Discovering Grit in a Half-Ironman

TriUnited 3, October 26, 2014

About 4 hours and 10 minutes into the race, I was 10k to the finish of the 90k bike leg and I started to think about quitting.  This was a no-expectation race for me and I was just happy to be a triathlete again doing a long workout in a new place. I wanted to enjoy the day and not worry about how long I took to do the race.  I was so relaxed that I didn’t even dread the swim. While I found the waters more crowded than normal, I came out in my average time and was feeling good.  I took it easy on the bike and sooner or later, I was done with 30k.  So everything seemed to be going fine till 80k of the bike. The road was uphill, there were headwinds, and my quads were already fried by then. The planned long training day seemed to be taking longer than expected and taking too much from me too soon. It wasn’t fun anymore. It was painful. And there was a hot 21k run waiting for me.

Tu3 2014 Bike
Biking to transition on tired legs (by Running Photographers)

I told myself that I’d just try to run and see how it goes. The run course is a loop that goes 3.5k downhill then 3.5k uphill which we repeat 3 times. Nearing the end of first loop, I could feel myself getting deeper into a dark hole of fatigue and distress.  I started to get scared, and cold, and dreaded the next 2 loops. I found myself saying “How am I going to do this? I don’t think I can. What’s the point? It’s a no expectation race naman. Quit na lang kaya?”

I dug in my bag of tricks to see what would work. I immediately looked inside and tried to find something to emotionally carry me thru — thoughts of my family & friends & maybe those who need the offering of suffering that day. Nothing would stick.

So if it wasn’t the heart, then I went to the head. “Ok Jake, it’s 3 loops. You’re finishing the 1st. Then you’ll be on the 2nd. After that, the 3rd. And then you’re done.  Break it up into chunks, one loop at a time.”  That gave me hope.

Running on hope
Running on hope

On the 2nd and 3rd loops hope turned into suffering. True enough, the hole of fatigue got deeper, and I couldn’t dig myself out of it.  I had too much lactic acid in my legs, and my muscles started to get sore… everywhere.  I started doing a run-walk combination. Sooner or later there was more walking than running. I can tell you that it’s a hard thing to do (not just physically but also mentally)  to put one foot in front on the next, when you’re tired, and it’s scorching, and when you seem to have no easy choices.

Enduring hard things (by Adel Samson)
Enduring hard things (by Adel Samson)

Somewhere in the middle of all this surviving to get to the finish line, I remembered a thought from a book I’ve been reading “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. He says the moments that define great CEOs is when they keep on going when there are no easy choices.  Ben says,  “It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that can make the biggest difference as CEO.”

That thought somehow got me to endure the last 7k to the finish.  So at 7 hours and 35 minutes, I crossed the finish line in the toughest course I’ve ever had to race.

Heart salute at the finish
Heart salute at the finish

There was something different about this race. It wasn’t about heart – a powerful emotion to drive thru the pain. It wasn’t just experience to pull out mental tricks.  It was a form of self recognition: I’m a stubborn fool. If I could do it out there, I could do it on the course.

In the last (and what felt like the longest) 3.5k of my life, I was shuffling in the heat with another triathlete who was also suffering. He would blurt out, in between breaths, “Ang init… grabe uphill pa.” I was where he was (I just kept it inside).  And maybe because it was him saying it (and not me), I could step back from the suffering and see what was happening for what it was.  So I look at him and smiled and said, “Yet despite all that, we are still going.”


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