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Friday, May 17, 2019

"The sweet is never as sweet without the sour" (Success, failure, and the balance in between)

      I'm sure within my first few years of running cross country and eventually track back in the day, I had some races I less happy with than others, but, by and large, nothing really got to me too much.  For the most part, when I set goals, I met them, and even if I fell a little short of the more lofty ones, my team was more successful than I was individually, so I always had that to celebrate instead.  Improvements came easily early on, too.  My freshman and sophomore years were marked with team wins, relay trips to states, sneaking into ribbon winning and point scoring at my individual events at sectionals, and lowering PRs each season.  I remember the first time I felt truly disappointed with a race.  County meet, junior year.  Hoping for a top ten finish, I had an off day, for whatever reason, and struggled home in 18th.  I still recall sitting on the bus home that day, arguing with my coach, insisting that I'd had a horrible race and telling him I just wanted him to tell me that.  Always wise, knowing that I was both the most consistent one on the team and capable of being harder on myself than anyone else would be on me, he refused, assuring me that I'd done fine, and I could do better at sectionals the following week.

   Turns out, he was right.  A week later, my confidence still shaken a bit from counties, I started out conservatively, quickly realized that actually, I felt good, and continued to pick my way up through the field, passing a handful of girls who had readily beaten me the week beforehand, and, by the final half mile or so, into tenth place.  Tenth was a milestone for me; top 10 at sectionals got called up at the awards ceremony and received half blue, half white patches.  I had plenty of full white patches from team wins and relays, and I knew I'd never win a full blue one for winning an individual cross country or track title, but that half blue, half white one was something that I'd coveted as a high school goal since the time I'd been a freshman.  I finished 17th as a freshman and 13th as a sophomore, so not too far off, but not super close, either.  My results from the rest of my junior season had suggested that top ten was possible, but that counties race had thrown a wrench in what I thought that I could do.  Then, I remember emerging from the woods onto the final stretch that day to the excited screams of my teammates who had last seen me far further back in the field, and how special that finish was to me-not just because I had achieved a long-term goal and run one of the best races of my life, but because I'd rebounded after nearly giving up on the idea just a week beforehand.

Really bad picture proving I got to stand at the front of a gym and it was a high school life highlight #nerd

   Fast forward many years, with many highs and a few lows, and I found myself getting started in triathlon, about ten years ago.  It took me a few years before I actually found myself any real adversity in the sport.  Sometimes, I like to think of my career to this point in three stages-pre-IM/transitioning from a "runner" to a "triathlete" (the early, clueless days), early pro pre-crash years, and the post-crash years.  Much like the early days of my running career, those early, clueless days were pretty mentally easy.  Obviously, climbing the sport's ladder took a lot of physical work and toughness within workouts and races, but, by and large, my successes came easily, and failures?  I don't really even recall any, to be honest.  After so many years in running, everything in triathlon was new and exciting, and the formula was simple.  Train hard, improve, taper, race hard, get results.  As races got longer, I noticed I seemed to do better.  Sub-5 in my first 70.3.  A worlds qualification in my first attempt at an IM 70.3.  An AG world title.  A pro card.  Moving up to the pro ranks and full IMs.  A second place off the bat, a winter of PRs, another second.  I dreamed about winning Placid.  I won Placid.  I decided I wanted to go to Kona.  I went to Tremblant three weeks later, somehow ran even faster than I had in Placid, and did enough to go to Kona.  Neat.  Clean.  Simple.  Success fueled my motivation in workouts-why wouldn't it?  I asked stuff out of my body, I mentally and physically found ways to make it do what I wanted, and my body delivered.  Putting forth effort in workouts is easy when effort=results.  For several years, I started every race I planned on, and I finished them all.  I missed nothing due to injury.  I won an IM before I ever crashed my bike or experienced a mechanical in the race.  I knew more about joy from exceeding my expectations than adversity.  I was young.  I kind of hate my old self, too.

