What Running My First Triathlon Taught Me About Life
11 unexpectedly meaningful life lessons from an impulsive decision.
The story began when, together with three friends, I spontaneously signed up for an olympic distance triathlon (sounds fancy but it’s just the standard triathlon distance; 1.5km swim, 40km bike, 10km run) only seven weeks prior to the actual race day. This was not a great idea because, believe it or not, I’ve never swam or biked that long in distance my entire life and never in a competition. But bad decisions tend to make good stories and reveal unexpected lessons, and the ones I collected from this experience are definitely keepers.
1. The future is an accident.
Inevitably, at some point during a group trip you’ll encounter some form of near disaster, and this one was no exception. Due to nobody's fault but ours, we were unable to secure any accommodation since we only started looking at the very last minute — of course. After exhausting all possible options (including RVs), we were forced to confront the reality that our only choice was a campsite 12 km away from the race site. To make matters worse, because we could only get into town late, we would miss the last train connection, which meant we would have to bike over 30 km with all our gear in tow. In the dark. The night before race day. As you can imagine, I was pretty nervous during the days leading up to the event and I desperately wanted to be in the best possible state of mind for race day. I was livid that I had allowed this to happen.
In the end, however, this chain of unexpected events worked out beautifully for us. First of all, through pure chance we discovered we could camp at the race site instead, which meant we didn’t have to stress about getting up early the next morning to find the race location. This was especially important for Thom and Fred, two of my buddies who had their sprint race scheduled as the first event of the day. I wasn’t envious. Also, we got to settle down earlier and enjoy a longer night’s rest. And that two hour bike ride? It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Four first timer try-athletes biking in the dark in the middle of nowhere in Saxony, Germany. Now that’s something I’ll never forget.
I couldn’t help but think: What if we had caught a train and stayed in a hotel as originally planned? What if everything had gone smoothly? We would have missed out on the bike ride and the spontaneous camping. Two pivotal high points of the entire trip.
We spend so much of our time and energy stressing about things, people, and events, trying to exert control over them even though life almost never happens as linearly as planned. Yet, it doesn’t seem to stop us from expecting it do so.
It’s been said half-jokingly that the secret to happiness in life is having low expectations. After all, they are the primary cause of disappointments. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to abandon planning or to cease having expectations completely. Without them we’ll flail around aimlessly. I’m saying that we should be open in how we get to our destinations.
Plans can trap us, but so can the idea of possibilities. Most people, as I’ve observed, don’t fully consider the trappings and limitations that endless possibilities bring. A rigid plan can be constraining and suffocating the same way possibilities can be overwhelming and debilitating. Instead, the trick is to strike a balance somewhere in between — have a plan, but keep an open mind and be adaptable as the reality presents itself.
Rather than setting ourselves up for failure, how about we re-calibrate our mindset in a way that minimizes disappointment and maximises happy surprises.
Let’s think of the future as an accident. It’s an accident because we don’t know how it’ll unfold precisely. The only way to find out is to explore, to go somewhere we haven’t been before and allow ourselves to be surprised.
2. You become the stories you tell yourself.
My lifelong fear of the open waters was one the main driving factors behind me signing up for the race. Even to this day, I can’t shake off the thought of getting dragged down by sharks or ghosts (yes i know…) every time I swim in a large body of water where I can’t see beneath me. Ok I lie. This happened at pools too. At 5 years old this was adorable, now they’re laughing at me because I’m a joke. In short, I was curious to see if I could change that story of how I saw myself.
Anyway. My first practice swim was horrible. If there was a definitive point of regret leading up to the race, this was it. I remember thinking while I was in the water “Why the hell did I sign up for this race? I’m not a swimmer. I’m never going to make it. Look at Raph (my buddy) go, he’s so fast! He’s a natural. I’ll never be like him. I suck.”
Fortunately, I caught myself in a negative self-talk loop fairly quickly, and became apparent that I was only making it worse for myself. I became a worse swimmer by repeatedly telling myself I was a terrible swimmer. On the upside, my career as a prophet of self-doom was on the rise since I seem to be able to create disastrous self-fulfilling prophecies with ease.
