My long hiatus from endurance sport: what I learned, and why I’m back.

I’m too ashamed to look back and confront the last time I posted on this blog. It was too long ago.

I’ve spent the past eight months or so on a hiatus from endurance sport. At times it’s felt liberating (a lot of hours free up every day when you step away from endurance training), at times it’s felt incredibly scary (how will my body react? Am I throwing all of my years of hard work down the drain? [the short answer: no. It’s come mostly back within a few weeks of hard work. Thanks muscle memory!]), and at times it’s felt lonely (without endurance sport, who am I?).

The greatest lesson I’ve learned from stepping away from training for so long is that without it, I am not the same. Sure, I have a heck of a lot more free time and that’s nice, but I’ve never been a lay-around, go-with-the-flow kind of person. I’ve always been a go-getter, a doer, a fidgeter. But as the months slowly passed I’ve found myself almost undetectably slipping into a sort of complacency; a sloth I’ve never known has made its way into my life. Now, I am completely capable of sitting through a regular two-hour movie without a problem. Like the rest of the population, I can contentedly twiddle through mindless games on my iPhone for hours. This may sound normal, but it’s not normal for me. I was meant to move. But I kept at it, because for the first time in my adult life, I learned how to completely relax.

Then, the big questions started popping up. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my worth? In a life without the endorphins, goal-setting, and the tangible changes that come along with endurance training, everything else that I have to live for seems somewhat cruel and harsh. Without my endurance lifestyle, what do I have? I have my job and school, which are capricious—satisfying some of the time, but a frustrating and stressful disappointment most of the time. I have my friends and family—although perhaps taking a break from endurance sport allowed me to focus on them and appreciate them more. I have my possessions, but the mere idea of possessions depresses me. I have my love for playing music, admittedly rediscovered during my hiatus. But I don’t have that daily surge of energy and positivity that accompanies a long run or vigorous swim—energy and positivity that affects all of the aforementioned items tremendously anyway.

During my break from running, biking, and swimming, I became aware of what it feels like to be a boring person. I hope none of you take offense to this—my apologies in advance if you do, although I’m going to go out on a limb and assume the vast majority of my readership are pretty dedicated athletes. A boring person, in my own, simple little definition, is someone who has nothing that makes him or her interesting. No hobbies, no interests, no areas of expertise, no recreational activities in which they are adept, no talents utilized in areas outside of the traditional work environment, no massive collections of bizarre and random things. I have become “The Endurance Junkie,” “The Marathon Runner,” “The Triathlon Girl,” or even more crudely “The Crazy Person” (which I’m totally okay with!) among my friends. Without endurance sport, I don’t have much of an identity. It’s something I’m interested in, something I’m dedicated to, and something that makes me interesting. I do it for me, but a nice offshoot is that it makes me something unique for my friends and family. And similarly, I have a special place in my heart for friends that have non-boring sides to them. I learn so much from them, and find them to be much more engaging and inspiring people to have in my life.

One thing I’ve noticed, as my friends all approach and enter their 30s, is that the boring life just seems to set in with the vast majority of adults. Slowly, it takes over, but within only a few short years it can have a firm grasp on the typical working mom with toddlers or 60+ hour work week. This is what my friends are becoming, and so, idealistically, I cling to the hope that I can stay true to myself and the things that make me tick.

I took a break from endurance sport for several reasons, but one was to test myself. I remember having a conversation with my best friend a couple of months ago. I told him that when I was completely honest with myself, I did have some concerns about taking exercise too far. I think this is a common experience with endurance athletes. Endurance sports are all about taking things to the limits, and then passing them. We pride ourselves on completing events that require multiple body systems to fail at worst, and go into heavy compensatory modes at best. We voluntarily take on training that can sometimes make us tired and cranky, and even throws our physiology out of whack. Even those of us who are very careful about balancing training with recovery struggle with finding balance. As ultraman Rich Roll once said, “Balance eludes me.”

Looking back upon my many years as a runner, cyclist, and swimmer, I can earnestly say that there are times I’ve found a healthy balance, but more frequently I’ve been out of balance. Embracing imbalance has caused me much joy. But at times, too much imbalance has caused unrelenting fatigue, difficulties keeping up with responsibilities, and social withdrawal. Perhaps the biggest reason for my hiatus was to find time to recalibrate my perspective on things—so that the next time I get back into training, I do so with the benefit of reflection and experience.

A question I asked myself as my activity levels started to dwindle was: will all of my energy and drive somehow be magically sublimated into other aspects of my life? Will taking a break from exercise suddenly cause me to spike in my performance at school and work? After all, that energy is going to still be kicking around, and if it’s not going into a run, it’s got to go somewhere.

Not surprisingly, life without exercise was, paradoxically, an energy suck. I won’t go into detail here because I am sure you all have experienced this, but in summary, without my daily dose of activity I was more tired, emotionally labile, and unmotivated. Interesting how that works.

My take-away from my time off has been multi-fold, but to keep things succinct, I think the biggest thing I learned is that endurance sport gives me something that makes me happy and makes life feel like it’s worth living. This is extraordinarily rare. I think so many people—too many people—wander through adulthood aimlessly, and time chips away at them. They don’t have a “thing,” something they can keep coming back to that helps them along and lifts them up. They don’t have a happy place. They don’t have something that truly engages them and excites them. We runners, cyclists, and swimmers have this. Our “hobbies” are inane and without a clearly direct outcome or contribution to society, but they grant us joy that few experience on a regular basis. The indirect consequences of this cannot be quantified.

During my break, I realized that I wanted my life to feel like it’s worth living. I wanted to feel like life was fun and exciting. With the exception of a few select beings I love with all my heart, triathlon was the only place I could find this. Imagine the ecstatic feeling when one of your favorite songs bursts through your headphones during a run—the surge of previously hidden power that takes over your stride. Picture the tears of happiness and exhaustion that well up in your eyes during a marathon finish. Think about the incredible camaraderie you’ve found among other athletes at triathlons, in cycling clubs, and in masters’ swimming groups. These experiences cannot be paralleled anywhere.

And for that, I’m back in the saddle.

How to Date a Triathlete: Revisited.

This past December, I wrote a post that went viral, and is ultimately solely responsible for amassing such a large number of followers and page hits. Apparently, endurance athletes from around the world found my post, “How to Date a Triathlete,”  relatable. Up until then, my fledgling blog was followed by my mom—and only my mom (thanks, Mom).

A lot of people, it seems, find it hard to find companionship with a triathlete—and triathletes themselves feel alienated from the rest of society. If it’s not hard, then it’s certainly unique. The behaviors and rituals surrounding preparation for and immersion in the endurance sport lifestyle are frequently looked at sidelong by close friends and family members. So many of us feel misunderstood at worst, quirky at best. It’s a fun and frustrating hobby to have. That December post was, as is apparent from the get-go, written with the intention of being rather tongue-and-cheek, although there is definitely much truth to it.

