Leadership Lessons from My First Duathlon

Two weeks ago, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to “Eye of the Tiger” blaring from my Amazon Echo Dot. The WiFi was cutting in and out, so the inspirational song kept stopping and restarting. This glitch didn’t stop me from turning to my wife with the energy of it being 11 a.m. and shouting, “let’s go!”

An hour later, we were setting up our bikes ahead of embarking upon our first triathlon.

I’ll be the first one to admit that going into the race, I was quite nervous. It’s not that I wasn’t prepared – I run at least two miles three days per week, lift weights that same amount of days and had been training on my bike a couple weeks prior. It was the unknown, which is often the igniter for my anxiety.

The anxiety was especially high the seven days leading up to the race. Would I finish? Would I have to stop to walk and look foolish? Would my friends pass me and think I’m weak? Those were just a few of the questions that overplayed in my mind. I had to tell myself “so what” many times.

Surprisingly, the morning of the big race, I woke up with a calm mind. As usually happens with my anxiety, it doesn’t prevent me from doing anything but impacts my mind and stress level during the lead-up. I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. In fact, I didn’t question whether I was going to finish or have to stop, I knew I would. It was just a matter of when I’d cross that finish line.

Lesson: It’s not uncommon to have some form of anxiety. But most of the time, the worrying is the worst part. Don’t let anxiety stop you from living your life and attempting to do amazing things.

One thing to clarify now is I actually took part in the duathlon. Instead of the half-mile swim to kick off the race, I did a two-mile run. I just didn’t have any interest in jumping in a lake at 6:45 a.m., surrounded by hundreds of others. My wife, who did do the swim, told me it was a horrible experience – validation it was a good move on my part.

The rest of the race was similar: a 17-mile bike ride, then a five-mile run to close it out.

I got chills when taking my first steps after the starting line, thinking how I couldn’t believe I was actually about to do this. It was somewhat emotional, to be completely honest. What started out as a challenge a few friends throughout while getting drinks one night had become a reality.

I had no problem doing the initial two-mile run – my 8:30 miles were slightly better than I usually do on the treadmill at the gym. Then came the transition.

In all my research leading up to the race, I read the transition is where you can cut time and preparation is key. Being my first time, here were my thoughts: I have a lot of miles to go, get ready and be comfortable. The latter almost didn’t happen as I took a few seconds to catch my breath from the run, grab some Gatorade and walk my bike to the starting line. Halfway there I realized I didn’t have my padded bike shorts on, so had to go back and slip them on before heading out.

Lesson: Preparation creates anticipation rather than uncertainty.

Prior to race day, the furthest I had traveled on a bike leading up to the race was 11 miles. About two miles in, we came upon this massive hill, which I began to use muscles I had definitely not worked. Had others started walking their bikes up this hill, I probably would have too. But I’m thankful I powered through, just like everyone else.

Lesson: Great leaders – i.e. those in front of me – can make or break their team. Don’t ever be the reason they stop reaching their potential. Lead by example.

For the next 12 miles, it was really an enjoyable ride. With the hills, when I went up, I told myself that I’ll eventually have to come back down, and vice-versa. At one point, I even passed my wife. Waving to each other re-energized me, considering we both had smiles on our face.

Leading up to the race, I had spent time visualizing the terrain based on some maps the race organizers had provided. That preparation was useful because I knew where the easier and more difficult sections of the race were. From this, I knew the tallest hill on the bike was at mile 13.34.

This hill was massive. I vaguely remember going down it, but don’t remember agonizing about having to eventually go back up. I made it about 30 percent of the way up, but couldn’t do it. I gave up. Seeing people ahead of me walking their bikes up the hill, I began to do the same. I can’t say I would have given up so easily had I not seen that, but I believe so.

Lesson: I am a firm believer in visualization. If you can picture what success looks like, the path to get there is always a bit clearer and more achievable.

I’ll tell you this though: I knew once I made it to the top of this hill, the rest of the bike portion was going to be easy — well, easier. Fifteen miles into the race, it was all about conserving energy to finish the race – I still had about four on the bike and a five-mile run. At the top of the massive hill, I hopped back on the bike and cruised into the transition area once again.

Practicing for the transition from bike to run – the feeling of having extremely heavy legs – was something I did only a little leading up to the actual race. After docking my bike and grabbing a Cliff Bar (eating on the bike was harder than I expected), I changed my bike shorts to running shorts and set off for the last leg.

While my legs were heavy, it wasn’t something that had me concerned. In fact, they felt better than I had expected. Part of that could have been the adrenaline passing through my body knowing I was so close.

Lesson: Preparation should not exclusively focus on your areas of strength. Recognizing areas of weakness is a powerful trait. Knowing that you will not perfect all of these weaknesses is also important to understand. By accepting this, you can come up with a game plan for how to use them to your advantage.

A mile in, I wished I had something to drink. Thankfully, there were tables with volunteers handing out cups every mile during this last phase. One cup would go in my mouth (drinking while running is not something I practiced and was harder than eating on the bike) and the other on my head.

At one point during the run – the entire race was through a residential area – a few kids were standing on the side of the road cheering. One had a water gun and began to shoot me. I turned and gave him this “pow, pow, pow” reaction as if I was shooting him back. It used a lot of my already depleted energy, but I was feeling good.

Two miles into the run, I came upon another major hill. I made the decision to walk. At this point I was so close, I knew I was going to finish. I was physically exhausted though and what little energy I had, I was willing to use on the downhills and straightaways. I walked about three times that last five-mile stretch.

Lesson: Life and business is often a sprint, not a race. Take the time you need to get to where you ultimately want to go.

I’m not ashamed of this, nor did I feel foolish as my anxiety had me worrying about leading up to the race. A random girl passing me as I was walking even turned and said, “you’re almost there, keep going.” For someone I had never met, and probably never will, to pass on that motivation was big at that moment.

With about a quarter mile to go, I was walking up a hill when I saw one of my friends who had finished before me. Seeing him inspired me to begin running again, pushing me to finish strong. As I came upon the finish line, with a hundred cheering people, including many friends who had come to support us, I spotted the clock. The time read 2:29:23.

“I must finish before 2:30,” I had told myself.

With the last remaining energy my body had, I ran as fast as my legs could and crossed with 10 seconds to spare. I had done it!

Lesson: Great coaches don’t do the work for you, they inspire you. These two individuals couldn’t run for me. Instead, they used words to get me going again when things were tough.

A few minutes later my wife crossed the finish line. It was an emotional feeling to have worked so hard leading up to the race, and perhaps even harder to actually complete it.

Throughout this post, I’ve called it a race, but really, outside of the last 20 seconds or so, I wasn’t pushing myself to finish under any specific time. It was all about finishing.

Accomplishing that feat is something I’m proud of. It was mentally and physically trying, yet these are the type of experiences that make you stronger. In fact, it took only a week before I signed up for my next “race:” a Spartan sprint.

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