely feeling the effect. I am not one of those people.
But I was stubborn and insisted on it, not wanting to “waste” all the training I’d done going into Eagleman (the hardest training block of my life). So I gave myself about two days to “celebrate” [read: eat pizza] after Eagleman, and then got right back at it. But, I was unmotivated, sluggish, and emotionally drained. We kept the training volume somewhat lower, doing a hybrid recovery/ taper, but I still was dragging myself through every workout. I blamed it on the recovery, then the taper, and then, when I still felt like crap, some remarkable medical condition that was a combination of iron deficiency, lupus, malaria, and Lyme disease. I was only sorta kidding.
But after three weeks of feeling horrible and trying to figure out what was wrong with me (likely, nothing, except mental exhaustion), I arrived in Coeur d’Alene having lost all confidence, which of course, made everything feel worse physically. Truth– I just didn’t want to do that Ironman. I had come to agree that it wasn’t the smartest idea in the big picture, and even once I got there, I couldn’t get into the right mindset.
All the pieces for a great race were there. Idaho/ Washington was absolutely beautiful. Lake Coeur d’Alene was pristine and the perfect temperature for me. I was staying with Adrienne, a crazy fast triathlete who recently re-located from Chicago to Spokane, her husband Michael, her two-month old daughter, and their cute little dog Lucy, and they were fantastic hosts and friends all weekend long. I had friends from Well-Fit there, the weather was shaping up to be to my advantage. But, I just couldn’t get into it. I didn’t appreciate the views. I didn’t derive energy from the pre-race buzz. I was crabby, sad, and ultra-sensitive. I dreaded the pain of the race, mostly of the run. I just wanted to go home. I tried to put on a happy face, I tried to talk myself into it…but I couldn’t.
|Jessica, Arieh & Jeff- Well-Fit buddies|
The swim…it went pretty well, actually! We had a windy day to deal with, so the water was quite choppy, but I considered that to my benefit and plowed through, coming out of the water at just seconds over an hour, a good swim for me for that day, first in my age group, and towards the front of the amateur field.
But then I got onto the bike. I felt off, a little tired, a bit sluggish, uncomfortable. The first hour or so, an out-and-back along the lake, went alright, but I remember thinking that the hills felt harder than I’d anticipated. But I carried on.
Then, we turned into a massive headwind on Highway 95, and stayed there for the next 20ish miles. I was miserable. My back started seizing up. It was nothing I couldn’t deal with, but it made me uncomfortable enough that the negative thoughts that were bubbling right under the surface started taking center stage. I struggled up the hills, getting passed easily by lots of men — par for the course for a relatively strong swimmer in a mass-start Ironman, but for some reason, it really bugged me this time. Thirty miles into the race, I started thinking “I just don’t want to do this.” But the lows of Ironman are familiar, so I ate more, drank more, and hoped it would pass.
|My bike was ready to go. I was not.|
It didn’t pass. My thinking just got more and more negative. I had no fight and was miserable. I knew by mile 40 that I wasn’t going to finish. It just became a question of when I would stop. As strange as it sounds, I was terrified of DNFing– scared of the repercussions, the mental damage. I knew it’d take a while to get over my decision, that I’d hate myself. I was afraid people would judge me, that they’d think I was weak, spoiled, lacking perspective, a head case, a quitter, all sorts of other labels I assigned to myself. I thought my family would be ashamed, that my coach would be mad. I felt that by quitting, I would let so many people down.
|The road was the bike course|
But none of those fears were enough to make me keep going— that’s how badly I wanted to stop. I tried three times….once at the Special Needs station at mile 60ish. I unclipped from my pedals and said, “I want to stop. I want to call it a day.” The volunteers there talked me out of it. Then, 8 miles later, back in town, I stopped again. A random coach on the side of the road saw me. “What’s going on?” he asked. I tried to explain, “my back hurts, my power sucks, I’m mentally not into this, I just don’t want to do it.” We talked for 4 minutes. “You’re winning your age group,” he reminded me. [I may have been first or second at that point, unclear due to the rolling swim start] “Eat more. DNFing….it’s hard. This is going to be really hard for you if you do this. You’re going to struggle with this for a long, long time.” He was convincing enough that I tried again, but 10 miles later, at around mile 80, I stopped again, for the final time. I got to an aid station, took off my shoes, laid my bike on the ground, and that was my day.
That afternoon, I didn’t shed a tear. I was perhaps a little in shock. I calmly called my parents and my coach and explained what’d happened. I rationalized it in my own mind— in the mental (and, in small part, physical) state I was in, trying to run a marathon, even slowly, would have forced me to dig so deep, to go to such dark places, that I’d be ruined and unable to really train for weeks. I convinced myself I’d made the right choice. I stuck around the town, bought myself a Hawaiian Ice, cheered loudly for Maggie, Jessica, and my friends from Well-Fit. I had a couple beers with Adrienne and Michael, used them as sounding boards as I talked everything through, and went to bed feeling alright. Late that night, I cried long and hard, so confused and scared by a mind that completely gave up on me, but by the next day, I was fine, went out for a run, and just buried myself.
|Ran from Washington to Idaho– that fence was the state border|
The next week started well– I was inspired, ready to get back on track, to buckle down and move forward. I signed up for a bonus race– the Muncie 70.3, a short two weeks later. I got out the scale and started a quest to get to a Hawaii-sort of race weight. I booked myself a weekend in Madison, solo, planning to just destroy myself on the bike. I acknowledged that I had a lot of work to do on the mental side of this sport, and I started a search for a sports psychologist. I’d hit rock bottom and there was nowhere to go but up.
But a couple days later, it hit me. That random coach on the side of the road who said I was going to struggle— he was right. I struggled so hard. I was ashamed and embarrassed, afraid to show my face at Well-Fit or to explain to anyone what happened. I cried through my workouts and beat myself up….”when did I become a quitter?” Then I beat myself up for beating myself up: “how did I get to a point that I’ve let this hobby become so important to me that I am letting it affect me this much?” And, in anger– “get over it. This is not how a champion thinks.”
What became clear to me is that somewhere along the way, I had lost the joy, the love of the sport. I buried myself so deep into the data and the noise– the numbers, the hours, TSS, CTL, IF, the paces, the watts, my results, the results of people I considered “rivals”, what those “rivals” were saying on Twitter — that I completely lost sight of why I was doing this in the first place. I forgot that I just loved competing, and more to the point, swimming, biking, and running in their simplest forms. I started putting pressure on myself– huge amounts of pressure, refusing to let myself celebrate A-minus sorts of performances because they weren’t the A-plus outcomes that I wanted. I worried about other people, creating “rivalries” in my head that in reality, do not exist. It became less and less joyful until, finally, I found myself on the side of the road in Idaho, watching a race continue on without me, not even caring because I’d become so emotionally exhausted that I couldn’t even think.
So that’s been my task since then– to re-find the joy. It’s not as easy as you might think– I’d love to turn on a switch and say “now I’m joyful again,” but it doesn’t really work that way. I’ve had to actually work hard to strip things down, to fight old habits, and to let go. I went to Muncie– I’ll write about that soon — I raced for fun, and it went alright. The biggest thing I’ve done, mostly at my coach’s suggestion, was to get rid of all the technology. Lately, I haven’t looked at watts or pace or anything like that. My workouts have been written so that I’m going purely on feel, and there’s even flexibility built in so that I can go longer or shorter than the workout is written if I’m feeling good or bad. And, after training almost entirely solo this year, I’ve started to seek out training buddies and embraced the social aspect of the sport. It helps.
While I can’t say it’s all rainbows and puppies now, I can say….the love is coming back. I knew it was there, just hidden under numbers and (self-imposed) pressure and expectations. I rode the other night, out in the cornfields I know so well, but where I’ve spent the last few months trying to hit power numbers and feeling anxious, inadequate, defeated, and bored. This time — I was almost two hours into my ride. I had no idea what my power was, whether I was fast or slow, whether my ride thus far was a success or a failure or what….but suddenly, I looked up and actually noticed the clouds, the corn (it grew fast!), the blue sky, the red barns dotting the horizon. I felt the crisp and perfect temperature, and for the first time I had the thought that I haven’t had in a long, long while — “I really just love this.”
|Love in the cornfields (taken months ago, pre-corn)|
And that, really, is the truth. I do love this sport, and I’d love it even if I wasn’t any good. I forget that sometimes, becoming distracted by all the noise. But now, just in time for a nice, big build for Kona, I’m remembering.