Saturday, January 5, 2013

In re: Goals

Well, we can tell what one New Year’s resolution was not for me, and that was updating my blog more often. 

I’ve been lazy, but here’s the Clif’s Notes version of the past few weeks:  I’ve been in Ohio, enjoying the holidays with my family, I made a trip to Chicago, saw a lot of friends and realized just how much I missed the Windy City, I’ve been training a lot and now my focus is shifted to preparation for my next big adventure.  On Monday, I’m leaving for New Zealand. 

Home.  I missed you.
I’ve got lots of ideas and tentative plans for my trip (but any suggestions are welcome), but this post is largely about the triathlon portion of things.   I've got two big races in New Zealand, a half ironman (Auckland 70.3) and a full Ironman (New Zealand).  The countdown is on.

I'll be based in Auckland, staying with an incredibly generous and hospitable friend from the college days
The Goal
A while back, I set a big goal for my triathlon season - to qualify to Kona.  It’s always a little (lot) scary admitting such a big goal (what if I fail?  What will people say? What if everyone else thinks it’s completely unrealistic?) but I got fairly close last year a couple times, and it just seemed like the next logical goal in my athletic progression.  Both of the races I’m doing in New Zealand have Kona qualifying slots.
The Kona goal kept me going through those months in Europe when it really would have been a lot easier (and likely more fun) to just ditch the triathlon training and traipse around the continent.  And for sure, the dream will motivate me in my races, when the going gets tough.

But the thing is, the more I’ve thought about the Kona goal, the more I’ve started to think it’s just not a good goal for me to have as my primary motivation right now.  First, I just might not be ready yet.  I’m still new at this sport, I’m still developing, I’ve still got a ton to learn, and it truly is the best of the best that make it to that level.  Second (and perhaps more to the point), when qualifying slots are so scarce, successfully achieving this goal in particular depends just as much (or more) on who else shows up to any given race than on anything I do.   And that I can’t control.

Heading into New Zealand and planning for my races, I took a look at the number of slots that will be rewarded (very few), did some quick recon on the New Zealand tri scene (very, very competitive, with very few Kona-qualifying races, so the fasties are likely to all show up to the same races), and factored in the fact that it’s summer there and the other competitors are in the heart of their racing season while I’ve been confined to the trainer and trying not to break my neck slipping on ice.  I realized that realistically, for me to snag a Kona spot in New Zealand would require pretty much the perfect race, together with a good deal of luck.  

The Freak Out
What I did when I came to that realization was pretty much the wrong approach -- I panicked, and convinced myself that the only way to make that next step as a triathlete, to set up that perfect race, was to do everything perfectly, to become singularly focused, and, mostly to do MORE.  And FASTER.   Being without work or travel, I spent this last  month in Ohio training a lot and obsessing about training even more.  Convinced that if hard work is good, then more hard work is better, I begged my coach for more volume and more intensity (fortunately she's perfectly comfortable pulling back the reins and saying 'no.') The workouts I did I often did too fast and too hard… I hit or exceeded the times I was supposed to make, but still worried that I wasn’t getting “fit” fast enough.  I stopped drinking (if you've read this blog even a little, you know that's a big deal for me), I made drastic changes to my diet, and I became fixated on weight.  I acted the way I thought a professional triathlete would act.  Or at least a “Kona-level triathlete.”
Sorta my approach
And here’s what I learned from this month:  even if I were fast enough, I would make a very, very bad professional triathlete.  

With too much time to think, too much time to train, too much time to worry that I'm not training enough, and too singular of a focus, I become miserable.  By the time we got to Christmas, I'd had a lot of breakthrough workouts, but I was tired, cranky, burnt out, stressed, insecure, and couldn't sleep through the night.  Yet even as I had to mentally drag myself through each and every workout, I kept asking for more.  “I’m fine, I’m good, give me more, I can handle it, let’s go, how am I going to get better if I don’t do more?”  I continued like that right up through the end of December, getting increasingly stressed and miserable and convinced that I wasn’t good enough, until quite honestly, I was on the verge of cancelling my entire trip and quitting the sport altogether.  

The thing is, I know better.  I’m smart enough to know that gains are really made through rest and smart, specific training, not just doing more and more and more.  And I’ve been down this road before.  My senior year of high school, I signed on to run track at one of the top middle distance programs in the country, the kind of program that produces national champions and Olympians.  I had the times to be on the team, but I was well aware that even at my best, I’d be a very, very small fish in a very, very big pond.  

Then, after I’d already committed, I had a lousy senior year due to illness and injury, and went into the following summer desperate to prove that I was still fast enough for a collegiate program that, in the back of my head, I knew might have been a little over my head.  I decided that if hard work was good, more hard work was better (sound familiar?), so I just ran myself into the ground.  No job, no social life, no fun….all I did was run, peaking at well over 100 miles a week, so badly wanting to show up to campus in incredible shape, to prove that I belonged.

Instead, I showed up slower than I’d ever been, injured, anemic, broken.   My body was so screwed up in so many ways that our team doctor refused to grant me medical clearance to compete or even to train.  It was hardly the great impression I wanted to make, but in a lot of ways, a relief—I really had grown very, very tired of running.  That year was a struggle – redshirt, injury, illness, more injury (this time leading to surgery).  Then…. transfer, more injuries, more struggles, until eventually I walked away from the sport altogether, fully aware that I’d completely thrown away a fantastic opportunity because, in essence, I wanted it too bad and went after it too hard. 

Yet despite all that I learned with that experience, when I started to think too much about this Kona goal (and, like that summer,  when I didn’t have a whole lot else on my plate on which to spend my mental energy), I had those same exact instincts to just work harder and harder and harder, to focus on nothing else but the sport, to go all in. 

Fortunately, this time around, I didn’t go over the edge, I just got really close before realizing I was approaching everything all wrong and, just in time, getting my head back on straight.  My coach was there to explain (patiently and repeatedly) why more work did not make sense and how it would be counterproductive, and well as  to remind me that worrying about the training plan was her job, not mine. My family recognized my growing stress and helped me to remember that this is just a hobby, not a job, and in a grand scheme of things, it’s supposed to bring happiness, not anxiety.  When unprovoked, my little brother said to me, “it seems like you used to love this training.  Now you treat it like a job, you don’t enjoy it, you’re sacrificing a lot of great things in your life and your travel, and I predict you’ll never do another triathlon after this season if you keep it up like this,” it rang true and I immediately realized I needed to change my perspective.   “Drink a beer.  Eat some normal food,” he suggested.  And that night, I did, and I felt rejuvenated.
Actually I had wine and it was AMAZING

My New Approach

When New Years’ came, people all over were setting big goals and heading out for big workouts, eager to get 2013 off on the right foot.  I took a totally different approach.  Instead of setting a big goal, well, I ditched my goal.  Kona, I decided, can no longer be my primary motivation. 

Here’s my thinking: I cannot go to New Zealand and race, feeling like my races will be a failure if I don’t get that Kona slot.  That’s not productive, and maybe the “Kona or bust” mentality works for others, but all it does for me is make the race too big and too important.  I know myself well enough to know that that putting that kind of “now or never” pressure on myself just doesn’t work…..especially when so much of that outcome is based on who else shows up.     

So, that slot is no longer my goal.  And I’m not just saying that.  It's still a dream, and I still think that if I keep improving, someday it'll be a reality, but it is not a goal for this New Zealand trip.

Instead, I’ve set a whole bunch of smaller, intermediate and process-oriented goals for my races.  I want to follow my race plans.  I want to stay mentally focused.  I’d like to have a run that is representative of my training, something I have yet to do in long course racing, and while I do have a specific pace in mind, mostly I want to race and stay mentally tough for every single mile.   Most importantly, I want to enjoy myself, to remember how lucky I am to be in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, doing something that I love, and I want to walk away from the races, no matter how I end up placing, happy with the effort and knowing that self-improvement is the ultimate successful outcome.  If the stars align right and that results in a finish high enough to grab a Kona slot, fantastic, but if it doesn’t, that is OK.  And I truly (finally) believe that.

Because really, what’s so great about Kona anyway?  (haha, ok, I know it’s amazing, but work with me here).  Sure, it’s an Ironman, in a beautiful setting, a chance to race against the best in the world.   But as for that beautiful part, I present to you:

It's gonna be pretty beautiful in Taupo, too
I can’t forget to enjoy the moment because I’m so laser focused in on some other goal. 

Nor do I want my whole trip to New Zealand to be about triathlon.  I’ve got a whole country to see, and while I can see a lot of it on my bicycle during the long Ironman training days, if I insist on being as rigid about doing everything perfectly as I was this last month, I’m going to miss a lot of fantastic experiences. I really, really don’t want to do that.  If being a little bit less of a perfectionist or training a little less intensely results in a slightly slower finish but a better overall life experience, I’m perfectly OK with that.  And in the end, I suspect a happier Amanda is a faster Amanda anyway.

And the other thing I did on New Year’s Day, while you all were out getting in your first swim or your first run of 2013...I took an unplanned day off.  My body needed a break, my mind needed a break, and finally, I decided to listen.  I sat my ass on the couch, I watched TV with my family and then dominated them all in Dr. Mario on the Wii, I ate pork and black eyed peas and cabbage for good luck, and I skipped both the run and the swim that I’d been assigned.  I felt a little guilty but I got over it.  
This is more my style

 A few days later, I feel like a new person physically, and more importantly, mentally.  New Zealand’s going to be good.  It really is.  I can’t wait.

And next time, we’ll be back to the regularly scheduled programming of pretty pictures and travel stories.  Or maybe a blog about just how much fun it’s going to be to travel for 23.5 hours through three cities.  Can’t wait.


  1. Great post. This happened to me with triathlon where the pressure just got to me...having sponsors, being on a team, being coached. I just couldn't take the pressure and crumbled in the races. Now I'm back to just doing my own thing and loving it and seeing great results. Good luck and most importantly HAVE FUN in New Zealand.

  2. So glad you're BACK!

    It takes guts to let go of an intense goal like Kona in favor of something bigger, like your well being.

    So inspired by this post and how honest you are about these issues. My issues aren't the same as yours but I can see parallels in the struggle you describe.

  3. Great post! Looks beautiful. Quicksand - I didn't know that was really a thing. Glad you survived. Miss you!

  4. Awesome post! Definitely some pieces in there that I should take some lessons from. But sounds like taking the Kona pressure off might have contributed to the great race you had - Congrats again and good luck with the next Auckland race!

    1. Maggie, I think we all learn good lessons from each other. A lot of my change in mindset (e.g., the whole "I can't control who else shows up") was inspired by YOUR blog post around the same time (the goals poster at the pool one) thanks!