Covering 140.6 miles requires all of a person. I know what muscular pain and fatigue feel like. But what surprised me on Sunday at Ironman Cabos wasn’t the journey of heart and lungs and legs. What surprised me is what went on in my head.
I’m no stranger to the mental aspects of triathlon. I’ve edited articles on the topic, and had numerous discussions on its role in training and racing. Last Sunday in Mexico, however, the beast paid me a personal visit.
I was spared until the run. The swim was relatively peaceful. Not as fast as my training indicated it should have been, but hey, it’s the ocean. On the bike the mental chatter was frank and confident: “This is what you do Jen.” And I did it.*
The unraveling began when I dismounted my bike and set foot to pavement. With each step away from the transition tent, new questions and doubts began to breed inside of me. (I suffer from an infrequent but nagging gastrointestinal reflux issue on runs, and my mental state weakened as the pain spread through my chest.)
“Why are you doing this?” was a frequent one. So was “this doesn’t matter, you don’t have to put yourself through this.” When I got passed by a stronger runner in my age group, the voice turned to “who cares, just run your own race.” Then, “no, what are you thinking? This is a competition! What matters is how you do compared to the rest of the field.” “No Jen, just focus on breaking 11 hours.” “That’s not going to happen. Just focus on finishing, that’s what you came here to do.” “Even if you’re slower than your last one, you’ll still be a two-time Ironman finisher.” And on and on it went.
I’ve never had such a powerful concentration of negative thoughts in one four-hour span of time. I’ve never had such a long internal dialogue, with two so sharp and witty “demons” going at it in my head. No mantra was powerful enough to overcome them. “You paid for coaching.” “Think about all those early mornings.” “This is why you worked so hard!” “My legs feel great, at least you’re not cramping.” “I hate this, why am I doing this?” “Just pick it up, Jen, just a little bit faster.” “9:45! What are you doing? No more stopping at aid stations!” “Who are you doing this for? Nobody will care if you don’t finish. You’re in pain.” “You’ll be so mad at yourself.” “No I won’t, this is horrible.” “This next mile is for Mark.” At mile 15, “It’s just a lagoon loop Jen, you do this all the time.” At mile 20, “20 miles, Jen! You made it this far, it’s just a 10k!” “Why am I doing this? I’m already healthy. I’m not making money doing this.” “What am I trying to prove?”
What do you tell yourself when the dialogue bubbles up inside you and you begin searching for reasons to keep going? What kinds of answers do you give? What stories do you tell? What carries enough weight and what doesn’t? What is the mental equivalent of going 10 seconds faster a mile? Why can some access that and others cannot?
When I saw the mile 24 marker, something changed. I picked up the pace, my wet feet squishing in my shoes and a blister developing. I turned around the last corner that would take me to the final .2 miles, and started sprinting, my teeth clenched, and the emotion of the moment being pure anger. I hadn’t been looking at my overall time on my Garmin, just my pace and run time. When I saw 11:05 on the clock, I knew the battle was over. After that experience, I have greater respect for the sport, and a greater desire to nail this digestion issue once and for all.
I hadn’t been trying to qualify for Kona, but I got closer in this race than I probably ever will again.** The brush with qualification was enough to show me what the fire for it feels like. Attending the roll down the next day gave me a taste of those Ferris wheel-esque ups and downs felt at every Ironman race across the world. Tremblant was puppy love. It was sundresses and sangria and summer rain. Cabos took me to a whole new level, as an athlete and as a person.
Triathlon is an imprecise, shifting, trickster of sport, dolling out inconsistent and random rewards. But that’s not why I love it. I love it for the finish line. And as Sunday reminded me, sometimes satisfaction is directly proportional to pain.
*I biked a 5:36, which was good for the fastest female amateur bike split of the day.
**There were four slots projected for my age group, and only two allotted in the end. My age group didn’t receive a roll down slot. If there had been more 30-34’s racing, maybe I would’ve. But then, maybe one of those women would’ve been faster than me. So it goes.