“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Over the past 12 months I have had time to reflect and think about my life journey thus far and also of my future. Being a professional ironman athlete has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I have achieved more than I could have ever imagined, and been so fortunate to travel to some beautiful places, compete against the best athletes in the world, and forge many lasting friendships. Those life-changing experiences and memories will stay with me forever.
When I first became a professional in 2007 I distinctly remember saying to my first coach Brett Sutton – “I would love to achieved success within five years”. At that point I never truly knew what “success” meant or what it felt like inside. But never in my wildest dreams could I have envisioned it meaning winning in Kona in 2007, and then being crowned Ironman World Champion in 2008, 2009 and 2011. Never did I imagine I would do 8hr18 for the ironman distance, or run a 2hr44 marathon. That was something that happened to other people. Never to me. But every step of the way I have managed to defy my limits and prove to myself that more is possible. Hopefully in so doing I have also proven something to you too.
As an athlete I always sought ‘the perfect race’ – the true meaning of ‘sporting success’. That race within myself where I dug to the depths mentally and physically, and that hard-fought race with my competitors. The Ironman World Championships in 2011 was the icing on the cake for me as an athlete. It was my ‘perfect race’. I finally felt worthy of being called a champion.
As I crossed the line I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. The searching for ‘sporting success’ had ended. I was content. I didn’t need faster times, more ironman victories, more accolades to be assured that I had been the best athlete I could possibly be. That’s not to say I don’t think its possible to go faster or maybe even win more titles. But if I am honest, I am not sure that such measures of success truly matter to me.
My passion for the amazing sport of triathlon hasn’t waned, but my passion for new experiences and new challenges is what is now burning the most brightly. Yes, I could respond to that inner call for change by doing my best impersonation of an ostrich and bury my head in the sand. But to do so would be taking the easy route. I say easy because ironman is my comfort zone. Yes, of course it is physically demanding, but it is the emotional ‘known’. The secure. It appeals to my routine, goal orientated nature. But to carry on would be contrary to my ‘gut instinct’ – the one that tells me to travel the unknown path to something new. And I am acutely aware that my body will not be able withstand the pounding that I choose to inflict on it forever. And yes, I admit – I also risk crushing myself with my dogged determination, drive for perfectionism and obsessiveness.
Of course the decision to retire from professional ironman racing has not come easy – no important decisions ever are – but deep in my heart I know it is the right thing for me. My future will, of course, involve sport and triathlon – but it will no longer be the axis around which my entire life revolves.
But I don’t mind admitting, I don’t have a clear idea of what the future holds. That in itself strikes fear into the heart of the uber controlling, regimen obsessed part of me. But I realize that I also need to give myself space to carve out a path for myself. I now know that I no long want to devote my life to covering 143.2miles as fast as possible, but it will take time to truly fill the gap that is now left.
“Drop the question about what tomorrow may bring, and count as profit every day that Fate allows you.” Horace (65-8 BC) Roman poet
It will involve ambassadorial work for my sponsors, writing, public speaking, development and charity work challenge, beautiful places, learning, good friends, highs, lows, and a healthy dose of self-discovery. And as I said, it will involve sport and adventure, but in what form I am not entirely clear.
I need to give myself the time to explore, to open doors, to hopefully have some other, unexpected doors open in front of me. Here I plunder the wonderful Tolkien quote ‘Not all who wander are lost’. I need to wander a little knowing that the ‘right’ path and the next goal will emerge through the mist. But transitional periods are never easy. It means letting go of certainty and addiction – the ironman endorphin rush, a degree of financial security, status, the platform for change – and trading them for what are for me are often anxiety-provoking concepts: freedom, space, flux, change, time to think, aimlessness, withdrawal, a loss of identity. I find it incredibly difficult and disconcerting to answer ‘I don’t know’ when faced with the inevitable question ‘If not ironman, what are you going to do?’
I do, however, remind myself to take a deep breath, let the panic subside and take comfort in knowing I have previously been faced with similar transitional periods: when I went travelling aged 21, when I graduated from my MA, and when I was deciding about whether or not to become a professional triathlete. At all these forks in the road, making choices and letting go of certainty was a huge challenge. At such a time I ask myself some important rhetorical questions: ‘Who am I? What makes me happy? What fuels my fire? Where am I going? What are my gifts? And if I died next week what would I had wished I had done? And, as always I try to let three key life principles be the stars that guide me:
1) Take chances and not let fear get in the way of making a change
2) That failure is necessary for success, and finally
3) That the only limits are those we place on ourselves: and it is possible to overcome those limits to achieve more than we ever thought possible.
As Steve Jobs said, we may not know how the dots will connect, or even if they will, but for me the worst outcome of all is failing to listen to an inner voice: failure to try something new. So in February 2007 – aged 30 – I gave up my job and became a professional athlete. And in December 2012 I have now decided to move on from the sport of professional ironman.
So perhaps at this point it is apropos to draw on the closing words of my book, which go a little something like this:
“…how can I speculate on what the future holds, when the present is so astronomically removed from whatever expectations I might have had in my youth? My only policy throughout has been to keep an open mind and, whatever I may do, to give it my all. It still takes my breath away to think where that simple outlook on life has taken me. I never set out to be a world champion – not many ordinary girls from Norfolk do – but neither have I ever wanted to be left wondering, ‘What if..?’ At so many stages along the way, the limits that I thought I could see lying ahead dissolved as I approached them. And that has been the most exciting discovery of all”.
Of course I could not have achieved what I have, in triathlon and in life, without the unwavering support of so many people – my family and friends, my incredible boyfriend Tom, my manager Ben, all the coaches who bought out the best in me, my wonderful sponsors who have enabled me to make my passion my career, the race organisers, my fellow pro athletes who push me to new heights, the media who have given me such an amazing platform, the tireless and generous volunteers and, of course, all the thousands of age groupers around the world.
I would like to take this opportunity to give my heartfelt thanks to every single person that has been part of my ironman – and life – journey thus far, and wish you all the very best for 2013 and beyond.
This is not the end, simply the beginning of something new. The world is our oyster. Opening it takes time, but there is a pearl inside for all of us.
To the future, with smiles always