Race anxiety is self imposed, a form of approach-avoidance. From my research for my next book on decision making, I have learned that approach-avoidance is a psychological syndrome that affects us all. When we take on a commitment and approach a big challenge, a big goal, the point of no return, we find it difficult to continue. We tend to discount what might be possible and otherwise exceptional because it daunts us and challenges us to act with intent and resolve, to go a new direction where the way is not easy nor familiar. We are afraid we will fail. We ignore the truth that we only learn when we bump up against change and challenge what we perceive as boundaries and limits.
Race anxiety for me seems to especially arise when I have committed to a big race and a challenging goal, in that lonely time pre-race when you wrestle with what you have gotten yourself into, when you worry that you are in too deep, that you have gone too far. It comes at the time when it still would be possible for me to walk away. It arises right before the reckoning point.
I might be smiling in my photo in bike transition on the day before Ironman Canada, but the smile masks my rising anxiety.
Race anxiety has led me to deep introspection, from which I have learned about myself.
Here are two stories about my race anxiety.
AM I WORTHY?
There is no way to ease the burden.
The voyage leads on from harm to harm,
A land of others and of silence.
- from "Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees," Donald Justice
I felt small, out of place. I was new. My gear and garb were not nearly as impressive as what many others brought and wore.
Did I belong here? Was I worthy? I did not feel worthy of racing with this crowd.
The place was registration for what would be my first longer distance triathlon. I had been racing shorter distances, with growing success, and now wanted to step up. The race was the venerable Muncie Endurathon, deep in central Indiana, a long drive for me from Chicago and for most competitors, and seemingly just for me a long way out of my comfort zone.
I had been training for longer distance racing the entire year, put my feet on pavement, shoes on the pedals and arms in the water just as had all the other competitors. But they seemingly showed confidence, some even arrogance, milling around registration, showing off even. "Look at me, I am a triathlon stud!" was the message that many seemed to want to send by their expensive racing clothes, high end bikes with aero wheels and banter about past big-time races.
Indeed, I felt in their eyes that I was not worthy, even though I too had a Quintana Roo Ti Quilo tri bike, a wetsuit, a tri suit and running shoes appropriate for the race. It was the confidence, the experience, the attitude and the splash that I lacked.
Oh, and I did not have the rippled abs nor the very low body fat that some racers sported.
I was not worthy.
Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness
May be converted into the future tense
- from "Or Else," Robert Penn Warren
Yet, I was worthy. By then racing, I realized that worthiness cannot be granted by others. Worthiness is something you don when you commit and follow through.
The next morning I lined up on the beach, wetsuit clad like everyone else, and swam with confidence around the foggy reservoir. I biked even better relative to my competition, my speed skater legs helping me conquer the Indiana hills. Being a runner, I ran the hills equally well, and placed mid age group. I was a self-verified member of the longer distance racing clan.
Along the way, I passed many with better gear and sleeker bodies.
AM I SELFISH?
I grow old under an intensity
Of questioning looks.
Nonsense, I have to say,
I cannot teach you children
How to live.
—If not you, who will?
- “Mirror,” James Merrill
I was struck dumb with revelation and self doubt. Who was I to be doing Ironman? What entitled me to be so selfish? I had played on the goodwill of my spouse for years of training and convoluted our lives to adapt to my training and racing schedules. I had rushed into and out of work for years. I had interjected my training, racing and Ironman goal into far too many conversations. How selfish of me. I could not follow through and do this race. It had cost far too much in time, money, and, especially, personal interactions to justify me spending yet another full day trying to revel in my ultimate selfish desire.
I looked in the bathroom mirror, shaken by my thoughts. After the Saturday a.m. swim, final gear packing and bike check-in, I had been at odd ends. No planned activities, no training to divert the mind, just time to kill. I should be resting. But I could not, suddenly having no preparation, planning or training to do. It was just me and my thoughts (having sent my spouse to the pool). I had wandered downtown Penticton and The Bike Barn. I had wandered my mind and come face-to-face with a part of me that I had been avoiding, the very adult me, the father/husband me, the me that believes we should be giving back, not taking, not using, the me that had led me from business to United Way as my career.
Giving back. That thought suddenly struck me. In some way, was my race giving to others? So many people were amazed that I could and would do Ironman. So many people expressed admiration that I was actually taking on this challenge at 50 plus. If I walked away now, what would that say? That the dedication and sacrifice was wasted? That it was meaningless? That I had been living a misguided life?
No, I didn’t believe that. Ironman was the epitome of goal setting and achievement. For me, it said that one could set a huge goal, prepare for it and achieve it. It said that ordinary humans were capable of so much more than they gave themselves credit for. It said that we were duty bound by the act of creation and existence to make the most of ourselves in our time on this world. Ironman was a way that I could demonstrate to others how much we all are capable of, to act out my long-held and firm belief that the greatest limits on ourselves were the ones we accepted or imposed on ourselves.
In this light, backing out now, quitting, not following through, not doing the race would be a direct repudiation of a core belief and would not set the example and teach what I hoped that pursing Ironman would achieve for others, much less for me.
I looked in the mirror. Lee, I said, any high goal has a measure of self in it, because you must dedicate yourself to achieve it. In this case, you can be the example you want to be and at the same time can get the personal satisfaction and joy that you know you will feel completing Ironman Canada. To negate the investment you have made and at the same time to negate the contributions of others to your goal would be the ultimate selfish, foolish, misguided act.
I breathed deeply and suddenly my high anxiety level began to subside. This was a seminal moment for me, after three long years of training for Ironman Canada.
I HAVE LIVED
Happy the man, and happy he alone
He who can call today his own.
He who, secure within himself can say
Tomorrow do thy worst;
For I have lived today
- from “Translation of Horace, III,” John Dryden
The next morning, after being body marked in the dark, I lined up on the beach with 1,600 other competitors. My goal was to finish under 14 hours. After swimming in gorgeous Okanagan Lake, riding along and then up and down passes in the low British Columbia mountains, and finally running out to and back from Okanagan Falls in the setting sun, I finished in 13:50, beating my goal.
The experience changed me in ways far beyond the benefits of racing a single Ironman. It led to deep friendships, a long-term commitment to great fitness, coaching others and, as I often saw among those around me, a license for others to extend their limits. My spouse and I fell in love with Ironman Canada, Penticton and its wonderful residents. I raced in Penticton 10 more times.
Footnote: Crashing out of the race in 2005 and dealing with a shattered clavicle and many broken ribs only strengthened my desire to keep racing Ironman Canada and deepened my spouse's and my appreciation for all the Penticton residents and athletes who treated us so well after my crash.