Before I was a triathlete I was a runner, before that, a netballer. Before that? I was something else, and something else, and something else. My sporting career is a domino track of identities. Generally, identities like these are positive things.
They give us strength, connection, meaning. The words, I AM A TRIATHLETE and all the things that these words entail, had brought me particular happiness. Or so I thought. It wasn’t until a series of seemingly small things left me questioning this statement, what it meant for me, and ultimately, those around me.
Rewind the clock 12 months; I was at the point in my triathlon career where I knew nothing else. I thought, breathed , ate and slept triathlon. I lived it. Nothing came close. I was dedicated, I was focused, I trained hard. I was gearing up for the hardest race of my life so far – The Triathlon Age Group World Champs. I was representing my country for the first time and would be toeing the line wearing the Silver Fern.
And, I was injured. A tendon in my knee was inflamed and it hurt like hell to run. Running is my thing, my strength and what I do well, but I was broken. I was reduced to deep water running and it tore me apart. I put on a brave face and got on with it, still putting in 110%, but I could not shake that little voice in the back of my mind that whispered, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Is this my race over? I’ve worked so hard! Who am I if I can’t do this race?”.
Running is my thing, my strength and what I do well, but I was broken.
Fast forward a few months to Edmonton, Canada. I’m with my NZ teammates and it was the day before the race. My bike was racked and ready. I was rested and had been able to run on land for the past 6 weeks with the help of some strong anti-inflammatories. And, I was petrified. I found myself on the brink of tears every hour even thinking about the next day; race day. It should have been one of the most exciting times of my life, yet there I was, on the edge of a nervous breakdown. “What if something goes wrong?”, my little voice pipes up. “What if my goggles come off? What if I get a puncture? What if I fall? What if my knee hurts? What if I can’t do it?” It’s all I could do to keep the whisper from becoming a scream.
Some degree of pre race nerves is universal, but this felt more than that. This was cold, hard fear. The reason I found myself so frightened is that I had played the role of being a triathlete so fiercely and so passionately that it had overtaken me. If I failed, what did that mean for who I was? I knew myself as only that – a triathlete. I had put so much value and meaning into being this thing that everything else had fallen away. I had forgotten that I was a friend, a daughter, sister, workmate. I had sacrificed my inner peace and self-assurance.
It should have been one of the most exciting times of my life, yet there I was, on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
As I write this, I am gearing up for my second appearance at the world champs in less than a month. I still have questions; “Is this my last shot at the champs? Will I compete next year?”. I started to think about my life after triathlon. After knowing myself and everyone else knowing me as a NZ representative triathlete for the better part of two years now. After building a life and a community around me based on this thing. Who am I if not this?
My mental effort attempting to work through this question paralleled my physical training. And finally, I had it; I am not a triathlete. Triathlon is something I do. This sport is still a huge priority for me and will be for some time, but I had reached the point where everything else was second. My friends, family, health and wellbeing. Everything. It all came second to my training and racing. My schedule was so fixed and immoveable that if something came along to threaten it, be that sickness or injury for example, I was in complete inner turmoil. If I wasn’t training, I was thinking about training and what I had to do to get ready for it, and what time I needed to go to bed to get enough sleep. The impact of this was I was never present. I could never be happy and enjoy being in the moment. This was affecting myhappiness and peace of mind and I was struggling to find balance. It wasn’t fair on my friends and family as, even when I was spending time with them, I was never really there. I didn’t know any other way to be.
And finally, I had it; I am not a triathlete. Triathlon is something I do.
Did I mention I was tired? I was so tired. I was training so hard and putting so much energy into this triathlete being that I was exhausted. And I don’t mean the good kind of exhausted you feel after a quality training session. I mean the broken to the core kind of tired. It affected everything I did and it meant that everything was hard. Life was hard, training was hard, and being with people was definitely hard. I was over tired and under done, a terrible combination.
So now I have learnt that ‘Triathlete’ is just a role I play, I can switch in and out of it as I choose. It means I can focus on my other roles in life, be that friend, daughter, teacher, etc with 100% commitment. It also means when I am in the role of triathlete I am 100% there. It means I am training smarter, not harder, and it means that now I really enjoy my training rather than resenting it as I had been. My performance has increased, my recovery is better, my energy levels are up, and I am making smarter choices. In short, I’m not exhausted.
My take home message – don’t put so much stock into who you are as an athlete (or anything else for that matter) that you lose balance and focus in your life and forget there is life outside of it. If anything were to go wrong and you couldn’t run, swim, bike, play rugby anymore, who would you be?
“To do whatever is required of you in any situation without it becoming a role that you identify with is an essential lesson in the art of living that each one of us is here to learn.” – Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth