Friday, June 14, 2013

Embracing Discomfort

This post is a little bit about triathlon, and the closest to a Lake Mills Triathlon race report you will see from me, but really it's much more general.  Sometimes I run across something that explains a feeling better than I can, and that's where this is coming from.  I don't want to write just another race report.  When inspiration strikes, you have to roll with it.  This article for the Huff Post blog really resonated with me and touched on a few things I've been thinking about a lot lately. Here's my favorite passage from it:
"There is real value to the attitude that teaches us to analyze a situation fully before jumping in, to avoid assumptions, to be prudent. But we hold onto caution more tightly than we realize. If you're really going to commit to something, you're going to have to catch yourself at that moment when your instinct tells you to play it safe. Embrace the discomfort. Push through the caution. Even if you're fighting for breath and your quads are burning, and even if you're staring at the blank space of an empty screen. Keep going."
The article is mainly about the application of a lesson from rowing to the rest of life: the need to push your own boundaries, to step out of your comfortable little box and see where it gets you if you really want to grow and improve.  As a former rower, I believe I learned how to do that pretty well in the boat.  If you're not hunched over your oar wishing for death at the end of a 2k race, you left too much out there.  And your teammates deserved more.  At least, that's how I always saw it.

Rowing is hard.  Really, really hard.

Chasing that final 1%
Fast forward to my journey in triathlon.  I became a swimmer at age 8 and continued through high school, so I was a pretty decent swimmer for a triathlete right away upon picking it back up at 22 even though I was very rusty and much slower than I was at 14.  And starting cycling fresh off of rowing wasn't too difficult either, honestly.  My legs were pretty strong, and while I had ZERO technical skills, I could hold my own with my new teammates and my confidence grew quickly. With a few more years of training I have become stronger and more efficient, and found that I loved to bike, loved to time trial, loved to push myself every bit as hard as I did in rowing.  Winter time trials at SBR usually finished with Summer stumbling out the door to hunch over the wood chips.  I knew I could give it everything I had.

Running, however, was a different story.  I didn't run in high school, and while I'd always enjoying the run part of training for other sports, I did no run-specific training until I took up tri.  I came in with no knowledge of form.  I just ran.  And I was ok; I was fit.  But compared to my swim and bike, my run was way behind, race after race.  And slowly, steadily, it got to me.  I have always been competitive: with others, but even more so with myself.  I try to be the best I can at everything I do.  I got frustrated with my slow running progress.  I labeled myself a poor runner.  And because of that, when the going got tough in races, when I saw girls coming for me, passing me, part of me let myself accept that: it was inevitable, it was "supposed" to happen.  I was a swim-biker; I was bigger than they were; I just wasn't cut out to be a runner.  Excuses.  I lacked the same confidence and killer instinct that I'd had as a swimmer, a rower, and that I'd learned as a cyclist.  The pain came, and I backed off slightly, afraid to blow up.  Afraid of giving my all and finding that it wasn't even close to good enough.  I couldn't find the guts to dig until the finish line was in my sights.  And it took me a long time to realize I was doing this.  My triathlon runs have always seemed just a little bit short of what I felt like I could do, and upon reflection I noted that it was often not my legs that were holding me back in the middle of the race.  I was hot.  My stomach felt sick.  I was uncomfortable, and habitually I relegated myself to managing a certain level of discomfort.  But really, what would happen if I really just went for it?  What was I afraid of?

Starting the Lake Mills run.  Thanks to
Aaron Pratt for catching this.
On to Lake Mills.  It's the basically the Wisconsin tri scene's season-opener.  For a small sprint, the race always attracts a lot of top talent.  I'd spectated or volunteered the past 3 years, and finally wanted to try it out for myself and see how I stacked up.  It wouldn't be a priority race, just for fun.  With that in mind, I talked through my thoughts about my run with my coach and we decided to let the race be an experiment.  The plan was simple: bike like hell, then push the run with whatever I had left.

Race day did not disappoint.  I had a great time seeing so many friends on the course.  I started in the elite wave, which was coed, so that was fun.  Despite almost missing the start, rough water, and a stop to tread water and fix my goggles after they got kicked out of place, I left the water and T1 in good position.  I was biking without power for this race, so I just tried to keep the males ahead of me in sight and made sure the effort was high enough to keep me breathing hard throughout the whole leg.  A little bit to my surprise I rolled into T2 with the women's lead, but I could hear that 2nd (Cindi Bannink) was hot on my heels.  Since she typically outran me by a lot, this would be a good test of my strategy.  I felt pretty strong, and tried to focus on my form and stay internal instead of thinking about what was happening behind.  I made it to the turnaround still holding the lead, and knew I must be running well.  But the moment came, Cindi picked it up on the second half and came by me at about mile 2.  And I fought to keep her as close as possible, to do what I promised to myself and my coach.  I felt sick but kept charging.  And about a quarter mile from the line, I found out what would happen.  Right in front of all the spectators, my stomach contents worked their way up into my mouth, and I fought to keep it closed until I got over the line past the volunteers yelping for my timing chip, to the nearest trash can.  So I'm not going to post any of the flattering pictures from near the finish.  But aside from scaring people with my Exorcist impression, I felt great.  I felt proud.  I did exactly what I came to do.  I raced without regrets.

Carrying it over
Hanging out looking over the edge of
Half Dome with Cal Crew teammates
When it comes to non-athletic endeavors, pushing ourselves that extra bit to grow usually doesn't mean doing the same thing more intensely- it means moving in a different direction, blazing a new path.  It means letting ourselves be vulnerable in ways we aren't used to.  This is something I've realized I need to do a better job of in other areas of my life.  It's easy to fall into routines and get comfortable.  Momentum is a powerful thing.  I've always been good at adhering to expectations, working within a script, following a plan.  I cherish my sense of control.  I like to know what to expect.  But it's hard to make progress when you're imposing your own limitations.

Part of that rationale is why I tend to be a better communicator in writing than in person.  Having the time to craft something into exactly what you want you want it to say, having the power to edit it before sending it away, is comforting.  The internet age is kind to introverts.  But being able to confidently articulate information, wants, and needs to a variety of audiences, in real time, is invaluable. That's something I'm still working hard to improve, even though it can be scary.  I admire people who are great communicators.

As I move into the final year to year-and-a-half before finishing my doctorate, "things are getting real" in that arena.  I need to make jumps in both knowledge and ability.  They don't just give those degrees away.  The process is a bit intimidating, but I need to not be afraid to make mistakes or to ask for help when I need it.  No one is expected to know everything, even at this stage of the game.

So this is a pledge, a pep talk.  A promise to make an honest effort to take more initiative, take more chances, put myself out there even when it's terrifying.  To be more proactive in going after the things I want and better at directly communicating my needs and concerns.  To dream big and own my goals- because fully committing is the only way I'll be able to get there.  I will make mistakes.  I will fall on my face from time to time.  And that's okay.  I don't want any more opportunities to pass me by.  I've come a LONG way in the past 10 years, but I know I have so much more ahead of me.

What risks do you need to get better at taking?  Where can you push the envelope?  Is there something you can do to get out of your own way?

Cheers to you all and your dreams.  Go out and get them.

And for any of you who used to watch Boy Meets World like I did... go here and watch 4:15-5:25.  You may have to watch the rest of the episode for context...

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