One day in late July, 2021, my girlfriend Elena called me on her lunch break to deliver alarming news: she’d impulsively signed up for a half Ironman in North Carolina in October. She wanted a big challenge to motivate her to get back in shape amid the pandemic. A long-distance triathlon fit the bill: swim 1.2 miles, ride a bike 56 miles, and then run a half-marathon.
It sounded terrible. I said, “Oh hell,” and signed up, too.
We had two and a half months to train. Our chief goal: finish without being disqualified. We had a total of eight and a half hours to complete the whole 70.3-mile course.
I didn’t know how I’d do it. I am a former college athlete—a baseball player—but that was 12 years ago. I’d never run more than six miles at one time, and that had hurt like hell.
At six-foot-two and 220 pounds, I was completely out of shape. When COVID hit, my life fell apart. Career ambitions, personal life—it all felt wrecked. Elena arrived like a lightning bolt in January 2021 when she moved to my small town in North Carolina from Monterrey, Mexico, for a new job. Both of us were in uncertain stages of life, and neither of us expected a relationship, but then love happened. Now, finally vaccinated, we were ready to live again.
Taking on a half Ironman reminded me of the former Project Acheron from Red Bull. The name came from Dante’s Inferno, in which the River Acheron carries people to hell. Red Bull would send a few of their athletes out into the wilderness with Navy SEALs, where they’d do things like hike the expanse of Patagonia for a week. The idea was to transform people by showing them how to endure a physical challenge far beyond their comfort zone.
After a year and a half of COVID isolation, choosing how I’d like to suffer felt like its own form of relief.
But I was far more out of shape than I thought, not just physically, but also mentally. When I inevitably struggled in training, I’d get so frustrated that I’d just stop and brood. At first, Elena thought I was mad at her for being a better swimmer and runner, but I was just mad at myself.
Here was this amazing woman, this dreamer of the most beautiful dreams, who found romance and meaning in even the smallest moments. I wanted to run with her. And swim. And ride. And, prone to worry, I was scared I was somehow holding her back—in the training, in the race, and in life.
She said she loved me, and of course she didn’t feel that way about me, and she wasn’t sure she’d get through all the training without me. She said, “Stop punishing yourself.”
That line rocked me. I wasn’t just getting mad at myself—I was punishing myself. The sentiment echoed the work I’ve done in therapy over the past five years. It’s why my fitness had deteriorated: I imposed draconian diets and regimen, and then got so frustrated when I didn’t stick to them that I gave up entirely. It also showed up in near-self-martyrdom when I’d overextend myself for other people, while also abandoning countless personal projects that were important to me.
I’ve treated myself this way most of my life. This personal Project Acheron made that clear. And had I not recognized this cycle, I might not have survived what was to come. But then training, and the race itself, became one long practice in no longer punishing myself. Likewise, I stopped abiding others who behaved in punishing ways toward me.
Elena explained how she worked through suffering: a former champion speed skater, Elena doesn’t beat herself up for struggling—she tells herself she is strong for taking on such a challenge at all. When it hurts, she consciously recalls all she’s already done, to use as evidence that she can do even more. Trying makes her stronger.
I learned to tell myself the same things. I told myself that all I had to do was keep going. You lose your fear by doing the thing you’re afraid of. You become someone who can do the hard things by just doing the hard things. Let yourself hurt. Just keep breathing. That’s how you keep growing.
I made peace with my struggles and found where I was good: on the bike. I still had a lot of strength in my legs from my days as a catcher. It just needed to be rediscovered, and taught to endure. I learned to zoom out and watch myself from my mind’s eye, seeing my body doing well despite my emotions telling me how horrible I was. I felt like I was excavating part of myself, digging some part of me out of psychological rubble.
I cut down on drinking but also draconian self-discipline. I took days off that were supposed to be training days. I ate burgers and pizza. I still let myself drink sometimes, like when Elena joined me on a work trip in Las Vegas, or on a trip to Cancun, where we decided that a hangover counted as resistance training.
Come race day, in Wilmington, North Carolina, we decided to simply enjoy every moment. We were going to do something that once felt impossible, and told each other to just do our thing and we’d see each other when we saw each other. We entered the water together alongside hundreds of others just as the day started to break.
I pulled to the side a few minutes in to watch the sunrise. Later in the swim, when I got hit and kicked in the head and the face, I remembered to focus on my breath. I finished the swim in 38 minutes. On the bike, I caught up to Elena ten miles in, she blew me a kiss and said to go kick the bike course’s ass. I finished the bike course in under three hours.
Then came hell: the half marathon. I used a strategy that once got Elena through a marathon she hadn’t trained for: run at a comfortable pace for four minutes, walk for one, repeat. It was remarkable how long the last minute of running could last, and how quickly the minute of walking was gone. I pushed as much as I could. Elena had been worried it would take her more than four hours on the bike, but I had a feeling she would catch me anyway. I worried that, if she did, I’d hold her back.
Three miles from the finish line, my hamstring cramped. I stretched and breathed and avoided getting angry. Just keep breathing.
I felt empty and broken as I approached the final mile leading through downtown Wilmington, when I heard a child ask his mom what we were doing. “Mom, but how?” he said, “They’re just strong people,” she answered.
I’d just passed the marker for the final mile when I heard Elena yelling my name. I stopped and turned and she ran and hugged me. She’d finished the bike in three and a half hours, hit a wall during the run, but wanted to catch me, so she kept going. She laughed at me being worried about holding her back—she’d been worried about the same. Now we were about to finish this thing together.
We crossed the finish line together, our final times under seven hours. At some point the officials must have given us medals because we wore them in the post-race photos. To be honest, I don’t remember that.
I only remember that we hugged, and held each other for a long time, and we didn’t know if we wanted to laugh, or cry, or scream, and then we did all three.
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