Adventure #1 – My Marathon
When we’re little kids, we start putting ourselves in boxes. We’re trying to form our identities, so our boxes are defined by what we do. We say, “I’m in band, I play football, I’m good at math…”
At first, these boxes are like chalk on the sidewalk, and we can step outside them at any time. The problem with these boxes, though, is that—as we get older—the walls get thicker, and it gets much, much harder to get out.
In time, our box is no longer defined by what we do. It becomes the reverse: what we do is defined by our box.
My box was Big Guy. My brother called me “Cupcake”; the jocks on the basketball team re-named me “Tits”. And for nearly two and a half decades of my life, I lived in my big guy box. Sure, I would try to lose weight. “Take small steps,” my mother would tell me, and I’d try to lose five pounds. I tried to lose five pounds for ten goddamn years. It was like trying to escape from prison with a pencil eraser.
And then something snapped. I felt shame—certainly for being overweight, but even more so about repeatedly failing at small goals. My aspirations were so small I was embarrassed to tell people what they were.
So I decided to start setting crazy goals. If I was going to fail, I at least wanted to fail spectacularly. I wanted to set goals so absurd that people would laugh at me just for trying.
So I decided I was going to run the Chicago Marathon… And the Memphis Marathon… After losing 60 pounds… After running 1,000 miles… In ten months.
Now, if you’re a hardcore runner, you probably don’t think that’s terribly impressive. That’s because no one ever called you “Cupcake” or “Tits”. When you’re a Big Guy, saying you’re going to run 1,000 miles—basically from Chicago to Boston—is like saying you’re going to run to the moon.
But I did run the miles and marathons, and I escaped the big guy box—all 60 pounds of it—pretty convincingly. It turns out, though, that losing that weight was just a byproduct of the real lesson I learned: most of what we perceive to be our limits are nothing but illusions. And when we actually get right up close and challenge them, they usually disappear.
Adventure #2 – My Triathlon
At 4am on June 10, 2012, I was standing in an elevator in Grand Rapids, on my way to what was undoubtedly going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done: my first triathlon. I was so nervous I thought I might throw up.
Six months earlier I was on top of the world. I had lost more than 60 pounds, run 1,000 miles, and completed two marathons. I had almost entirely ditched all of the insecurities of my former “big guy” identity. Almost, because my nemesis Self Doubt suddenly showed up in that elevator like it had just realized it was way behind on its bullying schedule.
Whoa, heyyy buddy, what are *you* doing here?! You don’t actually *really* know how to swim—remember when you almost drowned that one time? And you just bought that bike three months ago! Plus, you look really bad on a standalone 10K—can’t wait to see how much worse you’ll be running after a swim and a bike! And are you here by yourself?! Who’s going to carry you home if they have to fish you out of the water? Oh, and: cool shorts, bro.
A racer in his mid 40s stepped into the elevator.
I tried to make small talk: “nice bike!”. I was pretty naive, but I could tell that his Cervélo probably cost about twice as much as my decade-old Honda Accord.
He looked at me, looked at my bike, looked back at me and sneered, “nice, uh… bell” in an exaggerated sarcastic tone. Mine is an inexpensive off-the-rack road bike, and it just happened to have a bell on it when I bought it. So I kept it, since I ride on a busy path sometimes and I don’t want to be the guy who yells at little kids.
“Thanks,” I muttered, as if I didn’t notice he was making fun of me. What kind of jerk says that?
I quietly fantasized about beating him, or watching him get a flat, or just punching him in the head. But later, once I got fifty yards into the swim and realized I wasn’t going to drown, I forgot completely about him and instantly fell in love with a sport.
That day, after a year and a half of losing weight and learning to really push myself, I learned that I don’t give a crap what anyone thinks of me or my bike, and that I’d rather be dead-f’ing-last than still be on the couch. And since then, I’ve endured scary swims, painful bikes, and some really ugly runs in a bunch of different triathlons. I’ve treated myself to some nicer gear, learned how to train better, and have met many really terrific people.
I also learned that it’s possible for a former big guy to learn how to swim, how to bike a little faster, and how to run a little farther. But the most important part was discovering that there’s nothing better than settling into a groove in the open water, coasting downhill in the sunshine, finding my legs in a sprint, high-fiving a friend at the finish line, and remembering: “I can do hard things”.