If you want to know what it was like on the day of the Ironman, you should read this. While it has been fun to tell people about the experience of swimming, biking, and running, I've wanted to talk more about what I learned in the process. It's been a few weeks since finishing the Ironman, and while I've been recovering (I'm still sore) I've had time to think about all the lessons I learned from this experience. The months of training and the race day itself taught me more than I ever thought they would, and I've finally written down a few of the lessons I learned. So if you have any interest in an Ironman, here is what you can expect to put in to it and get out of it...
Time: 280 hours
Swim: 87 miles
Bike: 1,818 miles
Run: 455 miles
Discipline eliminates regret
During the three months leading up to the Ironman, I can count on one hand the amount of times I wanted to workout. I never woke up with a strong desire to bike twenty miles and run ten, but I made myself do it anyway. I had many days of discipline, but I had days of regret as well when I didn't make myself workout or give it my best. Those were my worst days. The extra days off I shouldn't have taken hurt much more than the hardest of any workouts. I found that the pain of discipline today isn't nearly as strong as the pain of regret tomorrow.
I also found that the culmination of consistent discipline eliminates any of the regrets that may have interspersed themselves over that time period. When I crossed the finish line, I didn't have a single regret. Yes, there were many days during my training that I regretted, but the days of discipline surrounding them overwhelmed any regret I could have had. And by the time I reached the finish line, all I felt were the days of discipline. It was as if the days of regret never even existed. This was my strongest lesson from several months of training: more discipline leads to less regret.
When the standard is high, the result of falling short isn't as bad
Another way to say this is, "shoot for the moon because even if you miss you'll land among the stars." We all hate cliches, but they're cliche for a reason. The truth is that if you were to compare the exercises I wrote about on this blog with the training plan I had hanging on my wall, you would realize that I almost never did all of the exercises for a specific week. For a majority of the weeks of training I either missed a day or did an exercise for less time than I should have. I set a standard of perfection for myself, and I fell short of this standard week after week. The thing is the standard was so high that when I failed to reach it I wasn't failing at all.
I'm not saying you should plan to fall short of any standard you set. We should always try to live to the best of our abilities. But what I am saying is that if you live life with high standards, the penalty for not reaching them is less substantial. I used to think it was better to set low expectations because I could always meet them, but I now realize that's the exact opposite way to live your life. Instead, the higher you set your standards, the better your quality of life. Aim for good, and you'll get something acceptable. Aim for great, and you'll get something good. Aim for amazing, and you'll get something great. Aim for perfection, and you'll get something amazing. And who knows, maybe you'll even get what you're aiming for.
Set unrealistic goals and take realistic steps
At the beginning of this year, my family sat down to set our goals for the year. This isn't something we normally do, and I'm not sure what made us try it, but I'm glad we did. When we wrote down our physical goals for the year, I wrote down finish an Ironman because I thought it was the most difficult physical accomplishment I could attempt within a year. My thought wasn't, "I can do this." My thought was, "I can't think of anything more unrealistic to try." Now, when I wrote it down, I was serious. I set the goal and I was going to try to achieve it, but at the same time I'm not one of those energetic I-can-do-anything-I-set-my-mind-to types of people. I'm a realist (which is what pessimists refer to themselves as) and what I now know is you can set unrealistic goals, but you have to keep realistic expectations.
If I had set the goal of finishing an Ironman and thought about achieving that goal every day, I never would have done it. It was too big for me to accomplish in one day or one week. Instead, I decided to set the date I wanted to complete the goal and I worked backwards. On October 9, I was going to finish an Ironman. On June 12, I was going to finish a half-Ironman. In April, I was going to be able to finish an Olympic triathlon. In February, I was going to be able to finish a Sprint triathlon. But for that first week, my only goal was to exercise for one hour every day. That was it. I didn't even worry about what I was doing for the second week because I had to be realistic about my present before I could worry about my future. I didn't even think about being ready for the Ironman until a few weeks after I had finished the half, and I think that's how life should work. Set unattainable goals for the future and take attainable steps towards them now. Then, what was unrealistic today becomes realistic tomorrow.
