I think a lot when I swim.
I think a lot about not drowning.
With this triathlon journey, I could’ve made a movie called, “Finding Myself,” and subtitled it, “Just keep swimming.”
Let’s start at the beginning . . .
While in Hawaii this past February, I finally got the opportunity to get destroyed by the ocean like I’ve always wanted. This is called surfing, I suppose.
I always wanted to try my hand at it, but I realized that you had to have proper gear.
Like a swim shirt.
Because of the endless paddling on top of the board to catch waves, you need to cover your arms with a good swim shirt to save yourself from some serious chaffing.
So I found a purple one I really liked. I figured I’d rock my favorite color AND look like a pro.
But it was FIFTY DOLLARS!
Hello, I never spend $50 on a shirt. Much less for a shirt that I would wear once while on an island I will visit rarely in my lifetime.
I was devastated.
Because of my chagrin, my sister-in-law Kristin recommended other ways I could use the shirt again, perhaps a sport or activity that included water.
So I signed up for the Chicago Triathlon.
Well that escalated quickly.
I have a relatively athletic history. It includes sports like volleyball, basketball, softball, and kickboxing.
You know what activities I have shown the least amount of athleticism in my lifetime?
Swimming. Biking. Running.
I thought, “Ooh, I have a great idea — why don’t I do all of those . . . AT ONCE??”
Off To A Rough Start
Biking – Of the three, this is probably the one I enjoy the most. However, in my mind I feel like I can defy the laws of bike shorts, to my tail bone’s demise. Sure, riding around town a few miles at a time isn’t too bad. But when you ride longer distances without proper gear or hydration, it’s an equation for a perfect (painful) storm.
Running – I don’t know if you can interpret my form as “running.” Probably more like, “Creative trotting.” For example, during my last 5k race, I was feeling really proud of my run when I was halfway through– my best one yet! And then at mile 3 I caught up to this 67 year old man. I proudly paced with him through the rest of the race (I mean, who doesn’t need a little motivation?).
Swimming – I love swimming. It’s a blast. I grew up in a pool my whole life and our family frequented the beach. However, my version of swimming includes doggie paddling, inner-tube waves, and Marco Polo, of which things I am the real MVP. But real lap swimming? I think my first time in the big kids pool I embarrassed the entire YMCA.
Those first few swims I learned a lot, like . . .
- Real sports bathing suits are a necessity (semi-strapless is a semi-terrible idea)
- You’re supposed to breathe
- You’re not supposed to breathe under the water
- Kicking is supposed to work in conjunction with stroking
- Breathing is supposed to work in conjunction with kicking AND stroking
- I always knew where the lifeguard and defibrillator were located
I had a little bit of an episode the first time I went all in. I finally had goggles and tried the whole head-in-water-while-stroking deal, but couldn’t figure out when to breathe. I may have flailed and spewed, causing the lifeguard area to think they may actually have to do work during their shift.
Guys, this is serious. Especially when you start crazy things like training in Lake Michigan and you can’t see the bottom. It get’s pretty scary. And you realize, you can’t stop. You have to keep going. Or you will sink and die.
Fear of the unknown
That was my start.
Impulsive. Rough. Unprepared. Unprofessional.
And my finish?
The day of the triathlon came and I still didn’t have any real triathlon gear, I was one of the few without a wet suit, I nearly started going backwards at one point during the swim because of disorientation, I had to rent a bike because my own weighed more than a large dog, I didn’t have bike shorts, I had to Gorilla Glue pieces of my shoe to the bottoms to keep from flapping, there was a hole in one of my socks which made my foot burn, and I had no watch to keep track of my time (phones were not allowed).
I was completely under-invested and totally not prepared.
But get this.
I started this whole thing with a pretty wild, uninspiring, and even bad, reason: a purple swim shirt!
To top it off, I hadn’t thought through the future. I wasn’t prepared for the struggle, for the near drowning experiences. I didn’t know that the investment never ends. I wasn’t ready for the sacrifice and commitment, of early mornings, long weekend trainings, and freezing Lake Michigan swims. I didn’t know how bad I was at swimming and how humbling it was to ask for tips and help. I didn’t know I would be out of country on a missions trip for half the month of August and would miss 2 important weeks of preparation and training.
