My pseudo National Championships recap briefly mentioned a struggle in the bike portion. It’s not that struggling in a race is uncommon; in fact? it’s generally the case, physically, anyway. I race because I love to race, I love to feel fast and I really, really like to compete. Therefore, I recognize that no matter what I do, racing will also, on some level, hurt. That’s how it works! The indicator of a good racer is not the lack of physical struggle he or she confronts but rather, how well they can sustain the hurt. Yes yes, it sounds masochistic. Well, it is! Training for triathlon is not intended to make it so that races don’t hurt; it’s to enable you to sustain physical depletion better than the next guy (or girl). Maybe you’d disagree- I’m open to other opinions but I’m pretty sure athletes generally agree on this point.
But that isn’t the point of this post. Clearly, races tire you out, make your quads scream, make your hamstrings lose their spring left– let alone your lungs’ lacking air and your chest’s tightness in the last 1 mile “sprint” at the end of an olympic-distance triathlon. My struggle at Nationals on the bike was two-fold– my injured hip/glute felt broken– I had shooting pains from my lower back through to my shin. Yep, it wrapped around my right side. No one likes racing injured… I especially dislike it. The real, technical, holding-me-back struggle however was mental. The combination of the injury and a few key passes by girls I didn’t think would pass me… well, that began to deplete the one part of me that I’ve always thought as a forte– my mental game.
The mental game can make or break races for me. When I raced in both swimming and kayaking, the mental game was crucial. I was known for racing in practice (teammates LOVED that… no wait… they didn’t). But the reason I did was because I wanted to know I could pull ahead, I wanted to know I had a kick left, all I needed was the knowledge. I had to practice to build that confidence but eventually I could train myself to start as the slowest in the group knowing that my kick would, in the end, beat everyone else’s. That was predominantly mental– it wasn’t really about fitness. It was about confidence and… well.. surprising the hell out of my teammates with 150 meters left in a 500 at Nationals for kayaking. If you’re wondering what connects my various athletic endeavors– from gymnastics, to diving, to swimming to kayaking and eventually triathlon– it’s the mental edge. I’ve worked my whole life to build the confidence I need to kick hard at the end. To not get beat and to, as my 1BandID says, “Dig Deeper, Finish Faster.”
But when I fail at the mental game, I fail. Hard. And, I need help. I came up to the 10 mile mark at Nationals feeling ok, with just 15 miles to go. The pain was tolerable, the hills weren’t atrocious, the wind was high (which is usually in my favor) so my mental state was steady. Then I got passed. Not by just anyone, but 2 girls, in my age group, neither of whom had worn wetsuits in the swim. That, was bad news bears. In that moment, I honestly felt that I wasn’t worthy of being at Nationals. My mind wandered… my heart sank. I thought to myself, “what would happen if I just DNF’d (did not finish)?” That was an unsuccessful line of thinking; if you’re ever considering it, don’t. I slowed down, I thought about how hard this race was, how much I had tried to train but couldn’t do enough because of my stupid injury. I yelled at myself for being injured. I thought about how no one would really care if I just coasted through the end and made this just basically a training ride.
But somewhere, deep, down … was a much stronger voice. It was most definitely my friends, my family, my teammates… it’s everyone I surround myself with daily. They were all saying, “Who is this and what have you done with Julia?” They know I could do better– they all know, I’m not a quitter. Left to my own devices I was feeling incredibly depressed, sunk in my injury. But no single person in my life would let me get away with “just coasting.” So I leaned on their strength. I thought about all my incredible friends who work their tails off– and not to win some arbitrary race, but because working hard feels incredible. Because there’s reward in the simple knowledge that you made your own strides in a day. My teammates kick butt in their workouts– partly to win some awesome races, of course– but partly because they just love working really hard. There is nothing akin to the feeling of utter depletion. Pushing yourself to a limit you didn’t know you had is the reward in and of itself. Why would I squander this opportunity to work it, hard, all the way to the end? I just couldn’t. They wouldn’t let me. Right then, I told myself, “Buck up champ. Racing isn’t about winning. Racing is about making it hurt… sustaining the hurt… and telling the tale after.”
At that moment, with the strength of all my friends, family and teammates, I turned it around. I picked up my cadence, I refocused, and I took off after those two ladies in my age group. And, with a mile to go in the bike, I passed them. (In full disclosure, they caught me again on the run… but not for another 3 miles!) And, everything about the race got INSTANTLY better when I decided to take it on, not give up, follow through to the end. When I took my whiny self OUT of the equation and thought about how my awesome friends and family would all work their hardest in a similar situation, that they’d never give up and they’d never let me give up, I felt like I had the strength of 10 people. It was incredible.
I submit that the next time you think you need to give up, you need to “just cruise” instead of working to your best ability in a race, a workout, a project– take yourself out of the equation. Ask yourself what your friends would say to you– what your family might say (as long as it’s positive, people…) and then hit the RESET button. Or at least, try. Sometimes you don’t have it one day– that’s ok too. But when you’re wondering whether you’ve got something more… ask your (imaginary? in-your-head) friends what they want you to do… and believe me, they want you to keep working to YOUR best. And if you ever need it, you can imagine that that is what I would tell you. I’d say– “you got this… dig deeper, finish faster.”
I owe my friends and family and teammates SO much for their consistent encouragement, their own hard work and determination because it’s completely, awesomely contagious. Keep it up guys, I need it