I’ve just got back from the World Champs in Kona. It was fantastic to watch the athletes battle it out, to achieve dreams, to celebrate success and to mentally re-live my own races on the island.
I also felt content with the fact that I wasn’t there to race. I truly mean that. I did not feel the urge to toe the line. I love the island, and I loved being there but I didn’t want to be pounding Alli Drive with one eye on my stopwatch, or heading up the Queen K for that last pre-race ride. Of course I did some “training” while I was there. I will never stop doing sport for the sheer love and joy of it, but I didn’t once regret the decision I made to retire.
The most common question I was asked by the (fantastic!) people I met in Kona was “when are you coming back to race again?” My simple reply of “I’m not” was closely followed by the next question: “So what’s your next challenge?”
The second question is so much harder to respond to.
When people kindly ask about my next challenge, I assume they mean something physical in nature. A race, an event, an epic adventure – running across a continent bare foot, climbing a 8000m peak or ten, rowing across shark infected waters, bungee jumping naked off tall buildings. I don’t blame them for making these assumptions; after all, I was (best) known for pushing myself to my physical limits and more.
However, for me, challenges come in many different forms. They are not always sport related, and in fact some of the hardest challenges I have faced have nothing to do with swim/bike/run. For me, challenges are about growing as a person – to set yourself a goal that is scary, that pushes you, a target that you may not think you can hit. Sometimes its an activity that sends your heart rate skyrocketing, or creates bulbous muscles and sometimes not.
Yes, there was a time in my life when ironman too centre stage. Triathlon, and 140.6miles of it, was the ultimate challenge but after Kona 2011 (when I had the race I always wanted within myself and with my competitors) the challenge somehow evaporated. I knew then that I had done enough. I had been enough. When I turned pro I simply wanted to be the best I could be. And in my eyes, and according to my own measures, I had achieved it. I had proven all I needed to. But to who? I honestly don’t know. To myself? To my competitors? To my coach? To those who may have doubted me? To my inner demons?
Regardless, I didn’t need more victories or times, or other extrinsic measures of success, to answer the questions I was asking of myself. I had set myself a challenge. And I achieved it. I felt empowered and free and liberated.
I have spent much of my life being competitive, both with myself and others. I have created my own personal bars and tried to jump over them, and also tried my hardest to jump over the bars of others. In my early years this centred on academia, but more recently took the form of running and then triathlon.
Being a competitive, determined, driven person is fantastic. It is the firework that motivates you to train on dark and dreary days. It compels you to test yourself, to improve and to be better than you were yesterday. It enabled me to succeed in many areas of my life. But it is also exhausting, because sometimes you are never satisfied. The goals you set are nebulous: as soon as you reach them you are left thinking that maybe there is something more. Another victory, a small tweak that you can make that will give you a faster time. Fulfilling one’s potential: what does that truly mean?
Of course, we love the triathlon journey – the training, the opportunity to be with friends, the travel, the structure/the routine – all those things that make the sporting experience one to treasure. However, ultimately for me it was also the challenge – the chance to do something I have never done before, or to achieve something I didn’t think I was capable of.
So “what’s my next challenge?” In all honesty, the initial challenge after I stepped away from the sport was to truly cope with the process of retirement. This is ongoing. I want to be truly content with not having that physical goal around which my life revolves. To create, or even reinvent, an identity for myself that goes beyond my achievements as an athlete. To learn to be kind to myself, and know that I am something more than four time World Champion.
To not be frightened when my body changes from being a honed athletic machine, or when I can no longer hold 6min miles. To find a replacement for the addiction that is sport and the endorphins associated with it. To move away from an existence where you are “somebody” [although in my mind everybody is a somebody, but the media doesn’t always see it that way]. To deal with the absence of a prescribed, appealing, addictive structure and regime. To cope with the re-emergence of thoughts that drove my disordered eating all those years ago. To know that self-validation doesn’t have to come from simply ticking off a session or winning a race. To be a better sister, daughter, girlfriend and friend, rather than the self-obsessed athlete that I became.
It’s been 3 years since I retired [in fact, even the word retirement makes me feel old and washed up – maybe career change is a better way of putting it?!] yet addressing some of the above is still a psychological, emotional and practical challenge. It’s no more or no less of a challenge than ironman – it’s just different.
Different athletes will make different choices about when they want to leave the sport and move to a life beyond swim/bike/run. Are you dumped or do you do the dumping? Do you retire at the top, with more in the tank, or do you leave when you are no longer performing at the levels you used to, or are even too injured or ill to continue? Do you choose, or do you have that choice made for you? Is there a right or wrong time? Or is it down to us, to look deep inside, and ask ourselves that life we want to lead and what makes us truly happy?
I do know that the time was right for me. I was excited about the future. Yes, I was scared, but I was ready. Ready for what was next, ready to launch into the unknown as I did when I became a pro athlete, ready to build on the amazing platform and use the fantastic opportunities that sport had given me to create a new path. Not one where I can cross the line in first place, not one where my photo peers from the cover of magazines, not one where I have a body that is chiselled and toned, or one where success is measured by a time on a clock.
It’s hard. You question who you are. You question your self worth. You question what your goals are. You question whether you actually have anything to offer. You question whether you will ever succeed in anything ever again. You question your significance and purpose. You also kick yourself up the backside, stop wallowing and realise just how privileged you were to do a sport you loved, and make your passion your career.
Transition is a fact of life. Your life. My life. We all need to makes changes at some point, when the old is no longer as fulfilling, satisfying or challenging as it once was. Where the new isn’t certain, and the path isn’t clear, and there’s a void where once the wonderful enriching experience that is ironman once stood.
Ironman ended up being my comfort zone. Not necessarily physically, but psychologically, because I didn’t have to ask myself some of the hard questions I described above. Despite all of the amazing successes I chose to make that change because maybe deep down I knew I needed to come to terms with, and embrace, life post-triathlon – because therein lay the next personal challenge.