How often do you brand yourself with your own thoughts? How many times have you called yourself something based on what you completed, aligned with or joined? How many times have you branded yourself based on something you didn’t do, and then had to climb out from under the weight of your own dangerous labels?
I’ve been labeling myself all my life. From the time I was five I was “Type-A.” I was a Mrs. far too young – before I was an MBA — and after my divorce I was a SWF. Once at a Chemical Brothers concert an insanely high college water polo player called me a MILF. I’ve been a VP and a CEO. Some people call me OCD, but that’s an armchair diagnosis.
I’m old enough now to know that brands born from letters mean nothing at all, and I thought I had escaped them. But several years ago, when I attempted my first triathlon, I was a DNF. If you’ve never been properly introduced, meet: Did Not Finish (DNF).
I suppose there’s a DNF in all of us. I took her with me to Henderson, NV where I was to compete in the RAGE Olympic Distance triathlon. That’s a 1.5K swim (0.93 miles), a 40K bike ride (25 miles) and a 10K run (6.2 miles). I had never done a triathlon before. My husband is a competitive Ironman, and I thought I’d jump in the game. You know… show him he wasn’t the only one in the house who could rock this kind of event. (But we’ll deal with my nutty competitive compulsions in another post.)
I’ve known DNF most of my life, although I’d never allowed her to one-up me. She mocked me and chided me on nearly every bike ride and training swim I completed in preparation for this event. That DNF is a bitch. She’s the queen of self-reproach, the master of the head game, the evil twin to my can-do attitude.
Walking into the transition area, where the athletes prep for the race and “transition” from one leg of the event to the next, was an absolute rush for me. I’ve been to many triathlons, but always as a spectator. I’d never personally vibrated from the hum inside the transition area.
As I put my bike in the rack and laid out my bike shoes, socks, running shoes, hat, sunscreen, race belt, and all the other little items I would need to avoid impending disaster, I did so with characteristic obsessiveness. If they’d given a trophy for neatness, it surely would have been mine.
Lake Meade stood vast before me. I put on my wet suit and walked tentatively into the shallow water with hundreds of other triathletes, all of us age-group-identified by the color of our rubber swim caps (triathlon is not an especially fashionable sport). I felt my hands go numb from the cold.
I was most nervous about the swim. I’m a weak swimmer. That’s not self-recrimination. It’s a fact. I don’t swim well – not fast, not straight, not technically-sound. But I have stamina and a will to finish, and I figured I could make it through on that.
Rookie mistake number one came at about 1,000 meters in, when I swam straight past the turn-around. I’d forged ahead, without paying a bit of attention to my surroundings, or my competitors.
There was a U-turn in the course, and I missed it. I looked up some meters after I’d made the mistake, and I was convinced I was the last swimmer in the race by a long-shot, and daffy enough that I didn’t find it odd that not a single swimmer was ahead of me.
It wasn’t until a helpful gentleman in a canoe approached me that I realized the literal error of my ways. “Where you goin?” he asked with a chuckle. “You tell me,” I replied. “You’re the one in the boat.”
I’m not sure how far off-course I swam – spatial abilities are not among my core competencies – but I’m guessing 50 or 100 yards. Enough, anyway, to rattle me. I turned around, made up the distance, and finished the swim. Be damned, DNF.
The transition remains a blur.
I had worried about the bike start more than the bike ride from day one. DNF made sure of that. I locked my feet into pedals for the first time only 16 weeks before. So who was I to attempt something like this? And much like my swim, my bike skills are weak. I’m shaky on turns, I’m nervous on down-hills, my balance isn’t well-developed. But I’m the most fearful about having my feet locked into those pedals.
As I mounted my bike, I believed I was in dead last.
There’s a great line in the Desiderata by Max Ehrmann that says: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.”
Last is ok. I told myself. Last is still in the race. I don’t even know these other people.
And then I fell over at the bike start line.
I didn’t crash my bike. I fell over. It happened in slow motion, like this:
I had mounted the bike with the intention of not locking my feet in until I’d cleared the transition area. Somehow, befuddled by agitation and exhaustion, I had locked in without consciousness. As I pedaled to the start, a race official said, “You can’t mount your bike until you reach the green line. You have to get off the bike and re-mount.”
That’s when I hit rookie mistake number two: I let my belief that I was losing to the competition distract me from my own strategy.
I hit the brakes, went to put my feet down, and found them securely locked in the pedals. I fell hard.
A spectator yelled to me, “Get mad. Use it. Use it to your advantage.” I heard him, but it wasn’t until the race was over that I understood what he’d meant.
When exhaustion turns to humiliation, it’s impossible to remember the Desiderata. I wasn’t comparing myself to the other competitors in the race at that point. I was comparing myself to everyone else in the world. And I was the consummate moron. DNF was laughing now. Her incessant chuckle was aggressive and revolting.