I look too indifferent to a 70.3 overall and run PR here because I didn't place very well.  Stupid young Jennie.

At least this was better

    The next year (2014), I started to at least have some growing pains, some born from all the racing I'd done the previous season, some from self-induced pressures and difficulty living up to the standards I'd set for myself (I prefer a good low bar over a high one), some from the dumb luck that everyone experiences after long enough at this stuff (i.e. costly bike mechanicals in a race), and some just because I had some difficulty finding as much joy in it, having lost a bit of the ability to surprise myself anymore.  Still, nothing major, until Cozumel, breaking everything, and then everything that has since transpired from that.  As much as I wanted to believe those niceties we like to tell ourselves, hard work pays off, everything happens for a reason-they seemed hard to swallow at many points in the following years.  I think as any athlete matures in a sport and goes through the full range of experiences and related emotions, the rose-colored glasses of the early days get taken off, and probably stomped upon here and there in fits of frustration, as well. 

   I've cried every type of tear over this stupid sport-pain, joy, sadness, frustration, relief.  I've been lifted and lived my (sports-related) dreams, and I've also been thrown onto the ground (literally and figuratively) and had my heart ripped out.  Sport has been simultaneously the main consumer of my thoughts (and time), and something that I've laughed about because it can seem so stupid and insignificant in the great scheme of life, as well.  Compared to five or six years ago, yes, I'm a heck of a lot more jaded and cynical about it, but I also have a deeper sense of appreciation and gratitude towards it all.  I've rolled my inner eyes at those rose-colored glasses posts-"hard work is everything!  Triathlon is life!", as well as the "I had a bad race and everything is OVER" posts, all while knowing that I used to post similar stuff before anything "bad" happened, and that I still get pretty damn dramatic over bad races or small injuries or illnesses that derail training at all.  It happens, and I struggle with it-with all I've faced in the sport, is something small really that big of a deal?  With all people face in life, does a sport even matter?  But, at the same time, if I just brush off a bad race or a bad workout or a smaller "failure" along the way, does it mean that I don't care?  And why would I be doing this if I don't care?  But, again, why am I allowing myself to care, when I've had so many instances where caring has led to hurt?

    I feel as if the question has come up in different forms fairly frequently lately-how do we care about success, without letting failure get to us?  Is it possible to open our hearts enough that success is meaningful, but failure isn't crushing?  Or, conversely, if we're not supposed to define ourselves by our failures, isn't it only fair that we don't define ourselves by our successes, either?  "Don't let success go to your head, and failure go to your heart" is an interesting concept, and, within the context of sport and life, one that's nuanced in many ways.  I feel sometimes like I'm sort of "in between" a triathlon live and a "real" life-just good enough that I can do ok and be sort of competitive and, with a little bit of luck here and there, turn a profit, but not good enough that I can even remotely justify making training and racing all I do, so I still have jobs and income outside of it.  I can justify to myself caring about this stuff, although I also don't think that anyone who takes seemingly silly exercise contests up owes it to anyone to have to justify why it's important to him/her, regardless of level of investment in the sport or goals, etc.  Everyone has their reasons, as well as their particular life circumstances; no one's right or wrong.  Anyways.  I'm digressing here.  Point is, no one starts triathlon (or running, etc) without some degree of caring about it, or putting some amount of physical and emotional investment towards some sort of goal, whether they're related to places, times, self-improvements, or finishing.  When we meet-or exceed-those goals, it's awesome and affirming and deeply satisfying.  But when we fall short?  Saying, "just move on" is easy enough, but after devoting large amounts of time and energy to something, and putting aside other things in life for it, actually doing so is more difficult. 

