(I wrote this a month ago & paused to publish with so many unknowns, it’s a little behind but still the obstacles are right in front of us)
I’m writing to you from the confines of my own home. I have traveled very far away from the Island of Liz, a quiet, isolated paradise with very good coffee, and instead find myself in this new world where boundaries blur, dinner needs to be cooked every day and chaos rules.
I’m sheltering in place.
Correction: we are sheltering in place, with we including myself, my husband, my 9, 5, 3 year olds, my grouchy 13 (13? We think he’s 13) year old chihuahua.
You could say it has been, well, challenging. Remote learning, constant food service, cleaning up the mountains of mess, goddamn Legos EVERYWHERE, laundry so much laundry, having to make my own coffee (the horror). threat of running out of coffee, being asked ‘what’s for dinner’ at 2 pm, drinking a half a bottle of wine and the often understated introverted struggles when one finds themselves surrounded by people and noise ALL DAY LONG.
Yes, the boundaries of life, school and work blend together in a messiness that even my obsessive-cleaning-self cannot maintain.
On the other side, as a coach, I’ve watched athletes of all ages from all over the world work through this experience. Also intriguing. Some thrive, others survive. Some mourn, others mount the resources they have to make the best of it. Which is right? Wrong? Not for me to say. But I will say that as coaches, we can learn a lot about an athlete’s struggles and strengths by how they are responding to our current “real life” endurance event.
Right now we are getting a glimpse of what happens for most athletes at mile 18 to 20 of the run of an Ironman. The beauty of this is that none of us actually has to do the Ironman.
That saves us a heck of a lot of money AND chafing!
If you’ve been to mile 18 to 20 of the Ironman marathon, you know that it’s about that time when the novelty has worn off – along with the adrenaline, caffeine and good vibes from spectators. You’re tired. You’re mentally spent. And though you’ve done countless runs beyond this point, you have no idea how you are going to make it the next 6 to 8 miles. You’re on the edge of entering a very dark place.
Note: if you are a spectator, this is the absolutely worst place to support your racer as they will likely wave you off, requesting you leave them to die in that moment and pick up their sweaty, blistered carcass at the finish line. As Sherpa Thomas told me along the Queen K, circa 2008, watching a sunburnt and struggling Chris Waterstraat, best to let him be now, Liz, he’s got to figure it for himself.
My “mile 18 to 20 of an Ironman marathon” moment hit me during my first Ironman – Kona 2006. Around mile 20. This is the point in the race where a few things are certain; a) the Queen K is entirely uphill (not true), b) the water isn’t cold enough (100% true), c) the last 10K might as well be 100 miles away (arguable but probably true), d) though you realize the awesomeness of distance you’ve come to get to that point, you have never been in such a soul-sucking, quad-bursting, head-hurting kind of pain.
This is the point where as a coach I wish I had could peek into an athlete’s mind. You see, there’s no magical training session that prepares an athlete for this point. Sure, a hit of 5 Hour Energy can help but even the most potent caffeine runs out at some point when you’re out there for most of the day.
It’s at this point where a shift can happen.
Upon reaching this point, many athletes stay stuck in the dark place. They continue to look behind longing for what they had (the energy, the freshness), narrow their focus inward (why is this feeling so hard for me?) and worry about what lies ahead (how am I going to make it? when will I feel good again?). They stay frozen in these fears and feelings. They slow down, spin in circles and lose momentum.
A smaller group of athletes keep moving forward. Note they were not any more prepared – they too are experiencing hardship, worries and drastic change. They too are in pain. However, they know that the only way out is through and to get through you need to keep moving forward. They maintain a realistic hope about the situation. Yes, it is dark and frustrating. But they cling to the hope that good things are about to happen. They are not necessarily comfortable with that uncertainty but comfortable with the discomfort they are experiencing because they’ve faced it, head on, many times before, they’ve gone towards it to grow and learn.
