How I went from competing to experiencing

I have always been highly competitive, especially in individual sports. Perhaps it is because I just love going fast, and nothing makes you feel as fast as when you come flying past your fellow competitors (the only thing that is comparable is racing downhill on my mountain bike). I was (am) a speed junkie (and not the amphetamine kind).

After many years of not participating in competitive sport, I did something really crazy, or so most of my mates thought so – I entered a sprint distance off-road triathlon. Now you might think that for someone who was on the wrong side of 35 who had never done anything close to an endurance event, the idea winning would be far from mind. Not me. Winning was out of the question, but that did not stop me from competing with my training partner (who is equally competitive) or even simply competing with arbitrarily times I sent for myself.

Every event was approached with the goal of beating some person or time. I gauged my success, and enjoyment, not on how I swam, biked or ran but on the outcome. Needless to say, with little endurance racing experience my performance was so far below my (largely unrealistic) expectations I rarely came away thinking "I enjoyed that" (a sense of achievement yes but not always feeling that I had fun).

Fast forward two years to last Saturday. I had now progressed from sprint distance to full triathlon. With months of preparation behind me I was ready for the challenge. I kept telling myself that the finishing time or position was irrelevant. Bear in mind that I generally come near the bottom of the field (I comfort myself knowing that I was built for speed not endurance). I kept telling myself that was important was the sense achievement; I was about to do my first full triathlon. Yet, as the days grew closer I could not escape a gnawing feeling in my gut. The previous events had not exactly been easy. I had an awful sense of foreboding.

Two days before the event I went to my physio and she asked me what I enjoyed most about the event. "The finish" I answered. Well, she was not too impressed. After some discussion she said I should stop being so competitive and focus on enjoyment and on becoming more experiential. "Do experiential people ever win?" I answered and then followed with "Ouch!" as she dug her fingers into an especially tender muscle. Okay, okay. I give in. I shall try and focus on the enjoying the event rather than worrying about times or positions. She sent me away with one simple instruction. I was to report back with one thing I enjoyed about each leg of the triathlon. One simple instruction… one major change in mindset.

Race day. I keep focusing on ‘relax and enjoy the race’ which is quite different from my usual ‘I need to finish the swim in x minutes, hit the half way mark on the bike at y time so that I can get to T2 at z time’ and so on. Standing my at the water’s edge waiting for the gun (horn actually) and I am actually looking forward to the swim (how odd).

With the blast of the horn we’re off. I immediately settle into a comfortable pace breathing every third stroke. Amidst trying not to get too far off course I start thinking ‘what on earth am I going to tell my physio?” I settled on “I love the sound the bubbles make as I breath". Strange but true. I really am enjoying this.

Out of the water and into T1. Feeling very fresh and comfortable I head out on the bike. My training partner caught up and passed me in the transition – I was too busy putting on sunblock – it would the last I saw of him until the end. I remember that swim is my strong point. Sadly it is not the place where triathlons are won or lost (but then I am not racing today I remind myself). On the bike I focus on keeping an easy cadence and not pushing myself into the red. I am being passed left and right. But I am winning another race – or rather battle – to not fall into the trap of chasing of competing. The bike course is tough, really tough, and I would be lying if I told you it was all wine and roses. With long sandy climbs there are times when I want to curse the person who designed the route. But then I remember; I need to report back to the physio. Riding through some awesome single track sections I start to notice the beautiful views and rock formations. Okay. Tick.

Entering T2 there is a distinct absence of activity. I am well down the field. Most of the bikes are in and not too many people around. I could stop for a beer and no one would notice. Slow change into running kit after nursing a blister and into the last leg. I start walking and thinking ‘I’m gonna walk these last 10kms’. It is not long before I approach the first water stop. Well one cannot walk into a water stop, I must get my legs moving and start running into the water stop. After drenching myself with water to keep cool I am back on the trail. I decide to run 100 paces and walk 10 or 20. Had I thought ‘I have 10km to go’ I think I would have walked the whole way. For the next 9km my thoughts are focused on counting paces. It proves very useful in pushing me to run just a little further before I am rewarded briefly with some rest. I did walk the steep climbs though and then enjoyed running the downhills, but for the rest I kept to my run long and walk short strategy. But what am I going to tell my physio? I realise that I enjoy the quiet solitude of the trail run, only broken by the sound of my running shoes crunching on the gravel, the lonely bird call or the occasional fellow competitor (this is one of the benefits of being at the bottom of the field). And then there was the view. After one very, very long climb I reach the top and can see right across the valley. In the distance I see the finish. Almost there.

I finish strong and feeling great. No aches or pains despite being on the trail for almost 5 hours (40 minutes behind my training partner who is feeling tired and sore). I am blown away – I really had fun. I have moved from competing to experiencing.

And all thanks to one simple task!

#triathlon #experiential #competing #highperformance #sportspsychology #mentalgame

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Philip Collier (M.A. Psychology)

Accredited CBT Practitioner (APT)

Credentialed Senior Practitioner (COMENSA)

Cape Winelands

South Africa​​​

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