There comes a point in every person’s life when they realize they aren’t going to be an astronaut. Except, that is, astronauts. They probably have some other sort of midlife crisis. The crisis is, at its core, the realization that you have crossed significant milestones in your life, made choices or been moved by circumstances, in which the dreams of your childhood self will never become realized. My friend Ben has dealt with his astronaut crisis by adopting the motto, “Be Deke.” Deke Slayton was one of the original Mercury 7 Astronauts – one of the guys who had The Right Stuff and went from test pilot to the glorified cadre of America’s first astronauts. Deke was scheduled to fly in May 1962 on the second orbital flight. Unfortunately, he had an undiagnosed heart condition that was found before he could fly and so Deke was grounded by both NASA and the Air Force. This guy had every characteristic of jet era badassery except for an internal anomaly that crept by undetected until right before his career pinnacle. Did Deke quit? Nope. Deke became Chief of the Astronaut Office and stuck in there. He remained an astronaut in spirit even if his body was grounded. (Eventually Deke made it to space in 1974 as part of the Apollo Missions.) The idea here is that Deke didn’t let something he could not control dictate how he would react. He didn’t quit, he built and honed his skills, and he continued to move America’s space program forward. When my friend Ben realized he wouldn’t be an astronaut he decided to learn all the skills that it would take to become an astronaut so if and when the time came that it was an option, he would be in the best position to go. It’s not so much giving up on the childhood dream inasmuch as it is nurturing that sense of wonder and possibility in the face of our own terrifying mortality.
Death is the primary motivator, that ticking clock that grows louder every year to a mysterious detonation that turns our pursuits into epitaphs. My finisher’s medal holder reads Fear-Death=Fun, the motto of roller coaster designers. I’ve forgotten most of elementary school math but I seem to recall that you can re-order the equation so that Fun+Death=Fear is also true. But that also means that Fun-Fear=Death. With that in mind, I keep a healthy amount of fear around so that I don’t die doing something fun.
I signed up for the San Francisco Triathlon at Alcatraz on the urging of a friend who wanted to get back into racing after the birth of his daughter. We signed up together and then I promptly forgot about it. I maintained a fairly regular schedule of biking long on the weekends down in Palos Verdes, with distances of 40-55 miles including the climb to Marymount. I did weekly ocean swims of short distances as part of coaching the Ocean 101. But I tore my meniscus in November, had surgery in March, and I was rebuilding my running slowly. By May I was running 4 miles after my swim without any difficulty. Other than that repeating, non-periodized training I’d been doing twice weekly strength and power sessions with my trainer for overall fitness. In the past I’ve followed training plans faithfully because it assuaged my self-doubt. This time I didn’t follow a plan at all, which meant I felt woefully unprepared for this race.
The more I looked at the race course the more worried I became. I’ve always been intimidated by San Francisco’s hills. They are legendary, and since I was unfamiliar with the city the hill profile’s multiple aggressive spikes stood out sharp and dangerous. The swim from Alcatraz island to shore is just as legendary in the triathlon and open swimming communities. Much of it is marketing hype playing up the dangers of sharks, cold, and current. (I have no fear of sharks. When you have hundreds of humans, dozens of boats, jet skis, and kayaks in the water at once no shark is going to be anywhere near that carnival of chaos.) Due to a family issue, my friend had canceled on the race a few weeks prior, so I was going to be racing alone.
I arrived in the City Friday at 5 and drove the course. It felt incredibly hilly. (You can check the web site and see the course map for the exact route.) The climb out of the park was straight but steep and continued into the Presidio for a series of big up and downs, with another major climb out of a swanky neighborhood up to the Legion of Honor, and down the backside to roll up and down until the Great Highway. Finally, it opens up for a long stretch of mileage, but the reverse up the Great Highway was a mean looking mother, and the inclines kept coming for that five miles back through the Presidio. I got some sleep Friday night, but Saturday the deadly tendrils of fear started wrapping themselves around my amygdala and steadily tightened.
I kept my shit together as best I could while trying not to be a giant pain in the ass to my wife and kid. My wife is simply the most supportive human being on earth and understands completely that the way you help someone filled with doubt is not to downplay their fears or invalidate their concerns (which may be real) but to remind them of what they can accomplish and have accomplished before in the face of adversity. If you ever need to know what to tell your family when they ask how to support you – tell them you’ve already signed up for a race, you’re already filled with self-doubt and race jitters – their job is to distract you from your fear by filling you with love. You are either trained or not for the race about to happen. All you can do is sabotage yourself. A piece of coaching advice I’ve been given and handed out is that there’s nothing you can do in the day or two before a race to improve your chances of success but there’s a crapload you do to fuck it all up.
