A couple days ago I read something in a Triathlete online article that made me feel very seen and understood in my sport of choice. The editor was listing the routines that the magazine and its people have established in Kona, Hawaii surrounding the October annual Ironman World Championship race… while also noting how unfamiliar it was to have the same event this May in St. George, Utah.
She wrote, “…we don’t know what’s going to happen. And triathletes don’t like that. They like knowing what to expect. We are strangers in a strange land looking for an anchor to something familiar.”
One of the biggest lessons that I learned from this race: I don’t like that. I like knowing what to expect. And while I believe I have come quite far in believing in the importance of letting go of control, it is still far out of my comfort zone. And when I feel out of control, I settle back into my default behaviors of trying to control something. Someone. Anything. Anyone. I lose track of being in the moment within myself.
I try to manufacture familiarity in the unfamiliar. I aim to manage some kind of certainty by controlling my surrounding and/or my expectations. I am smart enough to see the “uncontrollables.” So instead my brain starts to seek out and manipulate situations, thoughts, or others—to focus on anything that I perceive as controllable.
Now, I don’t think this is always all bad. As I prepared for IMSG, I knew I couldn’t control the weather and so I instead planned for sufficient hydration. I could not control the challenging bike course and so I instead focused on simulating climbing hills with high power/low cadence trainer efforts. This turns bad when I use the weather or the tough course as an excuse to alter my participation in the moment, even when I know I can keep pursuing my goal in the way I had planned. Or when the lack of control is diverted to becoming hyper-controlling of other things that don’t serve me at all.
As many of you know, I was extremely nervous for this race. Everything about it felt unfamiliar and uncertain, and the lack of control consumed me often as race day approached. But this is also exactly why I chose this goal. After years of personal growth and connecting deeper to myself, I know how comfortable familiar and certain is for me. I know that I feel most comfortable with control over my training and racing. But I also know that to live out my purpose to authentically inspire, I need to do things that I perceive to be really hard.
I needed to be further out of control.
I thought some of the uncertainty would dissipate when we arrived in St. George, but the list of things that felt out of control continued to grow: I wondered how I could swim over 4,000 yards in the extreme cold water after shivering through only 750 in the practice swim; I considered how I could navigate the challenges presented by the dry heat and the wind, when it was uncomfortable simply moving about during the day in the blazing sun; and the overall intimidation of racing alongside the best in the world. My brain wanted to validate my fears and so I had to constantly wrestle with acknowledging and feeling through them while still speaking truth to myself and visualizing success. It took a mental and emotional toll, leaving me so exhausted that I fell asleep at 6:30pm on Friday and then tossed and turned all night, wondering if I would in fact finish the race the following day.
Thankfully, when I arrived at the venue the next morning I was able to feel the electric excitement of race day. I knew I needed people to keep me upbeat and excited to race so I chatted with anyone who smiled at me. I met some fellow racers from Wisconsin and spent some time with another woman from Illinois who I had raced many times back home. I texted friends. I smiled. I did all of the things that felt authentic and familiar to me.
If you read last week you know that the race went well up until the run. But looking back I see ways that I tried (and failed) to find control, even including offering up mental deal with the devil— wondering if there was any way I could climb double the ridiculous Snow Canyon climb to not have to be so terrified flying downhill fast with big crosswinds to head back to town. YES, you read that correctly. I thought it would be better to ride another four mile climb with 1,000 feet of elevation (for local folks more than six stacked Bergamont hills) than fly down. All because I feel more in control climbing.
As you guessed, this wasn’t an option, so I rode smartly, safely, (and scaredy) back to dismount my bike. I typically feel sure on my feet so I was very surprised when I felt so out of control early on in the run. Although I was truly suffering from GI distress, I also was struggling with my brain trying to find validation (aka- control) by allowing myself to consider if I should pull out of the race.
Thankfully, I have practiced returning to the present many times over many years of racing. I was able to breathe, speak truth to myself, and ultimately stop trying to return to my comfort zone of finding certainty wherever I could. I instead decided to honor my “why” and keep moving forward into the unknown. And eventually I was able to find a way to run for short amounts of time again. And as you know, eventually cross the finish line.
You can learn from me by focusing on being present in the uncertain moments rather than doing all you can to find, or manufacture, certainty. When things are out of control recognize your desire to waste energy honing in on trying to control other situations or people. To control is not to care or to love, others or yourself.
I was reminded that I can do hard things admit uncertainty (and so can you). The more uncertain the situation, the more it takes me out of my comfort zone, and the more rewarding the experience is.
I can be okay, and even thrive, will a full loss of control. And it feels so freeing to remember that.