I have never considered myself an athlete. I wasn’t involved in sports in school — I am eye-hand UNcoordinated — and don’t like the trash talking many competitors engage in. I just don’t find that motivating. So it’s still with a bit of wonder that I can call myself a triathlete. But having completed five triathlons (with my sixth coming up next weekend), I AM a triathlete.
For someone who never liked to run — heck, I still hate that part — and who hadn’t been swimming competitively since age 8 and only just purchased a road bike after the first triathlon, it’s still quite an accomplishment for me. I never thought I could do something like this. Which makes me realize — what else can I do that I never thought I could? How often is it that our thoughts limit us?
That first year, I had no idea what to expect. I talked to my sister (a seasoned triathlete) and a colleague at work who had competed in the Iron Man. They both gave me helpful tips, but it’s impossible to describe it all. It’s like the difference between reading a book about riding a bike and actually getting out there and learning how to balance yourself on two wheels.
So when I entered the lake that first year, I didn’t plan on the panic attack. Besides the fact that you’re swimming in a murky lake that is so opaque you can’t even see your hands in front of you, what it REALLY feels like is that you’re swimming in a sea of arms and legs. My heart rate was through the roof, and my breath was quick and shallow. I kept hitting other women, and my Southern upbringing kicked in. I literally popped my head up and would say “Excuse me!” and “Sorry!” Each of these attempts at propriety only got me another gulp of water, adding to my panic as I sputtered to breathe. I decided to keep my head up above water and did the breaststroke, slowly inching forward. I also tried rolling over onto my back for some backstroke, but I veered off course. It wasn’t until 2/3 of the way through the swim that I felt my breathing getting somewhere closer to normal. I was absolutely exhausted at the end of the swim. And I still had the bike and run portions to go!
The second year, I thought I would be fine. Nope…still had the panic attack in the water.
The third year, I thought FOR SURE I would be okay. Ha! Panic again.
The fourth year, I still panicked. In my head, I was telling myself, “Not again! You KNOW this. You know what to expect! Get it together!” I did notice that I was able to get over the panic faster, but it still slowed me down at first.
So this year, I expected I would panic. After all, experience has taught me that’s what my body does in this situation. I was completely prepared for it. I knew how to handle it: I’d let myself feel it, keep my head above water until I could calm my breathing, and then kick into high gear once I had enough oxygen.
And then…I didn’t panic. I could hardly believe it! I got into the same lake we get into every year. There were several sets of arms and legs all around me, and I just got in there and started swimming. No panic! Amazing.
My experience with the triathlon has become my personal metaphor for life. Whenever I feel that anxiety and panic start to come over me, I think, “Oh, it’s you again! I know you.” And then I just focus on keeping my head above water until my breathing calms down. And I sing my little mantra to myself: Ellen Degeneres in the movie Finding Nemo singing, “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…” Every little stroke gets you a little bit closer to that finish line.
The other lesson from the triathlon is that I can do things I didn’t think were possible. So what else can I do…?