The race directors of this event also put on Wildflower and other premier triathlon races. They know what athletes want and need. This was a no frills operation with tremendous value and bang for a very reasonable entry fee. (This is contrast to the June $750+ Escape from Alcatraz race that sells out and uses a lottery for admission, is heavily sponsored and branded, and is basically the same race.) This same race was held in 2010 and 2011 but was off for years due to the America’s Cup races taking over the Bay. I attended the athlete’s briefing Saturday and it was invaluable. It also had a perfect swag backpack with a race belt. One of the race directors has done the swim over 1,031 times including the morning of the briefing. He went over in great detail how to site on the twin towers behind Ghirardelli Square, then Fort Mason, and finally the yacht club and Palace of Fine Arts.
The Bay rises and falls 8 feet every 12.5 hours through a channel about a mile wide under the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a massive volume of water and results in a very strong current that will make or break your swim. Races are typically scheduled for low ebbing tide at least current periods for safety. If you follow the sighting directions and trust that the current will correct your angle, you will have a good swim. As a point of pride, I felt I had to nail the swim. I coach newbies every week how to navigate in open water. I was going to wear a GPS watch to track my time and progress.
The run course had done away with 400 logs tied together over sand and instead included hundreds of steps up and down around the old baths beneath Golden Gate. I had only run 4 miles at a time until now, on flat beach pavement. I had no idea how I’d do on the course.
The timing of the day was also going to be brutal. Transition opened at 4AM, my shuttle assignment was for 4:40AM to get from transition to the boat launch. The boat departed at 6:20 for a race start of 7AM. This meant I had to wake up at 3AM to get prepped, then ride my bike the two miles to transition, get set up, and wait for hours before starting.
Most of all it was the bike I couldn’t shake. Ironman Lake Tahoe had erased any doubts I had that my Ironman success was a fluke. But that was almost three years prior. I obsessed over the morning start, the chaos of the swim, the hills of the City, all of it. I spent most of Saturday feeling terrified. Irrational, agonizing self-doubt. A feeling I never want to have around a hobby that is supposed to be first and foremost fun. This wasn’t fun, this was awful. But why? Where was this crushing terror coming from?
I managed to get to bed at 8PM and got absolutely no sleep at all. I got out of bed at 2:55 before the alarm, ate my light breakfast quietly in the hotel room, and got ready to leave. My wife is now an insomniac due to work stress and she was up as well. She wished me well and I rolled out of the hotel bundled up in my wetsuit halfway on, a throwaway sweatshirt, and jacket to keep me warm. I also had a throwaway pair of flip flops in my transition bag to wear on the boat. (Several locals suggested a trip to Goodwill to have throwaway items – the morning would be cold, the wait on the boat long, and porta-potties are notoriously gross on the floor.)
I walked my bike up the Bay Avenue hills and mounted my bike at Polk. I rode cautiously in the dark and arrived at transition by 4AM. I got myself set up in a tidy pile at my rack, and double checked my setup. I was ready by 4:10AM. Rather than wait 30 minutes doubting myself I stuffed my food (Gu stroopwaffles) and water bottle into my pockets and took the 4:15AM shuttle to the docks. I chatted up my seat neighbor, which distracted me from my fears – which had slowly begun melting away now that I was actually moving forward to start the damn thing. By the time I was at the pier, using the bathroom to try and get a poop out before the race, I felt a little tired but better. The day was going to be whatever it was going to be and at least I got to the start.
The boat filled up with jittery jovial people who were stretching and doing things that made no sense given 90 minutes before the race. The boat pushed off at 6:20 and I ate my last stroopwaffle, drank my last sip, and worked on loosening up my shoulders. I teach people to do a proper ten-minute warmup before they do an ocean swim. A warmup is the most critical thing you can do before you race, rather than hit the water cold and slam into race speed. Go for a jog along the beach, watch the waves, get into the right frame of mind and tell your body it’s about to do work. Not an option here. You do what you can, but when the anthem is sung and the doors slide open, you are penguin shuffled to the door. They want to unload 900 people in 5-8 minutes. Screw your warmup.
Prior to jump the race director pointed out the landmarks for sighting one more time. He noted that at the halfway point between the twin towers and the boat is time to shift sighting to the next target. Always listen to the person who’s done the route a few thousand times.
The boat staff were screaming “GO! GO! GO! GO!” I made it to the door, I looked for a clear space and I jumped.
