How Triathlons Teach You 7 Important Life Lessons

You can go much further in life, work and relationships
than you think you can.

By Joey O’Connor

Never say never.

I was one of those guys who said I’d never do a triathlon. I grew up in the eighties when triathlon was just getting popular. I loved athletics and played Division I volleyball in college, but when NBC sports televised the annual Kona Ironman race, I told myself, “Amazing. Inspiring. Good for them.”

Watching the surging maelstrom of a couple thousand swimmers clobber each other like salmon fighting upstream was not my idea how I’d like to spend my weekend mornings. Coffee and the morning paper were much more relaxing and safer. I wasn’t going to drown in my coffee.

But then I got caught up in the life story of my friend, Scott Rigsby. After losing his legs to a car accident when he was eighteen, Scott spent the next two decades of his life in drug & alcohol addiction, rehab, family fights and financial crisis. At his lowest low, Scott decided to do the unthinkable.

You can read Scott’s amazing story in his book, Unthinkable: The Scott Rigsby Story

He would become the first double-amputee to complete the Kona Ironman. Scott didn’t own a bike. Didn’t know how to swim without legs. He’d never run a mile on his prosthetic limbs. And he wanted to become an Ironman?!

For Ironman races, mileage does not vary. It’s a 2.4 mile swim. 112 miles on the bike. Topped off with a 26.2 mile marathon. You have 17 hours to complete the race. If you go 17:00:01, no medal. No Ironman.

That picture you see above…that’s Scott on the beach in Kona. Just before his second Ironman.

My legs work fine. Fifty-one years of loyal support. What was my excuse?

After many years of toying with the idea, I teased it out by asking Scott triathlon questions. I finally took the plunge a few years ago, culminating in my first full distance Ironman race this past June in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

AKA Coeur d’Flame. The hottest race in Ironman history.

Whether you’re an athlete or not, a gym junkie or someone who simply enjoys a leisurely walk, the sport of triathlon offers important life lessons for any personal, professional, or relationship challenge you face.

Everything you do in Ironman training is like standing in front of a mirror and asking yourself about any area of your life, “Do you have what it takes?”

1. You Can Go Farther Than You Think

After completing my Ironman, the most common response I heard was this: You went 140.6 miles in one day! I could never do that!

If you think like that, you’re absolutely right. You can’t and you won’t.

But, as simple as it sounds, if you change your mind, you’d be surprised at what you really can accomplish. What you think you can or can’t do begins in your mind.

All of us set limits in our mind and life for how far we think we can go.

We do this in our marriages. Our professional life. How we practice love and patience with our kids. We can always go much further than we think we can. That’s not puffy-rah-rah-mental-mastery-New-Agey-00hmism’s.

You have one brain. It’s incredibly strong. It’s the Executive Center for what you think you can or can’t do. You can dream. Imagine. And wonder “What if?” What you think really matters in this endurance raced called life.

Endurance gives you staying power in marriage. Friendship. Family. Work.

2. Starting Small = Incredible Gains

When I first started racing triathlons, an Ironman was definitely not on my radar screen. Whenever asked, “My response was ‘No, no, no…’”

Though I grew up at the beach swimming and surfing, my swimming technique was terrible. I didn’t own a bike. For years, my left knee had been bothering me in easy, low mileage runs.

But Scott encouraged me to start small.

I got a swim coach. In the first lesson, she doubled my distance with half the effort from my previous swim splashing and thrashing. I met with a physical trainer who assessed my knee problem in about 1.2 seconds. “You don’t have a knee problem. Your IT band it too tight! Roll that puppy out!” In one month, I was back to running six miles with no pain.

I bought a bike and starting learning how to ride. Much different than my mountain bike or a beach cruiser. Sporting my black bike tights, my teenage boys refused to be seen with me in public. My daughters were aghast when I shaved my legs. My wife intervened, barring any future shaved leg attempts.

For any endeavor you start, start small and go for little gains. If you go too far too fast, you’re bound to be really sore or risk injury.

Starting small leads to incredible gains because by starting small, your motivation builds momentum. As you benefit from early gains, that builds new motivation. Like pedals on a bike, one stroke leads to another…

So sign up for Zumba. Take a painting class. Join a theater group. Travel. Do something you’ve always wanted to do and go for those little gains.

3. Take Care of Your Body

Whatever sport, exercise, yard work or exercise gadget you buy, your body is going to resist and rebel. Your body is not going to want to leave the comfort of home to go for a swim, a trail run, gym class, or any stressful activity that produces pain, lactic acid, copious amounts of sweat or cramps.

You don’t need to be Superman, Ironman or Ms. CrossFit Batgirl to take care of your body, but what you eat and how you exercise will pay huge dividends this week, this month and in the coming years.

One of the most important benefits I gained from learning the sport of triathlon was not just the physical exercise, but how it made me think seriously about what I ate. Do I really want Mexican food, chocolate chip cookies and Moosetracks ice cream before that long bike ride tomorrow?

I learned that what I ate before and after I trained and raced had a huge impact on how I performed and recovered.

If I got injured or felt some tweak ready to go DEF-COM 5, I learned to take a couple days off or do something different like stretching. Taking care of my body improved my sleep, my attitude and outlook on life.

Your health is simply too important to ignore.

Take care of your body. You will feel healthier, more positive and confident.

4. Read — Listen — Learn

One of the tremendous benefits of the Internet is that you have access to so much free information. Right at your fingertips, you can have access to podcasts, online courses, free videos, user forums and downloadable resources. You can get just about any question on any subject answered within a day, if not immediately.

One of my lifelong goals is to stay curious. I’m passionate about reading, learning and asking questions, so taking on not one, but three new sports was like throwing jet fuel on my learning bonfire.

