I’m coming off a weekend in Panama City, Florida. I went to watch a good friend participate in his first Ironman Triathlon. For those who don’t know, this is one of the craziest sporting events on this planet. Competitors start by swimming 2.4 miles in the ocean. They then jump on their bikes and ride 112 miles. Not yet content that they’ve done enough for the day, these lunatics get off the bike and run a marathon. That’s 26.2 miles on foot, after all that.
I wanted to see my friend accomplish his goal because I know how many years he’s been thinking about it, and I know how hard he’s trained over the last six or seven months. But aside from that, I also wanted to go because I am a big believer in the idea that getting out of your comfort zone is essential to getting the most out of life. The crowd at the event certainly served to reinforce that belief.
What struck me most was not the amazing condition of the elite athletes who showed up to win. It was the regular folks, the ones no one would expect to enbark on such a daunting endeavor. There were men and women of all shapes and sizes. The oldest guy was 79 years old! There was even a lady who was diagnosed a few years ago with terminal cancer. Her doctors gave her four months to live in 2000. Obviously, her body didn’t get the memo. No, this event was not about the professional competitors. It was about the power of determination and the lessons that getting out of one’s comfort zone bring to life as a whole.
I have long believed that our genes’ ancient quest for survival makes us susceptible to settling for the status quo. As soon as we get all of what we need and most of what we want, it’s easy to just shut down and become a slave to routines. But this, in my view, is a waste of our precious time here. Moreover, it makes us ill-equipped to handle change.
The fact is that, no matter how hard we try to insulate ourselves from it, the world is always in a state of flux. Things just simply don’t stay the same. Those who are slaves to routine struggle constantly to deny this reality because, when the world changes, the routines have to change. Sometimes the changes are relatively minor, which means routines can be modified slightly without much ado. But occasionally, changes are dramatic, such as when jobs are lost or relationships fall apart. These new situations require actions that are often very unpleasant, and it is the Ironmen who are mentally prepared to do what has to be done.
By voluntarily committing themselves to the pain and anguish that comes with training for and competing in such a grueling event, these inspirational people are teaching themselves how to handle life at its toughest. It seems that our world is so prosperous that we have to fabricate tribulations to test our minds and bodies in the ways that our ancestors were tested in simply living life. Nevertheless, whether the tests are contrived or natural, the result is the same. The tested come away with the knowledge that they can endure when they have to.
The Ironman who gets downsized and faces the likelihood of having to get a lower paying job while studying at night to obtain the skills to get back into the workforce at his or her previous level has nothing to fear. The work may be hard but it’ll never be as hard as the final 10k of the Ironman, and the payoff will be more valuable than the Ironman medal (at least in practical terms). The point is that we have to learn to push ourselves beyond what is required in everyday life to really know what we’re made of. In the Ironman world, they have a saying: “The Ironman doesn’t build character. It reveals it.” So true.
So, to my friend Robbie, I say, hats off to you. You’re an inspiration to us all. And to everyone else, I’d say it doesn’t matter if you choose an Ironman triathlon or a public speaking course. Just get out there and get uncomfortable. Push yourself to achieve something you’re afraid of. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and what you’re capable of, and you’ll send a message to those around you that you are not adrift on the sea of life, that you are the captain of your seas. This is a contagious mentality, one that our world needs a lot more of.