An Athlete By Any Other Name

A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend who was trying to convince me to sign up for my first triathlon with her. As I hesitated, considering my ability to prepare, she said, “Don’t worry. You’re in great shape. You can do it. Besides you’re an athlete.”

I was struck by that description. I think of athletes as people who excel at sports and bring home accolades for their athletic endeavors. They are the first ones picked for teams at gym and their names are emblazoned on school banners recording their feats. I was never one of those people. As a child, I didn’t excel in sports. I was known more for my academic achievements than my athletic pursuits.

As an adult, I took up running. That led to other pursuits in weight lifting, cycling and swimming. I do them all on occasion. But does that make me an athlete?

According to Webster’s, an athlete is a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength. That definition suggests that one needs to excel to be considered an athlete. But then I remembered something I read in Runner’s World’s column. The writer said that being a runner was based on nothing more than an active pursuit of running, regardless of distance, pace or frequency. Based on that, I’m definitely a runner. Sometimes I run a lot. Sometimes I go a couple of weeks without running. But I always go back to it, remembering how good I feel after it. Does that make me an athlete?

I’ve run a mud-run, a few half-marathons and an ultra runners’ relay race. Each year, I looked for a new opportunity. Now I realize that it is that drive to do something new, to reach new heights and to challenge myself physically that makes me an athlete.

When I ran my first half marathon, I wore a pair of hemp gloves that read, “It’s not how fast you go. It’s that you go.” They were intended to be throwaway gloves to use at the beginning of the race when it was cold, but I have never gotten rid of them. They remind me that athletes are not just the stars of their sport. They are the individuals who find time on weekends and before or after work to physically push to new heights and challenge themselves to do better.

I started my journey to be an athlete to prove to myself that I could do it. Then it became about living a healthier lifestyle and setting an example for my daughters. Today I run, swim and bike for me. My athleticism has shown me what I’m capable of – both on a course and in life in general. It has given me greater confidence to try new pursuits and it has opened my heart to unconditionally support others doing the same.  I’m thrilled anytime someone starts this journey – and I hope they get as much out of it as I do.

As for my first triathlon, I started my training. I don’t know how it will go, but I’ve received lots of encouragement so far. And I will have my gloves to remind that it’s not how fast I go…

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Healthy on the Inside

Last night was the season finale of The Biggest Loser on NBC. If you have never seen it, the show centers on overweight contestants trying to lose weight to win a cash prize. The person who loses the highest percentage of weight loss over the course of the show wins. Many have criticized the show’s techniques as aggressive and unrealistic. After all, how many people can live on a ranch and dedicate themselves full-time to achieving their weight loss goal? How many people can realistically lose 15 pounds in a week?  And keep it off?

I don’t watch the show regularly but I catch an episode every once in while. And I think that the show’s editors often miss an opportunity to show deeper aspects of health. With its focus on last-chance workouts and weigh-ins, the show focuses on physical transformations only. But as these contestants lose weight, there seems to be something happening off camera where they are facing demons and dealing with issues that are affecting their personal happiness and causing them to engage in unhealthy activity, such as overeating. As a result, they are not just thinner at the end of the show. They are happy. They hint at their personal struggles in some off-camera interviews during the show, but we never really know what is affecting them on the inside that is causing them to reach these unhealthy states.

For example, take this season’s villainous character, Conda. Viewers reacted very negatively to her. There are even Facebook pages dedicated to get Conda off the show. She angered many with her attitude and attacks on other contestants. Yet, by the end of the season, she had toned down her acerbic style and smiled more. She transformed from an aggressive, angry woman to the persona of a young mom finding health for the future of her family.

