I’m going after a few big athletic goals this year: a Boston Qualifying (BQ) Marathon time and finishing an Ironman Triathlon. These are goals that I’ve dreamed about for YEARS. Goals that at time have represented hope and possibility and at others have taunted me with how far off and impossible they seemed.
Goals that, even right now, feel both utterly exciting and impossibly daunting. Just this morning, I texted my husband asking “Am I crazy to go after a 140.6 this year?” The self-doubt is real. (And the jury is still out on whether I am crazy or not.)
Athletics are a beautiful mess. It’s an arena of life that I’m incredibly passionate about. An area that has long felt like home for me – the very spaces where I feel the most alive and most aware of the presence of Jesus. Running is, hands down, the most sacred space I know, and has been since I was a leggy 14-year old who fell hopelessly in love with the movement and the sport. I thrived on the competition and the pressure. I loved the level of dedication needed to prepare and race well. Had you asked me when I was 16 what I wanted out of life, I would have said, “To wholeheartedly follow Jesus and run.” Apparently some things don’t change much at all.
But athletics also can be and too often are a space that screams of shame. Of messages that suggest that we don’t measure up. That we’ll never be good “enough.” That our bodies, though strong and wildly resilient, are not strong “enough.” It’s a world filled with unhealthy standards and expectations, toxic body-shaming, and the perpetuation of false ideas of what our bodies need to look like or be able to accomplish to be strong, beautiful, or worthy of praise. It’s a world that feeds off comparison and competition – realities that too easily suggest that our value is somehow dictated by numbers on a scale, muscle definition, track split times, or race PBs. The toxicity is pervasive, both overt and subtle in its reach, and at worst, unfortunately often accepted as being normal.
In many ways, sport has both been the place where I’ve found the most freedom as well as the space where I’ve fought against the deepest-rooted lies. The both-and of that is an ongoing challenge.
It’s been over a decade for me since a serious injury “ended” my running career. A decade since I was told by very well-meaning doctors that I might not ever run again without severe pain. A decade since my teenage mind was left reeling not knowing who I was if I wasn’t an athlete.
By the sheer grace of Jesus, I’ve been running again for years. My journey back to the sport I love more than any other, however, has been an up-and-down one. Sometimes marked by celebration and wonder and joy. Other times marked by set-backs and seemingly endless discouragement. Sometimes fueled by freedom. Others fueled by shame.
I was running, but I wasn’t running “fast”.
I was healthy, but I wasn’t (by my formerly-competitive-athlete-mindset) race-fit.
I was getting stronger, but I wasn’t hitting the pace goals I wanted.
And the up-and-down of that emotional journey spoke limitation and shame to my heart and mind. It taunted me with the gap between the person I was and the “real” athlete I aspired to be. It suggested to me that I needed to give up my dreams of Boston or an IM or running a marathon on every continent. And worse, it suggested that if I did have to surrender those goals because of legitimate limitations, that my new normal was always going to be insufficient.
What I needed a new standard of success.
And that’s the single greatest gift a decade of being injured has given me. It’s changed the way I think.
The reality is that my “new normal” was/is nothing short of a miracle. My body that has known chronic sickness and chronic injury is able to do all of the things I love most. I can run long distances. I can climb mountains. I can ski and hike and bike and swim. I am strong and I am healthy (physically as well as mentally and emotionally).
And, I’m not naïve to the fact that the contrast of what I too quickly deem “not enough” far surpasses the physical capabilities of many stunningly strong, resilient, and beautiful people who are legitimately held-back in what they can do due to physical limitations beyond their control. My able-bodied privilege kept me blind to the wild gift that I’ve been given and I far too quickly take even by “base-line” of ability for granted. I’m not okay with that anymore.
So, a few months ago I made a set of rules to guide all my athletic goals from here on out:
Fueled by joy and freedom, not by shame or fear
Motivated by capability, not by the (lies of) limitation
Willing to “fail” (and hard enough that “failure” is an actual possibility)
The process (multi-dimensional) is more important than the (one-dimensional) finish-line
Don’t sacrifice short-term “highs” for long-term damage. (Life is long and I want to be running/hiking/climbing/biking for as long as possible)
So why am I aiming to qualify for Boston? And why an Ironman? Why now?
Because I can’t not try.
Forgive the double negative, but that’s really what it comes down to.
Because, at this point, the only reason I have to not try is that I’m scared I might “fail”.
Turns out, that’s a terrible reason not to try. A few years ago I signed up to do a bike tour down the California Coast to raise money for Love Does. A few weeks before going I had to pull out of riding due to health issues. What I learned in the initial disappointment of my “Plan B” and the subsequent reality of an incredible adventure on the support crew for our team of riders, is that even when we “fail” at things, the willingness to attempt them puts us in the position to experience things, build relationships, and grow in ways we never would have had we stayed in the comfort of guaranteed success. In hindsight, it was one of the best failures of my life.
The evidence right now suggests that I can do this. I’m working with an integrated team of specialists – physio, RMT, chiro – all focused on working through lingering issues from my injury and attempting to address issues of ongoing muscular imbalances. My health is stable. Migraines are now a rarity. And the emotional and mental difference between the person I am now and the results-driven athlete I was are almost unrecognizable in the best way – ways that suggest that this really is a good (aka: healthy) time to go after this.
Here’s the deal: I might run a BQ this year. And I might cross the finish line in Whistler before the 17-hour cut-off (and the cut-offs for each discipline throughout). And I also might not accomplish either or both of those goals.
As it turns out, this isn’t really about the running, biking, or swimming at all. It’s all about going after goals while holding tight to freedom, to joy, to strength. I’m doing this because my body is already strong and capable and worthy, not as a way to earn those designations. I’m doing this because I love running and biking and (am learning to love) swimming. I’m doing this because the mental and physical challenge is a chance to grow.
And I’m doing this because my standard of success isn’t actually a BQ or an IM. My new standard of success is ditching shame, running free, and being brave enough to try hard/daunting things.
If that leads to Boston and 140.6, awesome. If not, here’s to the worthwhile journey.