At which point I was swimming. The water had some chop, but the landmarks were clear. I sighted where they told me to sight, I stayed in my own head and counted strokes, and sure as shit I changed my targets when I was supposed to and cruised along with the current. I remembered friend’s advice and rolled onto my back and looked around. I could see Alcatraz, the City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and a gentle mist blanketing the hills. It was beautiful. For the first time I felt the rust fall away and the iron beneath became visible.
I hit the shore and light jogged back to transition. I got to see and kiss my wife and kid, and get to my rack. A happy fellow yelled at me “I’ll do you and you do me!” Which in San Francisco could have meant anything – and at that point I was happy game – but he meant wetsuit stripped. We did each other, I got changed, and jogged the bike out to the street. My GPS data would later show a course straight as an arrow, with a time of 41 minutes. A perfectly navigated and executed swim.
You know what’s ridiculous? The first five miles of hills through the Presidio went by in a blur. I worked hard and managed my breathing, but I settled into a rhythm and the miles flew by. I stayed in my aerobic zone and pushed it when needed, but remained conservative with my energy stores assuming I’d need them later. The climb up to the Legion of Honor had gorgeous views of the water and misty eucalyptus trees. There were enough descents to build up speed to take to the next hill, and before I knew it I was on the Great Highway tucked into aero and in my big ring. It was here I realized I was stronger than I remembered, and I lost a lot of sleep over ungrounded fears.
The turn onto Skyline and final stretch of the first half went on further than I expected but it wasn’t bad and the hill was easily done in aero. I saw the main age group pack go by the other direction and had a rough sense of my position in the race. I made the turnaround and headed back with a steady but small wind coming off the west coast. As I began the climb up the Great Highway into the Presidio again – and this was the big climb I feared most – I passed what appeared to be a child riding a mountain bike spinning at 120 rpm and finally understood I had been a fool. I was going to be fine. They weren’t going to make a race of DNFs. Challenging but achievable. (Note to race directors – this is how you get repeat business. Unlike Ironman Tahoe which was so brutal a course that the registration plummeted and ended up being canceled on race day in 2014 due to fires, then canceled altogether after a paltry 2015 showing.) Before the turn back into the Legion of Honor I asked a volunteer what time is was, 9:18, which meant the bike course was still open another hour and fifteen minutes. There was no way I wasn’t going to finish.
Made it back to transition, kissed my wife and kid again, got changed and headed out for the run. I kept it slow for the first mile, testing out my knee for pings and pains but nothing came. The second mile was uphill and a mix of trail and pavement, and at mile 3, the stairs down began. After a long descent came the unholy stairs up, and down, and up and up, and up for an eternity. But I maintained a light jog, knowing that my 9:30 run pace for the first 3 miles was going to take a hit for mile 4-5. The weather was cold but not freezing, the views were spectacular, and everyone was friendly. Volunteers were still cheering, helping out, and being altogether wonderful.
I held back until I knew I had a half mile left, then opened up my speed. I crossed the finish line extremely happy, all fears erased, into my wife’s embrace.
We build narratives about ourselves every day. It can be passive, allowing our fears and doubts to shape how we perceive ourselves, or it can be active. I hear athletes say, “I suck on the hills” or “I’m a terrible swimmer”. What they’re doing is reinforcing a narrative that plays back when they are struggling. If you are climbing a hill and telling yourself “I hate this, I’m a terrible climber” you’re going to have a shitty experience. It’s a matter of time before you quit. But if you get into the habit of saying “I will climb this hill” and “I am strong and powerful and I can do this” your energy output absolutely changes. I’ve watched it happen in others and myself. This shapes who you are, how you present yourself in the world. This isn’t magic or asking the universe for favors. This is about how you define yourself.
For most of my life my inner biography has read like this: I skipped second grade because the suburban Baltimore elementary school didn’t know what to do with me. I dropped out of a high school magnet program because I was failing and a college took a big risk on me, and I never really got decent grades because I had shitty study skills. Any monkey can fix a Mac, I’m just a nice guy who doesn’t judge clients for having other skill sets. My friends like my writing but no one wants to buy what I make so I guess I’m not very marketable. I’m a mid to back of the pack triathlete who goes long distance because it’s more forgiving of mistakes.
My conscious narrative is this: I skipped second grade because I was smart. I dropped out of high school after 10th grade to go to college because I was still smart and fearless about my future. I’ve built a successful technology consulting business because I am very good at what I do and can easily make complex subjects understandable and emotionally relatable. I’m a good writer when I am able to carve out time to chip away at long form narrative, and even better when I use writing to process my thoughts and ideas. I do long course triathlon because I am incredibly good at turning suffering into joy.
So change your monologue and shed the fear. You’ll surprise yourself with what you can do.