As is obvious, I haven’t written a blog post in well over a month now, which is unusual for me. However, the reasons behind this can be largely tied into that fateful post which put this blog on the map.

Namely, I’m in the heat of triathlon training season and am too busy stuffing my face full of Product 19 to bother.

Just kidding. It’s actually quite the opposite. Yes, it’s the heat of tri training season and many of us are in the thick of taper mode for June and July races. I should be putting in my last solid week and tapering this week. In fact, I’m signed up for a half-ironman in upstate New York this weekend, so by all accounts I should be in top condition right now.

I should. But I am not.

I dropped the ball. I stopped training. I haven’t really done anything too structured or intense since maybe March. I willingly “sacrificed the gift,” as Prefontaine might say.

To be clear: I’m not injured. I’m not too busy at work. I’m not too busy otherwise. Even when I was pulling insane shifts at the hospital last year, I’d still have the will (and desire) to chase work with several hours on the trails. The truth is, I just lost (admittedly, temporarily) the will to train hard day in and day out. And this time around, it wasn’t because I was burned out.

It was because I found something else to occupy my time and energy, and engaging in endurance shenanigans for >15 hours per week quickly (and very, very unexpectedly) fell by the wayside.

I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry—this is a temporary thing, a phase, and three months in I’m hankering for my usual dose of lone wolf time and endorphins. I am still, and will always be, an endurance junkie. However, to have had an experience powerful enough to take me away from my running religion is new to me—it’s humbling, and shocking, and extremely confusing.

My post suggested a certain rigidity to the lifestyle and personality of the endurance athlete and triathlete. And to some extent, this may very well be true. This was—and still is, to a large extent—certainly true of me. I willingly wake up at 4:30 a.m. to embark upon my own hours-long “mini-adventure” before most people even get out of bed. I am hard-pressed to choose socializing over a solitary swim; it takes a lot to pull me away from the reliable peace, calm, and clarity of mind that a run imparts. However, the thing about many endurance junkies is that we go to such extremes because we just want to feel something—and it takes a lot to shake us. Grabbing drinks and going for a stroll in the park are just not enough. We want to feel life full-force; we want every day to feel like the best day; we want to be fully immersed in the moment. Training does all of these things; life in the “real world” rarely does.

But what about those rare moments when the “real world” actually delivers?

For the past few years, I’ve defined myself first and foremost as an endurance athlete. Running obscene distances, and then masochistically chasing it with a brutally grueling bike ride, was what I lived for—it was the lifeblood of who I am and what I do. I was always a medical student on the side; a girlfriend as an afterthought; a friend of convenience; a long-distance sister. To have temporarily detached myself from this label and identity, and experienced life as a “normal person,” has been an unusual and disorienting experience—but perhaps, in some ways, necessary for my own personal growth and development.

My reasons for pursuing long distance have varied and evolved over the years. At times I felt inspired to lace up my shoes to chase away the blues; it was only a matter of time before I discovered exercise to be a very potent drug for almost everything that ailed me. Training for triathlon has been the antidote to almost every psychological and emotional upheaval humanly possible: anxiety, sadness, boredom, overexcitement, loneliness, insomnia, fatigue—the list is practically endless—and I credit my regular bouts of exercise to a certain mental and emotional resiliency over the years: a resiliency which carried me through multiple unexpected moves, the beginnings and ends of countless relationships, never-ending change, and an unfathomably stressful lifestyle. Endurance sport has kept me resilient, balanced, alert, and calm during experiences that I now look back upon with awe and surprise.

Because the balance is tipped undeniably in favor of maintaining this lifestyle, it’s only a matter of time before I’m back out on the trails. But in the meantime, having something that feels equally worth my time—if not moreso–is such an unexpected gift, I have recognized that I have to embrace it.

Thankfully, my running shoes aren’t going anywhere. They never have, and they never will.

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An idiot’s guide to training without “training tools”: RPE and mind-body awareness

Disclaimer: the word “idiot” in the title of this post is by no means meant to be directed at readers; on the contrary, it’s my default way of being self-deprecating while writing these posts as if journaling to myself. Soon to come: “How to overcome unbridled self-deprecation as an endurance athlete.”

My last post, “I quit Facebook, canceled my subscription to Runner’s World, and erased my training log. Here’s why” received so much positive feedback and enthusiastic sharing of similar experiences from readers that I felt almost immediately inspired to expound upon my adventures in living the analog life–more specifically, how living relatively unencumbered by technology-driven distractions has improved my life as a recreational athlete (I could easily elaborate upon the benefits of this lifestyle in my personal and professional lives, but I’ll spare you the boredom and stick strictly to my badass, ninja, double-life which involves superhuman feats of strength, power, and will).

The theme of this blog post is centered around my newfound—and I use the word “newfound” cautiously—appreciation of how to move and train mindfully. The reality is that this skill is not so much newly found as rediscovered—something that has always been there, lurking just beneath the veneer of GPS watches and dubstep music turned to max volume. Each of us possesses a degree of wisdom within our musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems that can be easily ignored, beaten into submission, or eclipsed by the sheen of a training plan. But what happens when we remove the agenda (mind) and just listen, feel, and experience (full inhabitation of body)?

This is risky, right? With structure comes progress (pretty much scientifically proven at this point) and accountability. Apply a specified, tried-and-true algorithm and, barring any rare medical complications, one can expect a certain outcome. I like this. I like science. I like applying evidence in order to forecast predictable outcomes.

I also like numbers, gadgets, and technical, detail-oriented things. Elevation gain, distance, HR fluctuations, cadence, max power, speed—these digital readouts are like candy for my left hemisphere.

Stripping myself of the comfort blankets that are my training journal, watch, and GPS was, quite frankly, terrifying for me. This was for several reasons, but among them: fear of boredom, fear of failure, lack of trust in myself to follow through, lack of trust in my body to progress, and attachment to the numbers/data game.

So I adopted something I could cling to: RPE. RPE, or “Rated Perceived Exertion” (a.k.a. “Borg scale”) refers to a numeric scale frequently used in exercise science research. The scale is completely subjective; in other words, it’s based entirely on an individual’s personal perception and concept of relativity. The idea is simple: on a scale of 6-20, how intense is your effort right now? (If 6-20 seems like an arbitrary range, rest assured it’s not–it’s based on heart-rate equivalents. It’s math.) For reference, 6 is lying on the couch, 11 is “light” activity, 15 is “heavy” activity, and 20 is “maximal exertion.” How the subject chooses to define “light” and “heavy” is up to him or her. Obviously one person’s light may be another person’s heavy depending on fitness, pain tolerance, and an incalculable number of other factors, but that’s beside the point. The point is to create a relative scale unique to each person, in order to gauge his or her psychological response to physical exertion in a given exercise session. Using RPE can be a useful tool for structuring a workout: intervals of alternating 12 and 15, or 17 effort uphill and 11 effort downhill, etc.—all while sidestepping the common pitfalls of using more traditional training tools (most notably, overtraining). RPE gives numerophiles such as myself something ordinal and organized, while also evading the possible dangers of too intense a focus on objective readouts (such as heart rate, speed, etc.).

Let me tell you something: RPE WORKS. It takes a little getting used to, but once you’re there, you’ve done it. You’ve figured out how to beat the system. But only if you play your cards right (in other words, no slacking!).

Here’s what using RPE requires: intense laser-focus on the present moment; constant and vigilant assessment of physical experience; unabashed honesty and ability to practice being objective with oneself; finely-tuned mind-body awareness; ability to interpret physiologic readouts; mental flexibility; and nuanced ability to ascertain when pushing limits is acceptable and beneficial.

Here’s what using RPE avoids: training to a preconceived number; ignoring bodily sensations for the sake of said number; zoning out; excessive overreaching; excessive underreaching; mind-body disconnect.

Here’s what an RPE-driven workout looks like: start out at a warm-up pace, and once you get to that point where the engine feels good and revved, push a little more speed or power for a discrete period. Mind you, this is all based on feel. Don’t push it too hard or too fast right out of the gates; rather, wait until you’re well into glycogen utilization (or beta oxidation, whatever you’re going for) to push into higher gears. This will become apparent not when you feel like you “should” start to speed up but when your body starts to crave it. I usually hit a point where I am ready to push myself pretty hard (15-19 on the Borg/RPE scale), and then I go for it for as long as it feels doable, maybe plus 15-25% for good measure. I let myself recover for a little while, but not too long, before messing around with lactate threshold again. Then when my body starts to feel like it’s breaking down, like I’m losing my form, I’ll reel it in and call it a day.

This is what my RPE approach to training looks like, but this is by no means a one-size-fits-all approach. I really enjoy interval training and have found this to be a great way to fine-tune my ability to put forth honest efforts while also maintaining complete immersion in the present moment. My regimented, schedule-oriented, left-brain self is actually a fan. And my performance has improved dramatically since January by training this way, despite the fact that my workouts are shorter (at least I think they are…I’m not measuring time, so I honestly have no clue. Similarly, my “performance improvement” is entirely subjective…but I just feel much stronger, lighter on my feet, etc.).

Interestingly, training by RPE also opened up a wormhole into a world oft despised (or even discredited) by endurance athletes: weight training. Running and swimming by RPE has made me keenly aware of any and every weakness in my kinetic chain like never before. Suddenly I am flooded with the sensations of specific muscles contracting and relaxing during movement; this is an overwhelmingly cool sensation, and also a wake-up call: my pelvis wasn’t nearly as stable as I thought it was while running, and my glute medius was all but shot; my pectorals were taking up far too much slack during freestyle and I’d need to do some serious work on strengthening my lats; my core and lower back weren’t doing nearly as good a job as they could be. Weak glutes during a run are bad enough as is; but try experiencing them on a whole other level while experimenting with total mind-body immersion practices. It’s horrific. Each step is like nails on a chalkboard: a glaringly uncomfortable and disorienting nagging sensation that was on the verge of driving me to insanity. So I started hitting the weights again. And surprisingly, I haven’t hated it this time around. I think it might have something to do with being fully present and mindful while doing it.

Through all of this, there is one thing I haven’t left by the wayside, and that is this: music. While I do strive for completely distraction-less living some day, I had to start somewhere, and music has been a nice crutch throughout the transition. My feelings on music also straddle the divide: on the one hand, it can be terribly distracting, but on the other hand, the right song can really help endow me with the laser focus I’m looking for. I suppose it’s all a matter of knowing how and when to use music as a tool.

Perhaps that could be said for all of the training tools—watches, GPS devices, training logs, etc. Perhaps it’s all about knowing how and when to use them effectively, while tempering the desire to go off the deep end and become too encumbered with slaving away to them.

This, however, requires a certain degree of moderation and, as I’ve stated before, moderation has always eluded me and to this day, continues to do so.

I guess that just comes with the territory of being an endurance junkie.

Olympic athletes by height & weight (awesome infographic!)

As much as I love running and cycling, the simple fact of the matter is that physics works against me in these endurance-oriented sports. At just over 5’10” (178 cm) and a buck fifty (68 kg), I’m more of a draft horse than a thoroughbred. According to science, the principles of basic physiology dictate that my body type is better suited to tennis than triathlon.

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While watching the Sochi Winter Olympics over the past couple of weeks, I was surprised to find that many of the female athletes share in my relatively larger build–and in sports I wouldn’t expect. In many of the winter sports, height and weight are relevant factors–think about how dependent events like downhill skiing, bobsled, and luge are upon gravity and momentum–and so athletes’ proportions, along with their ages and representative countries, are flashed up on the screen next to their names.

Imagine my surprise to find that the women in luge and skeleton are all around my height and weight. Firstly, I had wrongly assumed that these sports would favor shorter athletes–something about soaring down an icy track, face-first, at 80+ mph on a tiny sled just intuitively seems more possible with a smaller build–but what do I know about skeleton anyway? Secondly…could skeleton and luge be any greater a departure from distance running?! I had quite a laugh at this realization. No wonder some of my long runs feel so awkward, I found myself thinking aloud–and since this weekend, I’ve found myriad excuses (“It’s the laws of physics!”) to justify my bumbling, eternal middle-of-the-pack status in the endurance world.

As an osteopath, my curiosity was piqued by the finding that athletes within certain disciplines have started to cluster around certain heights and weights. Certainly there are outliers, superhuman exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking it’s favorable to have long, gangly limbs (read: wingspan) in sports such as tennis and basketball, and also favorable to have a smaller, lighter frame for distance running (but thanks to Paula Radcliffe, who stands at a “towering” 5’8” [173 cm], marathoners clearly can be giants after all, right?). Much of this is elucidated in a fascinating foray into the overlap between genetics, innate talent, body structure, and environment: David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene, which I highly recommend.

Determined to find out what sports my body type might truly have a chance at excelling at, I stumbled upon a couple of awesome interactive websites–websites in which the user can simply type in his or her height and weight and be met with a roster of Olympians of the same build (and their respective sports), as well as a visually intriguing scatterplot of height (Y axis) vs. weight (X axis) that can be pared down based on specific sports and genders using a host of toggle buttons below the plot. Unfortunately, these sites only describe the sports of the Summer Olympics, however it’s still an intriguing insight into how specialized athletes have become.

