“You are not an athlete.”
“You can’t do this.”
“Why are you wasting your time?”
“You are a fraud…and you know it.”
“Why are you even trying?”
“You will never change.”
“You. Will. Fail.”
On any given cold, overcast or windy day, these thoughts would be my traveling companions. I could be several hours into a long run or bike ride, and these thoughts would fill my head every time.
I was training for an Ironman Triathlon.
I had already completed 7 marathons and 5 Half-Ironmans triathlon. I had run fast enough to qualify for the Houston Marathon. I had finished in the top 5% of competitors in some big 5k and 10k races.
But, I wasn’t a “real” runner…and I knew it.
Less than three years earlier, I was obese and sedentary. I had been my whole life. I had been very successful in other parts of my life In those ares, I was confident and self-assured. But I have always been overweight. I had always been weak and uncoordinated. And, deep down inside, KNEW that I always would be…
I joined weight watchers (again) to try (again) to lose a few pounds. I knew that I would not reach my ideal weight, nor would I keep it off. I knew that it wasn’t possible.
Except, I did reach my ideal body weight, and I have stayed there. But I still believed it to be temporary. I was really just a fat guy in a temporarily skinny body…
Friends (in real life and online) would ask me for training advice. Some were actually quite accomplished. I would often wonder how they would respond when they found out that I was just a fraud.
For 30 weeks, I committed myself to an intense physical training program to train for the Ironman. I averaged 14 hours of training every week. For the final seven weeks, I trained for a minimum of 22 hours/week, and peaked at 29 hours. I traveled over 4000 miles during that training period (with over 100 miles swimming, 1000 miles running, and 2500 miles cycling). The physical demands were incredibly punishing. The physical transformation was startling.
But, that was the easy part.
The mental journey was so much harder.
For 30 weeks, I would face a barrage of doubt and negativity from my subconscious mind. It was going to fight me every step of the way. For eight straight hours on some long training days, my head would be flooded with negative thoughts. I would try to fight back By reminding myself of all my achievements, and of how far I have come. But, it was a losing battle. After a 100 mile bike ride, I would be more emotionally exhausted than physically fatigued.
I would picture myself crossing the finish line. I had that tape on an endless loop in my head. There was just two problems…
1) I truly didn’t believe it that it could happen.
2) Deep down, my inner view of myself was obese and sedentary. Nothing that I could do would change my inner identity.
Despite all the turmoil, I kept training.
For over two years, I had these thoughts racing in my head with every new challenge. From my first 5k, to my first marathon, to my first triathlon, I had learned to tolerate the negative self talk and tried to use it as fuel to just keep going. This was no different. It was just magnified.
The mental transformation was the hardest part of my training. Molding my body was easy compared to trying to change my inner beliefs and to remold my sense of identity.
The change took months, and the change was subtle and gradual.
But change did happen.
I recall one day when it struck me. I was scrolling thru the Twin Cities marathon website (I had completed this race twice despite believing that I would fail). I came across the “Midwest Endurance Challenge”. It was a series of three events: TC Marathon (done), Grandmas Marathon (done), and the Birkie.
The Birkie is a 50+ km cross-country skiing event. My inner mind was silent as I read this. I didn’t ski. I had tried once and failed miserably. I was eight years old, and wiped out…on the tow line…for the bunny hill. Ten kids behind me crashed into me and I ended up on the bottom of a pile. I endured jeers and ridicule as I walked back to the chalet. I have never skied again.
Yet my subconscious mind was quiet.
I knew nothing about skiing. I had no equipment. I would not even know where to start. I would normally be laughing at myself for even reading this…but there was nothing…almost.
What I detected was subtle yet startling. There was a quiet confidence that I could do it if I set my mind to it. There was an expectation that I would succeed.
My mind wasn’t telling me “you can’t”. It was saying “of course you can”.
I believed in myself.
I accepted the fact that was an athlete…at last.
Last month, I completed my Ironman Triathlon with a finish time of 15 hours, 42 minutes and 11 seconds.
The human body can do miraculous things when the mind gives it permission to succeed.
Despite the physical pain I endured that day, it was an emotional celebration of my journey.
The legacy of that day is my inner transformation. Some of the physical changes are temporary. I can’t maintain that lever of physical conditioning indefinately…nor would I want to. But, my sense identity has been remolded. My belief of my capabilities has been transformed.
The human body is capable of far more than our minds believe possible. The words “can’t” and “impossible” are simply the minds reaction to getting pushed out of its comfort zone. But both of those words are lies. Those lies keep us paralysed in the same place forever…unless we find the courage to break those chains and to challenge what is possible.
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it.”
Environment. Behaviors. Capabilities. Beliefs. Identity.
At last week’s Weight Watchers meeting, a diagram was put up showing 5 barriers to (or opportunities for) success. They were concentric rings. The outer rings were environment and behaviors. Those were the ones that most members viewed as their biggest struggles. In many ways, that is true. It is the day-to-day battle. Overcoming the temptation of donuts in the break room, boredom snacking, and making time for physical activity are everyday battles. You can see them and challenge them every day.
I was struck speechless by the two inner rings.
These were the issues I had been fighting with for the past 30 weeks. As long as I believed that I couldn’t do it would struggle. As long as my self-identity clashed with my goals, then I would fail.
Altering either is very difficult. There is no direct way of tackling it. I found that it can take years. You have to challenge yourself to do things when you truly believe that they are beyond your abilities. You must continue to challenge your beliefs and repeatedly prove them wrong. As you tear down this belief system and build up a new one, then you may be able to modify your identity. Your identity is hard to modify, but it is not made of stone.
Identity is malleable.
Identity can be softened and remolded with time, persistence, patience, and courage. The new sense of self that emerges can be stronger, more confident and more self-affirming. This revised sense of self is the key to permanent change.
My identity has changed. I am fit. I am healthy. I am an athlete. And I KNOW that I can do whatever I set my mind to doing.
That is my Ironman legacy. It was worth the journey.
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”-Muhammad Ali