I crave the dark moments in races. Not the victories or the PRs – nah, I want to come into transition in a half Ironman and find that someone stepped on my race belt which is now a gooey mess of bursted gels and very happy ants (true story). That moment. What’s next? Whether it’s mile 18 of an Ironman or 5K into a 40K Olympic bike where my legs are burning and protesting every pedal stroke: I learned that success comes from looking at that moment and saying I’ve been waiting for you. I’m ready.
That edge is where you learn the most about yourself. If you can tolerate the discomfort and keep pushing, on the other side I’m not saying that it gets any easier but you find a flow, a courage, a confidence. When I’m out there racing and in that moment, I’m not racing anyone but myself. I’m chasing the best version of Liz, I’m taking all of that negative chatter and daring it to continue to run in my mind as I run towards the finish line. Keep up with me, I say to it.
Life puts us into situations like that every day (like every day for the last 42 days but who is counting?). Around here, we reach a point every day around 4 pm when one kid is demanding dinner (9 year old), another one is melting down in a desperate heap on the kitchen floor (3 year old) and the 5 year old? She’s on outfit number number 356 with a wake of tutus, princess dresses and fairy wings behind her. Yes, it will be like this every day until possibly they go back to school FOUR MONTHS FROM NOW. Deep breath. One foot in front of the other. Each day like this we build our tolerance for pain, waiting and all of those uncomfortable things that come with finding our best reality or self.
Right now none of us are racing. But we have an incredible opportunity to work on what is required for race success. We are at mile 18 to 20 of the marathon. Legs are cramping. Stomach gone south. Hottest point of the day. Every athlete, regardless of age, ability, local triathlon or world championship, reaches this point at some point in the race. A pivotal moment where challenge reveals character. There is no other secret to choosing wisely in those moments other than the choice to keep moving forward. To view said challenge as an opportunity and not a threat. To put one foot in front of the other and do the very best you can with what you have.
Given our current reality/situation/call-it-what-you-want-to-make-yourself-feel-better, I’m not suggesting that everyone simply pulls up their race shorts and gets on with things. This stuff is hard. We are all struggling in some way; financially, emotionally, physically, socially. It’s easy to fall into a trap of ranking who has it worst, who has no right to complain but I have to ask myself – does any of that make us or this situation any better? Have compassion for yourself and empathy for others. One day at a time. Don’t look too far back or ahead. Stay in the moment and savor it.
So now what?
I’ve read a lot of talk about our new normal. I challenge you: what is normal? How do we know that normal, or what we had, is something even worth lamenting?
What if things can be better?
Somewhere in early March, as we were shuttling our kids from activity to activity, being stalked by an aggressive teenager (another story for another day), feeling like I was in a relationship with my phone, disenfranchised by the daily slog of kids plus work plus kid plus chores plus rinse and repeat again every single day…at some point I reached an existential crisis. That feeling of is this it? Is this what life is all about? Do I go through these motions day after day until one day I wake up, I’m too old to do 90 percent of what I enjoy, the kids are gone and we are by ourselves again? THIS is IT?
Perhaps my midlife crisis #198 (there have been a few, trust me), I can’t help but think the universe steps in to recalibrate us when we need it most or when we’ve stopped trusting our ability to fix things for ourselves.
Here, let me help you, universe says.
And now? I can’t say that I’m missing our prior “normal” or my former “life” or even swimming at this point (and it really pains me to say THAT!). In the last few weeks, I’ve grown stronger by adding in new activities; lifting and rowing. I’ve had the opportunity to get back to something that brought us together in the first place: riding and running with my husband. I’ve watched my kids show incredible creativity and cooperation as they’ve realized they – each other – is all they have (and all they NEED).
Perhaps things are … better now?
Maybe the path is the path? In the middle of our path, with a giant obstacle, we respond or retreat. Our reaction IS our responsibility. What to do. Don’t run from it. Don’t go around it. Don’t sit back and do nothing at all. Run toward it with cautious curiosity. Lean in. Explore it. Learn from it. Breathe in the experience. When you focus on what you think you’ve lost, you lose sight of the possibility of what lies ahead: a new calibration of normal, refreshed hope, loads of possibility coupled with the wisdom of your experience.
There, or rather, right here is where true learning and progress lie, in life and as an athlete.