Beginner’s Luck: The Role of Gratitude in Racing

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It’s important not to lose sight of the crazy reasons we do this sport on race day, writes “Beginner’s Luck” columnist Meredith Atwood.

In 2013, I finished my first Ironman race in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho with 16 minutes to spare. Whenever I talk about that race, I say that my heart was so very big, I was immensely grateful, and I crossed the finish line like a tired, beaten warrior—but full of triumph and appreciation. Despite the obstacles, it was an amazing day. Knowing what I know now (three additional iron races later), I am befuddled at how I even finished that race. I was heavy. I wasn’t in great shape. I was injured. I was also quite talentless in the sports of swim, bike and run. But I finished the race, and I knew exactly what the key was: gratitude. I knew on that day that I (along with my coach) had trained my brain to approach the race with gratitude. A friend of mine, Colleen, had told me: “Just say, all day long, ‘OMG! I am swimming in an Ironman! OMG! I am riding my bike! In an Ironman!”

I did that. I smiled. I was grateful.

Then, I proceeded to promptly forget this simple key to racing.

Less than 12 weeks later, I showed up for a half distance race. Half the distance? No problem, I thought. I should also add that I had half the training. Er, probably less than that. I hadn’t done much in the way of training at all since the big race. I was nonchalant about the half. I sort of had a bad attitude, really. By the time I got off the bike, I was grumbling out loud, and then walking and huffing and puffing by mile 2 of the half marathon.

What was the difference in races, a mere 12 weeks later?

Gratitude. I had a complete absence of gratitude for myself, the race, the day, the air and the bird who pooped on my head during the run.

This past weekend, I raced St. Anthony’s Olympic distance triathlon in St. Petersburg, Florida. I wasn’t really trained for the race. I worked the expo booth for two days before in the heat. I wasn’t really set up for a great race. After a call with my guru and coach, Gerry Halphen, he reminded me to race with “two things” in my heart and mind that day. The first? To simply ask myself if I was doing the best I could, in that moment, during the race. Then the second question? To think of something I was grateful for, also in that moment. These two questions were amazing. And I realized that during my first Ironman, I was doing a form of this—all day long—which served me incredibly well. During St. Anthony’s I came up with immense gratitude thoughts, big and heavy things. But I also summoned really funny moments of gratitude like, “I am thankful I am not pooping my pants right now,” and “I am so thankful for this ice cube wedged between my sports bra and my boob.”

In all things, gratitude wins.

Thankfulness shifts our focus from ourselves (and perhaps our pain—whether physical or emotional) during a race to the good things, the reasons we do this crazy sport in the first place. If it seems too hard to think of things you are thankful for during a race, just give it a try. Just the mental game alone, of thinking of new gratitude things during a long race, is enough to shift the focus away from the heat, the pain and the distance.

Meredith Atwood (@Swimbikemom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She is the host of the new podcast, “The Same 24 Hours,” a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children, and writes about all things at MeredithAtwood.com.