Some may say this is reality television at work. But I think there is more to it than that. I think that through her Biggest Loser journey, she faced some demons that allowed her to lose weight, like herself and change her demeanor. I think all the contestants did. And that’s the part of health that few discuss.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health in a simple, yet powerful way. According to the WHO constitution:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

I think that is what’s missing in the show – the mental and social well-being part. These individuals change on the inside, and the show doesn’t explore their struggles. They have touched upon it in seasons, but the focus is on the physical transformation. I’m a big believer in fixing a problem by addressing the immediate need and also identifying the root cause of the problem and addressing that.

Health is more than the number on a scale. Health permeates every part of our being, so if we are struggling with trauma, overwhelmed by stress, feeling bullied or depressed or any number of other emotions, our health is impacted.  Wouldn’t it be helpful to understand why these contestants started making poor food choices in the first place? Wouldn’t it be powerful to address not the immediate need for better diet and exercise but also the underlying cause of the weight-gain? And by fixing the real problem, wouldn’t we all be healthier?

Inspiration Comes From Many Places

I have a confession to make. It was Fall 2008 and I couldn’t run to the corner of my street without getting winded. I was in my 30s, the mother of two, with a successful career. I wasn’t particularly out of shape. I have been in good health most of my life. But I couldn’t run to the corner. And that bugged me.

Fast forward to 2012 and I am in the best shape of my life. I have run a few half-marathons. I lift weights regularly and I crave physical activity like never before.

But this is not the story of how I received devastating health news and fought my way back through exercise. This is not the story of how a life-changing experience drew me to running. This is a story of finding inspiration in unlikely places. It is about overcoming mental barriers and reaching new heights.

It all started with my work. I was a marketing and communications director at a large company. And I had just signed my company up to be the sponsor of a marathon/half marathon/5k weekend event. It was a great match for our company, and many employees, including senior people, were excited to participate.

I flew to the race city to meet with the event team to start working through our activation plans. I met with many people over the course of a few days, including the race directors, a married couple who have made a career out of their passion for running. Over dinner, I listened to their stories and got caught up in their enthusiasm. They challenged me to run, and by dessert, I agreed to run my first 5k at the event weekend, only a few months away.

I am goal-driven and competitive. But I knew I couldn’t run 3.1 miles. I panicked. How do I get out of this?  I didn’t have an elegant way out, so I enlisted the help of  a trainer I knew. I told him I need to make a decent showing at this 5k for professional reasons. It had nothing to do with my personal well-being. My credibility was at stake. I can’t be the face and champion of this event within the company and be the last one to finish the 5k? The trainer got me ready. Most importantly, he gave me confidence. He convinced me that I was an athlete. I believed him when he said I was ready.

In January 2009, I ran the 5k. As I crossed the finish line, I made two phone calls. The first was to my husband to say I had done it. The second was to my trainer to thank him. He had believed in me and he showed me how to believe in myself. The next day, as I watched thousands of people complete the half-marathon, I told the race directors, I’d be back next year — and I would run the half.

Guess what I did in January 2010?

The benefits of running are many, and my physical well-being has improved immensely since I started to run. But the most significant lesson I learned from running is that our biggest barrier to accomplishment is ourself. We limit ourselves with our fears and insecurities. We often think more in terms of what we can’t do instead of what we can do. I was never an athlete. Growing up, I had always been the intellectual one, not the athlete. But the experience of watching runners challenged me to wonder why I couldn’t be both.  Imagine if we could apply that learning to bigger problems? Imagine if people who struggle with health challenges, depression and other co-morbidities could overcome the deep sense of defeat and find the strength to believe they can overcome — and more importantly, thrive. Physical challenges always remain, but the old saying of putting your mind to something holds true. We need courage to reach new heights.

I have applied that lesson to other aspects of my life and it has made me braver than I ever was. And I have had the honor of trying to help others believe they can overcome challenges with success. I recently came across a quote from George Sheehan, an American physician, author, and runner who said,  “Success means having the courage, the determination, and the will to become the person you believe you were meant to be.”  I think that sums it up! So what’s next for me? I’m not sure, but I’m considering running a mud-crawling, fire-leaping extreme 5K this summer. Stay tuned…