Swim, bike, run, write.

Swim, bike, run, stay sane: triathlon saved me from myself

Ever since my little epiphany back in 2017, triathlon had become my safe space. The one area of my life where anxiety couldn’t get me. Where I didn’t experience the excruciating self-doubt of imposter syndrome. Where I could find and actually grasp my “yes I bloody well can.” I’ve often felt like I’m going through life on one of those big inflatable things you see at fun fairs, where the players are attached to giant bungee cords and have to run as far as they can before the thing pulls them backwards. Except, instead of a nice soft inflatable, I’m met with a steel-enforced brick wall as the gremlins in my mind haul me back. But then I found triathlon, and when I was training and racing, I was free: to run, to push myself, to find my limits and then step a toe just over the edge. And that self-belief started to seep out of triathlon, into other areas of my life. Suddenly I wasn’t so afraid to stand up, to put myself forward. To say to myself ‘hey, do you know what - maybe I can actually do this.’ Triathlon filled my mental filing cabinet up with examples of when I’d been able to prove to myself that I was worthy and capable.

Triathlon was my fortress, my princess castle up on a hill where anxiety couldn’t infect the edges of everything with it’s darkness. Until suddenly, it wasn’t. I felt like I stepped across the finish line at Ironman Zurich 2019 and right over a cliff edge. Except I didn’t even realise I was falling until I’d almost hit the bottom. I set myself some pretty big goals for Ironman Vitoria 2020. The positive drive and motivation that had got me through my first two Ironman races slowly, silently became more about fear and punishment. The runaway train of “not good enough” had come crashing into my triathlon station, and I’d gone from finally experiencing some oh-so elusive self-belief, to seeing myself failing every time I closed my eyes. 

Fast forward to January. My A race for the year was 7 months away. And yet my mind had already decided I was going to let myself down. I could taste the anguish, feel the hurt in anticipation. The carrot of that finish line euphoria, turned into a barbed-wire clad stick. Rather than being about getting stronger, each session became about trying to out-run the failure I could feel nipping at my heels. And it was terrifying. Exhausting. Infuriating. Triathlon was mine and now those darkest corners of my mind were taking it away from me. 

The thing with living with anxiety is that you get good at just enduring. I didn’t realise how heavily it was all weighing on my shoulders until one Sunday morning when I found myself in the middle of Woburn Sands woods, attempting to complete a warm up before a hard, 2 x 20 minutes trail run session. And it was like I just collapsed - metaphorically - under the strain of it all that had been building up over more months than I’d care to admit. I can remember just stopping, dead, in the middle of the trail. My husband noticed the lack of my foot steps behind his and turned to find me doubled over, finally releasing those full-body sobs of tears that make your ribs feel like they might shatter. Enough was enough. For years, I’d put up with my mind torturing me. With waking up everyday and having to fight back against the part of me that tells me I can’t. With adapting my habits, going through the exhausting motions of Pretending To Be Fine on the days where I was anything but. Triathlon was my light in all this and now that was being taken away I wasn’t prepared to put up with it any more. 

Triathlon-related anxiety was a symptom, not a cause

At the time I thought it was triathlon. I thought maybe that was just one more thing that I couldn’t do. But actually it was everything else. The relentless pressure of the everyday, building up and getting heavier by the minute. The anxiety around triathlon training was a symptom but it wasn’t the cause. Feeling like my safe, triathlon haven was being taken away from me was the wake up call, the trigger. It wasn’t triathlon that was breaking me, it was this life dictated by “should”. I was trying to do everything, be everything, please everyone. I was allowing myself to get bogged down by the weight of expectations - or my perception of them. And rather than being able to rationally take a step back, see that I was trying to juggle too much and allow myself to accept that it was okay to put some of those things down - give myself permission to prioritise what was actually important to me, rather than what I felt like I “should” prioritise - I was just piling on the pressure, and getting furious at myself for not being superhuman, or having 50 hours in a day. Setting myself an impossible task and then deciding there was something fundamentally wrong with me for not being able to keep doing it.

I thought finally asking for help would feel like a failure. But actually, I think it’s the bravest thing I’ve ever done. I’d got so close, so many times before. Typing out an email only to delete it. Saving a phone number for a counsellor, knowing I’d never quite be able to work up the nerve to dial it. But this time it was different. 

In a way, triathlon was saving me all over again - because it was the thought of losing that space of strength and positivity it gives me, that I can draw upon in other areas of my life when I need it most - that helped me to finally take the step, wave the white flag and say “I can’t do this anymore. I won’t do this anymore, and that’s okay. I don’t have to work this out on my own.” You might be reading this and thinking “yeah okay but why did it take triathlon to do that? Surely experiencing this in other areas of your life should have been impactful enough to prompt a change?” And I get it. It probably sounds at best, all a bit weird and triathlon-obsessed, and at worst incredibly self-centred. It wasn’t that it didn’t kill me to see how much my messy, tangled-up mind could affect my relationships, my experiences, my joie de vivre. It’s just that you end up sub-consciously adapting, and it becomes a new normal. This new anxiety around my tri training was just that - new. And it was tangible. There was nowhere to hide. I couldn’t put on my mask and perform the “happy bubbly Jenny show” like I would in a social situation. When you literally can’t complete a training session and it’s purely because your mind is working against you - there’s no denial. But - and it’s a big peachy but - just because it was triathlon that prompted me to ask for help, doesn’t mean that all the work I’ve done with my counsellor since hasn’t had a massively positive impact outside of just swim-bike-run training. 