    "Success" and "failure" (I don't love the terms, but I'm going to use them here for simplicity's sake here) in sports don't need to be seen as some sort of mutually exclusive, binary concepts, though.  I mean, sure, ok, one team wins the Superbowl, the other team loses.  In triathlon or running, maybe you qualify for Kona or, say, break an 18:00 5k, or you don't.  Yes, those sort of outcomes exist, where they either happen, or they don't.  But, except for at the highest levels, which I cannot attest to, by and large, our external worlds continue on unchanged around us regardless of endurance event outcomes.  Podium or DFL, I've come back from IMs, gone back to work, and done the same stuff.  I remember going back to work two days after winning Placid, and just laughing to myself when I pulled up to a news crew...filming the new dialysis center next door opening.  The sink still fills with dishes, my dogs still want dinner and walks, people still block aisles with their carts at the grocery store.  Medals get thrown over doorknobs, trophies get stashed on a shelf, and the person who just cut you off in traffic doesn't care in the least about your race time.  Harsh reality, very, very few people care about it.  Yes, sometimes I make money, and that's nice and helpful, of course.  Qualifying for a trip somewhere is pretty awesome.  When I won in Vegas and could get a pro card, that sort of made things a little different.  I've gotten cakes and cards and flowers after particularly good results.  Sneaking pieces of cookie cake between patients did make those days better.  But, when it comes down to it, race results don't change our external worlds as much as impact our internals ones.  And, that's where we have control and power.  After good races, I've always come home with a more positive attitude towards life in general, which leads to generally greater friendliness and patience to spread to those around me.  As someone who can be timid and lack confidence, even though triathlon is totally unrelated to, say, human interactions, the dose of "I can do hard things" still somehow carries over.     

   But, how do we prevent the opposite from happening when things don't go according to plan?  How do we prevent ourselves from becoming miserable, ornery creatures who feel like we can't do anything in life when, say, we totally blow up in an IM marathon and ponder just passing out in a port-a-potty instead of continuing on?  We could just go into things with a sense of apathy and detachment, so that if it doesn't work out, oh well, it doesn't hurt.  But, that's no way to approach, well, really anything in life.  What's the point of doing something, especially a completely voluntary sport that requires time and money, if you don't care or have zero sense of investment in it?  There's none.  And, nothing in=nothing out.  I've never happy ugly cried at a finish line because I didn't give a crap.  Plus, in a sport that requires a lot of physical pain and a lot of mind over matter, the mind has to be committed.  There has to be something that keeps us moving when the body is reminding us it's pretty freaking idiotic, and the couch is way more comfortable.  So, not only is it not worth doing if you don't care, it's not really possible to train for endurance crap and not care, either.  I've gone through time periods where I've felt pretty apathetic, and it shows.  For me, I've learned that opening my heart to success, but not succumbing to failure boils down to a few things-recognizing all that stuff about external life not really changing much is true, learning to appreciate, enjoy, and feel satisfied by all of the smaller steps along the way, not denying feelings but not wallowing in them, looking for ways to learn from missteps, and letting the setbacks give the successes more meaning.  As much as I've tried to put up my guard and wall myself off to protect myself from triathlon hurting my feelings again, it never works.  My guard is about as effective as our dumb hound who sleeps through everything, and my wall is just a mirage.
Finishing off a 5k in the brief reprieve between fracture healing and realizing my hip was busted in 2015.  I was over a minute of my PR.  But I was freaking thrilled with this race.

