What I Learned from the Most Intense Eight Weeks of My Life

On April 8th, I finished the Carmel Marathon in what was a PR (3:28) for me.  About 8-10 weeks earlier, I had a repeated premonition that if the marathon went well, I was being called to do an Ironman on June 3rd as I had done 12 years before in Louisville.  But this time, an amazing crew of family and friends would help me put this on in Evansville, Indiana.    This meant that starting on Monday, April 10th, I would be working to condense training that is typically 2-3 times longer into a little over two months, with a short taper at the end.  With a 50 hour work week that included VP and training director roles, a busy school and sports season with our 8 children, and all the other aspects of everyday life, it was immediately clear that this would be not just a physical and logistical challenge, but also a mental and spiritual one.  Midst this framework, this jam-packed period was replete with lessons─ some I had to come to know through other experiences and some were completely new to me.  But regardless if the lessons were revisited or new, the intensity of this period forged them deep in my soul.  Below is a composite of these lessons (in no particular order) and brief thoughts about how they relate to training and life. 

Message #1:  When you worry about things to come, or things ongoing, it is important to try to understand what God wants of you through these experiences, and to then trust Him fully.  But it is also important that after these experiences have occurred (or not occurred), which caused you much worry, you evaluate what actually ended up coming to fruition, especially as it pertains to the fears that you had.  While bad things do occasionally happen, most of the time things turn out much better than your fears would tell you.  But if you don’t take time to actually consider what occurred, and how this pertained to the worries that you had, you will forever (and repeatedly) fall prey to the same fears, which end up not only reducing the joy that you feel during the experiences themselves, but also reduce the gratitude and love that is inherent in them.. 

Training/Life Lesson:  Over the years, I had encountered many different types of injuries, and often found myself obsessing over them.  While occasionally these injuries did halt pursuit of a particular goal, many times I was either healed during training, or was able to persist through them.  Yet repeatedly, I often seemed to forget about this, and came back to the same obsessions as if I was both ungrateful and naïve.  So often this happens in life with worries that we have.  While bad things occasionally do happen, most of the time they don’t, and yet we persist in our fears with the same intensity and desperation for years and even decades as if our fears define a reality.  This not only impacts our ability to recognize the gifts we are given, but it negatively impacts our joy, health, and relationships with others.

Message #2:  Focusing on, or obsessing over feelings/negative self-talk and outcomes/expectations will only reduce your ability to grow and become more resilient.  It is only when you find ways to let go of what you can’t control, and focus on what you can, that through the grace of God, you begin to recognize a capacity that was otherwise unrealized. 

 Training/Life Lesson:  Having done many endurance events over the years, it is easy to become overly focused on either being done, or the negative feelings and thoughts that arise during training.  I remember more than once during a race obsessing over thoughts of “Why did I choose to take on this difficult challenge when I could be doing something much easier and more fun?”  The problem with this is that when the focus becomes your negative internalizations, it drains the will and energy that is greatly needed for the challenge that lies in front of you.  When this occurs, it limits your ability to complete a task, or fulfill a role, that is otherwise possible.  As human beings, how we feel is a huge part of who we are, and provides for many wonderful opportunities.  But while we should be aware and present with how we feel, allowing our feelings or expectations to take over can carry a serious negative price.  On one particular morning about 2.5 weeks out from the Ironman, I stepped out of our house with a 20 mile run on my schedule.  I was feeling so worn and exhausted that even walking around in the house prior to the run felt laborious.  In years past, I would have been focused on all my worries and how I couldn’t possibly see any way that I could complete this run, and how failing my expectations would have been a big problem.  But this time around, I instead decided to focus on what I could control, which was each stride I was taking and the prayers I was praying, and let the rest be as it would be.  Although it was a challenging morning, it was a beautiful one, too, and I completed the 20 mile run feeling better at the end than I did at the beginning. 

Message #3:  Learning to trust God and his call/process for my days is far more important than any goal or outcome I desire.  While there is nothing wrong with setting goals and pursuing them with vigor, this shouldn’t be the ultimate pursuit.  There are times where I must take calculated risks in following God’s will for me, day by day, hour by hour, even I seem to be risking completion of the goal. 

Training/Life Lesson:  Throughout this training, and especially at various times before, I had been faced with various injuries that developed at different times.  In each situation, there was a constant discernment about the “line” between being prudent and taking calculated risks.  At times, injuries of all kinds (including psychological) do require time to pull back, rest, and recalibrate.  But very often, there is a trap in pulling away from an activity altogether, whether it is a conversation or a training run, from that which is painful or disconcerting.  Sometimes, we are required to deal with a reasonable amount of discomfort as a means of actually creating greater strength, resolve, and ultimately trust in God.  In doing this, we might be risking a particular outcome (e.g., completed race, repaired relationship) in forging ahead to a certain degree.  And yet without taking these risks, we remove opportunities to trust and come to know God more fully, and see how through this co-partnership, we can become stronger and more united with others.  In training for the marathon and Ironman, I had no less than 4 injuries that I thought might derail either goal.  But in each situation, I felt that God was providing just enough to keep me going, but I had to be the one to give Him the opportunity to do this by continuing to say yes to movement, even if in modified ways.  In the end, it wasn’t a matter of what was right or wrong, or most or least effective.  It was a matter of trusting Him even more.

