Monday, June 30, 2014

Becoming real

For all my bluster and blogging and Facebook fa la la, for all my exuberance and enthusiasm and excitement, the truth is that most of the time I feel like a big fat faker. OK, not quite a faker, because I'm being honest about how I feel, and I'm reporting my training truthfully. But I feel like I got a job from someone who hired me because she liked me but never called my references or checked out my qualifications.

I have not been able to shake this feeling that I'm not a "real" athlete, that what I'm doing here doesn't really count. I'm not in good enough shape, I don't push very hard in training, I'm still 10-15 pounds heavier than I want to be, I don't have any kids to take care of, any partner to consider, I don't understand all the nuances of glycogen and lactate and VO2 max, and I don't have a power meter. I don't know what kind of shifters are on my bike. I run only a 10-minute mile on my very best day. I was never on swim team. I'm not a natural athlete. I'm so awkward. The training doesn't actually feel that hard--I must be doing something wrong. I feel too tired--I can't possibly be ready. Someone really qualified for this just goes and does it and isn't a big neurotic mess about it, doesn't have so much doubt, doesn't want so much attention.

There are also all these people I know who are serious athletes, who are the real badasses out there, who are quietly doing insanely challenging things with no hoopla. And then there are the people who are facing profound challenges that aren't of their choosing, my friends and family who are dealing with life-threatening illness, with the loss of a loved one, with injury and hardship and struggle that makes this silly race look like a self-indulgent fandango. 

While I am more grateful than I can say for every kind word of encouragement and support, for every "like", for every anonymous page view of this blah-blah blog, I feel like kind of a fraud. I am just this big goofy normal person, and I happen to be lucky enough to have the good health and the time and resources to attempt this challenge. That's it. While I appreciate any congratulations I get, I feel pretty damn sheepish about it.

So yeah. I know full well how absurd that all is. I also feel really proud, super excited, a little brave, and really, really lucky. I am working hard and achieving amazing things. I just want to offer up the dark side in case it resonates with anyone out there who's thinking "I could never do that" ( with "that" being anything, not just an Ironman), I am here to tell you that you may well be wrong. I sure as hell never saw it coming.

One year ago, I finished a Half Ironman.

Two years ago, I first thought hmmm, maybe I should try to do an Ironman before I'm 50 (just last year, during my training for the Half,  I realized it wasn't going to get any easier, so I'd better just get cracking.)

Six years ago, I decided to honor my 40th birthday with a significant physical challenge-- a sprint-distance triathlon. At that point I was using the elliptical at the Y for 30 minutes and lifting weights 2 or 3 days a week, and that was it. I bought a one-piece swimsuit, got a bicycle, and a pair of running shoes. I took swim lessons, started training, and finished the Hope Tri (a 1/4 mile swim, 13 mile bike, 3 mile run).

Twelve years ago, I was smoking a pack of cigarettes every day and drinking the better part of a six-pack every night.

With the exception of my conscious decision to do that first tri, there was no watershed moment. I never set out to become an athlete (in fact, I keep erasing that as I write now--it feels strange to say "I'm an athlete"). I didn't wake up one day and declare that I was going to get healthy. The change was incremental, and it was a long and involved process. But at some point I started loving myself enough to tip the balance, and I chose feeling well over feeling shitty.

In my experience, if you're not totally happy with where you are (literally or figuratively), you don't have to set a massive goal for yourself to make change-- in fact, that can be the least effective route. Even if it had occurred or appealed to me at the time, there's not a chance in hell that a goal like "I will do an Ironman in 12 years" would have motivated the Shannon of 2002 to put out my cigarette and go for a walk on any given evening.

So pick one very manageable thing that's not serving you--some behavior that has outlived its useful purpose--and observe your habits around it. Don't try to will it away. Just notice how it feels when you think about it, when you decide to engage in it. Catch yourself in the act and feel it in your body. Do the same thing when you're practicing a behavior that's positive. Just observe yourself, feel into it, see where it takes you.

We have only a limited reserve of willpower--a finite supply, and when we use it up forcing ourselves to change, it's gone. That's part of why why new year's resolutions, or diets, or other changes that depend on willpower often fail so spectacularly. Real lasting change happens when we adjust our habits. If you want to change a habit, break it down into totally manageable pieces and change one piece until it becomes habit. If your goal is to exercise, find a behavior you can totally commit to, no matter how small it seems. Don't set a marathon goal if it requires a tremendous act of will. Instead, commit to putting on your sneakers and workout clothes every morning and walking for five minutes. If you feel like walking more, great. But walk the five minutes every day until it becomes a habit, and then you'll know when it's time to up the ante and set a new goal.

I'm starting to believe this is really happening, that with a few more weeks of good luck and good health I'm actually going to race. I'm riding and running distances I never dreamed of, and I feel damn good. My instinct is to explain it away. Yesterday I caught myself thinking, "This isn't a REAL 12-mile run because--"

But there was no reason there. It was for real. This is for real. I am for real.

“You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. -Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit


  1. You are a gift to the world, an inspiration to many and one of the most honest and wonderful people to ever enter into my life. What a joy it is that you share your journey with us. Rock the fuck on Shannon!!!