This post has been in the back of my head for some time, but it took a perfect alignment of being down and out with a chest cold and reading Bethany Bellingham’s recent post “I Needed to be Awesome. Now I Need to Learn to Just Be” for me to put it into words. So many elements of what Bethany talks about hit home for me and it is such an accurate description of life experienced as someone who has sought social acceptance as a fat child and adult. Like Bethany, I recently forced myself to take stock of things, and for me it was to answer some questions about my race performance. And what came out as a result of my ‘getting knee deep’ in the emotional shit was certainly an eye opener and incredibly emotional.
So over the last couple of months I have made a significant change to my training and racing – I gave myself permission to NOT smile. And I have never felt better.
You see, whilst many of you may know me for the ‘badass’ images I can churn out, I still had some difficulty taking this badass out on the race course and training tracks with me. Why? Well, that was my question also.
Let me take you back to the second last race of my season. Although I had only gotten in a couple of races due to recent surgery, something wasn’t sitting right with me. I was coming to an end of these races knowing I could have given more, but for some reason I hadn’t. It seemed that in training I was working so hard and hitting all the markers, but as soon as I arrived on race day, I slipped into “I’m just here to have fun and celebrate a nice morning out” mode. Which meant that I spent the whole race yelling encouragement to everyone else and kind of ‘fluffing around’ with my own race. A Course Cheerleader, per se. And I was coming home dissatisfied. I knew I wasn’t taking myself seriously and I needed to work out why, because my desire to win was growing stronger and this wasn’t going to happen whilst carrying the virtual pom poms with me every race.
So prior to this race I spent a lot of time soul-searching about just why I was opting for the pom poms and cheer duties rather than honouring my training and racing with focus and effort. I (metaphorically) put the boots on, got knee-deep in the shit and waded through it, until I realised that it was because even after years of racing, I was seeking approval and acceptance the only way I knew how: by being the nicest person on the course. Rather than going out with a mentality of gunning for the win, I was gunning for the Encourager Award because thats all I felt I was worth. After a lifetime of just ‘showing up’ and holding back in sport, it was all I knew. And in many ways, for me, this meant I was still saying “I know physically I don’t look like I should be competitive in this space, so I’ll just be nice instead.”
I gave myself some time for this to sink in, and made the conscious decision that if anything, my game plan for this race was to honour myself and my training and to leave everything I had out on course – it was time to really explore my potential.
So the swim was hard, it was against a current, which meant that it played to my strengths and I came out of the water in top 5 females and males. It was a longish and very steep run to transition and instead of plodding (or walking like previous races), I ran it. I had faith in my fitness and knew I could settle in on the bike. Now I don’t watch my Garmin, I always race by PRE (Perceived rate of exertion), so I have no idea what speed I did but I knew I did a good one. I came into T2 second female. I fiddle-arsed slightly in transition with a gel and lost one spot.
The run is always my weakest leg. So off I headed into the run with one goal: take yourself seriously. I knew I was now in third place and all I wanted to do was hold it. Then I slipped back into cheerleader mode. “Good job guys.” “Nice work!” “Nearly done!” And then I saw the look on the face of the woman who was chasing me down: she wanted to eat me alive. She wasn’t giving out any hi-fives – she wanted to beat my arse. I knew this was the universe giving me a choice: honour yourself and your training by running your fucking heart out and hold third, or let the old mentality win and be dissatisfied again. You’re worth the spot, so go fucking get it, Leah. No word of a lie, I ran the last 250m looking behind me like I was being chased by a pack of lions (well, just one really), and held third. I may as well have taken the win, I was so proud.
So training began for my last race and before I kicked into that, I had to realise that my approach to training also needed to change. You see, not only did I have a thing for being the nicest person on the race course, I also seemed to take that need out onto the training track. Which meant that I spent many runs smiling at people, making small talk, moving over for others, and well generally just being the nicest person on the track. When you come from a long line of people-pleasers, its amazing where this shit follows you. Now I’m not saying that being cordial isn’t great, but there is a difference between cordial and ‘sorry for taking up so much space, let me move over because you’re more worthy of the training space than I am.’
Wowsers again, right?
This had to stop. After everything I had been through, all of the personal victories and strengths I had gained, the final acknowledgement that I wanted to back myself and be competitive in this sport meant that I need to put this to bed. I knew what I had to do. I had a quiet word with my inner fat child. I held her gently, and told her that she had done her job. I knew she was exhausted from constantly trying to prove herself and seek validation and it was time she rested. I could take it from here. I would continue to honour her (and ‘us’), but this time by chasing our dreams, because we had nothing to prove anymore and we no longer needed validation. And I ever so gently and lovingly kissed her goodbye. She could now rest. It such an emotionally poignant moment in my life that I still cry writing about it.
So on the next training session, I stopped smiling. Unapologetically so. And I have never felt more free.
Enter the last race of the season. It was hot, smokey (local burn-offs and no wind), and I was being filmed for the Superfit Hero video. I had the most awesome pleasure of meeting Cheri Lutz’s Pink Ladies training group who were racing in their respective races and who would have no clue as to the importance they played in this day for me by just being there. So the swim wasn’t great but it wasn’t horrible either. I’d backed myself and lined up behind the young guns (12-15years AG) in the water start and got my face kicked in, so that probably took its toll. The bike leg was everything. It was a flat course with a couple of kick-ups (many thanks to one of my BPA’s, Liz Parnell, who had done Strava recon for me to examine – BPA’s are awesome like that!), and I knew this was where I gave it everything I had.
It was on this bike leg where I realised that I am truly a racer at heart. Finally, after all these years of holding back because I never wanted to be the fat kid trying their hardest and looking awkward, I became the fat woman trying her hardest because I was worthy of my utmost effort. I was free and it was everything. I picked my overtaking points and held onto my strategy. Heading back into transition I could see an empty run leg, it was surreal – I had to be near the top.
Heading out onto the run leg I realised I must have been in about 4th overall, with only the teenagers ahead of me. The Pink Ladies let out massive cheers as they saw me coming out of T2 and I felt as strong as anything, until about 500m in when I totally bonked. The strong runners started overtaking me in droves, but I held on as well as I could, fighting the mental barriers I had and managed 9th in my AG and 33rd overall. I had well and truly given it everything and that was all I had asked of myself. I was so proud, I had posted the 10th fastest bike leg out of over 160 competitors.
So now I am a month into off-season training and I’m still not smiling. And its awesome. I feel like I am growing into myself and finally being at peace with myself as an athlete. I have set my goals with my coaches and full tilt training begins this week.
Now, allow me to please acknowledge that everyone has their own motivations and ideas around what training and event participation means to them – I respect all of them and there is no less power in any of them. Each are vitally important and interchangeable.
However, for any of you out there who, like me, have a deep desire to win, but may have forced it to lie dormant because you haven’t felt worthy of such as goal, I want you to know this: it is ok to have that desire and to take yourself seriously as an athlete. You are worthy of that goal. Verbalise it. Write it down. Own it. You are also worthy of the mode you need to be in to achieve it – without apology, or smiles, in my case.