Message #4:  When you learn to find joy and peace during difficult times, you will learn to find it much more easily at all times.  Suffering isn’t necessary to unveil all the goodness in God’s creation, but it is one of the most readily available ways to do so. 

Training/Life Lesson:  This lesson from previous experiences kept resurfacing during this time.  There were times when a unique tree, or a fellow runner at 4:45 AM, or even a new thought or consideration, really did provide a certain interest or joy midst a lot of tough physical demands.  Sometimes just a new prayer as I turned onto a familiar road provided comfort or even a new route provided intrigue.  In life, as in training, it’s easy to feel worn down by all that we are required to do.  While learning to appreciate the tasks themselves more is important in preventing burnout, also learning to appreciate even the (seemingly) smallest of comforts or novelties can really get us through a training run, or a difficult day at work or home.  When this happens regularly, gradually it becomes much easier to see the graces and beauty midst our toil.  It’s not that the suffering goes away, but it is that we put it in its rightful place.  As Scott Jurek once said, “Not all pain is significant.”  Once we realize what pain is not, and accept it for what it is, we start to see how beautiful things can be even when training, or life, can feel hard.

Message #5:  Being present-minded isn’t just important for finding joy or completing tasks as well as possible.  It is also necessary in seeing how large goals/calls and challenging roles are even possible.  When we fixate on the past or obsess over the future, it’s hard to see how we can take on what feels arduous, especially over the long-term.  While we should always be prepared and planful for what is to come, we must put our heart and soul into what is now.  Sometimes we look at a day, or even an hour, as giving us more than is possible.  It is especially then that we must shrink our presence to what we can handle, and focus our energies on getting the task before us done and giving thanks that it occurred.

Training/Life Lessons:  Prior to this training cycle, I had never done a Half-Ironman alone (although I had done four of them partly or completely with others).  One morning, I stepped outside around 3:30 AM in hoping to do this before a 10 AM track meet with the kids.  My Half-Ironman would be a run, bike, swim opposed to a swim, bike, run due to it being dark when I began.  As I took off on the run alone in the darkness, I knew I had at least 5.5-6 hours alone ahead of me.  While this wasn’t the first time I had done this length of training alone, it was a new venture and I was uncertain about how it would work out, especially with the event later that morning.  But, as I remained very present focused, down to even each turn of the run, gradually it seemed more possible, until finally around 9:20 AM, I finished my last lap in the pool.  As I sat in the stands watching my kids run track, I marveled just how fast the morning had gone with only God to keep me company.  Like so many times before, in these quiet, prayerful mornings, it was my presence with His presence, with a peacefulness that came with each moment, which made the larger goal not only possible, but even enjoyable.  So it is in life.  If we choose to focus our attention on what appears be like marathon finish lines, we are going to find ourselves wishing the time away, and once again trying to control something we can’t control.  But when we pull back, and give thanks for what we can do, the marathons or months and/or years in our life become possible again. 

Message #6:  Being at peace with where you are, and who you are, even if it is unpleasant or undesired, is a necessity in pursuing a life full of purpose and meaning.  There is no substitute for quiet time with you and God.  It is in these cold, dark, moments of solitude that you find a well that never runs dry.  As a child of God first, and everything else second, you come to find that you are loved and cared for more than you know.  In coming to know that your imperfections and insecurities do not define you but do inform you, you are free to fail as you pursue the image and likeness created for you.

Training/Life Lesson:  In life as in training, it is easy to compare yourself to others, and who they are and what they have done.  We live in a world obsessed with comparison, and so often we find ourselves disappointed that others seem to be doing much better than we.  From this comparison, we become envious and frustrated that we don’t have what others do, which often serves to hamper or immobilize our progress in whatever ways we can improve, and not be grateful for what we do have.  Instead of being excited about potential areas of growth, we may feel either obligated to change, or jaded about this idea.  But this is where repeated time alone with God, moving in whatever way we are called, resets this comparison.  Not only do we become more excited about the movement that is occurring within us (and outside of us), we separate ourselves from the “moving target of others” that forever leaves us unsettled.  Instead of people defining the standards for us, we start to define our own standards, which is to ultimately align our will more closely with God’s.  The more this occurs, the more we are okay with what others might perceive as failing because we are no longer privy to the world’s standards.  Along the way, we find joy in progress that others may not recognize or even know.  It is then that I allow myself to be defined only by God’s love, and find where my true identity lies.

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