Some people will spend a lot of money on a coach who will design a specific training plan and hold them accountable to the workouts.

I preferred a simpler route consistent with my Learner bent. I bought an inexpensive, 6 month training plan. I watched swim technique on YouTube. Learned how to change a bike tire online. Read articles on my iPhone.

I ordered books. Asked questions from other triathletes I met at races. I called my buddy Scott. I wanted to learn as much as I could.

At the end of the day, it was up to me to do the work. Besides, I couldn’t afford a stunt double to do the race for me.

Whatever your passion is, when you regularly read, listen and learn, you become a much more interesting person. You have something to share with the world and help someone out with something you’ve personally learned.

5. Rest Makes You Stronger

How good are you at resting? Really? Be honest. Can you take the weekend off and not think about work, your next project, or closing the next deal?

Can you take a day off exercise? I love to play, hike, surf and exercise. But I’m really bad at resting. I love my work and I love to exercise.

Yes, exercise does beat crack cocaine and other unsavory addictions.

But rest is essential for every aspect of our lives. Taking a rest day allows your body to recover and heal itself so it can come back stronger for the next workout.

Rest is what makes you human. Resting is not only good for your body, it’s good for your heart, mind and soul. It reminds us that we’re not robots and we have important people that we need to be in authentic relationship with. We rest so we can make our most important contributions where it really counts. When we rest, we come back refreshed. Stronger than before.

Strange how that works, isn’t it?

6. Be Present. Focus on Now.

Last March, in Mile 20 of the Oceanside 70.3 Half-Ironman, I flipped over the handlebars of my bike because — hmm, how do they say — I was “not present.” This was a key training day leading up to my Ironman and I couldn’t afford to get injured or paralyzed for life.

I was doing well cruising along the San Onofre campgrounds near Camp Pendleton. In fact, I was doing much better than when I got kicked in the face earlier during the swim portion of the race. I was in “the zone.”

Pause. Correct that. I was not in the zone, but zoning out.

Coming into a slight bend, my front tire hit a patch of sand near the edge of the asphalt. I started to skitter and tried to recover, but it happened too fast.

My front tire ditched it into the dirt and WHAM! Judo-flip over the handlebars. Smacked right on my back. Fortunately, on soft dirt.

As racers whizzed by, I jumped up. Checked my neck, collarbone and all four limbs. Miraculously, thank God, I was fine. A mere scratch on my arm.

I hopped back on my bike. Got back into a rhythm. Five minutes later, undergoing severe trauma by the accident, my back tire went flat.

Geez, I’m having a day!

Fixed the tire. Over the course of the next thirty-six miles, I was so grateful to still be riding. I could have broken my neck, my arm, hand, collarbone — you name it. I had every reason to call it a day, but that’s when the real mental battle came into play. Would I just cruise now or would I go for it?

One of my goals was to complete the half-marathon run under a certain time. My accident and tire change cost me twenty minutes, but I could still go for it on the remainder of the bike and in the run.

For now, what I needed to do was be present. Focused. Don’t worry about the run. Concentrate on what’s in front of me. Here. Right now.

When you are present, you have much better clarity about what is needed right now. Presence leads to focus and not the other way around. I crashed because I wasn’t present. How often does this happen in the rest of our lives when we’re not paying attention to who and what is right in front of us?

7. Let Go of Control, Expectations & Outcomes

Okay, now we’re getting personal. How many of our conflicts, disappointments, wounds or rejection are in direct relationship to who or what we’re trying to control? Our expectations of others? What outcomes we want, demand or think we deserve? (i.e. what we think life owes us?)

The person who invents a stethoscope-type instrument to measure how much we live by fear or anxiety is going to become a multi-millionaire.

Talk to anyone wrestling with fear, panic attacks, or that low-drumming anxiety that makes you feel like you’re constantly connected to a car battery and I will show you a person who thinks they can control other people, circumstances and the future. Why do I do that?!

We don’t think we think that way. We don’t believe we do, but our fears and resulting anxiety give us away like tongue-sticking-out-third-grade-tattlers.

In Coeur d’Alene this past June, a huge high pressure zone created temperatures that shattered the record books. In the days leading up to the race, it got hotter. And hotter. And hotter.

There was nothing I or anyone else could do to tell Mother Nature to take an ice-bath. And so, all I could do was show up. Do my best. Let go of all expectations and outcomes. My goal was simply to do my best, hydrate often, stay as cool as possible and finish well.

On race day, the temperature was a freakin’ 106℉.

I’ll be honest… fear was definitely trying to get the upper-hand with all sorts of What If F-words: You’re going to sizzle like a burning FRENCH FRY! You’re going to create some lame excuse and it will be all your FAULT! All of your FAMILY and FRIENDS have come so FAR and you won’t FINISH!

If my barrel of mental monkeys wanted to throw crap at me, so be it.

Scott Rigsby and I at the Coeur d’Alene Ironman.

Control is an illusion and it’s directly tied to all the fears we have stored up in our hearts. How we experience peace in any given circumstance is in direct proportion to how we have surrendered our expectations and entitlements to what we think other people or life owes us.

You and I can’t control people, circumstances or outcomes any more than we can control a high pressure zone hovering over the Pacific Northwest.

Let go. Show up. Work hard. Do your best. Let your life speak for itself.

Oh and be sure to say “Thank You” to everyone who helps you cross your finish line.

My wife, children and friends deserve my medal.

They’ve taught me more than any Ironman ever could.

Joey O’Connor writes at He is the author of 20 books. He is the executive director of The Grove Center for the Arts & Media and the Congo Reform Association. Joey lives in San Clemente, CA where he likes to surf, eat copious amount of Mexican food, and lie in the hot sand.

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