At that point, I made a conscious decision to systematically test that narrative. The hypothesis was that I’m not a terrible swimmer by nature, and I could improve by focusing on tackling two main challenges:
- I swam poorly because I simply lacked the physical conditioning to begin with, and my abilities could improve with deliberate practice.
- My fear of the water was a mental obstacle that could be mitigated by shifting my mindset.
My fear of swimming
- Fear of swimming.
- Angry that I’m bad at swimming.
- Anger led to an intense dislike of swimming.
- Intense dislike of swimming led to suffering. All these missed opportunities: didn’t take part in triathlons, afraid to swim in lakes. Didn’t jump into the ocean on that one Bali trip when a school of dolphins swam up to our dive boat. A regret I still carry with me today.
Well something obviously worked. When I got out of the water on race day, my eyes bulged when I saw that I had completed the swim leg in 32 mins. A notable personal achievement since my primary goal was not to die. (Newsflash: I didn’t.) My secondary goal was to try and finish the swim in under 45 minutes. That was how unconfident I was.
This was huge for me; to experience the dismantling of a limiting narrative I had told myself my whole life over the short course of two months. Just imagine, not so long ago I’d have rather get tasered in the eye than to swim in a lake for 1.5km.
Whether we care to admit or not, we all have narratives which drive our lives, both consciously and subconsciously. Change your narrative and you’ll change your life. The tricky thing with them is that we’re both their masters and their slaves; we create them and in turn they shape us. The good ones empower us and the bad ones hold us back. It’s important that we know which ones guide our lives. The good news is their power over us is directly correlated to the energy we feed them; give them more and they’ll grow, give them less and they’ll wilter.
Note: My buddies have dubbed my fear #sharkghosts. Be careful if you’re swimming in a lake…legend has it they come afoot on ground at night.
3. Readiness is a fluid concept.
Was I ready going into the race? Hell no. If you could see thought bubbles above our heads on the way there and up until the race, I think you would see that we were all wondering what we had signed ourselves up for. Oh wait, I have something that comes close to it below.
But here’s the kicker, I also managed to increase my readiness level from “crippled by fear” to “maybe I won’t die” in the seven weeks that elapsed between signing up for the race and race day. Let’s take a look at my readiness level across various stages leading up to the race.
As you can see, my state of readiness fluctuated at different stages, according to how I felt both physically and mentally. That’s when I understood two important qualities of readiness:
- It’s a fluid concept.
- It’s self-manufactured.
Most of us tend to approach readiness as a glass half-full concept. Think about it, we never focus on the 70% that we’re ready for, instead we obsessed over the 30% that we feel unprepared for. Why? Because readiness, when viewed through those lenses, is a projection of our fears and insecurities. That 30% represents our weaknesses. The things we perceive we can’t do or don’t do well.
Essentially, readiness is formless, intangible, and omnipresent. You cannot hold readiness in your hands, but you can feel it within you. Readiness is a state of mind that only you can reach yourself. People can help you to get there, but no one can make you ready. The good news? As its maker we can shape it to our advantage.
If readiness is a state of mind, then “feeling ready” is the state we want to be able to switch on when required.
But how? Well there are two ways to do it. The first is an effective and quick solution — focus on your strengths. This is a good default approach to take because it’s better to do a few things very well than many things just fine.
The second solution is harder — work on your weaknesses — but the payoff there can be very rewarding. Especially if you feel your weaknesses are causing significant friction in your life and you could get a lot from fixing them.
Takeaway: It’s not about eliminating our fears and weaknesses completely, or to pretend they don’t exist, but it’s about loosening their grip on us by disarming them systematically. As a rule of thumb, when in doubt, focus on your strengths and build your readiness from there.
4. Action informs theory.
Whenever we are in the process of starting something new, it’s dangerously easy to get caught up in the research, tools, techniques and methods,
“This meditation thing looks cool. Let me just download 23 apps and read these 5 books and 9 articles first.” 3 days later… “Fuck. It’s too much.” *Rage results to Netflix and Ben & Jerry’s (peanut butter cups btw)*
When you think about it, the utility of these tools and techniques are expressed through action, without which, they are quite simply, useless. Taking action is an advice often urged but rarely obeyed. The best way to learn is through doing because our actions inform our theories more than the other way around.
