Spiritual Reflections from Completing an Ironman

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

Most older people, including me, have bucket lists. One of the things on my list was to someday complete an Ironman race. Several factors made that a complicated long-term dream; aging, four surgeries, discouraging feedback from my cardiologist, not being a great swimmer… just to name a few factors. Then, last summer, I signed up for the Lake Placid Ironman and decided to take the plunge with the encouragement of my wife (sounded like a great idea sitting on a beach having a drink). Two weeks ago, surrounded by my family, I finally was able to live out the dream (and still be here to talk about it). No it wasn’t fast, or pretty, but the experience was wonderful! There are three parts to an Ironman (not counting the training, obsessing, and driving the people around me crazy…): The 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike on challenging hills, and then a 26.2 mile run. Each leg of this race brought its own lesson...

The Swim

The biblical writer of the Psalms says, “when the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, and its water roar and foam…” The start of an Ironman looks chaotic: 2400 people entering the water, kicking, pushing, and thrashing… kind of like being in a washing machine with “foaming water”. Initially, my anxiety was high related to both the distance, and far too many people. It didn’t help that I carried stories of those who were injured in the swim previously: my neighbor had to drop out a few years ago after getting kicked in the eye at the start. The Psalmist, however, also adds, “there is a river…” a place where there is a sense of peace and tranquility. Finding that peace during the swim was amazing. Being able to relax, enjoy the water, enjoy the view, enjoy being part of the event without worrying about speed or time made it a pleasant, almost zen like experience. Finally, coming out of the water to be greeted by my wife, daughter, son in law, and grandkids was indescribable!

Lesson: There is calm water and peace to be found even when life seems turbulent.

The Bike

The Psalmist says “I lift up my eyes unto the hills… where does my help come from?” One hundred and twelve miles with over 8000 feet of climbing is a long time to be on a bike! Plenty of time to think about hills, being tired, getting sick of gatorade, and hoping to complete the ride with no breakdowns, not to mention thinking about running a marathon after finishing. At the end of each loop, though, there was my wife and family, cheering, high-fiving, encouraging… and giving me great energy. Beyond that, lots of immediate and extended family in NY, Florida, Texas, California followed my progress on the Ironman app and offered prayers and support.

Lesson: The hills of life do end… even when they seem insurmountable!

The Run

The Psalmist says “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” When you are not one of the young triathletes or among the elite, or simply old and slow, you finish this race in the dark. The scene over the last 6 miles is like what the Psalmist describes: “the valley of the shadow of death”. Hundreds of people walking, shuffling, stopping at aid stations, vomiting - kind of a death march, all hoping to get to the finish before the cut off. It’s easy to lose heart and think there is no finish line, except, once again, there was my family. My 6 year old granddaughter cheered wildly at the end of each loop - “come on Grampy, you can run faster…” Then there was a friend who ran out on the course, hugged me, and told me to celebrate the moment. There were the wonderful people at the aid stations (the men in speedos were my personal favorites) offering food, drink and most importantly encouragement.

Lesson: Life is a marathon, not a sprint: but, there is actually a finish line and if you keep walking surrounded by people you know and love…

The Finish

The biblical writer says “we are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses…” The finish was amazing! Finishing on the Olympic oval with a large crowd cheering in the dark, celebrating with family… suddenly all the pain was gone. Instead, there was joy and exhilaration as I sat down with my 6 year old granddaughter, who was still excited and animated at 10:30 PM after being up since 5:30am!

So what did I learn?

Ironman is a wonderful metaphor for life! In the end, the event is not nearly as important as the lessons it teaches. Life can seem unbelievably challenging, painful, or ecstatic: at times it seems like the hills (challenges, losses, traumas, exhaustion, etc) are overwhelming. So what helps?