So what was the verdict? What does science say my body type is best suited for? Well, beach volleyball–with crew and tennis coming in close seconds. In winter sport, given that skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace and alpine ski racer Lindsey Vonn are both exactly my size, I’ll gladly accept these daredevil events as my true Olympic calling.

Skiing, sledding, and beach volleyball all seem like an awesome time. But what’s my heart’s true calling? It’s still those darned running shoes. Awkward or bust!

Triathlon as Therapy

I’d like a show of hands: who, out there, does NOT do triathlons (or marathons, or ultras, or endurance whatever) as a way of getting some really good, pretty cheap therapy?

I’ll be the first to admit that triathlon is my therapist.

“Therapy”—loosely defined as a practice that brings about physical, spiritual, emotional, and/or mental wellbeing—is sometimes considered taboo, but this bias is diminishing as our culture starts to recognize that by virtue of being alive, we are all in need of some sort of therapy. During high school, I probably needed therapy. During my first romantic relationship, I probably could have used some therapy. Heck, medical school should have COME with therapy attached. But thankfully, through most of the trials and tribulations of life that ordinarily would have called for some sort of traditional, structured therapy, I’ve had my bike, my running shoes, and enough motivation to get my butt out the door.

I’m about to make a huge generalization here and, fully aware, welcome comments and criticism—but I’m going to go ahead and say that triathletes and endurance runners engage in, and consistently return to, such “punishing” (at least by the outsider’s eye) sports because they serve us in ways that are therapeutic.

Have you ever met someone who does Crossfit because it’s psychologically and emotionally therapeutic? I’m sure these people exist, but I have met far more Crossfitters who are interested in a six-pack (sorry to pick on you all, but I had to pick on someone!). On the contrary, have you met many triathletes who train in pursuit of a six-pack? Again, they’re out there—but most of us who are seasoned in the sport know that endurance athletics are certainly not the most efficient way to get shredded—at least for most of us. No, we endurance athletes return time and time again to the toils of our sport because it is cleansing and calming not only to our bodies, but to our minds and spirits as well.

Exercise can turn a bad day around completely. This understanding is shared by everyone from recreational exercisers to more serious athletes. String together enough bad-days-turned-around, and you’ve turned a bad life around completely.

The thing about endurance sport is this: there’s something about that repetitive motion, that feeling of covering large amounts of ground, and that ability to let the mind wander just enough to invade some of the farthest reaches of our minds and hearts—this is what makes endurance sport therapeutic in a unique way. A long run can either be met with an icy and distracting focus, or a passivity that lends itself to observation and confrontation of our mind’s inner workings. Training for endurance involves spending a considerable amount of time training not only the body, but the mind: to be patient, to be persistent, to be disciplined and responsible, to be forgiving.

Perhaps one of the greatest therapeutic gifts endurance sport has to offer is the elation of crossing a finish line. This tangible experience, which is often met with a flood of endorphins and utterly delirious fatigue, is a concrete proclamation of our minds’ and bodies’ incredible potential. It is rare to meet such a definitive and celebratory benchmark in ordinary, day-to-day existence. The happiest moments of my life occurred when I crossed the finish line of my first marathons, or finally arrived on the west coast after riding across America. The profound impact of these feelings–ones of pure, uninhibited ecstasy and disbelief–have fueled a much higher level of self-esteem, belief in my untapped potential, and tendency to really push the envelope. I’m not sure traditional psychotherapy of any kind would have gotten me to quite the same place.

So here’s to endurance: to enduring, and coming out better as a result.

Zen & the Art of DNF

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post titled, “Oops…I overtrained. Again.” This post, a brutally raw admission of my constant struggles to maintain a balanced, healthy training regimen, was not easy to write. I had a really great autumn season this year, training for nothing in particular but coming off a rest-filled summer with the gusto and enthusiasm of a newbie. But suddenly, like a ton of bricks, a deep fatigue set in around the end of December–a fatigue that was all-too-familiar, and surely indicative of my overdoing it, yet again. I was met with a pervasive, intuitive sense that if I didn’t take a rest week (or two), I’d crumble. I’d hit a physical limit.

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It can be incredibly humbling to meet one’s own limitations, whether physical, psychological, or emotional. At the same time, it can be excruciatingly difficult to tease apart the subtle nuances through which psychology and emotion are intermixed with our physical capacity–especially in endurance sport. When was the last time you heard someone refer to an endurance event as [at least] “90% mental?” For me, it was only a few days ago. Anyone who’s run a marathon or done a long-course tri knows this as fact–and probably has this mantra engraved across his consciousness as gospel. And I tend to agree that the mind is the biggest player–for most of us mere mortals, at least.

But what about those times when the cold, hard boundary of our physical limitations is actually hit, head on? How do we know when to put our egos in our back pockets and keep soldiering on, and how do we know when it’s time to stop?

I have never had a problem motivating myself to keep going in a long race after “hitting the wall”–with enough pep talk, those last few miles, although painful, slowly begin to melt away. However, I have plenty of friends who hold DNFs to their names, and I expect my turn is coming soon. Most professional athletes also boast DNFs, but I think that’s a little bit of a different story given that many of them are attempting to defend titles and personal records; a DNF can be a good way to save face as a pro. That aside, I remain curious about age-group DNFers.

If I were a psychology grad student, I might make a dissertation out of interviewing DNFers to try to elucidate their thought processes when they decided to withdraw from a race. What physical limitations did they experience? How did they know when they’d reached the “point of no return”? Did the decision feel more voluntary, or more essential for survival?

Most importantly, though, would be the thought processes of these athletes. What algorithms did they use to weigh the risk-benefit ratio of continuing the race? Or was logic thrown aside because the physical suffering was too much to bear? Endurance athletes tend to be stubborn folks with few qualms about pushing through minor- to moderate-physical unpleasantries that others would balk at. Also, considerable research has suggested that as a group, age-group triathletes tend to have a much higher pain tolerance than the general population, and even other athletes. As such, I approach my theoretical dissertation with a wary eye.

I recently started watching a Discovery channel documentary series following a team of mountaineers up Everest. One of the crew members, an ultra-fit Danish triathlete with an incredibly endearing, humble personality, is attempting to summit without oxygen–the holy grail of Everest climbing–after three prior unsuccessful attempts. Despite a personal history of severe asthma, Mogens Jensen pushes on with vigor and a charmingly positive attitude. I imagine all audiences following this documentary cheering hard for this delightful Dane, who displays the classic “90% mental” attitude so characteristic of his endurance sport roots.