Let’s take love for example. Anyone can philosophize about love and its grandiosity but it’ll never replace the actual sensation of feeling butterflies in your stomach from a first kiss with your crush. Anyone can theorize about the misery of heartbreaks and betrayals, but anyone who has experienced one would tell you that basic logic and rationale are instantly eclipsed by the despair and the feeling of absolute defeat that follow.
We don’t learn about love through theories; we learn about love through loving.
Similarly, we don’t learn about life through theories, we learn about life through living. You will never become a better runner if all you did was to read books about running. But if you were to simply start running, it’s likely you’ll become a better runner over time simply through practice.
Theories can be understood from the comforts of the couch, action actually requires us to get our ass off the couch.
Informational knowledge + Experiential knowledge = New reality.
That said, doing without thinking would be mindless and we are not here to be drones. Vice versa, thinking without doing is a form of self-indulgence and we wouldn’t make any meaningful impact.
- Doing Doing Doing = Mindless, low growth and low impact (meh..)
- Thinking Thinking Thinking = Thoughtful, low growth and low impact (neigh)
- Thinking + Doing + Reflecting = Thoughtful, high growth and high impact (Yeay!)
But where do we start? First we focus on the next smallest concrete steps and one of the most effective first actions you can take is to make a commitment, preferably one that’s public or involves someone else. I’ve found that making a commitment will often drive me to take action rather than the other way around.
It’s not unlike how we develop passion. Passion, mostly, doesn’t simply erupt spontaneously. More often than not, we become more passionate at an activity when we get better at it.
Look at me, I thought about triathlons for years but nothing happened until I followed through with a simple act of signing up. Signing up for the race made me swim, bike, run, and write. Not thinking about it, not reading about it, not wishing about it. And to think all it really took was me making a simple act of commitment.
Takeaway: We need to cultivate a default bias towards action, because everything else in the process serves as a multiplier of the effect of taking action. From trying out new things, you gain a whole new layer of contextual knowledge, which you can then combine with the theoretical knowledge to build an informed perspective and approach towards the activity at hand.
The idea may come across as banal, but I assure you that its profundity is anything but, for it’s in the process where the discoveries are made, not at the finishing line.
5. Practicing correctly is more important than simply practicing.
With the race looming in 4 weeks, I was getting nowhere with my swim training. I was ludicrously slow and my discomfort in the water was not subsiding. I realized that if I wanted to be ready in time for the race, I had to develop a deliberate training plan.
I knew I had to work on two areas: mental and physical training. The mental training I could work on it myself. But the physical part I needed external feedback. Since I already have a base level of fitness, I deduced that my technique must be wrong. I was super slow and visualizing I was Michael Phelps or a bottle-nosed dolphin didn’t quite cut it. I needed an expert to point out my mistakes.
Enter deliberate practice
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000-Hour Rule” when he claimed that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. That was based on a study by Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of Psychology at Florida State University, a pioneer in researching deliberate practice and what it means.
In essence, deliberate practice is a highly structured and highly engaged activity with the specific goal of improving performance. It is: intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for your current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetition.
“Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.“ — K. Anders Ericsson
I fully subscribe to the idea that the development of genuine expertise requires struggle and sacrifice, honest and often painful self-assessment. So in a way, this was the perfect opportunity to test it. On a small scale.
Here’s how I broke it down.
My key weaknesses
- I was afraid of the open water / lakes, and that made me extremely uncomfortable and tensed when in the water.
- I was a slow swimmer despite my athleticism.
- Familiarity begets comfort. I would be more comfortable in the open water if I did more open water swims and familiarize myself with being in the water.
- I was slow because my technique was lousy. If had a coach to point out the mistakes in my technique, I could work on correcting them to become a better swimmer.
Over the course of a month I logged about 10 swim sessions (3 in a lake and 7 in the pool) and I went to 2 swim classes.
The payoff arrived quickly. I was improving with each session. I realized that the longer I swam, the more relaxed I became. Somewhere around the 15th lap, my mind and body would ease into the repetitive motion and an effortless focus state would arrive. Not unlike the feeling I get when I run over 15 km.