     At times in the past, come race day, I'd often be proud of my effort, but variables like time and place were how I'd really define it all.  Looking back at some of my pre-crash triathlon career, I kind of want to shake myself for how I crossed the line on certain days.  Races like Kona 2013 or Coeur d'Alene 2014, I fixated on a run that was a few minutes slower than normal or losing a few spots to a bike mechanical, instead of the fact that I swam and biked as well as I had all season and held it together at the highest level when everything was protesting my third IM in 2.5 months, or that I channeled frustration over that bike mechanical into the fastest marathon of the day, when I could just have easily stepped off the course, and no one would have faulted me.  Now, some of those races that have come with the least external accolades and prizes are the ones that I'm most proud of, really.  Pushing to the physical limit is always hard, but it's a heck of a lot harder when things aren't really working out as well as they should, when the goal ship has sailed, when there's nothing left at stake from an extrinsic standpoint.  A for effort doesn't get you much in professional triathlon, but I've learned that at the same time, it's character-defining, and I'm the one who has to live with myself (not to deny that there are a select few I drag into this).  I had to fall hard, miss time, miss long periods of racing, and have some really whopperly (that's a word now) bad races to appreciate that putting my best foot forward at the lowest points might not be noticed, but led to just as deep of a sense of fulfillment as, say, pushing hard to hold 7:20 pace at the end of an IM when in a podium position.
IMTX 2014 finish.  Honestly, this was probably the least invested I ever went into an IM feeling.  My race was fine, but my finish here is sort of emotionless by my standards.  Again, one of those performances that I'd be freaking thrilled with these days, but was too young and dumb and hard on myself about back then.
Argentina part I.  I was really freaking emotional at this finish line, because finishing my worst race ever-by far, at that time, although I've since rivaled it-was hard.  Really, really hard.  And I wasn't happy with the result, but I was proud of myself for forging on.  I still am.  Even though it had some health repercussions, I don't regret it.  At all.

   I also used to see good workouts as a means to an end.  I'd feel satisfaction for hitting something well and seeing improvements, sure, but the main source of excitement with them was what they suggested I might be able to do on race day.  This past season, my best blocks of training were leading into IM Lake Placid and IM Mar del Plata.  Of course, those both ended up being my worst race results.  I mourned Placid for a bit, but at the same time, when the smoke cleared, I had to admit that training for that race had made me happy.  The disappointment over the race was fair as well, though-even though I've been through worse and others have been through WAY worse with real problems, I had a right to be upset about it for a bit.  But, I also had to (with some help) look at some of the things that had gone wrong-cold, nutrition, peak long run too close to race day, etc.  Learning.  When Argentina was an even worse experience, honestly, I was ok with it this time around.  All along in that training, I had known that pushing for one more race that season was a bit of a stretch.  At the same time, I was enjoying training for it, and I remember telling myself that regardless, some of those sessions were showing me what I had in me still.  I was taking training at face value, and, with the lessons learned from Placid in my brain, reminding myself to be happy with them along the way, no matter what happened on race day.  And then the lessons from the debacle the race turned into?  I was able to (with guidance and some TPs numbers) look and see, hey, here's what overreached is on paper, and here's what it feels like in my body.  1.5 weeks before Texas this year, even though I hadn't been training nearly enough, I was able to recognize some of those same feelings in my body.  This time, I pulled back, slept, got everything back under control, and, come race day, felt (as) solid (as I could).

   Recognizing toughness and grit, figuring out what controllables could be tweaked or adjusted (sometimes, shit days just happen), learning to appreciate the small things along the way-these things are the start of turning the tables and not seeing things purely in black and white.  Ultimately, though, the hope still remains of having some sort of result we can see as a success, or goal met or exceeded.  After all, continuously falling short eventually just extinguishes the fire, instead of feeding it.  The beauty of sticking with it through rough times, unmet goals, injury, setback, dumb luck, colossally legitimately bad races, deprovement (another word that I'm calling a word) is that once out of the valley, the reward is greater than it was prior to entering.  It's not like I didn't appreciate or celebrate success in my pre-crash triathlon career.  I did.  I worked damn hard, and I accomplished more than my ok-ish runner self ever would have imagined.   At the same time, it's all just...different now.  In a way, I feel like success came too easily to me early on, and I wish that I'd been knocked down a few times prior to some of those results, so that I would have had a deeper appreciation of them.  If you had told me five years ago that I'd be sitting here with the same PRs in everything and I'd be fine with it, I would have felt uneasy.  Probably a little sad.  But, I actually am ok with it.  Chances are pretty damn high, really damn high, that I'm going to be one and done when it comes to IM winning and Kona qualifying, and that's fine.  Because, I know what I've been through in triathlon now, and no start line, let alone a finish line, is taken lightly.

