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What I’ve learned after 3 years of practicing triathlon

 “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein

I’ve been practicing triathlon for about three years and a half now. I love how it has transformed my life by challenging what I believe I can do. Although I’ve always been into sports and considered myself a “health-ish” person, I was never into endurance or high-intensity activities. I’ve always seen myself as a skinny, never been to the gym type of guy who mainly did sports for leisure and not to compete. So, my journey into triathlon training wasn’t smooth: “I always dreamed of doing it,” but rather a very accidental one that came more out of a necessity to try something different. 

In 2015, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a degenerative condition of the immune system that weakens your muscles and body functions. The disorder affects about 10m people in the U.S. and an estimated 3- 6% of the world population. The pain and muscle fatigue I experienced was so bad that sometimes I couldn’t even get out of bed; when I showered, my shoulders would cramp and tremble, and I had no energy or vitality. No matter how many specialists I would see, nobody had a treatment for this. There is no cure for fibromyalgia: it’s a chronic condition, so you must learn to live with it. This reality left me very frustrated trying to understand why this would happen to me. 

Desperate to change something about my health, I left London, my home for 11 years, and traded it for Miami in 2017. Being in a place with fantastic weather year-round and made for an outdoor lifestyle would be the perfect solution to improve, right? But when I arrived, seeing everyone working out outdoors highlighted the things I couldn’t do and reminded me of my condition. I remember that at one of my lowest points after moving, I would repeatedly say to myself, almost like promising, that if I had the chance to do sports again, I would completely revamp my life around wellness. Then, I would forget about it. 

The following year and a half, I got back into lighter activities that could get me back into a routine and install the belief in my mind that I was improving. In Feb 2019, a colleague of mine asked me to join him in the “Rat Race Challenge,” a crazy race that involved kayaking ten hours from Miami to the Keys, then riding about 110miles and finishing with a half marathon. He proposed this while drinking tequila, and I jokingly said yes because the idea was so freaking impossible for me. For six months I didn’t even look at race’s website because I knew I couldn’t do it. I still had all the fibro symptoms. But when summer came, I noticed how dedicated he was in his training, even with him being on the heavier guy. Witnessing this commitment made something in my mind click. I wish I could tell you I had a life-changing moment when the message came to me in a dream. But it was more of a quiet realization that my condition was here to stay and that it had been openly running my life for the past four years. And what made me miserable wasn’t that I had A condition, but rather that it guided my life. And so, my timid acceptance became an all-encompassing mission to gain back control of my life. 

The key to triathlon lies in planning and sticking to training. It is not the race but the process of getting to it. The demands of training three different disciplines (swimming, cycling, and running) are very consuming and there is no way around it. You combine strength/weight training with one of the disciplines every day, for about 2-3hrs per day. Then, about 5hrs or more on the weekends when you combine any two: swimming then cycling or cycling then running. Training takes over your life, so much so that it ends up being a lifestyle. Your nutrition must change to align with the intensity of exercise, and so do your sleep, your social engagements, everything! 

I dare say that only about 40% of the effort is training; the remaining 60% is forging discipline in your mind, eating correctly, and sleeping. Yes, I stopped drinking and going out; yes, my weekends became about training and resting; yes, I became a bit boring then. But you see, the fact that I could move through the limiting pain of my condition to do the physical activities I yearned for years was incentive enough not to feel a sacrifice. It showed me that I could be this whole other person if I wanted to; more importantly, I wasn’t doing the race to change my body; I was doing it to change my mind and life. I could get into the sport because I understood that I would only suffer if I focused on the physical. But if I appreciated that the real challenge was to change my mental blocks around my relationship with myself, around my food and sleep habits, then I had a shot at doing this. 

For the next five months, I was focused on this realization and found myself breaking through the fatigue to cycle 40/50kms in the morning, then running for 45-60mins. Sure, there were days when the cramps, injuries, and pain were terrible. Training became super tedious, and I was fed up with it. I constantly complained about how tired I was and the soreness in new places every day. But I had made a switch in my mind, and the fact that I was doing things I wasn’t eight months ago fed the “no turning back” motivation. 

The day of the race was beautiful and fun. I was cycling through massive bridges overlooking the Caribbean, running along the beach. The highlight was seeing all these different people give their best for the next 12 hrs.: people with one arm, one leg, wheelchairs, etc. This was also the moment when I realized: “duh, you aren’t the only one.” Throughout the race, I would keep going through the images of those years when I couldn’t move, left with feelings of frustration and resentment. The gratitude was overwhelming. 

Since then, I’ve done six more triathlons, some with impressive times, others below average. I’ve competed in super cool venues like a Nascar racing stadium and met an inspiring community of people who push me daily, including some of my closest friends who are now part of the sport. Today, I’m preparing for my biggest race: an Ironman 70.3 in Colorado in August with 2.5kms swimming, then 100kms cycling and finishing with 21kms running, all in one morning. Scary, but also the culmination of three years and a half of reconstructing myself. 

When I started writing a post on my race, I thought I would scribble a paragraph to share what I was doing, not write a Hallmark motivational story. But as I sit and write these words, I realize how pivotal this experience has been to me. Not because of the achievements or competitions, but because it successfully taught me how to rewire my beliefs about myself. To change my relationship to what I think is possible, what pain is, and what is difficult. This has influenced my experience at The Bridge. When I joined, I had really no idea of the recruiting industry or how to grow a business in the sector. Here, I’ve had the challenge of getting out of my comfort zone and starting all over again. Not something that easy at 41 years old, but I welcome the opportunity to learn something new from scratch. So, in time, just like in races, once you let go of what is comfortable, you can start rocking it. My time here has been great, and I’m super grateful for the warm welcome. Working with everyone has been fantastic. 

This is my story with triathlon, I hope it can serve as a mirror from which you can draw something to your life. This has been a super useful tool to action all that change for me; but each person can find the one that works best for them. Here are my biggest learnings: 

1. Temperance to accept my condition with fibro rather than avoiding and trying to get rid of it. 

2. The patience to be comfortable being uncomfortable, in pain, or vulnerable. Endurance sports teach your mind to tell your body, “I saw when we stop,” regardless of how it feels. In the same way as meditation or therapy, breaking those thresholds becomes the end game. 

3. There is no life hack to doing this. In an age where it’s all about life and health shortcuts, on how to get somewhere faster and easier, my journey was to avoid those temptations. I wasn’t trying to get the quick win; I was learning to sit with the discomfort (the long hours, the training, the social life sacrifices) and be OK with it. Because once I went past it, then the benefits started coming. The process, not the race, was the goal. God, it has taken me years to understand that! 

4. The discipline to dedicate all my efforts to a goal, rather than multitasking, took me to other performance levels. Today, instead of working on that email and taking a call simultaneously, I force myself to focus on one task at a time, improving my productivity. 

5. Humility to accept where I am at a point in time and not be ashamed of it. Five years ago, I couldn’t lift my arms; today, I can race; tomorrow, I might not, so I’m happy I get to do it today. 

6. Finally, the triathlon has been a journey to self-love. I couldn’t heal by being the same person, so I needed to reevaluate my relationship with myself to generate transformation. No matter how many diets, coaches, life hacks, or money you use to get a goal, if your intention isn’t aligned with self-acceptance and authenticity, it won’t work, period. In fact, today I can say I’m grateful for fibromyalgia because it forced me to take a hard look at myself and my habits. To admit that my lifestyle wasn’t working and that my condition was a result of that lifestyle and not the other way around. 

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Mario Gonzalez
Mario Gonzalez

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