Prioritising mental fitness like I would physical fitness

The thing is, in endurance sports if you have an injury or the new brand of energy gel you’ve started using gives you the shits - you acknowledge it. You say “okay, something’s not working as it should here, something’s not quite right” and instead of just being angry at yourself, you work out what’s happening so that you can do something about it. With ill mental health and negative emotions - we have a tendency (and I say we - maybe this is just a “me” thing and I’m being unfair, but I do feel like as a society we have a tendency to perpetuate this kind of toxic positivity) to try and hide away from them, to ignore them, or to immediately change them. To get annoyed at ourselves for even experiencing them in the first place. We don’t allow ourselves to take a look at our thoughts and behaviours and say “something’s not quite right here, let’s work out why.” Instead it’s “pull yourself together”, “cheer up”, “be positive”. And so those “bad” feelings get squirrelled away into a little black box, locked up tight, getting heavier by the day until it feels like you’ve got an anvil sitting right in the centre of your sternum. 

Personally I’ve always felt like acknowledging these negative thoughts would be letting them win - I was scared of them. If I opened that lid, they might consume me. I might be tempted to wallow, then stagnate, and then drown. But actually, by trying so damn hard to fight them, to hide them, to ignore them - I was giving them more power. I was equipping them with the strength and the mystery of the unknown. Every time I tried to squash them down, I was actually compacting them and making them stronger. It gets to a point where you feel a bit shit - and then you’re furious at yourself for feeling shit, so then you feel shit about feeling shit. It just becomes this great big shit sandwich. And sure, there are layers of peanut butter somewhere in there - from the days where you wake up feeling good (and you notice these days because it’s unusual - technicolour amid the grayscale), but to paraphrase Stephen Fry in a podcast interview with Bryony Gordon: “It doesn’t matter how clean the water looks, even if there’s just one little turd in there - the whole pool is contaminated.” 

Going to therapy for the first time was scary, but my counsellor helped me to see that by allowing myself to acknowledge my emotions - all of them - by holding them up to the light and being curious, instead of furious, I could start to understand them and loosen the hold they had on me. In the same way that after a big race or an injury I would nourish my body with good food, with a sports massage, with rest - I’m learning to nourish my mind by listening to it, acknowledging it and asking “why?” to work out what I need. Instead of punishing myself, loathing myself for being “broken”, and trying to out-run my own thoughts. And good grief - that’s empowering. 

It’s going to be a long process. I’ve been working on it for seven months now and I’m under no illusion that I’m “fixed” - because, are any of us, really? Everyone’s got a little shit sandwich tucked away in their metaphorical lunch box. It’s about acceptance and curiosity. My mind is always going to be a complicated, messy place. And actually, that’s okay. Instead of hating it, I can appreciate it - for all the trouble it causes me, it’s also allowed me to get to where I am. To write music in my teenage years spent gigging in an all-girl punk band. To choreograph dances to teach to the kids when I was a dance teacher. To come up with ideas for articles and social media campaigns at work. To write blog posts about poo sandwiches and bum cracks. To take on an Ironman triathlon - twice.

Asking for help has just given me the tools to find the end of the tangled up ball of wool that is my mind, and to start unravelling it and understanding it better. It’s making me stronger, more resilient, more capable - and it’s thanks to triathlon that I’ve found my way here. My runaway train mindset of gritting my teeth, of relentless determination, of breaking myself over and over with the hope that I’d be able to rebuild a little stronger each time, wasn’t sustainable. Now I’m learning to find a balance where I can be tenacious, I can have that fire in my belly and that fight in my heart - but I can also be kind to myself. Where I can see failure as an opportunity, something to examine rather than to hide from. Seven months down the line, I’m feeling mentally and physically stronger than ever. Just as we work hard on getting our base of endurance, I’ve been working hard on getting my base of resilience. And that can only be a good thing- in triathlon, and in life.

Finding balance

So where do I go from here? As we start to adapt to life with COVID-19 and the pace of the world around us picks up again, how do I avoid getting caught in the rip-tide and sucked right back into the routine that was breaking me? It’s going to be about asking questions, and being honest. Allowing myself to say “no” sometimes. Having the confidence - the fidelity to self - to do what’s authentic to me, without feeling like I have to throw energy into getting approval and permission from others. It’s okay if we have different ideas of what’s important. It’s okay to change our minds. It’s actually really bloody great if you can admit to mistakes and learn from them. Acknowledge when something’s not quite right, and turn a complaint into a goal. It’s going to be about giving myself permission to be me rather than trying to be everything. Learning a new way of being there for others without taking the full weight of the world on my shoulders. Being curious, being honest and taking a breath - instead of just blindly stumbling on.

It’s a process, but triathlon got me to the start line. And that's precisely why I love this sport so wholeheartedly - why I'm willing to pour all of my energy and spare time in to it. Because it goes far beyond the swim-bike-run. Triathlon has saved me from myself.


  1. Writing with such heart...good luck with your journey

  2. Hits so very close to home. Great story to tell and you tell it well. You got this!!

  3. Thanks for sharing, and congratulations on coming to terms with you anxiety. Triathlons are a great lifestyle, I amkam gladiglad youuyou found it early in life. I started at age 57, did 27 of them mostly Olympic distance with 6 half Ironmans. Be safe!

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