Unfortunately, Mogens decides–or is forced, rather–to turn back a mere 350 meters from the summit of Everest due to severe frostbite secondary to oxygen deprivation. Obviously this is a rather extreme example, but I wonder how Mogens came to the conclusion that it was time to turn around–especially after encountering numerous prior obstacles that would have sent anyone else scurrying back down the mountain face. How did he know he’d hit that “point of no return”? Plenty of mountaineers push on through frostbite; some make it, some don’t. But Mogens seemed to possess an uncanny ability to understand exactly when he could push on, and when he absolutely needed to stop. He was so close to clinching that dream–and after three prior attempts at that–but he knew that he had to relinquish it this fourth time.

Perhaps most indicative of this minor tragedy was the team guide’s response to Mogens’ defeat. Russell Brice, one of Everest’s most seasoned mountaineers and guides, notes that while he would have been extremely impressed by an asthmatic summiting Everest sans oxygen, he was considerably more impressed by Mogens’ very wise ability to sense exactly what he was dealing with.

This art is utterly beyond me, but I imagine with more experience I’ll have a better understanding of how to interpret the fine gradations of physical wellbeing. Until recently, there was little incentive to develop this talent; I’d always had fine success pushing through and finding comparable alternatives rather than stepping back. More recently, I’ve hit an obstacle that feels a little more concrete–a wall that won’t budge. For the first time in my life, I can’t simply charge through like a rhinoceros at full-speed: rather, I have to stop and turn around–or even better, find a creative way to circumnavigate the boulder blocking my path.

I think I’ll take up rock climbing. I hear it’s good cross -training.

All or none: the power of black-and-white thinking.

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Warning: This post may offend those who like to live life in moderation. I am not one of those people.

Here goes.

The key to success and happiness in life is to adopt more black-and-white thinking.

Wait, what? What about all of the “gray areas”? Isn’t it true that nothing is either black nor white, but somewhere in between? And what about moderation?

Yes! Almost everything IS gray. Which is why getting a little more black-and-white about things can be a good thing. It can push us into a darker gray, or a lighter gray, depending on what we value and want to achieve. We’re all humans, and with being a human comes the inevitability of human error. We’re destined to fall somewhere in the gray area…but why not try to make it to somewhere on one or another end of the gray spectrum?

For me, adopting slightly more black-and-white thinking about things–especially things that pertain to my biggest, most “extreme” dreams–can be incredibly useful, as long as I truly listen to my body while doing so. An almost unavoidable outcome of being just a tad more black-and-white is falling more into the realm of extreme people rather than those living in moderation. But is that necessarily such a bad thing, if I’m happy being one of the “extreme” people?

Our society places value in living in moderation and “finding balance” between all aspect of one’s life. While balance can at times be the key to keeping an especially hectic life manageable, I’m not sure it’s always the right solution for everyone. I think that for some of us, living moderately is a recipe for stagnation. Chasing down big dreams requires big, not moderate efforts. And at its most malignant, extolling the virtues of “living in moderation” is a really excellent and clever way to pardon ourselves for undesirable habits or traits.

I say, blah. Living life in the middle of the gray area is a recipe for a gray experience.

Living life in the black-and-white–well, that’s a whole other story. Life in extremes is a tumultuous, adventurous, fulfilling mixture of giving 200% and recovering 200%. The balance between the two makes it possible, but the existence on one extreme or another is what makes it worthwhile–and it is a sweet existence indeed.

In psychology, the concept of black-and-white thinking is often referred to as “splitting,” also known as “all-or-nothing thinking.” While I do firmly believe that utilizing black-and-white thinking at times optimally hijacks our brains to our advantage, I do not suggest taking it to the extremes that manifest in Borderline Personality Disorder.

Over the past decade or so, nothing has taught me the power of black-and-white thinking more tangibly than sport. Simply put, in this arena, using polarities yields results. Training days are either incredibly easy or incredibly challenging. In fact, Runner’s World magazine recently published an article in its October 2013 issue titled, “Benefits of Polarized Training.” Nutrition, to the athlete, is either medicinal or malignant: some foods hinder performance, while others foster it. Thinking in terms of good vs. bad, exertion vs. recovery, full effort vs. surrender is the linchpin to success and fulfilling experiences in sport–and it seems to extrapolate pretty darn well to other aspects of life as well.

I’ve run this idea of “the power of all-or-none thinking” past a few friends over the years, and have received more negative, if not mixed, responses to my “insane,” “impractical” theory than almost anything else I’ve proposed. Everyone, it seems, wants to err on the side of gray–or, the way I see it, on the side of caution. This is disappointing to me. While I believe that gray is often the inevitable solution to moral dilemmas and perhaps orthopedic problems, I don’t think gray is something to actively seek out for myself.

The ones who seem to be best capable of grasping the positive applications of black-and-white thinking are those who have struggled with addiction. I think vegan Ultraman and Epic 5 triathlete Rich Roll said it best in his book, Finding Ultra:

“When I decided to change my diet, I initially experimented with a vegetarian diet. Why? Not because I read a bunch of books and concluded it was the healthiest approach. It was attractive because it was so black and white. In recovery, you are either using or you are sober—no middle ground. As a vegetarian, you are either eating meat or you are not. I could wrap my brain around that.”

Rich seems to understand how the brain works, on both an experiential and theoretical level. The neuroscience definitely speaks in favor of black-and-white thinking in behavior modification. If we really want to change something about ourselves, then we have to change our brains (perhaps this is a form of biohacking, if you will). The building blocks of our nervous system, the neurons, function on an all-or-none principal: either they fire in response to something, or they don’t. The action potential doesn’t “just kind of fire” or fire less robustly in proportion to a stimulus. Even a tiny, minuscule droplet of impetus can set an entire neural pathway ablaze with activity.

Every day, I consciously make black-and-white decisions for myself. To others, this manifests as “extreme” discipline, but for me, this way of thinking has trampled down some pretty well-worn neural networks. I either wake up at 4:30 a.m. and kick butt, or I sleep in until 8 and take it easy. I either put in several hours of base miles for the day, or I sit in bed and read a book from cover to cover. Listening to my body is without question a key within all of this, but assuming I’m feeling well, it’s going to be a 4:30 a.m. day, darnit!

My general paradigm is this: every day, I try to reinforce more black-and-white thinking with myself, while simultaneously trying to adopt less black-and-white thinking with others and my external world. This is what keeps me reliable, disciplined, and true to myself, and also prevents me from ever feeling too heavily let down by anything outside of me.

I think Dean Karnazes, the “Ultramarathon Man,” said it best when he wrote: “My suspicion is that, like me, most of you reading these pages are drawn to extremes. Moderation bores you. You seek challenges and adventures that dwell on the outer edges. The path of most resistance is not a route often traveled.”

