Two of the more extreme endurance events are Ironman Hawaii in Kona, HI – the Ironman World Championship – and the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in Auburn, CA. One has you swimming, cycling, and running 140.6 miles on the lava fields of the Big Island, the home of the first Ironman triathlon. The other has you running 100 miles - with 18,090 feet of ascent and 22,970 feet of descent - on the original trails used by gold and silver miners of the 1850s. Both have long, storied traditions. Either one could be considered the most demanding single day event, the “Big Dance”, in their respective sport. Athletes covet the opportunity to experience either of them simply because of their illustrious history and daunting challenges.
But it is more than just the challenge involved. Events like these bring with them a purity and simplicity, a back-to-the-essence-of-the-sport vibe. They are surreal to some, and tantalizing to others. And they have a deeper inner meaning to many.
I have coached athletes in both events. I have heard countless reasons for taking on these adventures. As an Ironman triathlon finisher myself, one thing has become crystal clear: there are a number of life lessons that can be learned through sport in general, and through endurance sports such as these in particular. Sport does, in fact, become a metaphor for life.
Endurance sports can be a virtual microcosm of our life experiences. If we pay attention to the lessons contained within our training, we stand to learn many lessons for life in general. Here are but a few life lessons that can be learned from endurance sports – be it from a Western States, an Ironman Hawaii, or your first 5K.
1. The reality of our existence on the planet is that there will be good times and bad times. Training simply mimics life in this regard. In an event like Ironman, you are faced with the ups and downs, the joys and heartbreaks, the challenges and the smiles - all in the span of 17 hours or less. Moments in the event can serve as a reminder that it is always darkest before the dawn. Life is no different – perhaps a bigger timeline, but the elements remain consistent.
2. The event is but a milestone, a road marker, along the pathway of life. Although there is a finish line, the event isn’t a measure of success or failure. It is simply a bench mark for where we are at that particular point in time and space on our journey through life, growth, and self-awareness.
3. The event does not define us. It does not (or certainly should not) define who we are or what we are made of in our existence. We define the event. Life does not define us. Our actions and thoughts define our lives, who we are, and who we will become. We self-actualize in sport, and in life.
4. The true beauty of the event is in the lessons we learn about ourselves while preparing for it. Personal growth occurs during training. You are constantly pushing the limits of mind and body to go to places you may have never gone to before. You come to realize that you can go to the dreaded “dark place” - that moment that makes you wonder if you can indeed survive it – and you can find a way to transcend it. The journey that we call “training” becomes far more important than the event itself.
5. The finish line can be anti-climactic – if you are at peace with yourself. In my personal experience with Ironman, I knew that the process of training would give me the physical and mental capacities to see the day through. I was at peace at the start line. Once I finished, it felt as though it was just a stop along the way. That is how I knew that the training had truly served its deeper purpose, at least on the larger scale of life.
6. If you have to go further, somehow you find a way to do so – if it is important enough to you. In any endurance event you will be faced with the moment that you ask yourself “why am I here?”. If it resonates deeply enough within you, you find a way. Simple. There is no other answer. There will be a peace in knowing that you can go to that dark place and emerge unscathed (if not stronger) on the other side. Life events are no different.
7. Being in the moment. The beauty is in being present. In an endurance event, you really have to manage your efforts in the now, so that you can be successful as you go further into the event. Being present in the moment involves taking in all of the joyous sights and sounds of the event, much as you would (should) in life itself. Worrying about the future doesn’t help you take care of what lies in front of you right now. Appreciate what you have today – the present, the gift – as yesterday’s failures and tomorrow’s concerns are a moot point compared to what we can experience in the present.
Having been present at both of these special events, it becomes obvious that there is an internal peace to be found within the context of these endurance sports. Perhaps that is what truly makes them special: the purity of personal growth encompassed within the span of a 17 or 30 hour event. May they always remain a microcosm of life and an opportunity to expand ourselves and our self awareness along the way.
Photo credits: abesselink