That Elusive Virtue

San Salvador, Mallorca

Good things come to those who wait.

It’s not a life philosophy that I apply. I prefer the attitude that good things come to those who get off their arses and go out and work hard for them. Like many athletes I am driven by goals, action and results. Waiting for something just seems like a cop out, and I mostly associate the saying above with a ketchup advert, and I hate ketchup (even if it is Matt LeBlanc).

If the first quote is suggesting that “patience is a virtue” then I also have a problem with that one. It’s not that I don’t agree, but it is not one that I have.

I like complex problems to have simple solutions. That’s why I am an engineer. Logic and pragmatism are my weapons of choice: make a difficult decision, take positive action, move forwards. If those actions can be done now, I do them now. Usually all at once, multi-tasking myself to death and wondering why people don’t keep up.

Santuari de Bonany, near Petra, Mallorca

But there is no saying: “doing everything at once is a virtue” or “good things come to those who can’t wait”, although I might coin that second one because I do have some good examples of it.  But there are many examples of us multitasking maniacs burning out. I recently had an interesting discussion on this with my husband, someone who embraces resting wholeheartedly. He had been debating with my friend’s husband why their wives feel the need to constantly be on the go, driving ourselves so hard that we always teeter on the edge of exhaustion. They didn’t have an answer, and I am not sure I do, but it’s not an uncommon trait in women who are high achievers. For me I think it was born from experiences growing up, and then compounded by male-dominated further education and then my military career. In the military, and I assume in other male-dominated working cultures, there is a constant requirement to prove yourself against your male counterparts.

To do that you have to work harder and for longer. Not because you are less able, but because instead of assumed respect which is yours to lose, you are treated with distrust and you have to earn begrudged respect.

There is no denying those experiences early in my career have shaped who I am. In the military there is no “female” category when it comes to physical activities, so I learnt that I had to be fitter and stronger than all my colleagues, be they male or female, old or young, to earn even a sliver of physical respect.  Constant comparisons to unachievable standards fostered an insatiable hunger to improve at all costs, something I have carried with me ever since and has permeated through all parts of my life. It is fabulous in so many ways; keeping me positive in the face of adversity, helping me move on quickly from negative experiences and people, and enabling me to dare greatly in life.

Portocolom sunset

But earlier this year I swayed on the edge of the burnout tightrope. The perfect storm of a traumatic event, the resulting serious physical injury, the anxiety of the court case, sky high motivation to return to racing stronger, and simultaneously setting up my own business and moving countries stretched even my ability to absorb stress. I have a blind faith in that ability. I am frequently brushing off suggestions from loved ones that I am doing too much, believing firmly that I can just cope with more than most people. That is positive, but not always true. In February my body made it exceptionally clear that I needed to slow down and rest more. For over a year now I have invested in a daily habit of focused relaxation, which I think is so important to balance a busy lifestyle. Outside that I find it a challenge to rest and be still, I just imagine all the things I could be doing instead.  But to reach your potential at this sport you need huge reservoirs of energy on tap. Not only do you have to enjoy pushing yourself to unimaginably dark places in training; you have to wake up most days ready to do that. Ready to test yourself, accept failures, and to celebrate each small step along the way.

That has always come easily for me, as it seems to for most triathletes, and holding myself back is nigh on impossible. So earlier this year when training started to become a chore, and even getting up in the morning was hard work, I knew something was wrong. Tests revealed rock bottom iron levels which had probably been that way for some time as I was severely anaemic with low haemoglobin. No wonder I had been feeling short of breath and generally weak. With the diagnosis came relief. At least I knew that there was a reason, and I could start to work on the solution.

Four months later I am still finding a way through the labyrinth that is treatment and recovery from anaemia. I am currently writing an article with a doctor which will look at some of the details, including the symptoms, solutions (mostly patience!) and treatments; keep an eye out on Twitter for the link.  It has become apparent to me that this condition is far more common than I realised, and endurance athletes could do with more information. For the time being I am feeling a huge amount better, and am almost back training to full capacity. The anaemia fatigue was compounded by a complication from my fractured sacrum last year (sustained during the assault). An additional stress response was diagnosed in April and has stopped me running for a few weeks (and prevented me from racing this year in Texas). Now, ironically,  I need patience as I wait for that to heal too.  I don’t know if the low iron has been causative of the fatigue, or if the perfect storm I referred to earlier has just taxed me physically until my body found a way to tell me to stop. Either way, I am listening, and always learning. Our bodies are incredible in so many ways, and if we can stop and really listen and understand what they are telling us then the answers are usually right in front of us.

I know I will be back on the start line somewhere soon, and in the meantime I am working on developing strength in body and mind- oh and that most elusive of virtues…patience.

(Header photo credit: James Mitchell)

Live in the moment, take it all in