Dwelling on the outer edges sounds pretty fun to me. What do you think?

You know you’re a [female] triathlete when…

I stumbled across this thread on the Slowtwitch women’s forum recently and laughed out loud enough times to find it share-worthy. Certainly more than a handful of these apply to the gentlemen as well.

Enjoy!

2008 Solana Beach Triathlon

You know you’re a [female] triathlete when…

1. You hit the drugstore cosmetics aisle to find the perfect shade of nail polish–to fix a chip on your bike.

2. You own more sports bras than everyday bras.

3. You own five one-piece swimsuits, and no two-piece suits.

4. Your chosen hairstyle has more to do with what fits easily under an aero helmet or swim cap than what’s fashionable.

5. You refuse to wear high heels, because they’re bad for your calves.

6. You turn down dates because they interfere with training.

7. Your biggest motive behind getting a dog was to have a new running partner.

8. You use hair ties to hold things (GPS, spare tubes) to your bike.

9. You are a complete pro at changing into and out of workout clothes while sitting in the front seat of your car.

10. You bring sports magazines with you to waiting rooms, because you can’t stand any of that Vogue/Cosmo crap.

11. You’d rather sleep with your heart rate monitor than a guy.

12. When you hear “bling,” you think “medals.”

13. Eau de Chlorine: it’s the newest, hottest fragrance for women.

14. When someone says, “size matters,” you automatically think of your bike, fit, wheels, and race weight.

15. When your kitchen is a mess, there’s laundry to be done, and mail is piling up on the counter, your bike is–and will always be–sparkly clean.

16. You have given up on trying to hide those pesky “goggle marks” around your eyes before heading in to work.

17. You didn’t cry over “The Notebook,” but you sniffled and sobbed while watching the Ironman World Championships.

18. A running coach would cringe over your form…but you’re still faster than most guys you know.

19. Your idea of a great birthday party is to run your age in miles with a bunch of friends.

20. You spend more time on cyclingnews.com or slowtwitch.com than Facebook.

21. You consider work a “recovery period” between sessions.

22. Your family is not worried if you left for your run 2 hours ago.

23. You’re up every day by 5 am, but never in to work before 9 am.

24. You can’t change the oil in your car, but you can completely rebuild your bike in 45 minutes or less.

25. Your car smells like a locker room.

26. Your idea of shopping is a trip to the Sports Authority.

27. You’re the only lady you (personally) know who uses Strava.

28. You have more pairs of shoes than any of your girlfriends–but they’re all running shoes.

29. You shave your legs religiously, but it has absolutely nothing to do with aesthetic.

30. You talk about taking “LSD and speed” daily without realizing that it weirds people out.

31. You have a special “secret spot” for stashing  jewelry last-minute.

32. You don’t wear leggings, you wear Spandex.

33. You frequently wear pants to work to hide your compression socks.

34. You’re actually stoked to gain a few pounds, because you know it’s increased glycogen storage.

35. You don’t take bubble baths, you take ice baths.

36. Your girlfriends are jealous of your killer tan…until they realize it only extends to mid-thigh.

37. Your only motive for doing yoga is to stretch out chronically tight hamstrings.

38. “Little Pink Kit” is your version of the “Little Black Dress.”

39. You choose beer over wine because it’s a more effective glycogen replenisher.

And my favorite, so far:

40. You would prefer carbon that has been spun into fibers and molded into aero forms over carbon that has been compressed for millions of years and carved with many facets.

wyndy-milla

Wyndy Milla rockin’ the Little Pink Kit.

What sort of quirks confirm that you’re a female triathlete? Or triathlete in general?

How to date a triathlete/marathon runner/endurance junkie.

1. Don’t.

Just kidding. In fact, endurance junkies are some of the most quality people around. All of those hours spent alone with ourselves in the meditative realm of Zone 2 really forces us to think about things like who we are, what we believe in, the meaning of life, what we’re going to eat immediately when we get home, and other critical themes.

But it’s not as simple as run, rinse, repeat. Being a true endurance junkie is a lifestyle. It’s a state of mind. For many of us, training makes us better people every day. It serves us in ways other people or experiences have not or cannot. And so we find ourselves caught up in a committed relationship, legs intertwined with the goddess of multisport.

As I once (perhaps mistakenly) told a past boyfriend: “You may be my boyfriend, but triathlon is my husband.”

Needless to say, this did not go over very well. I was mostly kidding, but I think we both knew it to largely be true. He replied with some snarky comment about “time spent in the saddle,” which I actually recall being quite clever and pun-ny.

This past summer and fall, in an attempt to unearth just what it is that makes us endurance junkies so “un-datable,” I conducted a rather unscientific social experiment: I went on 21 dates in 21 weeks, with 21 non-endurance athletes (a.k.a. “normal people”). Here’s what I discovered to be the top most misunderstood aspects of the endurance junkie’s lifestyle.

1. Most of us are introverts. Sure, we may be the life of the party on the rare occasions we are out socializing. We may seem extroverted because of our tendency to be outgoing when others are around. But don’t be fooled. Usually that’s just the endorphins talking. Or the fact that eventually, we need to balance out our 90% alone time with some human contact. Either way, just be prepared for someone who likes to be a bit of a lone wolf. It takes a certain type to spend hours alone running and cycling, and that certain type usually has a penchant for solitude that may be disturbing to others.

2. Please, please, please don’t make us stay out late with you. Our idea of “going out” involves literally going outdoors on foot or bicycle, preferably in the wee hours of Saturday morning when the rest of the world is sleeping off an impending hangover. If you make us stay out late with you at some sub-par Mexican restaurant, and hence compromise the quality or timing of our planned weekend long run/ride, we will resent you. And eat all the chips and salsa without regard for the others at the table. Consider yourself warned.

3. We WILL spend more time swimming, biking, and running, than with you. Sorry. It’s not that we don’t like you, it’s just that, well, we like SBR better.

4. Vacations, dates, and trips centered around doing something physical and rugged are incredibly hot. Especially if you can keep up/only if you can keep up.

5. Please don’t make comments about our choice of dress. We got up at 3:30 am and ran 54 miles today, so yes, it’s gonna be another sweatpants day.

6. Please don’t make comments about the state of our feet, or the strange rashes on our backs and butts. Listen, I’ve been working on those calluses for years. And brush burn can happen to the best of us. It’s a badge of honor. Now hand me my body butter.

7. It’s really, honestly, seriously not about the bike. Some multisport “hobbyists”, as I like to call them, are really just into gear: flashy bikes, fancy moisture-wicking apparel, gravity-defying running shoes. I think those folks are in the minority though. Really, for most of us, it’s about the process. The bike is just a vehicle for personal growth and change.

