During my third year of residency I trained for and completed an Ironman triathlon. I’ve discovered, despite its growing popularity, many people have no idea what a triathlon is and often nod at me in hesitant approval when I talk about this particular passion of mine. An Ironman triathlon is a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run, completed in succession, all in one day.
And it happens to be the most exhilarating and self-actualizing ride of your life. During the grueling training and racing process you learn more about yourself, your inner demons, and your body’s capabilities than you could possibly imagine. The glory at the finish line is infectious and monumental and if you love humanity you want everyone to feel the rush of life that comes from such an accomplishment.
After competing in several shorter triathlons I went to my first Ironman distance event as a spectator and felt like I had come home. I immediately thought, “Here are my people!” Amidst a sea of beautiful bodies, there were energetic, positive, inspirational pictures of health everywhere. By no means was everyone there a lean machine, but everyone there was fit and in the process of getting fitter. There were people with significant physical challenges, people recovering from or beating cancer, people in their 70s and 80s, all defying the common limiting mantras of our culture: that I’m too genetically disabled, too busy, too tired, too sick, or too old to push my body to new limits.
The determination that crowd exuded rang a bell in my head and lassoed my heart. I knew I had to join their ranks. I competed in my first Ironman in 2009 in Tempe Arizona, and have been hopelessly hooked ever since. This September I will return to the town where I completed my residency, Chattanooga, Tennessee for my fourth, and hopefully my fastest.
Triathlon is my lifestyle. I spend ten to fifteen hours a week training my body in the pool, on the bike, and on the road, day in and day out. How I feed and hydrate my body takes preparation and constant attention so I am never depleted or hindering recovery. I stick to a regimented sleep plan, I don’t watch TV, I don’t stay up late. For me, the reward of living this way and making what some might call sacrifices are plentiful. I feel fit and energetic, strong and confident, I feel fully alive and grateful.
Training and competing at this distance are extreme and I don’t believe we need to exercise at these lengths to be healthy. But the experience I had watching people cross the finish line at my first race was part of a bigger lesson. They cried, pointed to the sky, put their hands up to there faces in disbelief, laughed, jumped, fist pumped the air, and bowed down to kiss the ground. Some even cart-wheeled over the finish line. They had worked harder and longer than they ever imagined they could to accomplish their goal and the intangible sweet reward was written all over their faces. It wasn’t about the Ironman per se, it was about the process of doing something they didn’t know was possible.
I believed in the value of the experience so much that I stopped my practice as an OB/GYN and began committing myself to health and wellness coaching. During my training and racing something in me began to shift and I noticed I was feeling off purpose in my practice. Though I knew I was providing a valuable service to my patients, I couldn’t help but see that so many of them really needed lifestyle changes in order to get healthy. I didn’t feel like I had time in my office to make the impact on their lives that I wanted to. I wanted to motivate people to get off medication and get on the move!
In my coaching, I love watching people experience the transformation of their bodies from inert dead weights to beautiful machines in motion. The process is arduous and takes consistent effort and soul-searching, but that’s exactly what makes the eventual transformation so powerful and sustainable. Looking for a quick fix when it comes to weight loss and fitness cheats us out of a meaningful whole life transformation. But when we embark on a journey of reshaping how we think about ourselves, digging deep to push past our own inertia and self-imposed limitations, a whole new world opens up to us. And because it takes time, sweat, heartache, and surviving a million tiny defeats, it also brings extreme joy, confidence and a million little victories. I live and breathe that process in my triathlon training and in my work. And that’s what works for me.
Susanna Carter is an obstetrician-gynecology physician and the creator of Project 150. This article originally appeared in What Works For Me, a joint project by the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine.