Overcoming doubts to train for Ironman competition

September 24, 2018

It’s less than one month until race day.

When my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m., I often ask myself, “Why?”

“Why do I put myself through this?”

“Why do I sacrifice two-plus extra hours of sleep, nights out with friends and my weekends?”

“What’s the point?”

Then, I put my feet on the floor, pack my gym bag and head to the pool, where a glittery sunrise moves over the water.

When the work day’s over, similar feelings resurface. I’m tired, and all I really want is a cocktail, or a nap. The question comes again: “Why?”

Then, I slip on my running shoes or pump air into my bicycle tires. I breathe in the smell of juniper and move past adobe homes, following winding roads and zig-zagging hills. I focus on my breath and tune in to my body. I think about my day, the past week, the future. I get inside my head — something that is sometimes painful, other times uplifting — and when I’m finished, I feel like a weight has been lifted.

The goal of all of this? To complete

140.6 miles — a 2.4-mile open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. The race is Oct. 14 in Louisville, Ky.

My first 70.3-mile Ironman was in Muncie, Ind., in 2014, and I’ve competed in at least four races of that distance since then.

I qualified for the Olympic-distance Nationals after racing my first Olympic triathlon — a 1,500-meter swim, 24.8-mile bike, 6.2-mile run — in Chattanooga, Tenn.

After a 70.3 in Augusta, Ga., I qualified for the 70.3 World Championship, which was in 2016 in Australia. Within a few years’ time, triathlons became a huge part of my life.

Training for an Ironman is no joke. Some say it’s like having another full-time job, which makes balancing work and a social life nearly impossible, with a daily grind of two-a-day workouts and weekends spent out on all-consuming bike rides and long runs. An average week totals at least 14 hours of exercise — sometimes up to 18 hours — generally with three swims, four runs and four bike rides.

Mondays are my off day, generally with about 30 minutes of stretching, an easy swim or minimal weightlifting. The rest of the work week is packed with workouts before and after work. Each takes about an hour, with runs between four to eight miles. Bike rides are about 20 miles and almost always done on my trainer bike at home, because there isn’t enough daylight before or after my 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. schedule. Interval swims add about 1 mile to 11/2 miles.

The weekend, though, is a whole different game — I spend the better part of it drenched in sweat.

Saturdays are dedicated to a long run — usually 14-16 miles, sometimes as many as 20 — and a distance swim. Sundays are for lengthy bike rides, which recently range between 75 miles to 100 miles.

Putting your body through a grinder to prepare for a triathlon requires a ridiculous amount of time management, planning, self-motivation and sacrifice.

Yet, this sport is much more than just pouring hours into exercise.

A major part of being a triathlete is mental training. You can’t overanalyze your running pace or beat yourself up over a subpar workout.

You can’t think about the inevitable kicks to the face during the swim start, or fuel your fear of a flat tire on the bike.

You’ve got to stretch, use muscle rollers and listen to your body when it feels on the verge of injury. You’ve got to ingest plenty of protein and remember that calories are your friend — you must learn how to appropriately fuel yourself to avoid cramping and exhaustion, both during workouts and in the midst of recovery.

And when the sport starts to take over your life, you have to remember not to become one dimensional.

Some triathletes revolve their lives around setting personal records, looking like fitness supermodels and qualifying for world-class races.

I’m a believer in giving yourself time to breathe, see friends — even if it’s less often than it used to be — and treat yourself to Counter Culture’s beastly cinnamon rolls.

After all, if you don’t allow yourself a bit of freedom, the “Why?” will haunt you.

I’m enamored by challenges and enjoy the opportunity to prove myself — not necessarily to others, but to myself. I get giddy at testing my limits and striving to participate in above-average pursuits. This is likely why I gravitated toward triathlon.

But after a subpar — yet super fun — race in Australia, life became chaotic.

I got married, moved across the country for a dream job that ended up not being so dreamy after all, and wrestled with a quarter-life existential crisis.

I focused my energy into training, but the high altitude destroyed all confidence I had as an athlete.

I was so overwhelmed with exterior anxieties that exercising only added to my stress. I would come home after a short run in tears, feeling inadequate and helpless in nearly every aspect of my life. Something that was once calming and fun now felt like a burden. Yet, in the midst of all the craziness, I signed up for this beast of a race —my first full-distance 140.6 Ironman.

Maybe it was my shattered confidence — or perhaps it was watching my dad finish his second Ironman — that inspired me to try it.

Maybe I needed an outlet to alleviate all the stress, or I just wanted to feel strong again. Maybe, I secretly envied the power of my incredibly fit rock-climbing husband. Or maybe I felt I’d lost a part of my independence, and suddenly felt defeated and insecure.

I don’t like to define myself by hobbies or my career. When someone asks me what I do, I try to avoid job titles or one-word descriptions. At the end of the day, though, endurance sports are a part of who I am. It’s not the sport itself that is part of my identity — it’s what the sport stirs in me.

When I’m in triathlon mode, I feel a small sense of invincibility and worth that goes far beyond swimming, biking and running.

The sport showed me that giving up is not an option, and loving yourself regardless of outcome is vital. And you have to believe in yourself. It taught me to push my limits, try harder, welcome pain, have faith and pray. It taught me that when you give it your all — in sport, marriage, friendship or career — there is no such thing as failing.

I have a cheesy Winnie the Pooh quote tattooed on my thigh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”

I signed up for this race, because I want to be brave. I want to be the person who shows up, no matter the fear, doubt or pain buried inside. It’s not always about winning, or even finishing — it’s about showing up.

It’s putting your feet on the floor when the alarm clock goes off, starting the run at sunset and not looking back.

It’s not asking “Why?”

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