I got up, though. And I biked out. To the first massive hill. I’m sure it wasn’t actually massive. But I’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt. I’m five-feet tall with my hair blown dry. Everything seems massive to me in terms of height. And this was massive in more ways than one.
That’s when I realized I’d made rookie mistake number three: I hadn’t done my homework, so I had no idea where I was going. I’d never ridden the course before the race.
I’d ridden 25 miles so many times in training that nothing about the distance seemed daunting to me. But that first steep hill became a second hill, and a third and a fourth, and my emotions swung between defeated and terrified, repeatedly, as I sweated and fought going up, and held on with a death grip coasting down.
I braked on the downhills. Who does that?
Someone who trains in the flat desert. Someone who’s never ridden down hills. Someone who’s taken by surprise in the middle of the course.
I biked 45 minutes in fear of letting go of my desperate, two-handed grasp to take a drink or eat. The roads were open, cars were flying by, some were honking, and I was waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out at any moment to tell me I’d been Punked.
The real bike course is just around the corner, I told myself. The one with the 25 miles of flat road, closed to traffic. DNF was whispering in my ear in every moment. She was relentless with her “I told you so.”
I pushed on, talked to myself, had deja vu, and did math problems to keep my wits. I stopped checking my speedometer and my cadence meter, because the numbers bordered on the ridiculous.
At about mile 11, I spoke back to DNF for the first time. She was nearly singing now, a snotty little girl with a jump-rope; telling me how she’d been right all along, and how I was a loser. I fought with her. I told her I’d prepared sufficiently, I had a right to be there. I told her she was pure evil. But it was too late. I had opened up a conversation.
Rookie mistake number four: I entertained the idea of quitting. Never, EVER, enter into a conversation with DNF. She is a member of the Harvard debate team. She is unremitting. She is cruel. And she is a veteran of all things endurance.
So I stopped. I stopped on the side of the road on a very steep incline. And I got off the bike. I took a drink of water, and I cried. I actually cried, right there on the side of the road in an Olympic distance triathlon. And it never occurred to me, not even once, to eat something — to take in some sugar or replenish my electrolytes. It never occurred to me that DNF was winning because she’d found dehydration about six miles back and combined forces.
My cry wasn’t longer than a minute. I climbed back on the bike, determined to shut her up. At this point, my strategic abilities were so impaired I was immune to basic common sense.
Rookie mistake number five: I underestimated the importance of momentum. I began, dehydrated and emotionally spent, to pedal up the steep incline from a dead stop. I fell over for my second time in the race.
I had gone only 11 mountainous miles in 45 minutes. I had fallen twice.
And in that moment, as I lay in a pile of road rash, DNF overtook me. I allowed her to define me. I became DNF. I was branded: Did Not Finish.
Race officials on a motorcycle came by and a woman asked if I was stopping. I thought it all-together merciful that she didn’t call it quitting. (There must be some kind of triathlon volunteer sensitivity training.) I told her yes, and she asked if I was injured. “Just my pride,” was my response.
And then I remembered the woman at the swim start who’d encouraged me when I told her this was my first race. “Don’t forget,” she said, “You’ve already beaten everyone back on the couch.” This giddy reflection was a slap in the face for DNF. She had won, but I wasn’t going to let her celebrate.
A park ranger collected my bike and me and piled us into his SUV. The ride back was surreal. I met my husband in the transition area, and he had finished first in his division. He took me in his arms. And he gave DNF her second smack. “Don’t make this a bad thing. There are no bad experiences. Just experiences.”
I cried again in the shower, then collected myself, and spent the afternoon in the hotel bar with my husband and a frosty mug, re-living what I had done, rather than what I hadn’t done. The bike course had been a 3,300 foot vertical climb. I’d finished the swim in just over my anticipated time. I’d shown up, for God’s sake! I had trained 16 weeks – nearly 100 workouts – and this Olympic distance event was nothing more than another scheduled training session on the way to my “big race,” scheduled to take place the following month.
I was able to separate myself from DNF. She sulked on a stool down the bar. It was time for me to re-brand.
About a month later, DNF joined me in Florida for the IronMan 70.3 triathlon – a distance twice as far in every segment as the Olympic distance I’d attempted in Nevada. But I didn’t let her brand me this time. I’d learned through painful soul-searching and whole lot of self-reflection that I wouldn’t make rookie mistake number six: I wouldn’t be defined by a single event in my life. I introduced her to WINNER. And together, we all ran over the finish line. In that moment, I branded myself a triathlete.
The Desiderata also says, “Avoid loud and aggressive persons. They are vexations to the spirit.” Trust me, sometimes the loudest and most aggressive persons are the ones who live in your head.
When was the last time you let your voices define you? And how many of these rookie mistakes are you making?
Share with me below.