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Into the sun
Creative Commons License photo credit: James Jordan

Despite my recent setback, I have had a very fortunate streak of athletic success. From three trips to the Ironman World Championships to multiple Boston qualifications and lots of solid racing in between, you might have a hard time believing I was the chubby kid picked last for kickball.

But it’s true.

I hear all the time how I have been lucky. How I have genes that are predisposed to endurance sports. I get the notes, all nice, explaining how the writer can’t be as good at triathlon or running as me.

It’s not offending at all, more so than it is revealing. I think that we all have a certain amount of inherent talent; without a doubt being born with a club foot, for example, could hinder your future running career. But significant challenges aside, the only thing standing between where I am now and where you are now is a lot of work.

I spent the better part of my adolescence a healthy kid, more than my fair share of activities. But my love of food was equal to, if not greater than, my love for exercise. I wasn’t obese by any means, but I still carry some of that chubbiness with me today (around the midsection!).

I was cut from my middle school soccer team, twice, and spend two years going to the track with my mom on weeknights and running laps around the field after everyone else went home. She counted by putting rocks in a pile so I couldn’t cheat — although I tried.

I attended pre-training sessions for the high school team, building critical relationships that allowed me to survive a disastrous try out. But on the last day of try outs, my appendix almost burst, and I missed all but the last game of the year (I was put in for 5′ and took a ball to the groin…seriously).

Things got better, as I worked hard and make JV as a sophomore, then varsity as a junior and captain as a senior. Unfortunately I suffered a stress fracture and missed most of the varsity year as well.

College got off to a bad start, where I was lost in the freshman fog and just lifted weights with no direction after years of organized sports. Fortunately, I was recruited to the crew team (I was tall) one day when swimming at the pool, and I feel in love with the sport instantly.

I was on the 2nd freshman boat (since I was a Soph), survived a car crash with some broken ribs, but mand an impression. In my Junior year got some varsity time and my senior year was Captain again. Tons of extra sessions and hours spent running, lifting, and rowing, all allowed me to become good at the sport.

After college I was off to the Peace Corps for two years, where I could run and do core, but little else. I tried training for a marathon, but kept overdoing it. On a trip home for a wedding, I jumped in a local triathlon with my brother and had a blast. I returned to Uzbekistan on a mission to train, adding some swimming (with 6-yr olds) to my regime.

But instead of returning home, I transitioned to Azerbajian for 15 months, where I did community development work. Again I could run, but no longer than an hour (too many bad dogs and kids with rocks). I bought an ergometer to row indoors, and enjoyed some good hard training. I was able to do the Valencia Marathon on a long run of 13 miles, and suffered horribly but loved it.

When I finally came back to the US (left in 97, back in 2000), I had been only marginally active. In grad school, however, I was able to focus more on the training, doing Eagleman and then Ironman Florida, both in 2001.

  • I did one or two Ironmans a year between then and 2007, a full five seasons later, when I was finally able to qualify.
  • I quit my job and started my own company.
  • I got married and went to watch the Ironman for our honeymoon in Hawaii (M is a triathlete).
  • We started a family.
  • I tried training 25 hours a week until it nearly killed me.
  • I missed a Kona slot by less than 5 seconds.
  • We bought a house.
  • Then, 5+ years later, I qualified at Ironman USA.

Five years after my first Ironman (8th IM overall). Seven years after my first marathon. Eight years after my first triathlon. Almost twenty years after being cut from the middle school soccer team, where I learned that I could go out on my own to train, and get better, and come back stronger than the competition.

My point is this: the only thing separating you from me is work. And an inflection point. I had my epiphany at age 13, and it fundamentally changed the way I have approached almost every single challenge or obstacle since. It took a supportive parent, hard work and a dash of good fortune. And lots of repetition — no one gets it right the first time.

So before you go blaming genes, or putting limits on your own potential, understand that it’s not the shape of your foot, or length of your legs, that determine your ability. It’s your capacity to work, and ability to understand why you are working that will set you apart.

Are you ready to outwork the competition?

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