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Beginner’s Luck: Why You Should Do (Your) Ironman

Pick a big, scary goal—your personal, perhaps proverbial “ironman”—and get to work.

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Pick a big, scary goal—your personal, perhaps proverbial “ironman”—and get to work.

When I started in the sport of triathlon, I had no idea what Ironman actually was. As a result, I had no idea what the Ironman World Championship was either. The longer I stayed in the sport, however, the more I learned that many of the average laypeople think (any distance) triathlon is synonymous with Kona. “Oh you’re a triathlete?! Did you love your trip to Hawaii?”

Here’s the thing: I may never see a day where I cross the finish line in Kona—either by luck, by gift or by skill—though I may qualify for the Big Island when I age up (to the 80-year-old group). I am perfectly OK with never racing Kona because there are a few things I believe about the world championship. First, I believe that you should earn a spot by your ranking, or I think you should be doing something good for the sport or the world by taking a spot on the sacred ground. I do not think the two are mutually exclusive, and people will argue the points about that until the end of triathlon time. Still, what I do believe most is that everyone is entitled to their own personal version of the Ironman World Championship.

I wrote a blog post several eons ago entitled “Why Everyone Should Do an Ironman.” I laughed so hard after I posted it because it proved my theory that people will read the title of a post and then start to comment before they ever bother reading the actual article. The point of my writing was not that everyone should actually do the 140.6-mile race. But rather, everyone should pick an incredibly scary goal—arguably their own personal, proverbial “ironman”—and put it on their list of something to accomplish. And at some point, they should go after this big, scary goal. For some, this may be a one-and-done sprint triathlon. For others, it may literally be an Ironman, including Kona. The gamut is wide and large. The choice is also wildly personal.

At the end of the day, we do these events—running or triathlon or adventure racing—for a reason. There is something deep in ourselves that is calling us to step out of our comfort zones and reach—further and deeper than we really believe is possible—and aspire for the impossible. Asking ourselves the “why” behind our own personal racing and goals is a major part of the journey.

The reason I do triathlon now is shockingly different from the reasons I started in this sport. When I began, I was a new-ish mom with a lawyer job and lots of responsibilities, and I needed desperately to carve out a tiny sliver of the world that belonged to me, a small place that wasn’t covered in baby slobber or hidden somewhere in a brown legal folder, amid the 0.2 billable hour. I just needed some peace and quiet, some sweat and tears that weren’t from post-partum depression or credit card debt used to fund the nanny that we couldn’t afford so I could continue to do the legal job I loathed. I’ll say it—I just needed something, and part of that something was getting away from reality. I found triathlon and it was “my ironman”—long before I even knew what Ironman was. The dream of doing a 400-meter swim, a 10-mile bike and a 5K might as well have been the bright shining beacon of Ali’i Drive—it was my Kona. Doing something for me, via the sport of triathlon, was a radical act.

Training with a full-time job and two children under the age of 2 was really shocking to some people. It was shocking to my body and my sedentary system, sure. But the transition to the active lifestyle actually bothered people around me too. I wasn’t sure if it was the fact that I was large and jiggly, and it made people uncomfortable that I wanted to do a triathlon. Or if it was the idea that I was a mom and I should be spending constant time with my children. Maybe people liked to put me in a box as the overweight, tired mom who blogged funny things about her kids—not a triathlete. Maybe it was a combo of all those things. We may love to see ourselves change, but that doesn’t mean that others like to see it.

Now, I have so many friends and people in my life that swim, bike and run, I no longer need to explain why I do the sport—even though the reasons are really different now versus 2010 when I started. But in all reality, we do not, at any time, need to explain to anyone our personal reasons why we tri. Our lives are our own, and we can do what we want, choose what we do and live with our choices.

Still, whenever I do a speaking engagement, or someone asks me to write an article, inevitably there is a question, at every event or every article: “As a mom, wife and employee, how do you balance it all?” My answer is usually the same, and it’s quite simple: You can’t balance it all. There is no such thing as balance in life. Life is a series of choices and decisions, and at any given time you have to decide what is important—sometimes it’s an hour-by-hour decision—and you go with that. You list your priorities, and then you move them constantly, like a game of Jenga, just trying to keep everything from crumbling. Sometimes, the crumble happens. Then you get out your little cardboard box and stacker, and you begin to pick up the pieces. You’ll never get everything right at any given time. You’ll never make everyone happy.

But in the midst of all those things, I say this: Everyone should do an “ironman.” Pick a scary goal, find out what you are made of and work toward it—whatever goal and distance that turns out to be. Taking stock of my own strengths, weaknesses, bravery, blessings, faults and life is one thing that I have never regretted doing throughout my triathlon journey. Over the years, I have repeatedly found my own personal Ironman Kona—not from racing actual Ironman, but sometimes these goals are met from repetition. By showing up for the small, simple workouts after a night of no sleep with sick babies and a looming work deadline. Getting on the bike trainer when I am dog-tired and faced with laundry that should have been done a week ago. Making time for family vacations and snuggles, and showing the kids what it means to be healthy and to make our own health a priority—and how you should never be forced to apologize for that. In the end, I have found my strengths and my power in doing the little things that seem impossible, and then stacking those little “impossibles” together to make bigger goals and finish lines. The glorious finish lines are big rewards, sure. But in the day-to-day joy, pain and gains, they keep the Jenga house standing tall.p

Meredith Atwood is a wife, mom, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She lives in Atlanta and blogs at SwimBikeMom.com.