What I Learned from My First Triathlon

A week ago I completed my first triathlon. It was challenging and humbling. I had moments of tears and moments of laughter. Once I had recovered physically and emotionally from the race, I pondered my journey and realized I had learned a few valuable life lessons along the way. So here they are – how triathlons are a metaphor for life.

Doing Something New is Scary

I signed up for my first triathlon because a friend told me I could do it. I didn’t think much about it. I can swim, bike and run. How hard could this be? As the race neared, butterflies invaded my stomach. The things that made me nervous sound ridiculous when spoken aloud, but they felt real. Just like in life, every new challenge – whether it’s a project at work or a personal trial – takes us into unknown territory, requiring us to dig deep and be brave. The first step is the hardest. As author and runner John Bingham said, “The miracle is not that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

Fearlessness Does Not Equate to Invincibility

I tried to be fearless about this triathlon. I pretended I wasn’t nervous even though I was. But there were unexpected challenges that proved to be obstacles. When the starting gun went off, a wave of swimmers who have been treading water vertically quickly started to swim in horizontal positions. Arms flailed, legs kicked and space got tight. I panicked. Apparently it is not uncommon for a newbie triathlete to panic on her first open-water swim. I suddenly felt I couldn’t do it, and the lifeguards had to calm me down to keep going. I completed the swim, but I fell so behind I never had a chance to recover the lost momentum. In a pool of 255 triathletes, I was the last person to finish this race. I was humbled by this unexpected showing and realized that I am not invincible. 

True Strength Comes From Within When You Need It the Most

There is no doubt I’m stronger than I realize – both physically and mentally. The triathlon brought many challenges, and there were moments when I didn’t think I could continue. Self-doubt dominated my thoughts until I realized the obvious. What were the alternatives? That’s when mental and physical toughness came in. I saw no alternative to getting to the finish line, so I dug deep and found a generous supply of strength. When you need strength to face a life challenge, you find it. 

Quitting Is Not An Option

Despite how disappointed I was in myself for my swim, I was not going to quit. There were many moments on the swim where I thought I should stop. I was so behind, what was the point in continuing? But no one ever reached new heights by giving up—and this was no exception. As author Napoleon Hill put it, “Effort only fully releases its reward after a person refuses to quit.”

We Can Do Anything We Put Our Mind To, But We Can’t Be Good at Everything

Most challenges are multidimensional, and no one excels at everything. Few people are good at all three triathlon events, so you do what you can to make up for your weaker events by doing well on your strong events. When I looked at my individual scores at the race, I was not the slowest finisher in any of the three events. Collectively I finished last, but individually I did better than others. That made me realize that every person competing that day – no matter how experienced – was at some point faking it, trying to make up for shortcomings. Just like in life. The next time I look at that seemingly perfect person and wonder, “how does she does she do it all,” I will remember that no one is really that good at everything, and we are all compensating for our weaknesses somehow. So I should stop beating myself up for not excelling on my first try.

Random Acts of Kindness Make All the Difference

I couldn’t have finished the race without the support of the race volunteers. Matt, the lifeguard, swam with me and encouraged me to keep going. Kristen, the bike volunteer, rode miles with me, told me I was doing great and kept it fun. She was the first person I saw cheering me on as I approached the finish line. They helped me finish. They may not think they did much, but I am grateful to them. The help of strangers made all the difference. And I will pay it forward.

Success Is The Sum of Small Efforts

I tend to be very hard on myself, so I analyzed my finish times to see what I could have done better. I was only two minutes slower than the person who finished ahead of me. That tells me I was more in the mix than I thought. This may not have been my finest performance, but I had accomplishments and wins throughout the event. I finished, didn’t I?

Perspective is Everything

I was upset with myself when I finished the race. I felt I had failed. I posted something on Facebook about it and I was flooded with support from friends. Some of the comments I received literally put me in tears and pulled me out of my funk. My friends reminded me that finishing was the accomplishment. And a few expressed admiration and kudos for doing something that so many people would never even attempt. Putting it in perspective made all the difference.    

The big question is, will I do another triathlon? The answer is yes. Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” I will do it again, and I will overcome the fears and failures I experienced last week. That’s just who I am.



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…