8. …but if you HAVE to give us a gift, give us a bike! Okay, maybe not a bike (has anyone looked at the price tags on those things these days? Insane!), but something we can use to make ourselves more comfortable, efficient, and/or entertained while slogging it out there. As they say, carbon fiber is a girl’s best friend. Or is it only me who says that? Meh.

9. We probably finished off that entire box of cereal. SORRY. It takes a lot of fuel to power through several hours of cardio exercise every day. Or at least, so we tell ourselves. If you bring it to our attention that downing an entire box of Product 19 in a day is gross, we will feel sad, misunderstood and self conscious. So just don’t go there.

10. No run = cranky + moody. I once saw a t-shirt at a local running shop that had the words “NO RUN = CRANKY + MOODY” printed on it in large block print. I felt relieved that clearly, I was not the only one to have experienced this phenomenon. Now where can I find a cute guy sporting said shirt?

11. We’re geeks for numbers. A lot of triathlon lingo is centered around numbers, figures, and calculations. Do we expect you to understand when we toss around terms like “max cadence,” “wattage,” “millimeter offset,” and “Yasso 800s“? Yes, yes we do.

12. Yes, we are capable of love. We just show it differently. Here’s my theory, which is loosely based on my associations with triathlete and marathoning friends over the years: we just have a different sense of relativity, slightly different tolerance for solitude and independence, and frequently a radically different neurohormonal profile, than the general populous. We like our friends to be people who understand the value of setting personal goals and doggedly going after them, with perhaps seeming disregard for other aspects of life. Needless to say, this typically isn’t considered very socially acceptable; women especially are deemed neglectful if they choose to pursue “hobbies” outside of family and even career. 

BWbTlR7CIAADcHr_jpg_large

Does anyone else find this photo incredibly hot?

The thing about triathletes and endurance athletes is that many of us have rediscovered the power of positive motivation, encouragement, and coaching in our adult lives. The paradigm of pushing through personal boundaries to shatter past records and achieve new, previously unattainable goals is something many of us move away from after we graduate from high school sports teams. This lens–one of encouragement, big dreaming, and distinctive goal-setting–is the one through which we understand how to show love and affection. If one of my friends mentions a goal she’s been entertaining, you sure as hell bet I’ll be on her case about realizing that goal and surpassing it. This comes off as annoying to some, but more often than not I’ve been met with appreciation.

Perhaps most people don’t get enough of this on a regular basis. When was the last time you heard someone say something like, “I believe in you,” “You can do anything you set your mind to,” or “Dream big”? These are things we were liberally showered with as children, but such encouragement and belief in oneself falls by the wayside as we grow up and hide away behind our desk jobs. This makes me sad.

I think people who are drawn to things like endurance sports are people who have recognized that realistically, only a finite amount of achievement and goal realization is possible in the “real world”. The concept of the entirely self-made man or woman is a thing of the past, as our careers and personal lives function more at the whim of the economy, our happenstance social network, and random obstacles that arise than our education and persistence. No longer does good, honest hard work necessarily translate into getting where one wants to be.

With triathlon, the payback is reliably and predictably related to the amount of work that’s put into it. Working hard = progress, and progress = personal growth and improvement. We crazy endurance junkies have found an arena in which one of the most basic human needs is not only attainable, it’s incredibly accessible. Maybe we’re not so crazy, after all?

In summary: how to date a triathlete:

-Dream big

-Stock up on Product 19.

The end.

15 invaluable lessons triathlon has taught me about life.

Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be without triathlon and endurance sport.

Wait, yes I do: bored, depressed, directionless, and a heck of a lot less resilient.

Here are 15 invaluable lessons the multisport lifestyle has taught me about life.

woman-running

1. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Triathlon forces me to work on three disciplines simultaneously. Some, admittedly, I enjoy more than others. But no matter what happens, I always have something to fall back on. Battling a running-related injury? Not to worry–the low impact of swimming and cycling are there to coddle my angry joints. Traveling and without access to a pool? The hotel stationary bike works just swimmingly! In the past, I’ve made the mistake of trying to define myself as just a runner, and when injury sidelined me for six months, I felt like my identity had been stolen away. In life, I’ve also made the mistake of placing too much trust in a single person, or too much value in my career–and when they have disappointed me, I felt lost and let down. Triathlon has taught me that by spreading my interests out just a little, I can develop into a far more well-rounded person with a future full of both security and variety. The end result: passion spread out evenly among multiple arenas, several places to focus my energy and attention, and plenty of room for fun and variety.

In a similar vein, I’m still working on making it appear socially acceptable to have three boyfriends.

Just kidding. Kind of.

2. We will inevitably have to do things that we don’t want to do and aren’t very good at. But embracing the challenge is actually a lot easier than running away or harboring resentment. I am an okay runner, and cycling is by far my strongest discipline. But throw me in the pool and ask me to swim, and I look more like a goldfish cracker than a goldfish. Swimming is hard for me; I am not a natural. I have to work really hard at it, and every swim is a challenge. But instead of flogging myself day in and out by choosing to perceive swimming as some masochistic struggle or necessary evil, I have found ways to make it more tolerable, and even engaging. Swimming with Masters groups has distracted me from my demons by providing me with ample amounts of camaraderie, support, and variability. And whenever I find myself in self-critical berating mode regarding my lack of speed or imperfect technique, I respond by either actively trying to improve, or just relaxing, ignoring those thoughts, and cultivating radical self-acceptance. It’s taken me close to ten years to get to this mindset in the water, but the lesson has easily carried over into other areas of “weakness” in life outside the pool.

3. If you focus on enjoying the process, rather than the product, you’ll be a heck of a lot happier. The other morning I found myself struggling, pouring sweat, and completely alone on the bike at my gym. It was 5:30 am, and the sun wouldn’t rise for another hour. I was having one of those (now rare) days where my head started to chatter: “What the f**k are you doing? You should be sleeping! What the heck is the point of all this? You sweat too much. No other 26 year old is up doing this at this hour.” Thankfully the moment was fleeting, and within minutes I was back to my usual motivated, elated self. What caused the shift? During rough patches like these, I like to step outside of myself momentarily and take a look at the big picture. On that day it wasn’t about being up at an ungodly hour, or being alone, or feeling “different” compared to other twenty-somethings–suddenly it became about being disciplined, committed, passionate, and completely free with something that ultimately makes me a better person in the day-to-day. Gaining perspective in such a way has helped me both on the bike and off–and it’s ultimately the reason why I’ve been able to find beauty in the processes of medical school, romantic relationships, and other long-term journeys, no matter the outcome.