I felt weak often, and sometimes wanted to just skip the swims, or not run as far.
And I had bad training days, when I felt like my lungs would burst, when my feet were burning from worn shoes, when the wind along Lake Michigan made my biking dreadful, when I skipped a workout because I didn’t feel like it, when I ate the wrong foods because I lost self-control.
I wouldn’t consider myself a role model.
But honestly, who is?
When we miss perfection
I think we have this idea of what kind of “role model” we should be, or how our situations should develop. It involves the unlikely word: perfection.
As an idealist, I have an idea in mind that makes me and my life work really well, it’s pain-free, and I always come out on top. And if I could control it that way every time, it would.
But then . . . Life. People. Situations. Crossroads. Hurts. Disappointments. They all happen, and it makes for perfectly imperfect journeys.
And that scares me. Why would I do something when I know that down the road I’m eventually going to lose control and I’m at the mercy of a situation or another person?
I think about my friend Emily, who moved to Chicago with a little bit of money and a dream — to bring economic development to her neighborhood by employing the people. So she started a business with no idea what she was doing and no textbook. There were many what we call “throw up in your mouth” moments, when the step was too big and the fear outweighed everything in sight.
But I am so inspired that she never quit, never lost sight of the goal, even though it seemed to get delayed all the time.
I’m in my own start-up and I’m like, “Really? 5 years and we’re still trying to go this launched? This is not the MBA-method.” It always takes too long, costs too much, and, on top of all that, each of us 3 founders live in different states. Very unideal. But, we’re launching it soon. These messy 5 years produced something.
With my first townhouse out of college I had a huge heart for hospitality and hosting people, but I came to find myself in an empty, cockroach-interested house with a couch affectionately called The Rock and 10 plastic Starbucks cups. I collapsed into tears. It didn’t get better anytime soon. And just this month I look at my home and see some sort of decency, the picture I had in mind 5 years ago. But I also look back and count the number of people who I’ve hosted when they needed a place to stay, somewhere around 10.
Maybe . . . maybe you can make it when you seem to have the worst end of the stick and it seems there’s no improvement in sight.
I can’t think of any significant accomplishment in my life where I didn’t have “throw up in your mouth” moments, unreal anxiety, troubling depression, and massive heartache.
Sometimes all we get in life is what we have, the falling-apart shoe, the sock with a hole in it, the bulky bike– or even more difficult, the missing arm, the crippled legs, the damaged eye.
And we starting hating our life because of the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s so unfair.
But it’s never fair.
We never get fair.
But we get life. We get a Life-Giver.
Is it worth it?
At one point during training I really wondered if it was worth it. This seemed like an awful amount of work and training for one day.
I’m not ready enough, I’m too tired, I have all the wrong clothes, I’m not fit enough, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not good enough.
But I kept repeating something during the race . . .
“I’m a triathlete, I’m a triathlete, I’m a triathlete.”
I kept imagining crossing the finish line and saying those words.
Yes, it was inspiring and awesome and exciting . . . and worth it. But sometimes you have to imagine the “worth it” before you cross the finish line, or you’ll never get there.
Our endeavors, our dreams, our hopes? Worth the time, worth the sacrifice, worth the love, worth the pain, worth the obstacles.
It’s those wide open spaces, the “great unknown where feet may fail,” where you find something worth living for, worth giving your all, and, at times, worth losing it all for the gain and the promise.
I don’t think I would have felt the same elation if had decided to skip the training altogether, and just walked up to the start line, lifted a 5lb weight over my head, and said, “IT’S WORTH IT!”
Sorry, you need to go through it, the long training and the struggle.
Otherwise, you’re never grateful.
And hey, if I can decide to do a triathlon because of a purple swim shirt, please, tell me your excuses.
(and by the way, that $50 for the shirt I was trying to justify? Turned into $120 for the race registration, $15 for the goggles, $10 for the swim cap, $45 for the bathing suit, $50 for the bike rental . . . )