"What's the worst that can happen?" was a mantra for me during the last one or two years I worked at a marketing agency downtown. A very lovely woman -- and someone I don't see nearly enough anymore -- was retained by our principal for organizational development purposes. At some point, she was helping our teams do a better job at both delegating and being open to new processes. As one of the team leaders, I participated in a working lunch session with the consultant and two other team leaders about how to, well ... let go. The Reader's Digest version of this two-hour session was this: Before you say no [to a process or a person], ask yourself, "What's the worst that could happen?"
In the marketing and public relations arena, the worst that could happen list looked something like this:
- going over budget (you tell the boss the company may have to eat a few bucks, but the lesson you've learned is invaluable)
- missing a deadline (you renegotiate the deadline and convince the client that the first deadline was bogus to begin with)
- not seeing a typo, particularly those that include dates, dollar amounts and/or square footage, until after the piece had been printed 20,000 times at the printer (you fake a seizure)
- typing a bitchy e-mail about a problematic client to your boss, and then accidentally cc'ing the client you were bitching about (you spend your lunch polishing your resume and then call in sick the next day so you can do some focused online job searching)
That's just a sampling of ...the worst...in a marketing agency. We confronted our worsts, threw caution to the wind and did what marketers do. We marketed. And we pr'd. Life was grand.
What's the worst that could happen? has followed me -- nearly four years after leaving the agency -- into my daily life, and specifically, into my athletic endeavors. As I was reluctantly driving to the Y this morning for a swim workout (It's cold and there is snow on the ground, so the idea of swimming is just distasteful to me), what's the worst that could happen? flashed by me on the on-going crawl called my mind.
In any of my athletic endeavors, what's the worst that could happen depends on the actual event I'm participating in. For running and biking, the worst that could happen is really all mental: do I have the willpower to run or bike through physical pain or exhaustion? If the answer is 'no,' then the worst that could happen is that I stop running or biking because it just hurts more than my brain will stand. While not completing the full duration of a workout is a drag, life goes on. All athletes have days where they can push through the pain, and other days when they want to find their childhood woobie and have a good cry.
In an actual triathlon, or a long-distance run, the worst that could happen gets a little weirder. I worry about pooping. And when I say worry, I mean, I obsess about pooping. You can pee anywhere at anytime during a triathlon, and NO ONE will know. Pee in the water, on your bike (chances are, you're wearing bike shorts with really absorbent padding), pee while you run ... most won't know. Anything on your body that appears wet could just be sweat. Or water from an aid station. But pooping? Pooping is obvious. You can't hide poop. And I don't do any event fast enough to warrant me crossing a finish line covered in my own feces.
I'm a morning pooper. Not sure if it's the coffee I have as soon as I roll out of bed or the bowl of cereal I eat before I go to bed at night, but it is almost guaranteed that on each and every day of the week, I'm pooping sometime between 8:15 and 8:45 am. This fact of my life is pretty inconsequential on a normal day. But on a race day, I've got troubles, bubbles.
Triathletes typically arrive at a race at 4:30 in the morning to get set up in transition. Races -- weather permitting -- typically begin at 7 am, but depending on what wave you're assigned to, a 1.5 to 3.5 hour race (the approximate time it would take me to complete a sprint- and olympic-distance triathlon) may not actually begin until 8 am. Race anxiety, coupled with my Rainman-like GI system, partnered with a 7:45 or 8 am start-time, bring me horrifically close to my 'what's the worst that can happen' scenario. Thus far, I've never had to confront the worst during a triathlon. Once I'm a few strokes into the swim, my mind and colon stop their conversation and I just focus on moving forward.
My mind and colon couldn't stop their conversation in the last extra mile of the half marathon I completed in October. I say the 'extra' mile of the half because we learned after the race what we had figured while we were running it -- the event wasn't mapped out correctly. It was a little more than a 14 mile course, instead of the standard 13.1 miles. I remember waking up at 4 that morning (we had to leave the house by 5 am to drive to the far west suburbs), hopeful that the brown rice and chicken I had the night before might help me empty the tank before I left the house. While we were waiting for the sitter to arrive (our kids were asleep), I thought the Gods had smiled upon me in the nick of time, so I jumped from the couch and ran to the bathroom.
