If a picture paints a thousand words, you can probably tell that the words going through my head in this one included, “this sucks.” The photo was taken during the last mile of the 1995 St. Croix Triathlon. I vaguely recall finishing pretty far back among the pro women, perhaps in 10th place. Frankly, I’m amazed that I finished considering the fact that I was up all night sitting by a pool in a lounge chair. I witnessed the sunset and the sunrise (and no, I wasn’t drinking cocktails). I was so tired and discouraged with my race that I stopped somewhere during the 2nd mile and handed my race number to an official as my “I quit” reg flag signal. I proceeded to sit on the curbside for about a minute and thought about the terrible guilt that I would feel for giving up, so I took my number back and trudged on.
I should fill you in a bit more by telling you that I was ¾ into a full year of an intimate relationship with insomnia. Let’s call her Sveta. Sveta came into my life one night while in St. Petersburg Russia a few days before the 1994 Goodwill Games Triathlon. I had initial trouble sleeping because the security guards on the Team USA hallway were smoking and second-hand stench was slipping under the door space of my hotel room. I decided to open the window a crack to let in some fresh air, which resulted in allowing a mosquito to invite itself in. The buzzing sound around my head as well as the anticipation of being bit tortured me for a good hour until I finally turned on the light and took a magazine to it. I proceeded to shut off the light and somehow turned on the start of the mind-flow of self-sabotaging thoughts. Sveta had entered my life. Her voice would say, “What if you really fail here at the Goodwill Games?” followed by, “How are you going to race well when you have not slept for days?” followed by, “You miss home – I can tell.”
When I returned home to Massachusetts, Sveta came with me and her bedtime banter carried on. The inner dialog would typically go like this, “If you don’t sleep, how will you put in the training that you need to get on the podium and win prize money at the races?” “You have bypassed looking for a “real” fulltime job to take on this sport full-time.” “You have all of these people in your life supporting you and what if you don’t do well?” “You’re not sleeping which means that tomorrow’s going to be a training day down the tubes.” She was relentless. So relentless that I gave up my earned spot for the 1995 Pan American Games in Argentina.
I figured if I couldn’t sleep I might as well get up and do something. Sometimes, I would leave Sveta in the bedroom and get up and bake bread at 1 am. Other times, I would clean things …not the house but rather things that were much more important …. like bike components. Occasionally, I would resign to getting up and starting my long run well before the sun came up (no worries about too much traffic). I can honestly say that year of having Sveta in my life was a miserable. Sveta made me go a little cray-cray.
You just never know what’s going to hit you from year to year. You can have periods in your life when you are just sailing through with a tailwind, and other times when you are blindsided by a challenge and taken to the ground. My advice is to first get on your hands and knees and then start to think about what you need to do to come back to being upright. It’s called problem solving.
I couldn’t file a restraining order against Sveta, so I ended up seeking the help of a sports psychologist. He was instrumental in helping me break the snowballing patterns of worry by teaching imagery techniques that allowed me to let go of the negative dialog. Basically, when Sveta entered my head, I would imagine her flowing down the river …. or better yet on hard core rapids. He also suggested that I write down and focus on all the things in my life and in my training that were going well on a daily basis. The 3rd hit to Sveta came from me alone. A television in the bedroom did wonders in overtaking her voice and allowing someone else to talk me to sleep. I have read the studies regarding the negative effects of falling asleep to the television. Apparently, the screen emits some sort of blue light that triggers the brain to stop producing our natural sleep hormone. In my case however, I go into the most wonderful deep state of REM you can imagine. To this day, even without worries in my head, I still enjoy being “talked to sleep” by a television show (specifically, Forensic Files).
My yearlong soiree with Sveta is long gone and in the bigger picture of my life now seems so trivial. Worse things can happen. With that being said, I still occasionally reflect on that time. I was unraveling. I didn’t like that. I had to get off of the ground onto my hands and knees and problem solve. What came out of that process were tools that I still use to this day in all aspects of my life and with the athletes that I coach. My advice to anyone to who has experience periods of major doubt is to,
- be mindful of the tone of your inner and outer dialog with yourself and with others. Specifically, be aware of your word choices as they will reflect in your actions and the actions of others.
- be mindful of the negative thoughts that can creep into your head. If they do let them go IMMEDIATELY and focus on a something that produces a feeling of gratitude. Remind yourself of what is going well in your life.
- choose words that foster empowerment, such as, joyful, excited, enthusiastic or passionate versus words or phrases that promote feelings of guilt or disappointment (“I suck,” “I’m horrible,” “this is disastrous”).
Several months ago I spilled coffee on myself, stepped in dog doo (in my bare feet people) and walked into the bed post. I could have gone down the road of assuming that day was surely going to continue to be a disaster, however I reminded myself that I am healthy, safe and loved. Life was pretty good …. and even better once I rinsed off my foot.