I trained for 20 weeks for my first 70.3 distance race. It was my third triathlon. My finishing time was right what I had predicted. The swim was right on the button. The bike was 20 minutes faster than predicted. The run was pure agony—my gut seized up and I had to make 4 stops. The cramps were unbearable if I did more than shuffle. So I shuffled. Finishing was the best I could do that day. As multitudes passed me, a greasy black presence seeped in. I felt unworthy. I was embarrassed about my shuffling. The woman I had left in the dust 40 pounds ago crawled back into my skin for those last 13 miles. As I ran down the finishing chute I was overcome with relief and despair.Plenty of athletes drop out, get injured, or miscalculate something critical for optimal race performance. The more seasoned athletes must have coping strategies that help them to brush it off and set their sights on the next event. I am new to this sport, so for me it was a psychological crisis. I mourned for a long time. I enjoyed training as an end in itself, but there was always a race written on my calendar and a detailed training plan to get me there. In the last year, triathlon (and Weight Watchers) transformed me from a frumpy mom to an athlete. In the last year I have learned to think of myself as a strong, fit triathlete. The image has been fuel for my training engine. But after the race, the image clouded and I didn’t know how to think of myself. I felt like an imposter—an overweight, unfit, wannabe athlete-pretending I could do this thing. In training, I had practiced with my race fuel. For months I sailed off the bike into a long run without problems. I dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s when it came to preparation. I was supposed to be happy I finished. I was supposed to be proud. I was instead heartbroken, and guilty for feeling that way. When I talked about the race, I struggled to describe the positive aspects, the beautiful scenery on the bike, the mesmerizing hum of riding hard for hours in single file, the wonderful volunteers. But inside, I suffered. My next race, an Oly distance, was already scheduled for 10 weeks later. Compared to the 70.3, it would be a piece of cake. I decided to train simply to finish. I gave myself a week off, then slowly returned to training. I could not stomach the heart rate monitor, speed pod on my shoe, or cadence metronome on my watch. I didn’t wear a watch at all. As the weeks passed it was hard to stick with my schedule. I wasn’t ready for another race, even a “fun” one. I woke up each day dreading the race, and resigned to doing some sort of training. I stopped recording my workouts and at the end of each week; it was hard to remember what I had done. Four weeks before the Oly distance race, the event was cancelled. I was relieved. I wondered if the 70.3 had done me in. Would I ever feel like doing it all again…and would I ever love it like before? I kept training. I waited. Then I did a long solo bike ride of 65 miles. Out of necessity, part of it was along the 70.3 race course. I had been avoiding that area since the race. The sun was shining and I wasn’t pushing hard. There was no one around to compare myself to. There was no time to beat. It was a pleasure. I was tired at the end, but only enough to assure a good night’s sleep. I was not sore the next day, or the day after that. Somehow that magic ride healed me. As I made peace with the bike route, I made peace with myself too. I allowed myself to think about the 70.3 race and I forgave myself.A few days later, I picked up a race calendar and found some interesting races. The memories came flooding back; the rush of hurling myself into the water with so many others, the comedy of the transitions, the beauty of the effort, of being in it—not watching it, not deciding whether to do it, just being there every moment. With credit card in hand I pointed and clicked and put myself back in the game. I had races to plan for, to dream about, to be in.I felt whole again. I realized that future races are much more important than races in the past. It really doesn’t matter how race day goes. What matters is that there will always be more races to propel me forward. For weeks I was in limbo. I went through the motions, but no fire burned in my belly. The coals were gray and lifeless on the outside, but they were still hot beneath the surface. I just needed some time and a gentle breeze to ignite the flame. It’s time to put on my racing clothes again.
Author of the latest in the Ironman Series of books,
"Ironplanner: Iron-distance organizer for triathletes", USAT level 1 coach.