On April 16, 2014, I joined Team Chocolate Milk and Olympic legend Apolo Ohno for the opportunity of a lifetime: to train for my first Ironman. The 2014 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, to be more specific. To call it a reaching goal would be a massive understatement. It was, without a doubt, the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.
What followed were six of the most challenging, transformative months of my life. I recognized and celebrated the number of little battles I won along the way: my first race post-knee surgery; my first half Ironman; the fact that I tallied 160 days (over 271 hours!) of training—and only seven missed workouts.
Still, I questioned whether it was enough. The week before I left for Kona, I was more anxious and scared than ever. The more I worried—thinking through all of the unknowns, imagining everything that could go wrong—the more stressed I felt. I took my anxiety as a glaring warning sign that maybe, after all the work and sacrifice, I still wasn’t adequately prepared.
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I got a different perspective on those emotions while reading On Top of Your Game: Mental Skills to Maximize Your Athletic Performance by Carrie Cheadle. “Anxiety isn’t all bad,” she notes. “It’s hardwired in us for a reason. It’s an emotion that we feel to encourage us to deal with a situation we are being presented with. If the emotion of anxiety has done its job, then it has mobilized you to prepare.”
That’s when I realized: My body was prepared; physically, I was ready. My coach Lee Gardner told me that. My teammate Apolo told me that. Even Ironman legend Paula Newby Fraser told me that. But this race would be more impacted by my thoughts than my actions—and that’s what I needed to work on. Doubt and fear may have played a positive role early on—they made me work harder, stay focused, and wholeheartedly commit—but as soon as those cannons went off, those emotions served no productive purpose.
Cheadle states in her book, “Whether something transforms into anxiety has to do with your perception of the situation. Two different people can be met with the same challenge, but their individual interpretation of the situation will predict how they will respond.”
There were plenty of external obstacles I couldn’t predict or control (for example, the harsh weather conditions Kona was notorious for). But there were internal obstacles that I knew—without question—I would face on race day. I knew if I could manage those, I would find a way to get across the finish line.
So I simplified my game plan: I’d have three mantras, one for each discipline, and two power words—cues that would help keep my mind focused on the main goal I wanted to accomplish—for each leg, as well. Here’s how my pre-race anxiety ended up preparing me for the biggest race of my life:
“I CAN DO THIS”
Race leg: Swim 2.4 miles
My power words: Calm confidence
Throughout this journey, I struggled to feel like I “belonged.” Especially during race week, all I could think about was how different I was from all the other athletes. The first leg of this race would without question force me to confront the feelings of inadequacy and intimidation that had shaken my confidence throughout this entire experience. And as I had learned early on, panic and doubt only escalated my natural anxiety of open-water swimming. I knew that even if I had to “fake it till I made it,” I needed to act with confidence and deservedness; that while different paths had brought us here, I was just like every other pink cap treading water around me. This piece of the race would be all about me: being proud of what I had already accomplished, owning the months of hard work, and celebrating that I had the courage to take this on in the first place.
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“I AM DOING THIS”
Race leg: Bike 112 miles
My power words: Steady patience
There’s no getting around it: 112 miles doesn’t just fly by. You have no music, no friends to talk to, no mental breaks or distractions. Sometimes in training I found myself trying to rush through the miles as quickly as possible, just wanting to get them over with. But when it comes to triathlon, the bike is a bit of a tactical puzzle. Go out too hard, and you risk “blowing up” on the run. With my knee and the fact that I was going to be running my first-ever marathon, I couldn’t afford for that to happen. Not to mention Kona is notorious for its strong and unpredictable winds—something you can’t really train for and that can easily exhaust you if you don’t adjust your plan. So my goal was to stay as steady and patient as possible with each pedal stroke and with my pacing. This piece of the race would be all about the incredible coaches and experts who prepared me: They had given me all the tools I needed to be successful; I simply had to have the discipline to execute it.
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“I WILL DO THIS”
Race leg: Run 26.2 miles
My power words: Relentless optimism
I remember one of the first phone calls I had with my dad when I received this opportunity. We were playing out different “worst-case” scenarios, and I said, “I mean, I could walk the entire marathon if I had to.” And I was serious. I doubted a lot of things—my potential as an endurance athlete, the strength and durability of my knee—but somehow this piece was pretty straightforward. I knew that if I could make it to the run, I could make it to the finish—I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. In one of those same early phone calls, my dad said, “You want to do this because you don’t think you can. I want you to do this because I know you can.” This experience has taught me that one of the greatest gifts you can give another person is your confidence in them. I never would have gotten here alone; I couldn’t see this dream for myself. This final piece of the race would be all about you: the countless people who shared in this journey with me. If you ever sent a positive thought, kind message, or word of encouragement my way, I would be thinking of you in those miles. You picked me up, carried me, and gave me hope—and it’s because of you I would find my way to the finish.
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Watch as my teammate Apolo Ohno and I arrive to Hawaii to prepare for our biggest challenge yet in Mission Apolo Episode 7: The Big Island:
Mission Apolo: BUILT WITH CHOCOLATE MILK campaign captured the transformational journey of eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno and Women’s Health Fitness Director Jen Ator as they trained for the world’s most grueling endurance race: the IRONMAN® World Championship triathlon—a 140.6-mile swim-bike-run event in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on October 11, 2014. You can read about their progress on womenshealthmag.com and gotchocolatemilk.com or join the conversation by using the hashtag #MissionApolo on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Visit ironman.com to learn more about IRONMAN and the IRONMAN® World Championship.