FINDING THE GOOD WITHIN: In my second triathlon season, I hoped to finish in the top eight at the USA Triathlon National Championship and qualify to compete in the 2016 World Triathlon Champion. When the results appeared, I learned that I had finished eleventh. My heart sunk. I had not reached the goal that my coach and I had worked so hard to achieve. I did not qualified for Team USA. I was devastated.
But then . . . sixty seconds later . . . my emotions did a u-turn and returned to positive: Woohoo! I was eleventh! Two years ago I was dead last at my first local indoor triathlon – and now I was eleventh in the entire country — and I lost 200 pounds along the way! How cool is that?!
And sixty seconds after that . . . I was preparing for the coming year. I dug into my race data on my iPhone while thinking: Ok, where can I improve?
I am an optimist, a dreamer, a change maker.
When races started being cancelled in my seventh triathlon season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the optimist emerged again. After learning that the 2020 World Triathlon Championship (my fifth Worlds) had been cancelled, I cheerfully posted on Facebook, “I’m now focusing on 2020 Nationals, and if that race is canceled, I’ll just prepare for the 2021 season. Whenever we race, I’ll be ready! One day at a time!”
THE OPTIMIST FALTERS: But then I noticed a different and surprising emotion: Relief. Relief? Feeling relieved about my biggest race being cancelled knocked me silly and scared me a little. What was that about? I loved to race. Why would I be relieved that Worlds was cancelled? What was wrong with me?
I thought about it for weeks and finally admitted my feelings to my coach. I was a little embarrassed and concerned that I felt relieved that Worlds was cancelled. I had worked so hard to improve my mental strength – having the courage to face the unknown and step forward in situations where I could fail. Feeling relieved that Worlds was cancelled seemed like a mental step backwards.
Two explanations came to mind: 1) I had several late-season races last year. Maybe I was burned out. 2) I used to feel pressure that I would disappoint people at Worlds. Maybe that pressure had returned. But neither of those explanations seemed to fit. Yes, I was not quite ready to deal with all the logistics that come with traveling to an international race (travel, passports, hotel, gear, nutrition) after a late-season race in the previous year, but I didn’t feel burned out. Yes, there was pressure associated with racing on behalf of the USA at the World Championship, but now it was good pressure that motivated me to do well rather than crumble me. Nope. Those two explanations just didn’t make sense.
I also found that some of the joy was missing from training. Instead of feeling eager to train, I was simply going through the motions. The disciplinarian inside of the me forced me to do each day’s workouts and to hit each assigned interval with integrity, but something was missing. I didn’t know what it was. Something just didn’t feel right.
Finally, my coach asked me to write down my “whys” for doing triathlon. I’ve never been able to come up with a single “why” for doing triathlon. Triathlon brings me joy in a zillion ways. As I wrote my long list of “whys,” it was nice to remember all the reasons that I put my time, energy, resources, and heart into this sport. I love triathlon.
My coach also asked me to write my triathlon goals. We had talked about my goals for the 2020 season prior to COVID-19. I had two kinds of goals. My outcome goals were the “A” races that meant the most to me and where I hoped to place in those races. I couldn’t guarantee my outcomes goals since so many things out of my control impact the results of a race, but I could strive for those outcomes. I also had process goals – the things I could control every day (training, recovery, nutrition, attitude) that would put me in the best position for achieving my outcome goals if I executed my process goals well each day. But now, with COVID-19 in the mix, I found that I could not come up with one outcome goal. Not one. That was a problem.
Without an outcome goals, I couldn’t create the process goals that direct and drive me each day. My workouts had no purpose. My time and energy had no purpose. The pain I experienced in hard intervals had no purpose. I needed an outcome goal to provide direction and purpose to my daily activities. I need an outcome (race) goal that I believed in and could work toward during the COVID-19 crisis.
Coming up with an outcome goal sounded easy, but during a global pandemic, it proved to be difficult. My biggest challenge was deciding if should race during the 2020 season or wait until the 2021 season. In our later sixties, my husband and I were are a higher risk for having a severe case of COVID-19. Because of that, we decided to practice extreme social distancing. We have our groceries delivered and even put a little fridge and freezer on the front porch. Nothing comes into our house within 72 hours of being touched by another person. We haven’t seen our friends or family in months, including our sweet grandkids Racing in 2020 would mean that we were no longer following our extreme social distancing plan. With this uncertainty, I didn’t know if I should set an outcome goal for the 2020 season or wait for the 2021 season.
I decided to consult with my doctor about the COVID-19 risk associated with my “A” race, the 2020 USA Triathlon National Championship scheduled for August in Milwaukee. If I finished in the top eight at at that race, I would qualify for Team USA and the 2021 World Championship in Bermuda. After explaining my situation to my doctor, I shared the social distancing guidelines that USA Triathlon provided in their recently published Return to Racing Recommendations for Race Directors. With the assumption that USAT would follow its own recommendations for social distancing at Nationals, noting that the event would be outside, and given that I am a healthy 66-year-old, we decided that my COVID-19 risk at Nationals was acceptable. As that decision was made, I felt a million pounds lift from my shoulders. I now had an outcome goal! Woohoo!
My new outcome goal did the trick. Suddenly, everything had meaning again! I began preparing for the 2020 National Championship with joy and gusto! My workouts had purpose. The time and energy I put into workouts had purpose. The pain I experienced during hard intervals had purpose. I was on a mission. I loved the journey!
And then Nationals was cancelled.
THE OPTIMIST RETURNS: When I learned that I wouldn’t be racing at Nationals, I felt deep disappointment. I really wanted to race at Nationals, and I felt an immediate sense of loss. But this time, the optimist Sue was back. My disappointment last sixty seconds. Then I accepted the situation and adjusted. I let go of Nationals and found a new 2020 “A” race to use as an outcome goal. Training continues to have purpose – just a different purpose – a new outcome goal. I’m on a mission! I love the journey!
READ MORE ABOUT THE MENTAL ASPECTS OF TRIATHLON: I wrote about the mental aspects of training and racing in my book, The Athlete Inside, including the concept of “accept and adjust” when curve balls appear – like a global pandemic! The Athlete Inside has a five-star rating and is available from Amazon.