   Races like Tremblant in 2017, Wisconsin last year, and now I'm throwing Texas onto that list, where everything on the day went well and I came through knowing I'd gotten my potential at the time out of myself-maybe externally, extrinsically, I didn't get any more out of it than I did for some of the IM successes of my early career, but the intrinsic satisfaction is indescribably deeper than it once was, and that I can't quantify.  Winning Musselman as a 26 year old little twerp upstart paled in comparison to how it felt to win as a 33 year old who'd had to get her shit together yet again after spending a Sunday in Australia in June weakly slumped on a curb, still racked with illness, instead of finishing her comeback IM 2.5 years later.  Failure/setbacks/etc suck at the time, but they just add it all down the line.  Even 16 year old Jennie on a cold November Saturday at the section V cross country meet could have told you that.  I would have been thrilled with that sectional shield regardless, but if I'd nailed that race the weekend before and felt like I *should*  The athletes I admire the most aren't the ones who are the most polished, the fastest, or the who spout niceties about hard work and dedication, but the ones that have remained positive yet real through real adversities (beyond the rogue ok but not great race here and there), or who balance their lives in ways I can't imagine ('re all on this list).  Even-rare moment of saying something nice about Dave-have to include the husband here.  The dude has had all kinds of injuries, including a broken ankle bone that didn't heal, he's deferred a million IMs, fell short of Kona time and time again, works a demanding job as a managing partner in an accounting firm, and has still endured on and gotten another ticket to the big island this year. (**For those that are concerned about the state of my marriage while reading that, I just started choking on gum and he made an obscene gesture at me, so, we're all normal and good over here.)
This was a solid life moment

   Anyways.  That was all a whole long of rambling psychoanalytical bull.  I've been relatively down on training the past couple of weeks trying to kick a cold that's taken up long-term residence in my sinuses, I started on a writing roll last weekend finishing up a paper for my online epidemiology course, so all those thoughts that float around my head while strolling through the same woods with my dogs on a daily basis ended up here (and, Welby, our IG conversation on this stuff spurred me on).  When it comes down to it, lessening my own fear of "failure" has been a working point for me for many years.  The more success I had, the more I came to fear not living up to that, which was failure in my mind.  When various forms of failure eventually came, I had to figure out how to get past them.  I can't not care.  I've been known to wear my heart on my sleeve, and I don't hide my emotions at the ends of races.  Nothing about my athletic existence is refined or acted; it's all genuine and real.  I feel things, and I want it to be this way.  Bad things are inevitable in athletics, though, and we can't selectively feel only the good ones (note: I'm talking about triathlon here, not life.  I'm not going to act like I've really had legit bad life stuff happen.  That's a whole different world than my life, very, very thankfully).  Still.  We can learn from the bad things.  We can put them behind us, and realize you know what, it's ok, that didn't make me less of a person or change my life or me fundamentally, if anything I'm stronger.  We can let them help us appreciate, enjoy, and take pride in even the smallest good things along the way and the effort that goes into them, and not just because they're the means to an end.  And when those big good things happen?  Well, that's just pretty awesome, too.             

I was trying to find pictures for this post, and I randomly clicked on a few .jpg files in list view in my downloads folder, hoping they might be some sort of decent surprise.  They kind of weren't, but I'm going to include them anyways.  I suppose a random rainbow sort of works here, though.

A Welby pic from Placid kinda fits, too.  #kona2019troublepreview

Bunny cakes that look like they were decorated by a five year old are never wrong, either.  I like cake.

Because, let's face it, probability dictates that any random selection of pictures from any of my devices will include one of my dogs doing nothing that I definitely had to take and save.

And finally, a beaver.  You're welcome.  Yes, I watched a PBS special on beavers last year and was not mature enough to not spend half of it crying laughing.  Yes, I took a picture of it.  Yes, I apparently transferred it from my phone to my laptop.  And yes, it is absolutely necessary to conclude this with a beaver.  That's all.

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