J is for a lot of things but very few of them have anything to do with triathlon!

Alas, j is for the journey.

It sounds cliché but it is very, very true.  In our results-oriented world, we often get distracted by the drive towards the destination without taking the time to appreciate the lessons and experiences along the way.  Perhaps it’s a metaphor for life.  Get through each day as quickly as possible so we can get the work done and get on to the weekend.  Before you know it, the weekends have turned into years and your kid is going into kindergarten…

What?  How?  When?

My own triathlon journey began long, long ago – in a different millennium!  1998 to be exact.  The best part about it – I have no idea what possessed me.  I was a bonafide gym rat.  A nasty habit I carried over from college – 90 minutes of “working out” a day on assorted cardio machines.  Years of stair mastering my mornings away and it was time for a change.  Enter: the local women’s triathlon.

Having no clue where to begin, I decided to hire a personal trainer with experience in triathlon.  She wrote out a very basic schedule for me to follow.  With very little swim experience, a boyfriend’s mountain bike and a mediocre high school cross country career behind me, basic was what I needed to feel prepared.  One small problem:  I forgot to sign up for the race!  And so my triathlon journey began somewhat illegally.  That same personal trainer found someone who wasn’t using their entry and I competed as “Jennifer somethingorother.”

Hey, I never said I was perfect.

Months of swim training and here’s where it got me:  I was the swimmer who swam the entire thing breaststroke.  Wouldn’t put my face in the water.  I stopped in transition to brush my hair.  Put on running shorts over my swim suit.  Waved at the camera.  In other words, I was in no hurry to get to that finish line.  It took me well over 90 minutes.

I can’t recall much else of what happened out there or that pivotal moment where I thought to myself – I have to do this – so much of this that I will one day meet my husband, my best friends, travel the country, leave my awesome career to start my own business and dedicate my life to helping others do the same.  I even spent a few years competing as a professional athlete.  It wasn’t the destination I was aiming for – it happened, little by little, over the next 15+ years and every day continues to be a journey.

One thing I try to impart on my athletes is that this is their journey.  They can make it what they want.  Some will get there quicker and faster than others but I do believe that all can get somewhere special.  Where they start is no indication of where they will go.  I’ve coached countless athletes with who I never would have picked as future podium contenders, Kona qualifiers or professional triathletes.  But they had something – whether it was patience, talent or confidence, there was a spark that was ignited along the way into something unstoppable.

This is why it’s so important when starting your journey to have a long range view.  In the past year, I’ve had quite a few athletes come into great form.  This was after several years of working with them where they chipped away, day to day, failed, succeeded, lived, learned.  None were “impressive” athletes on paper to begin with but like I said – they were patient.  They didn’t get caught up in measuring themselves or the outcome day to day.  Instead they thought big picture – seasons, years.  Training, races and experiences were stepping stones to their bigger pictures.  They widened the lens and thought big picture.

Few athletes have this sort of athletic maturity and patience.  They want to be fast – now.  Give me a 10 hour Ironman on less than 10 hours a week.  Psst – the athlete doing that has likely trained well over 10 hours a week for 10+ years.  Consistency, folks.  It means something.  But everyone else – we have to toil and pay our dues.  Slowly.  Best to enjoy the journey and all that you learn along the way.

Each part of your experience is part of the journey – the wins, the losses, the injuries, the pregnancies – all of this feeds into who you are and what you can become.  One thing I’ve learned many times is that what you learn from the not so good times or races is more valuable than what you learn when you win.

Sometimes the low points of our journey occur for a reason.  Maybe it’s a way of telling us to slow down or switch our focus.  Seems like the more the universe tries to tell us that, the more we resist until something barks back in such a way that we can no longer ignore it.  This might come in the form of an injury, fatigue or a strained relationship.  We get all sorts of subtle cues and hints but trust me – all endurance athletes are good at one thing: ignoring signals!  The more stubborn we are, the louder that signal has to sound before we finally rest, stop or reflect.  It’s sometimes painful but I truly believe that everything happens for a reason.

The high points of the journey?  It’s those few weeks before a peak race where everything feels easy – you’re pushing watts and paces with such ease that you know you’re on the edge of something special.  You also know that feeling is so, so fleeting.  You want to bottle it up, put it on the shelf and open it up on the bad days.  You work months for a few weeks if not days of that feeling.  This is why the journey is so important.  The end point, the destination arrives and then it’s done.  Wait for that moment but don’t rest the value of your journey on it.

And once you reach what feels like your end point?  Set a new destination, start a new journey.  I suppose this is how people come to leave the sport or retire from a career.  Journey over – for now.  The other day, standing in the preschool pick up line, I was talking to the grandmother of Max’s BFF.  A very successful woman whose face I had seen on real estate signs for over 30 years around town.  I knew of her but didn’t know much about her.  Each time I see her in the line, I remind myself that it’s a chance to learn her story.

She was long since retired from real estate.  In her words, it was no longer her passion but added I was very passionate about it when I was doing it, you have to be.  Now, she spends her days as a pastor at a church.  Her sons have carried on her business and she has carried the same passion and interpersonal skills that helped her to sell real estate into helping others navigate life situations.

And so the point is to carry passion on your journey.  Purpose is the reason you journey, passion is the fire that lights the way.  When that passion runs out, journey over.  Time to embark upon a new one.  Myself, I found this back in 2009 after competing two years as a professional.  I was no longer learning or having fun.  Not that you need to have fun to be productive but for me – the passion was gone.  I stepped back, had my son and found myself recharged about the journey again.

What are some things you can do to make the most of your journey?

Keep it fun.  I remind athletes constantly: none of us get paid to do these.  Even the professionals, very, very few get paid to pursue this sport.  At the heart of it needs to be passion and desire to chase your goals.  Often finding fun is a matter of changing your perspective and learning to value the amazing opportunities that might seem ordinary.  Remind yourself, always, I get to do this.  With that attitude, even the tough days become a fun adventure of self and world exploration.

Stay in the moment.  The best athletes have the ability to stay in the moment whether in training or racing.  The moment you lose focus on THAT moment in time is the moment things start to unravel.  Keep your big picture in mind but focus on the here, now.  Sometimes this means keeping focused on the workout.  Other times when you’re struggling it might be this particular pedal stroke.

Don’t let the process wear you down.  The journey of life and sport is a series of challenges designed to make you stronger and wiser.  Throwing your hands up and resisting the discomfort of those challenges is a surefire way to stagnate and limit yourself.  The process will be hard – if it’s worth it.  One day, after enduring the process, you will look back and find yourself stronger, better and more knowing.  Stay the path.

Failure means ‘I’m just not finished yet’.  You may fail many times along your journey.  Sometimes this is a sign to stop and turn the other way.  More times, failure presents itself to teach you a lesson.  Stop viewing failure as an end point and start seeing it as the beginning to learning more, knowing better and finding yourself.

Own your journey.  When you set goals or end points, be sure that you’re choosing a journey you are 100% committed to.  Just because the cool kids are doing Ironman doesn’t mean it’s the right journey for you.  It might not be your time or in your best interests.  Look at where you are in life right now and choose something that isn’t just do-able but sustainable.  And once you choose your end point, own it and commit to being at your best.

Be open to opportunities.  You never know where the journey may take you.  Be open to opportunities as they present themselves which means being unafraid to take risks.  Fear traps us – whether it’s fear of change, fear or losing fitness; nothing good comes from fear.  Take risks and boldly walk through new doorways as they appear.

And perhaps it was Ernest Hemingway who said it best:

It is good to have an end to journey but it is the journey that matters most in the end.”