What If You Can?

by Deb Valois

A year has gone by since I wrote the “50 is the new 30” article and I continue to find things that I want to challenge myself with.  This year I was going after unfinished business.  I decided to register for a 70.3 triathlon.  You see, I tried that once before and failed to complete it back in 2017 (race director stopped the race for weather safety concerns, so not really a DNF though it felt like it to me). In thinking about training for the distance, I got a Peloton bike for winter bike training.  I love the convenience of jumping into a class without having to drive anywhere. Additionally, the remote aspect enables me let it all hang out without worrying about others' opinions but I still have the benefits of encouragement from other riders. One instructor really has a way with words that encourage. Words are important. The right words at the right time can encourage you to complete a task. The wrong words can discourage and lead to inaction or failure.  The words that are standing out to me these days are “what if you can.”

I sometimes think that I bite off more than I can chew with my fitness endeavors. Who am I to think I can do X, Y or Z. I am a 51-year-old woman who didn’t own a pair of running shoes until I was 42. Here I am a member of a The Nark Running Strategies team thinking about the possibility of attempting a BQ this fall (still not there...). I didn’t even have a bicycle as an adult until 2014 and this year I registered for a 70.3 Ironman triathlon (more on that in a moment)! I could barely do 2 pushups and had never even touched a barbell before 2018 and this year I pulled a 310 lb deadlift which happens to be the heaviest deadlift by a female in our gym! How did this happen? Seriously HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? I’m nobody special!

Each time I think about a challenge, it rolls around in my brain as a “are you nuts? That’s crazy!”  Then if I'm pushed to consider it “holy smokes that looks hard I probably can’t do that”. If I make it past that phase, usually because someone dared me or challenged me, and I get my stubborn streak going. At some point I must consider whether I actually can do whatever it is. My first attempts are usually scared little halfhearted efforts because it’s hard and hard is scary. Lately I’ve been looking at things differently. The words of the Peloton instructor have been working their way into my psyche. She asks a big question like “have any of you ridden 100 miles?”. Most people would respond “no way” or “are you kidding?!”. Her response is to ask you to consider “what if you can?”. Seriously, what if you can! Just think about it! Imagine what that would feel like! Picture yourself doing whatever it is that you are considering as impossible. What IF YOU CAN?! Once you’ve honestly considered that, you can decide if you want to!

Fast forward through the spring run season (getting closer to that BQ) and the early summer triathlon training. On July 10, I toed the line of the Musselman 70.3 Ironman Triathlon in Seneca Lake with more than a thousand other athletes (yes I just included myself in the category of “athlete”). I had my usual prerace panic until I was in the crush of wet suited people waiting for the swim start. I started chatting with a couple of women next to me. Their calm advice about how to start slow and swim my own race and not to forget to enjoy the process was exactly what I needed. As soon as I was in the water, I was able to calm down and just stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe…stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. There were a few bumps and splashes along the way, but I got out of the water feeling empowered! I just swam 1.2 miles passing a handful of people along the way! I felt more confident about the rest of the event. I laughed at myself as I nearly tipped over getting out of my wetsuit but I took my time in transition to be sure I remained calm and did what I needed to do before heading out for the 56 mile bike portion.

The weather was awesome and the scenery spectacular as we rode through the farmland between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. I felt super strong and fast on my bike as I started, passing more than a few people in the first 20 miles. I did make a rookie mistake when a motorcycle with two riders slowed down and rode next to me as I was approaching another rider to pass. I was kinda freaked out by someone watching me like that so I didn’t pass immediately. Turns out, that was a race official and they ticketed me for drafting as I was less than 6 bike lengths behind the rider ahead of me. When they flashed me the blue card and told me I had to report to the penalty tent, I felt like I should be upset. Then I thought to myself…they thought I was DRAFTING! LOL! That must mean I looked fast or something! Anyway, I decided not to let it ruin my day and I kept moving, enjoying the ride! I managed to navigate the aid stations without having to stop the bike, grabbing the offered Gatorade and gels. I only almost crashed into a volunteer once! Finally, when I had crested “the hill” that I had been worried about through all my training, I looked at the rider next to me and asked  if that was really “the hill”? He laughed as we rode by some folks walking their bikes and pointed out that it was all about how you trained. I guess all the climbs I did in training paid off! From there on I was literally grinning the entire way. I was riding my best ride and enjoying every minute of it!  I rode as hard as I wanted, keeping my heart rate in a reasonable range (coaches instructions). When I stopped at the penalty tent for my 5-minute drafting penalty I chatted with the volunteers there and actually had an enjoyable rest before heading into transition to start the run. Afterall, it’s not like I was going for a podium! I might as well have fun, even in the penalty tent.

In the second transition, I again took my time to be sure I was ready to hit the run as strong as I could. Advice from experienced friends had me starting off nice and easy to let my legs figure out what was going on. The plan was to stay at a comfortable pace, walking through every aid station to allow for me to drink a cup of fluids, dump a cup of water on my head and stuff my pockets with ice. This ingenious practice got me through the run feeling strong despite the high ambient temperatures at noon! With this plan, I was able to run all the hills on this two-loop hilly course and have a little left for a sprint at the finish. The feelings that were exploding from me as I crossed the finish were so powerful! Strength, elation, disbelief, excitement, and finally exhaustion! Seeing my training partner screaming her head off at the finish was amazing! I can truly say that I enjoyed every minute of that event. I worked hard and I am proud of what I did that day. Going into the day with the simple goal of completing the distance feeling strong was the best thing I could have done. I had no expectations of time (yes I had an idea of what I might do) and so I was not disappointed if I slowed or if someone passed me. When all was said and done, I finished 50 minutes faster than I thought I would! Go figure!

The more I find myself succeeding at completing hard things the more I consider possible. Who knows what might be next! Could I complete the Northville Placid Trail? Could I learn to waterski? Could I compete in snowshoe running and not break a hip?! If I’m honest with you, though, it’s not always a success story…at least not yet. Ask my husband how my efforts to learn to ride a motorcycle are going. Or maybe don’t. He might hurt himself shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

The summary of this year’s glimpse into Deb’s brain is that I am discovering that I can do more than I might believe that I can! I’ll bet you are the same! The next time you look at something that you think would be cool, but you think is out of reach, put these words in your head and let them come out of your mouth: “what if I can?” Because unless you consider that, you will never know!

Thanks to my NRS team (shout out to my best training partner Jaime Sheehy), coach Mat Nark and Christine D’Ercole (Peloton) for leading me to believe in myself and get so much more out of life than I was before!

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