We stopped twice on our way to the race to use a public restroom. Two more false alarms.
A porta-potty visit just before the race started proved useless. And then I found myself in my wave and running. The first 10 miles of the race, I felt strong. I was running with a friend and we chatted most of the way -- the excitement of crossing 'half-marathon' off my bucket list took priority over my bathroom needs. The next three miles were difficult. We were suspicious that the course distance was incorrect based on what our Nike Plus devices were registering. Then it became clear that no one knew how long the race actually was as we questioned the folks working the aid stations on the remainder of the course. Around mile 13, according to my device, we started walking. We were exhausted. It was raining. And we were in the woods with no sign of this so-called-13.1-mile race ending. Then it happened. My need to go hit me like a ton of bricks. Bricks that might be used to build a shithouse. I felt color drain from my face. A bead of sweat rolled off my brow. It was time and there was no way I'd ever make it to the porta-potty near the finish line, because I had no idea when - or if - I'd see a finish line.
With a pack of tissues and some hand-sanitizer tucked in the pockets of the bike jersey I wore that day (Note: Knowing 'what is the worst that can happen' can help you prepare for it, so the exercise of figuring out the worst thing in a variety of likely scenarios in your life is actually time well-spent.) I maneuvered myself into the wooded area just about 5 feet from the course, popped a squat and did what had to be done. My friend moved up the course about 10 or 15 yards so I could have some privacy. The guy who we had passed about 4 minutes earlier on the course, however, was unaware of my detour. As I finished my dirty business, I looked up and saw him approaching. Standing, would be death. It had been drizzling the last 4 miles or so, and I knew that getting my rain- and sweat-dampened compression shorts up from my knees and over my thighs and hips would not be a smooth - or quick - action. In addition to not signing up for a 14 mile run, I also hadn't signed up for any full-frontals. So, like a child that has been caught with her hand in the cookie jar, I pulled my chin to my chest, stared at the top of shoes and waited until I couldn't hear his breath or his footsteps before I stood up and put myself together. That's the story. Now we know what Tracy and a bear have in common.
So, pooping during a long run? It's the worst that can happen and well, I survived it. This story could have had a far dirtier ending had it been a road race down the streets of Chicago and not one set in the middle of a state park. I digress...
What's the worst that can happen in a swimming scenario, that which I was on my way to do this morning, has potential to turn into a bullet-pointed list. Swimming is hard, hard work. And bad, awful, painful things can happen in the water. And they have. And I can't forget them. I can't ... let go.
One of the worst things that can happen while swimming happens every time, to every swimmer. Getting into the water. And while the water in the 6-lane pool at my YMCA is heated, it is still cooler than I'd like it to be, particularly in the dead of winter, when I'm walking into the building with my core temp already three or four degrees below norm. It's a shocking discomfort that lasts all of 3 seconds. Dicking around by slowly entering the water from the ladder or walking around on tip-toes doesn't help. People who face the water with some frequency know enough to get in quickly and start moving instantly. Within 8 seconds the body adjusts to the water temperature. The worst that could happen is over. And then for me, it's time for my brain to move on to the other worst things that could happen.
Vomiting is pretty high up there on the list of what's the worst that could happen while swimming. I've been in the 6-lane on more than one occasion where I've felt the hot burn of nausea connect my churning stomach to my color-drained face. It's usually the result of not eating properly before the swim. On different occasions, I've either eaten too much or too soon before the workout. Trying to follow an aggressive routine (pushing yourself to hit certain times for each lap) with a not-yet-digested stomach of scrambled eggs, a bagel and a whey protein drink is like adding baking soda to vinegar. I've been in the middle of the pool, looking down at the giant, tiled Y on the pool floor, and have felt a burp rising to the top of my throat -- the burp that I think will promise some relief, but ultimately signals that something down yonder is unhappy and wants out. Quickly. Vomiting in the middle of the pool above the giant, tiled Y would most likely shut the pool down for cleaning for the day.
I can't be the girl that pooped in the woods and the girl that shut the pool down. So, that's one of the worst things that could happen. It hasn't yet. But it could.
Experiencing dizziness is right behind vomiting on the list of worsts. Dizziness always happens if I haven't had enough to eat before I start a swim workout. Dizziness lasts for about 45 seconds before the need to vomit surfaces. Dizziness makes 12 strokes to the end of the pool feel like I'm swimming The Channel (I'm guessing).
Although many think that drowning is one of the worst things that could happen while swimming, for some reason, it doesn't really bother me, at least not while I'm at the Y. It crossed my mind at my first open-water triathlon last season. After the event, I returned to the children's school the next week feeling quite cocky among my non-triathloning friends. "How far do you swim?" and "How cold was it?" were among the questions they'd ask me. I told them what a shock the murky water was when a friend asked, "How deep?" I responded that it was about 15 feet at the deepest end of the quarry. He grimaced at my answer and replied, "Yikes. That's where monsters live."
It is likely that the possibility of drowning and/or losing a limb to a deep-water-living monster might cross my mind at the next open-water race, but on a daily basis, swimming at the Y poses little concern for drowning or being attacked. Neither scenario make my worst that could happen list.
Generally speaking, while swimming, my brain is so occupied with counting (One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe.), that I have little time to let it get me into any other trouble. I'm too busy trying to breathe and not suck water to think, so it is rare that I meet up with the demons I encounter regularly on long runs during my swim workouts. After about 11 or 12 laps though, I usually fall into a pace that doesn't demand I focus on what my arms or legs are doing or whether or not I'm getting enough air. And during this period, with my arms and legs on autopilot, my mind sometimes wanders into the future and forces me to think about whether or not I'll be able to pull off the longer swims in the future events.
With today's swim, I can start to take the heat off myself about the 0.9 mile swim that I'll need to do at the end of June for my first olympic-distance race. I wasn't doing anything particularly speedy today, but I swam continuously (there was one 15-second water break) for 30 minutes, and hit nearly 3/4 of a mile. The first big race is five months away. I don't need to be the first one out of the lake, but as long as I know that I can swim continuously for up to 45 minutes, I should be fine. I know this now. I didn't know it this morning as I was driving to the Y.
What I did find today is that around lap 22 or 23, I was really starting to feel tired and uncertain of how much longer I could go on. My mind raced to the Half Ironman, a race I hope to cross off the athletic bucket list in the summer or fall of 2012, the year I turn 40. I didn't freak out about the distance of the looming swim (A Half Ironman, totaling 70.3 miles, begins with a 1.25 mile open water swim) as much as I panicked about losing interest. In less than three strokes, it hit me: What if I've been doing all this training and I make it through an olympic-distance race and I realize that I don't want to do it anymore? What if I want to finish racing after I've crossed the finish line?
That, it seems to me, would be the worst thing that could happen in my life (excluding the death of my husband or my kids, which, I'd never be able to bear).
For today's swim, I made it to lap 25 before the nausea set in. I had been swimming for 30 minutes (I was supposed to swim for 45 minutes) and was satisfied with my distance and my effort, so I let myself off the hook and went upstairs to shower. Eight hours later, I'm coming back to why stopping after the olympic-distance would be the worst thing and I still am uncertain of the answer.
I mean, I really. Don't. Know.
What I'm guessing, is that if stopping before I finish a Half Ironman is what I believe now to be the worst that could happen, I should probably just not stop. Because once I've completed a Half Ironman race, I don't have to do a damn thing. I mean, I've already given myself permission to just get fat and old after that. I'm sure I won't go with the fat and old option. I'll probably commit to a different goal ... like running a marathon ... and focus on that. I mean, the leap from a Half to a full Ironman is insane. I've not yet been drunk enough to think that it would be fun to train for an Ironman. I'm not made that way. And I'm okay with that.
Pooping. Vomit. Sea monsters. Quitting. That's the worst that could happen in my world now. The real shit happens when you have to call and apologize to a paying client for sending her an e-mail that calls her out as a psychotic control freak that should kick puppies and club seals on her own time, not yours (I'm guessing).