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What Triathlons Can Teach Us

A few weeks ago, Johanna Skilling, Euro RSCG Life 4D’s EVP, Director of Strategy, blogged about what Pharma can learn from Lady Gaga. Really. I figured if Johanna could relate Gaga to healthcare marketing than I could surely write about business lessons to be culled from completing my first triathlon.

For the uninitiated, triathlons come in various flavors: From Sprint (1/3-1/2 mile swim, 10-15 mile bike, 5k run) to Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run). The one I did in Watchung, NJ this weekend was a Sprint. The distances are gentle, except that you have to do them back-to-back!

Training & Prep

The multi-sport part is what makes triathlons such a blast and so different from other races I’ve done. With running, you can pretty much show up and jump in a race. You’ve got sneakers and there’s not much to think about. Triathlons require more strategy and planning. There’s way more gear, e.g. wetsuit, goggles, cap, bike, helmet, cleats, etc. Everything is stored in a transition area, and you want to keep it well-organized to minimize down time as you move from swim to bike to run.

As I laid out my stuff the night before, I counted no less than 24 items. I went over the entire race in my mind, then packed everything in reverse order and put the bag in the car. It kind of reminded me of packing for the hospital when I had Nadia and Alexa. I went over my bike, figured out how to change a flat tire (not manicure-friendly) and declared myself ready.

Of course, I had four months of training leading up to this. Here is where you’re really forced to prioritize. When you have three events and a finite amount of time to train, you need to create a schedule and stick to it. Most days I would’ve rather run than swim, and many times I didn’t feel like doing the full mileage or keeping pace on the bike. But you can’t favor your strongest sport and you have to put in the time to build up endurance and strength.

Race Day

My wake-up call was 5:00 AM and I pulled into the parking lot just after 6:00. I set up my bike and gear in the transition area and went to get marked. This is a cool and humbling experience because they write your race number in permanent marker on your hands and age on the back of your calf. I immediately started to compare people’s physiques to their ages, but you know what? Everyone looked ridiculously good. There were some seriously ripped people walking around and I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

Swim. So, if packing my gear reminded me of going to the hospital, the 1/3 mile swim was like giving birth. No, I take that back, giving birth was easier. The swim S*U*C*K*E*D! I started out quickly, the water was murky and gross – not at all like the pool – and everything I learned and practiced flew out the window. I could’ve used an epidural because I was in a full-blown panic, hyperventilating, with thoughts of “I take it back, I don’t want to do this” and “I might die” running thru my brain. I couldn’t bring myself to put my head back under water so I gritted my teeth and dog-paddled, floated, side-stroked, thrashed and prayed until I finally felt the beach under my feet. It was terrifying. I read an article the night before themed “Respect the swim” – understanding it’s humbling for everyone helped me to finish.

Bike. I ran to the transition area, stripped off my wetsuit, put on my bike stuff and felt the exhilarating rush of forward motion. Thank god. Breathing air and not water was amazing. It was a beautiful morning and I zoomed over the rolling hills. Triathlons are just as much about your mental state of mind as physical strength. The whole time, I could hear my cycling coach yelling, “Jen, are you having lunch back there? Get up on your bike and pedal your a** off!” Mercifully, I didn’t get a flat and finished the 10-mile bike in under 40 minutes.

Run. With my weakest events behind me, it was as if I had already finished. My shoulders were sore from flailing in the swim and overall I felt a bit drained as I took off on the run, but I was doing what I loved. Soon enough I stopped panting and unleashed it. Plenty of people passed me in the water, fewer on the bike. I only had one person pass me on the run and I let him because he was 17.

There were not mile markers on the course so I had no idea how much was left. I looked ahead and saw the crowds and the finish line. Scott and the girls were there. I sprinted the last 30 seconds and finished in 1 hour 25 minutes, right in line with my goal and 5th place for my age group. And I didn’t drown (also a goal).

Lessons Learned

How the heck does all this relate to the work place? O Ye of Little Faith…

1.       Be friendly and find someone to emulate. I picked up so many invaluable tips and encouragement from veteran triathletes. (Nicole Gammino: “If you ever think you don’t need a wetsuit, imagine me smacking you. Unless you’re Michael Phelps, you always need one.”) Sometimes our egos make us too proud to admit we don’t know what we’re doing and to ask for help. That never pays out, but being friendly and humble always does.

2.       Start with the end in mind. Review your entire race strategy, rehearse it, envision what could go wrong and plan for it. Practice, prepare and have everything that you’ll need on hand.

3.       Get ‘er done. Learn how to work as efficiently and effortlessly as possible. Prioritize what’s most important and don’t slack off.

4.       Grin and bear it. A winning attitude is everything. When you’re swimming upstream and unidentifiable crap is hitting you in the face, laugh and remember you chose to do this.

5.       Do your personal best. Don’t make excuses. Don’t beat yourself up.

6.       Wipe the slate clean. When the daily battle is over, rinse it all off and get on with your life. Bask in your accomplishments, forget your defeats and start fresh.

7.       Uncork your crazy. This is a video from my friend Toby Silver. We trained for our first marathon together and since then he’s helped many more novice runners get into the sport. The message is to ignore the little voice that says, “I could never do that” or “That’s too much work” or “No thanks, I’m a terrible dancer” and GET IN THE GAME. You’ll never reach your full potential by being a boring version of yourself. Do something outside your comfort zone even when failure is a distinct possibility. Be the craziest, fiercest mamba jamba you can be!


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