Going to the swim classes helped me tremendously. Once the coach pointed out my mistakes, I began doing isolated drills on them by myself to work on my technique. I was kicking with my calves and not my legs, that’s why I was going so slow. I was only breathing on one side, which made me drift. Which in turn added to my stress level as I was constantly worried if I was going in the right direction.
I must admit even I was amazed but how quickly I managed to reprogram and improve my technique through deliberate practice.
Takeaway: Practice weakens unfamiliarity but deliberate practice strengthens abilities.
6. Inspiration is relative, and it’s all around us.
In any new endeavors we begin — professional or personal — it’s common to look up to the top performers as role models. And one of the things that was hard to miss on race day was when the pros started to roll in with their anti-gravity spacecraft bikes and blackhole aerodynamics optimized helmets.
When they zoomed past me so effortlessly during the race while I was pedalling like hell, I remember thinking to myself:
Man, I wish I was as fast as them.
I wish I had their level of fitness.
I wish I had their expensive, fast bikes.
I wish I was more like them and less shitty like me…
Luckily I managed to backpedal before I fell into a negative envy spiral, having realized that they had probably put in 100 times more effort than I had and they had many more races under their belt, and it would be cruel and delusional to compare myself to them.
The other thing that you’ll notice at public sporting events is the mix of people who show up. From kids to teenagers, young adults to seniors. Fro those who are thin to those who are athletically built, to those who don’t look particularly in shape. People that if you saw on the streets and had to guess what they did for fun on a weekend, you would’ve never landed on triathlon as your first guess. And I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but against my limited perspective, I was always under the impression that you had to be in top physical shape to do a triathlon.
But these people — I call them the everyday athletes — they are the people I’m most inspired by , because effort is a beautiful thing to see in motion, and it’s personified by the people who are trying the hardest.
Whether it’s the pro or the everyday athlete, you can draw inspiration from them and use it as strength. When you view everything as a wellspring of energy that you can tap into and turn it into your advantage, you are increasing the amount of resources available to you.
7. You don’t know who you are inspiring.
I clocked my fastest lap time when I was sprinting towards the refreshment stands after crossing the finishing line. As I was jamming down my 4th slice of apple cake I felt a tap on my back. I turned around to find a middle-aged man with a huge smile plastered across his face and a hand outstretched for a handshake. I took his hand instinctively as he thanked me enthusiastically for being his motivation throughout the race.
I was taken by surprise — Me?! He must be joking right?? The entire race I felt as though I was struggling like a newly hatched baby turtle scurrying across the beach to make it into the ocean.
It turned out that I was more or less just 20 to 30 metres ahead of him the entire time and he used me as a visual marker to maintain his pace. Of course I did. Others had do the same for me and it made total sense that I was doing the same for others. It just never crossed my mind that I was doing it. If anything, I certainly wasn’t trying.
Here’s the thing: you just might be someone else’s role model without ever knowing it. If you’re lucky, there will be some who will step out and share their appreciation for you. But the majority of people who support your work or effort will never actively step out to tell you. It’s sort of like how only the people with extreme experiences are the ones who leave reviews.
Great, but what can we do with this knowledge?
First, we can use it to maintain a high level of self-decorum and quality in conducting ourselves. At all times. Even when nobody’s around. Because ultimately, we are always looking at ourselves. Secondly, you can do the same by reaching out to those who inspires you and let them know. I know I’ll do the same more often from now on.
8. Ignore the haters and look for people who lift you up.
I was extremely stressed about the swim as the race drew near, but in hindsight, nothing could have prepared me for the real event. Imagine 300 people rushing into the water simultaneously, and everyone is grabbing, pulling, kicking you to get ahead. I’ve heard various accounts of this, but to experience it myself was something else. It was brutal and exhilarating. As far as I could tell in the chaos, it was everyone for themselves. The good news: because of the chaos I had no mental energy left for panicking amidst the chaos because I was laser-focused on trying to stay afloat without getting kicked in the face.
During the later part of the swim, for a good distance there was this guy who kept pulling my leg (not with jokes) which was seriously annoying. it felt intentional, that’s the worst part. There I was, literally trying to stay alive, and he wasn’t making it any easier. I was tempted to stop and scream “Do I look like fucking life support to you?!” But I decided it wouldn’t help my cause to finish the swim faster so I eventually swam further out in the channels away from him.
