There is a certain fearlessness in children. They haven’t yet mastered the art of self-preservation. I distinctly remember the only two times I ever went skiing. The first time, I was in elementary school. I was bombing down hills without a care in the world (obviously easy ones, but still!). Towards the end of the day, I even purposefully aimed for a lump on the hill, caught some air, and landed successfully. No big deal, no fear. No thought of what would have happened if, instead of landing successfully, I had wiped out. A few years later, I went skiing again and gingerly inched down the slopes, desperately slowing myself when I got too fast. I remember wondering why I was scared this time when I distinctly remembered not being intimidated at all a few years earlier. That was when I realized I had lost my childhood fearlessness… or maybe just my childhood confidence.
It still comes back at times, usually when I have no idea what I’m getting into.
For instance, in college, I started thinking about switching from competing in the heptathlon to running the steeplechase because I just could not master the form required for the field events. (I just ended up quitting track entirely instead…) My coach wanted to see what my initial form over the water steeple looked like, so he told me to give it a shot.
“Now, this is new, so don’t get frustrated by how it goes the first time,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, while thinking, This is easy. It’s just hurdle… I’ve done it a million times.
(Just a side note—going over the steeple is a little different than going over a hurdle because you, you know, step on it and launch yourself over a pit of water.)
So I ran up to the steeple, pushed off the top of it, and landed easily with one foot in the water and my next step taking me back up to the dry track.
“Like that?” I asked.
“Yeah, that was pretty much it exactly,” said my coach, visibly shocked.
I had a similar experience with my half Ironman. I decided I wanted to do a triathlon, so I signed up for a local sprint triathlon with a pool swim that actually took place the day before the other two legs. I rode my hybrid commuter bike in my running clothes and running shoes (it’s still my fastest T2 time to date!).
I liked training for it, so I decided I wanted to be a triathlete and signed up for the Boise 70.3 coming up the next year. I got a road bike in January and raced in June. The race was my first open water start and only my second open water swim with other people. I was essentially brand new to endurance athletics. But I trained and put the time in and didn’t know enough to really realize I was doing something that most members of triathlon forums across the web would consider less-than-ideal.
And you know what? I finished the race with a time of 6:05:44, eating trail mix and Pop Tarts on the bike and running my first couple miles off the bike way too fast. Not bad at all for a first half Ironman, especially considering how new it all was to me. The whole training cycle, I was certain I would finish the race if I put the work in. I didn’t even realize that what I was doing was a pretty big deal.
I didn’t have that same advantage going into the training cycle for a full Ironman. I was well aware that an Ironman is a Scary Thing. I’d seen in on TV and read about it online. It is Intimidating and Epic. It is a bucket-list item, and for us mere mortals, a Challenge more than a Race. People crawl across the finish line because they are too depleted to even stand.
Needless to say, my confidence during this training cycle has been nothing like it was when I was training for my first half Ironman. I’ve been scared about finishing the race, about over-biking, about bonking on the run, about the whole thing. The refrain playing over and over in my head has been, “What if…?”
Now, caution is great. I’m a big fan of caution. And the fearlessness of kids doesn’t lend itself well to distance running. Anyone who has ever lined up at the front of a 5k start with a bunch of ten year olds that, upon hearing the starting gun, sprint as fast as they can for as long as they can (generally, about a quarter of a mile) knows that complete fearlessness can backfire. I still have a very conservative race plan because, in the Ironman, running a conservative race is far and away the best strategy for a first timer.
But I have caution in droves, and a lack of it has never been my problem.
It’s the presence of fear and a lack of confidence that has tended to hold me back.
So as I finish this taper and toe the line at Ironman Coeur d’Alene in a few weeks, I’m going to try to channel some of that child-like fearlessness. I’m going to try to compete with the confidence of someone who is ready and has no doubts that the task at hand is achievable.
I’m going to try to create that same mindset that propelled me over that steeple with ease—the same mindset that allowed me to see a bump on the hill in front me and decide that if I hit it, I could fly.