Part of who I have become is an endurance athlete, and whether or not you ever plan to run a marathon or swim a channel, this is a post for you. We are all endurance athletes in this adventure called life. Whether you are struggling to acquire a new skill at work, weathering a divorce, enduring sleepless nights with an infant, battling cancer, or trying to keep the long view through the teenage years, we all end up in times that push us past what we think our bodies or spirits can really endure.
Five years ago, in the midst of the most difficult time in my life, I began training for an endurance swim. The English Channel isn't on my bucket list, but training for the same old 5k in Chicago each year since has gotten a bit dull. I needed a new challenge. Something to keep me engaged in the sport and keep me in the water for the long hours it takes to be ready. Last summer I finally had the chance to swim across the Chesapeake Bay. More than 4 miles across, with currents which can quickly pull you off course, the bay is a body of water I've known since childhood, yet its lessons came to me in a new tide once I was out in the middle. Here's what I learned:
- Endurance sports are a reflection of life. Just when you think you can't push through the really hard stuff, the tide changes and you're back in flight. Stay in the game, trust what you know, and keep moving even when your body is protesting.
Losing sight of both shores can be disorienting, trust your other guideposts in these moments. When I could no longer see the shore I'd left, nor the shore to which I was headed, I trusted the bridge, I followed each pylon and trusted I was getting to the other side. Look for the glimmers of light to show you you're on track: a hug from the teen who has been abrasive all week, a team member well coached who makes the next right move without seeking your advice, or waking up with even a glimmer of hope in the midst of your grief-- these are the signs you are headed in the right direction.
The make up of a successful endurance athlete is 50% physical capacity, 50% mental capacity. There are times when only your psyche matters. Keep it in check. Make sure you have a mantra. Whether it's illness, sport, or parenting, keeping your eyes on the prize is the key to success and a mantra can get you there. Boil it down to a simple truth. An affirmation. Something that reminds you what to do, and most importantly where to focus.
Overtrain. If I am set to swim a 7k, I make sure to have a few 10k swims under my belt before race day. It seems excessive, but it gives me that mental capacity to endure. When you can honestly tell yourself you know you can do it, you can. Overprepare and you will enjoy the ride that much more.
Your team matters, especially in “individual” events. My support team of friends, colleagues, family and especially a supportive partner allow me to enjoy these endurance sports. They're there to rub my shoulders when they tire, to ask how the training is going even when they're likely tired of hearing it, and to cheer me on at the finish. No matter your endurance event this year, make sure you are investing in the team that you want there for you when you need them, and even when you don't. You may be the one training, but they are the ones who will make sure you make it to the finish lines in life.
Just as there are moments you don't know if you'll make it through, there are moments you wish it would never end. Flipping on my back for a view of the bridge towering above me is an image I'll always treasure-- the sky moving with the cloudscape, the silence of the Bay despite the traffic just overhead. You can find these moments too-- when your baby stops nursing to look you in the eyes and coo at 2 am, being present to hold the hand of a loved one as they die-- your connection deeper than you could have imagined, the moment your teen confides in you what's really behind those grumpy days... those are the moments to treasure.
No matter how old we get, it's important to have moments which remind us we really can do anything with enough preparation. Swimming the Chesapeake Bay was one of those moments for me, and I will chase a few more this year-- one will be a swim from Asia to Europe, but I have an endurance event at Habitat this year as well, and I'm engaged in several at home.
Find your challenge this year-- name it and work for it, or work on it. You may not need an endurance athletic event to challenge you this year, but we're all engaged in this endurance event called life. Maybe life has provided enough work for you on its own. If that's the case, you can still train, prepare, endure, and don't forget to enjoy.
When you find yourself at the finish line, be sure to celebrate, and remind yourself there was a moment (or 5) when you didn't think you could do it.
But you did.
And you will again.