The word impossible should not be a part of our vocabulary
I love this quote:
"Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing." - Muhammad Ali
One of the reasons I set out to finish an Ironman was because I thought it was impossible. For someone like me (translated: normal), an Ironman was not possible...yet here I am. I don't make this point to say, "Hey, look at how awesome I am." Rather I want to say, "Hey, look at how awesome we can be." I don't have anything special that you don't have, nor have I done anything that you couldn't do yourself. That's not hyperbole. I'm serious. The sooner we all realize we are capable of significantly more than we give ourselves credit for, the sooner we can eliminate the word impossible from the dictionary.
Fear and anxiety are desperate emotions
I woke up at 4:00AM on the day of the race and began going through all the scenarios of things that could possibly go wrong. All these terrible what-if's flooded my brain simultaneously. What if I get kicked in the face and my goggles break? What if I get a flat tire on my bike? What if I forget to hydrate? What if I pull a muscle? What if I don't finish before the time limit? What if I can't finish? On and on...
After sitting in bed for thirty minutes being bombarded by misery, I finally stood up. It was too late for those thoughts. I couldn't, I wouldn't, think like that. I believe fear and anxiety are intent on preventing humans from reaching their fullest potential, and what I learned on race day was that these emotions are desperate. They were going to cling to my thoughts for as long as I would let them. However in that moment, I also realized that desperation is a sign of defeat. And at some point that's something we all need to realize. Fear and anxiety are fighting a losing battle against us, and when we remind them they have no power over us, we are free to live the way we want.
God's presence is greater than my pain
I can honestly look back on the Sunday of the Ironman and say that I have never prayed so much in one day in my entire life. I was in constant communication with God, whether through recited verses or whispered prayers. I needed him. Whenever I felt tired, I prayed. Whenever I felt my mind wandering, I prayed. Whenever I needed a boost, I prayed. I was praying all day...but shouldn't that be what every day looks like?
I was once taught that if our goal is to be dependent on God, then weakness is an advantage. I understand that now. I have never felt weaker than I did during that race, and I have never depended on God more. The challenge now is that I won't ever feel that weak again, but I will always be that dependent of God. It's now my responsibility to maintain an awareness of my dependence and live according to the level of my need. God was with me during the most physically challenging day of my life, and he is with me right now as well. It's time I live with a recognition that God's presence doesn't change with the amount of pain or pleasure I feel. He's always right there.
Encouragement can't be too loud
One of the highlights of race day happened on the bike when a very small girl yelled "I believe in you!" to me from the side of the road. It was the first (and not the last) time I cried that day, and even looking back I still can't explain why that particular moment got to me. There was something so powerful in someone so innocent giving such loud encouragement. I could go through the whole day and tell dozens of stories of complete strangers cheering for me, and each and every encouragement did something to lift my soul.
I don't know if the people lining the race felt weird cheering for a stranger, but whether they realize it or not I will never forget them. I will also never forget the friends who texted and called me before and after the race with words of encouragement. I don't think it's possible to overstate the value of an uplifting word. Now, I would be the first person to tell you that giving encouragement is not a strength of mine, but after experience the strength of what it meant to me on that day, it's something I will be incorporating more into my daily life. All of us would be better off if we gave and received more encouragement.
Anything worth doing is worth doing with others
When I look back on the weekend of the race, I will never forget what it felt like to cross the finish line. No matter what I say I can't oversell that moment. However, the finish line was my second favorite memory from the weekend. For me, the best moment was the night before when I was surprised by friends who had come to cheer me on. I don't know that I can accurately describe how it felt to be sitting at dinner with my family and friends who were there to support me, but I do know that I would not have finished the race if they hadn't been there. Their presence at every transition was enough to keep me going so I could see them again. It wasn't my personal accomplishment that pushed me to tears when I crossed the finish line. It was the open arm of my parents, siblings, and friends that caused me to weep at their embrace.
If you're reading this, I hope you know that you've been an integral part of this accomplishment. I think communal experience will always outweigh personal accomplishment, and that's what I'll remember the Ironman as. I wrote about my training, not to highlight an achievement, but to share an experience. So, what I really want to say is thanks. For those of you who have been reading along from the start, thanks for being a part of this experience with me. For those of you who have provided encouragement, I can't overstate my gratitude. For those of you who are reading this blog for the first time, thanks for joining. I may have been by myself during the training and the racing, but I was never alone. I want you to know I felt your support and I can't say thank you enough. We did it.