4. …but focus on the product every so often, because it’s fun to dream. While stepping outside of myself allows me to gain perspective and savor the process no matter how painful it may be, sometimes occasionally eying the prize can provide an equally powerful boost–albeit in a very different way. Fantasizing about that light at the end of the tunnel is just really freaking fun, and keeps me centered and reminded of my long-term goals. Right now, as I prepare for my first 70.3 race, I imagine myself crossing the finish line after a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run. I’ve never experienced that before, but based on past experiences with finish lines, I know it’s going to be absolutely epic. The mere thought of how elated I’ll feel at the end of the race gets me so excited I can hardly sit still. Thinking about it while running suddenly puts me at tempo speed; if I’m on the bike I’ll have switched over into pushing some serious wattage without even noticing it.

When I was pulling long shifts in the hospital during my third year of medical school, sometimes the mere thought of myself practicing independently as a physician osteopath in the future was enough to completely transform my interactions with patients in the moment. I believe fully in living in the moment and embracing the process 99% of the time, but there’s always that 1% in which indulging in drooling over the prize can give you a good, solid kick in the rear.

5. Pace yourself. There is no better example of where triathlon has taught me to pace myself than in college and medical school. College was a breeze for me; I worked consistently every day, kept a tight schedule over my classes, work, and training, and found a rhythm that eventually felt effortless, much like autopilot. Medical school has been a very similar experience. With an inherently faster pace, though, my experience in medical school told me that I needed to slow down so that I wouldn’t bonk later on in life. My decision to take a year out between my third and fourth years of medical school for a research fellowship was completely founded upon the wisdom of pacing that I learned from endurance sport. Sometimes we need to put our egos aside and take a moment to slow down, refuel, and transition mindfully if we want to succeed in the long run. This is precisely why I stink at 5Ks.

6. Training for something you definitely won’t win, and probably won’t be recognized for by anyone other than yourself, is an unparalleled way to build character. Us “age-groupers” receive no fame, little recognition, and negative money for our training and participation in triathlon and marathon. We doggedly pound the pavement day in and day out, with little more than perplexed glances from passers-by, wondering what the heck that crazy girl is doing out jogging in 20-degree weather. No one else really cares, but we do it for ourselves. We do it for a sense of accomplishment and heightened self-respect. We do it as a cathartic outlet for feeling, thought, creativity, and physical energy. We do it as a way to test ourselves, to learn ourselves, and to ultimately come to know ourselves. Working hard at something that receives little to no external validation is humbling yet incredibly rewarding. How can this be applied to other things in life? I can easily think of a dozen ways.

7. Breathe. A good, solid, deep breath can quickly turn a lung-burner into a epiphany on the bike or run. Something about a nourishing breath is incredibly calming and can transform your perspective in a matter of seconds.

8. If you can sprint to the finish, you probably didn’t give enough earlier on. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Also, see #5.

9. Working hard most of the time feels better than relaxing most of the time.
When I was working 12-14 hour days in the hospital last year and chasing my shifts with an hour (or three) of sbr, yes, I felt crunched for time. But when I imagined my colleagues going straight home and passing out on the couch in front of their computers or televisions, I realized that I’d much rather be living the busy, active lifestyle than either the busy, stressed lifestyle or the too-relaxed lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, every now and then a relaxing day is called for–but too many relaxing days strung together call for sloth and laziness. I am definitely much happier getting my ass up at 4:30 am and having a wicked demanding day than sleeping in and having a mediocre, “just another” day.

10. Waking up early isn’t so bad after all.
See #9.

11. Your body is a heck of a lot stronger than you think. I mentioned in my first post that I’m not naturally athletic. I truly and earnestly believe this to be true. Perhaps that is why training and pushing myself physically every day is so rewarding–every day I build upon a base I never thought I’d achieve.

I grew up dabbling in Irish step dancing, TKD, and MarioKart. Running the mile in gym class was my biggest fear. Riding bikes and swimming were lazy summertime activities. But with consistency and a whole, plant-based diet, I have been able to develop an athletic side to myself. Through triathlon, I have come to realize that, after a certain degree of base fitness is achieved, it is the flesh that is willing but the mind that is weak–and not the other way around.

I ran my first marathon on very little training and on a whim. Certainly, this is not advised, but it truly served as a testament to the untapped strength and resiliency of my body. On race days, I have no idea what I’m capable of, but I know that I can dig deep and surrender fully to this deep trust I’ve placed within my uncharted physical capabilities. And that feels wicked awesome.

12. Mind over matter is totally real. And powerful. This is really my favorite thing, and perhaps the reason I got into endurance sport to begin with. Endurance sport is a head game. With increasing distance and time comes increasing contributions of the mind-spirit to our ability to hang on. Training for triathlon is brain training just as much as, if not more than, physical conditioning.

13. Nutrition is king. Training is useless if I’m not fueling well for optimal energy and recovery. Interestingly, the diet that has worked best at supporting my athletic performance has also worked best for my general physical and mental well being. Being incredibly active places stresses on the body that make the obvious impact of nutrition much more apparent, and it’s been through endurance exercise that I have discovered tiny nuances about how certain foods affect the way I feel on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. I would never have come to a whole foods, plant-based diet had I not been actively exerting myself on a daily basis.

14. Don’t underestimate the power of company. Triathletes and runners have a tendency to be lone wolves, both in their training and on a social level. However, every so often camaraderie is not only a good thing–it can be crucial. This year marked the first time in close to ten years that I started running with other people. At first I was wary of this–would this new company slow me down and hold me back? Or even worse, would I fail to keep up? Would I be expected to maintain chit-chat during long runs, which usually serve as a meditative placeholder within my otherwise hectic days? Turns out all of the above came to pass, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d envisioned. In fact, quite the contrary–I’ve made some amazing new friends (twenty- and thirty-somethings I finally feel I can relate to–yay!) who pushed me to make me stronger, held me back to get me to relax, and chatted my ear off to remind me that even the lonest of lone wolves needs to fulfill a certain quota of socialization.

15. …but never forget that only you can bring yourself happiness. At the end of the day we can have our buddies, our pack, our crew, our family–but the contributions they make to our true, deep-seeded happiness are finite. We are the ones truly at the helm of our fate and happiness. By owning my goals and dreams, taking charge of them, and actively pursuing them–mostly solo–on a daily basis, I have come to discover the power and potency of self-sufficiency and a bordering-on-extreme level of independence in unraveling and actualizing those dreams. Countless hours alone in the trails and in the saddle have granted me a level of comfort and contentedness with strictly my own company, and also shown me that I can be completely happy–ecstatic, in fact–without the company of others, as long as I am progressing toward realizing a dream. And when progress happens a little bit every day, it makes for quite a happy existence.