Monday, May 8, 2017

Doing Hard Things

This past weekend I had a new experience: I participated in a triathlon.

I say "participated," because I wasn't really in it to "compete." That would have been a whole different experience, I suspect. I was part of a trio; we had a swimmer, a runner, and I was the biker for our team. We said from the outset that we were in it for the experience; we were sure we weren't going to win, but as I said to my friends, "I feel like I'm winning because I'm doing this!" (Cheesy? Yes. Trite? Definitely. True? Well...yeah, I think so.)

Team 3 Amigos! Go! Fight! Participate!

Team 3 Amigos: that was us. We were not out to compete, really. We were participating. We were trying something out, and learning by participating. And I definitely participated--I put myself out there to try something new that challenged me, and I learned a couple of important things through my participation, by getting in there and doing a hard thing.


Being that this was my first ever triathlon, I was nervous. I bike quite a bit--I've averaged 1200 miles each year for the past six years, and I pedaled over 1700 miles in 2016--but a lot of those miles are little 3-mile jaunts across town, or maybe a 10-mile ride for some exercise. But the bike leg of the triathlon we did was 25 km (about 15.5 miles, give or take), which is a bit longer than I typically ride. And even though we said we were in it for the experience of doing it...I didn't want to let my teammates down. So I did train, a little. I went on a few 15-mile rides in the weeks leading up to race day, and I pretty consistently pedaled these 15-milers in a little over an hour.

But even with my preparation, and even though we said we were in it for the experience, I felt a little anxious. Right before the race started, as our swimmer was heading to the pool, I snapped a selfie in the transition area and posted it online:

Captioned: "So I'm in a triathlon... #whatamidoing? #team3amigos"

And then, the waiting. The race started, but the swimmers went into the pool in bib order, and there were only 12 swimming lanes. So we had to wait for a bit for our swimmer to get into the pool. As soon as he was in, I hustled down to the transition area to get ready to head out. Good thing I did: he was done with the swim in just over five minutes. He dashed up to me in the transition, we moved the tracker chip used to mark our time from his ankle to mine, and I was out the door with my bike, pedaling onto the course.

There were other bikers out ahead of me, and I could see them cruising down the road. There was a part of me that suddenly wanted to kick it in to high gear with the pedaling and try to gain on them, but I caught myself as I reached the first mile-marker sign. I couldn't burn it all up in the first few miles--I had another 14.5 miles to go.

I was cruising along the countryside--we could not have asked for better weather, with the sunshine and very light breeze--and I was feeling great. And then it happened, at about mile 3. From behind me, the cry, "I'm on your left!" And another cyclist blazed past me going uphill. I glanced at my speedometer; I was moving about 13 miles per hour, so that guy must have been going at least 17 or 18. I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a little demoralizing for me.

And then it happened again, just a few minutes later and this time while I was going downhill at 18 miles per hour. The shout of "I'm on your left!" and another cyclist absolutely flew past me, far faster than I was traveling. (Maybe 25 miles per hour? Maybe 30?)

I immediately started to rationalize, blaming it on my bike (which is not a racing bike) and my lack of training ("It's so early in the year, I haven't ridden enough yet to get my legs and rear end in shape...") and then even myself ("What were you thinking? You can't compete with these triathlon guys...") It's amazing to me, reflecting back now, how quickly I went from just participating for the experience to feeling like I was in a competition--and losing.

But then, around mile 6, I passed someone for the first time. It happened several times, actually. Not as often as I was being passed by other riders, but through the course I passed half a dozen or so other cyclists. And, again, I'd be lying if I said that this wasn't a boost to my ego. There was a little fight in me after all.

Towards the end of the ride, perhaps around mile 12 or so, I was getting tired. I found that I really appreciated the members of the race crew directing traffic along the course, because they often would call out cheers and affirmation. "You can do it!" "Keep it up!" "You're almost there!" Maybe it sounds silly, but hearing that positive encouragement--even from people I didn't know and who didn't really have a stake in my participation or completion of the course--really buoyed me. I pedaled hard all the way to the end of the course, and made my way back to the transition area.

