Adventure and Struggle: How One Individual Overcame Stress to Cross The Finish Line

I recently participated in the St. George, Utah Ironman 70.3 triathlon. It was such a cool experience in such a beautiful location. The desert red rock that Utah is so famous for surrounds the entire event with distant mountains framing every view and vista from the starting line to the finish line. The “70.3” is the total distance of the event; 1.2 mile swim, 56 miles on the bike and a 13.1 mile half-marathon run. It can make for a pretty long day. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve been planning and training for this race for well over 6 months so I knew I had put in the work necessary to accomplish my goal of getting across the finish line. Nonetheless, race day can be tough. I barely slept the night before from pre-race jitters, the altitude is a solid 3,000 feet above my training grounds and the course itself racks up over 4,000 feet of elevation gain throughout the day, and the forecast was predicting (and the desert delivered) a high that day of 93 degrees. All that to say, the finish line was not going to be a giveme and training alone was not going to get me there, the real challenge of race day is the mental game. 

So here are 3 takeaways from my day in the desert of Utah. We’ll call them take-away 1 (T1), take-away 2 (T2), and take-away 3 (T3). If you’ve ever participated in a triathlon then you probably get the joke, if not, the transition between the swim and the bike is transition 1 (T1) the transition between the bike and the run is transition 2 (T2). No dad joke is complete without an unsolicited explanation of why, in fact, the joke is funny, am I right? Oh, and there isn’t actually a T3, it just sounds cool.

T1 – Stress Management – Anxious In The Water

My first takeaway (T1) came from the swim. I did not grow up swimming so when I decided to participate in a triathlon I also had to learn how to swim for real. After a month or two of trying to learn on my own and having a couple of near panic attacks in the pool I got a coach. She helped me figure out my form but even more than that she taught me how to regulate my breathing as a means of stress management while in the water. As a therapist, I know that our breath is one of the most powerful tools we have for managing our stress and calming our anxiety. However, in the lake, surrounded by the cold, dark, abyss of open water, that fact sometimes slips my mind. For some reason today was one of those days. As soon as I jumped into the water my mind began to spin out with anxiety. I couldn’t find a rhythm and even worse I couldn’t find my breath. The further away from the shore I got the worse the anxiety got. I know I know how to swim but my lizard brain was going haywire. The feelings of deep dread and even terror flooded my entire body, my arms and legs felt heavy and uncoordinated, my brain began to fill my mind with images of sinking and even drowning. I just wanted to quit, I was all of 10 minutes into my race and I just wanted to quit. Get me out of here, this is stupid, I don’t think I can do this today. My mind was spinning with messages of fear and defeat and I knew I had at least 30 more minutes of this and that’s when the decision was made. I told my anxiety that I would be finishing the swim with you or without you. The decision was not to push away the anxiety, the decision was to allow it, to welcome it, to even embrace it. It was at this point that I put my head in the water, stopped fighting and started swimming. It took another couple of minutes to find my pace and my breath but finally, there it was, right where I left it. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breath. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breath. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breath. The anxiety never fully went away but it also never fully stopped me. 

I can be anxious and still do what needs to be done. Stress management doesn’t mean I have no stress. Stress management means I manage the stress, I don’t let the stress manage me.

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