As I enter into the last ten days or so of my sabbatical, I have one last “event” looming on the horizon. After traveling 27,000 miles by plane and car, reading a few thousand pages of books, spending a couple hundred hours reading and writing, and three months of fun, learning and family time, my sabbatical will end with a long, hard day and then a week-long rest. On Sunday, I will take part (I just can’t bring myself to write “race”) in Ironman Canada.
Tomorrow, my family and I will fly to Penticton, British Columbia where we will meet up with my friends Charlie and Ted and their families. On Sunday morning, (God willing!) Charlie and I will swim 2.4 miles, ride our bikes for 112 miles and then run 26.2 miles (all hopefully, in under 17 hours). Ted (a two-time Ironman already) will be our coach and head cheerleader. (This picture is of Ted, Charlie and me, a year ago when we went to Penticton to sign up for the Ironman. Rest assured, that we're significantly fitter today.)
For the better part of three years now, the three of us have been working out and hanging out together as a most unlikely trio of 200-pound, 40-something-year-old triathletes. While Charlie and I have never completed an Ironman-distance event yet, we do have several half-Ironmans and International distance races under our belts. We have also run a marathon, cycled a few centuries and, been able to do a few epic bike rides along the way. At the same time, I think we may have learned a few lessons that are in many ways connected to this whole sabbatical experience.
Since I have no idea whether I’ll be in any shape for writing long entries next week, I’ll put up a few posts here in the days preceding the event. People tell me that the Ironman itself is an experience that teaches you a few things. Since I haven’t done it yet, those lessons will have to wait a bit. But whether I am able to complete the Ironman or not, I have also learned quite a few things just from “Tri-ing.” So over the next couple of days, allow me to pass on some thoughts that Charlie, Ted and I have talked about on the long hours of riding and running, these long months. There are some lessons that I have learned along the way, beginning with this one:
Anything worth doing requires beginning humbly.
My Ironman journey began three years ago with a bad run, a big body and a little book. Three summers ago, my wife’s cousin Mike invited me to take a morning run with him while we were vacationing together in Sun Valley. Now, while I hadn’t run much in the prior months, I had been hiking and bike riding with my kids and I have always been somewhat of an athlete, so I figured a 3-mile morning jog was not beyond the realm of possibility.
30 minutes later, I was heaving with every breath, I needed three Advil and had to lie down. Mike graciously cut the run short and I couldn’t believe just how far out of shape I had become. When I stepped on the scale at home, it read 227 pounds (the heaviest I had ever been). About that time, I also read something in a devotional book that said in effect, “If Satan really wants to get to you, he’ll go after your strengths, not your weaknesses. If you are tempted at your weaknesses, you’ll just rely on God more in the areas where you already have to rely on God, but if you are tempted at your strengths, you’ll have to learn to relinquish your strengths to God and that is much more difficult.”
Running with Mike and stepping on the scale told me just how much I needed to make a change in my life, but the biggest obstacle was my strength…including my physical strength. I was captain of the wrestling team in high school, I have lifted weights and played sports and been physically active all my life.
But beyond the physical, one of my biggest strengths professionally is that I can work quickly. I can write a sermon in one day if I have to, I can pound out memos and strategic plans, I am good at meeting deadlines. I am focused; I think on my feet and am good at attacking a problem. Also, at this stage of my life I know what I am good at and what I am not and, I can usually avoid those things that I can’t do very well.
But following that fitness nadir in Sun Valley three years ago, Ted entered the picture and became both mentor and partner. Ted is built like me and he convinced me that if I really wanted to get into shape, triathlons are the perfect blend of cross-training and goal-oriented challenge to inspire. But it would mean that I would have to unlearn and relearn virtually everything I thought I knew and would make me humbly face all that I couldn’t do.
Triathlon meant training long and slow, not quickly and intensely. It meant also meant having to humbly admit that I while I thought of myself as an “ex-jock” I didn’t know the first thing about life time fitness. While I could bench press more weight than ever before, I couldn’t swim 50 yards without stopping to rest at the half way point.
And if I wanted to be a triathlete I literally had to learn to swim all over again. (Whatever I had learned as child who had the 7-8 year-old 50 meter butterfly record for the Mt. Sac Swim Team had long vanished.) I was such a bad swimmer that I not only started in the slow lane, I was getting passed by women—old women—old women-who-were-recovering-from-a stroke. In fact, one guy from my church saw me swim one day and wanting to encourage me, he dropped a book off at church called something like, “How to swim.” (I think he was afraid that his pastor was going to drown.)
(Even today, when someone asks me about the events of triathlon, I tell them, “I bike for fun, I run for fitness, and I swim to finish.”)
Indeed, the first obstacle to my new goal was nothing more than the oldest human problem: pride.
When people hear that I am going to do an Ironman, they inevitably say, “Whoa. That sounds hard.” I respond, “Not as hard as putting on a Speedo when you are 30 pounds overweight.”
But that is where it started. Swallowing my pride, squeezing into a small suit, asking for help and awkwardly heading down the path that would change my life. The first lesson learned: Anything worth doing requires beginning humbly.
Tomorrow: the main lesson and motto of “Team Glow Stick”.