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The fantastic Chrissie Wellington said one of my favorite triathlon quotes: “If we let our head drop, our heart drops with it. Keep your head up, and your body is capable of amazing feats.”
I read her words somewhere in my beginner days and thought to myself, “My head is so heavy though. Particularly when I am running.” I am a chronic stare-at-my-feet runner. I stare at the ground so I don’t see the nasty hill coming or how far I actually have to go. When the hill appears underneath my shoes, then I can be pleasantly surprised.
Indeed, we want to keep our heads up and be mentally tough so we can push our bodies to amazing limits. After all, that’s why most of us are tackling this fantastic sport, right? To see what we are made of? To prove that we can go faster and farther? To prove to our ex-boyfriends that we really are just as crazy as they originally thought? I have always been the type of person to focus on my weaknesses, or to see the worst in the situation—a glass-half-empty type of gal. Why am I so fat? Why don’t I have any fashion sense? Eventually, I can turn lemons into a fabulous lemon vodka cocktail, but my gut reaction in most situations is to scream, “Sky. Falling! See it?”
Triathlon was no different for me. At the beginning, it was all about what I couldn’t do. I can’t run fast. I can’t climb on a bike. I can’t clip out of my pedals. I had a form of triathlon-based negativity compulsion.
Then something inside of my brain clicked during training for my first Olympic-distance race. At some point, I decided that I was tough as nails and nothing could stop me. Both things are not actually true, but in my mind, I believed them, and these thoughts festered. “Hey, I am tough, because I am training for a triathlon!”
On those long runs where I swore I was near death, I could hear my brain say to my body: “You aren’t going to die. Just run through the pain. When you’re done running, the pain will stop. But if you stop before you are done, the physical pain will become shame pain, and we all know shame pain is the worst. Especially shame pain and a pint of ice cream. Bad.”
I definitely had moments where I stomped my feet, cursed and said, “I quit.” But overall, maintaining a form of “head up” and toughness carried me through those first few months and to the finish of my first half-Ironman. That was my first real test of mental bravery, when I jumped into the pouring rain swim start and raced as sick as a dog.
Sometimes, I think that the mental toughness is even more important for beginners. If you are starting out (or started out) anything like I did in my triathlon journey, then you are (were) accustomed to society (and yourself) telling you that you weren’t good, pretty, thin, rich or fit enough. So when you made a crazy declaration like “I’m going to do a triathlon,” and those same people who thought you were fat now think you are crazy, you have a very interesting situation on your hands. Your mental toughness is forced to either rise up or eat crow. I’m not one to like the taste of crow, so I kept churning away at the workouts. I realized that I had to be mentally tough, brush off the negativity (both from outsiders and myself) and move forward.
As a beginner, you are forced to find tons of courage and confidence to make it through training and on to those first races. You see more tough times in the pool and on the bike than you could ever imagine. From a pure fitness standpoint, beginning is difficult. Sometimes triathlon feels like one giant lesson in humility, but the race day reward is amazingly fantastic—which is what keeps us going back for more.
Take joy in the small victories, because the small moments of greatness are what the big ones are built upon. One of the biggest wins for me was the day I rolled up to an intersection on the bike, unclipped from my pedals and placed my foot firmly on the ground. When the light turned green, I rolled on, clipped in and kept going. About a half mile down the road, I realized that I did not think about the intersection. The bike had become an extension of me. I had successfully stopped and started … and I was awesome!
Of course, we do triathlon for ourselves, but sometimes that external motivation is a good place to find fuel for your fire. Admittedly I find that it’s nice to say, “Yeah, I showed him” or “Take that, world!” to validate hard work and mental toughness. For example, I had an irritating miserable lawyer co-worker who continuously made snide remarks about my training. I was a baby triathlete, and he was a jerk-face in real life. But a really interesting thing happened after my first half-Ironman. I was in the break room at work, and he said, “How’s that little triathlon thing going?” Then he snorted. Really? Yes.
I said, “Oh, you mean the half-Ironman training?” He snorted again, and said, “Yeah, yeah. Tell me how far that is again.” I told him the distances of 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and a half-marathon, to which he actually laughed out loud, looked me up and down, and then snarled, “Good luck with that!”
I paused for a minute as he turned to walk out of the break room, and said, “Hey Jack? Actually, I finished it last weekend. It was great. And I was awesome.”
Whatever your goal or wherever you are in this process, be a mental giant. Channel Chrissie. Channel the beer at the finish line. Make it happen just to show that jerk at the office that you could.
Meredith Atwood is a wife, mother, attorney, Ironman, coach and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She lives in Atlanta and blogs at Swimbikemom.com.