Here again, a quick rip of velcro and the tracking chip went from my ankle to our runner's, and out the door of the transition area she went, heading out onto the path for the 5k run. I stashed my bike in the rack in the transition area, and headed outside too meet up with my family and friends who were there to cheer us on. I snapped this (much sweatier) selfie right after heading outside:

Captioned: "Post-pedaling... #sweatyselfie #team3amigos #triathlon"

We all cheered our runner as she crossed the finish line--we did it! We swam, biked, and ran our way through the course. We participated well. We did not "win" in any conventional sense...but we were in the race. We did the hard thing. And, having done my first triathlon, I'm pretty sure that I'll do another--definitely as part of a team, and maybe even solo. (Who knows?)


I am proud of myself for participating, and for trying something new, and for learning experientially by doing a hard thing. And now, of course, I'm thinking about doing hard things in general, and about how we can learn from trying.

My "doing the hard thing" experience from the triathlon showed me three big lessons:

1. Doing hard things is less scary when you are part of a team.

Doing something new can be scary. Doing hard things in general can be scary. Maybe there is something that you would like to try (in theory) but you find too scary to actually do it? Having a team helped me immensely in this: I am not sure I would have tried the triathlon without the encouragement and support of my friends.

And, actually, that is something really significant, I think. Being part of a team leads to some positive interdependence: we were, like High School Musical says, "all in this together." I didn't want to let my teammates down, even though we were "just trying it out," just "participating." And honestly, being part of a team made it more fun too: it was great to go out with our families for brunch afterward to celebrate!

2. Comparison is dangerous, but a little healthy competition can be energizing.

I am really not too competitive by nature. Of course I like to win--I think most people like that feeling of being victorious--but I am generally more of a collaborator than a competitor. That said, it didn't feel great having other cyclists blowing past me out on the course. Sounds like I was getting a little competitive, right?

Well, maybe. But, when I really think about it, it wasn't the competition that was getting me when I was being was comparison. I was comparing myself to the other riders, comparing my bike, my physique, my training (or relative lack thereof...) to them, and finding myself inadequate. Rather than focusing on what I was doing, I was focusing on my perceived deficiencies. That comparison wasn't helpful for me in the middle of the race. And that's probably why I felt a little malicious gleam when I finally passed someone: I fear it was a little bit of an "at least I'm not the slowest one out here!" feeling.

But getting past that sense of comparison, I know I was competing more than I would have probably admitted coming into the race. I wanted to succeed. I had set a goal for myself to finish the 15.5 mile ride in not more than 66 minutes. I thought that was a reasonable goal, given my times on my conditioning rides before the race. Care to guess my actual race time on the course? I'll tell you: 58 minutes and 16 seconds. I was almost 8 minutes faster than my anticipated time! I attribute this to the adrenaline rush of the competition. When I was conditioning, I wasn't pushing myself in quite the same way as I was during the actual race. The sense of competition energized me in a different way.

And so, I am thinking that a little healthy competition can be helpful when you're working towards a hard thing. Maybe the sense of competing against other riders was compelling for me, but I'm also thinking about this as a competition with myself: I was significantly faster on race day than when I was training. What does this mean for my conditioning? If I compete again next year, can I beat my own time? What if I conditioned harder? I think that competing with myself is a healthy part of working towards success at doing a hard thing.

3. Affirmation and encouragement are motivating!

Okay, so this one might be the "duh" statement of the year, but I definitely found it to be true. I am generally a pretty positive person, and I think I smiled through most of the course as I was pedaling. (Well...maybe not those first few times I got passed...) But towards the end, when my muscles were burning and I was getting tired, hearing the race staff calling out words of encouragement was affirming. And I think I did pedal harder every time they gave me a "you can do it!"

Another motivating aspect for me that I found encouraging were the mile marker signs. Seeing a neon-colored sign on the side of the road with the mile number emblazoned on it felt like meeting a target each time I passed one. That too was an encouragement, and an affirmation that I was getting closer and closer to my goal. These are small things, but they made a big difference for me in marking off the steps to completing the hard thing.


I'm proud of us! Team 3 Amigos participated, and we participated well. I hope we do it again!

And participating in this was a good example for me of my own capabilities to do hard things. Maybe I'll even have the confidence to try doing all three parts of a triathlon in the future? (The swim is the part that seems most daunting to me right now, though I'm not really a runner either.) But having completed this hard thing, I am encouraged that I have the self-efficacy to do more hard things in the future.

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