Have you ever received a compliment… with a disclaimer?

“You look so good! … for having three kids.”

“You are so fast! … for being so old.”

“You raced so hard! … in these terrible conditions.”

When I have heard these I felt like a simultaneously inflating and deflating balloon. I have had to very consciously say ‘thank you’ for the well intentioned statement and then promptly enter the depths of my own mind. I needed to swiftly focus on and hold onto the truth that I know as my own and let go of the story they have told me. I know if I let these statements seep in I risk letting them fuel and even become my excuses.

I have not and do not always follow this practice. I spent years believing the stories that others told me- letting them shape my own worth and existence. I sought out their validation and decided if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me. I tried to fit into their mold in order to belong. I let them make excuses for me while settling into doing what was good enough.

The Door County Half Ironman in 2011 was an experience dictated by my excuses. I had been winning awards since the beginning of my racing career, and when I hadn’t won I blamed it on circumstances. I had fixed my mind to the idea that since I hadn’t actually tried to win, I was good enough and did not need to take training that seriously anymore. I showed up at the start line with a gross lack of preparedness. I attempted to heap fake arrogance on top of it in order to hide it. I was piling sh*t on top of sh*t and guess what? It resulted in a big, steaming pile of sh*t.

At a heat index of over 100 degrees, that day literally was steaming. My race was a mess from the beginning. The swim was wavy and tough, as it often is in Lake Michigan. I had plenty of time to consider my lack of preparation and even thought of pulling out of the race entirely. In an effort to fake toughness, I kept going.

I banked my first excuse in my mind, “The water was so tumultuous this year!”

My bike split was slower than usual for me and I started to believe my second and most dominating litany of excuses for the day based on the weather. “This is unreasonable. It is too hot. They are telling people to stay indoors. We are stupid and stubborn. We are harming ourselves. We could literally DIE.” And this was my mantra for the ENTIRE run. 13.1 miles of crabby, angry, excuse making vitriol that caused me to lash out at anyone who cheered, smiled, or told me I was “looking good.” Did they not understand how stupid it was to compete today?

I finished. I was happy. Happy to be done.

I had given my all, considering the circumstance. Or had I?

After some reflection, I realized I was miserably stuck in a rut subconsciously thinking that I was a blessed triathlete- not only did I not need to train, but I deserved perfect racing conditions. I had my arsenal of excuses. No one would judge me.

It was so windy. It was so HOT.

I was and am a good athlete. I knew how to physically be more prepared for my next race. This was the moment that I realized I lacked the character to stay a good athlete.

In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck quotes John Wooden, “I believe ability can get you to the top. But it takes character to keep you there…. it’s so easy to… begin thinking you can just ‘turn it on’ automatically without proper preparation. It takes real character to keep working as hard or harder once you’re there. When you read about an athlete or team that wins over and over, remind yourself, ‘More than ability, they have character.” (Mindset by Carol Dweck)

As you get to know yourself better you will start to become more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your character. You will capture your excuses and consider these red flags before you rely on them. You will rise against your personal reasons for not navigating life fully on your terms.

I ran my 11th Berbee Derby on Thanksgiving Day, 2019, after arriving home from a magical week long family trip to Costa Rica. A week filled with friends and buffets and alcoholic drinks of all colors and sizes. Coupled with a long day of travel the day before with little (neck breaking) sleep, the stage was set for a perfectly justified ‘easy jog.’ To add to it, I had the time wrong in my calendar and we arrived as the last wave of 10K racers toed up to the starting line. I was frazzled and exhausted and knew I could jog the 5K and no one would question my choice. But, I had put many years of work into building my character and it was stronger now. I couldn’t deny myself the chance to race. I just made it in with the last wave and set off.

I finished. I felt happy.

Did I run hard enough… for just getting back from vacation?

No. I ran HARD. And it hurt.

Did I give my all? Yes, I did. And it was deeply satisfying to my soul, more so than grumpily slogging through the 2011 DC Half Iron.

And that is the true story.