Thankfully, people were much more civilized during the bike and run segments (I suspect it was partly because everyone could see everyone else clearly at this point) and the spirit of competition came through as you could see people encouraging others to keep pushing on, or simply sharing a smile or a stoic head nod as you passed by.
It’s not that different in life, is it? There will always be people who will try to pull you down to further their own agenda and there will be people who will lift you up despite their own agenda.
Ultimately, we can’t control what people do, but we can control our responses. Instead of expending our energy to try and fight the “haters,” we can choose to respond by pushing away from those who try to pull us down and instead, pull towards those who lift us up.
This works both ways, and this is what I want you to spend a moment considering:
Are you lifting the people around you up instead of pulling them down?
Are you playing the same role for others that you wish others would for you?
It’s worth a thought.
9. Only we can run our own race but we don’t have to do it completely alone.
Regardless of where you are born, what skin color you have, or what ideologies you subscribe to, one of the universal truths in life that applies to everyone is that no one can live our lives for us but ourselves. Having volition, the will to exercise a conscious choice to build our own lives, is vital. While that is true, it doesn’t mean that we need to do it completely alone.
Could I have done it myself? Probably. I’m sure it would be a whole other enlightening experience in itself, but I’m immensely grateful that I had three buddies who were willing to do it with me. To train together, freak out together, laugh together. To give each other high-fives made the experience 100x better. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else.
Beyond that, strangers hugged and exchanged high-fives at the finishing line and enjoyed a moment together knowing that they went through a shared experience, in a fleeting window with people who they’ll likely never cross paths again.
We live in a time where most of us are ever so hurried and obsessed with getting to the destination, that we forget that it’s in the journey where we find ourselves.
10. The most valuable things in life are free.
I love a good struggle in life; it helps to elucidate the most important things that I truly value. Struggling like hell in the last few years has shown me that the things I thought to be important — material possessions, external successes, external validations — are not nearly as important as I had made them out to be, and are often very expensive. On the contrary, the things I really seek: Self-acceptance, connectedness, freedom, happiness, and love, are usually free and accessible.
But nothing’s free in this world; especially not the free stuff. There’s a cost to everything. Some costs physical space, while others cost resources such as time and energy.
When we choose to chase after success and happiness as defined by others, the price we pay is not just our time and energy, but also the opportunity cost of experiencing less of what truly means something to us.
When asked what surprised him about humanity the most, the Dalai Lama replied:
“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
Fuck. I don’t know about you but that’s really scary to me because it hits too close to home. Because I know my default mode is to drift down that path if I don’t consciously resist myself.
This race was without a doubt, a life-changing experience, which amounted to less than 150 euros in monetary cost. What I got in return: the magic of adventure and excitement of exploration. The spirit of competition and the happiness from sharing an experience with friends that I love. And above all, the unbeatable feeling of conquering myself for a moment. Things I wouldn’t trade for anything. Things I’ll never forget until the day I die. Pretty solid returns on investment (time, energy, and money) if you ask me.
Takeaway: Don’t outsource your happiness to the future. What you want is probably already in front of you and within reach. You just have to say yes and work for it.
11. Arriving into the moment is freeing.
So, I finished the race in 2 hours and 55 mins, and placed 22nd in my age group. A pretty average result. But I’m pretty happy overall, considering my limited training and the fact that it was my first race.
Looking back, I wish I had taken the plunge earlier. I could have dismantled some of the limiting beliefs earlier and collected more interesting experiences. But then again, as the zen proverb goes: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” so these days, I try to embrace fully that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be and focus on what I can control: to arrive into, and inhabit each moment as consciously as possible.
You’re still here? As you might have suspected by now, it took you roughly the same amount of time to read this post it took me to complete the race: 2 hours 55 mins. Converted into Internet time-units of course. Congrats! You’ve won the day. Let me just wrap this up so you can get back to playing Christmas songs.
I’ll leave you with this: You’ll be surprised at how the stories you tell yourself are only as real as you make them up to be. The only way to find out is to confront those stories. Don’t get stuck in a mindless loop of inaction. Follow through with action and everything else will follow.
Now, go run your own version of a triathlon.
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