Maggie Rusch

Professional Triathlete

Balancing Act

I had a dream that startled me last week. I was so taken a back, I sat bolt upright in bed. I'm not a big dreamer beyond the Ironman-gone-horribly-wrong dreams and usually I just roll my eyes when someone else shares their own—but this was a massive wake-up call (literally) that hit the nail right on the head.

In it, I'm hosting a massive dinner party with lots and lots of friends (real friends—from high school all the way to present day). And somehow I am tasked with the job of pouring syrup. Syrup? Don't ask. I had one of those little mini pitchers and was rushing from table to table and plate to plate, trying to make sure everyone got as much syrup as they needed.

And the whole time it's sloshing everywhere, my hands are sticky and I am making this giant mess. Everyone else is oblivious of the mess, or perhaps just ignoring it, so I try to find a balance between rushing around and apologizing and slowing down as to not have it spill over the top. And as I continue to pour, I realize there's a little crack along the edge of the bottom. Instead of asking someone else for a plate to catch the drips or finding a new syrup container, I rush around more and more, trying to pour out the remaining syrup so that everyone is happy until there's no more to spill from a soon-to-be emptied container. Finally, helpless, I find a sink, start rinsing out the empty container and then I wake up.

I wish I was making this up. It was kind of unsettling, to say the least.  

Mostly because this dream was a scarily spot-on metaphor for most of my 2016—both in triathlon and in life. There were a lot of times I should have just hit the pause button or slowed down a little bit to assess my situation or ask someone to hand me a bowl to help corral the mess. 

I kept saying "yes, yes, yes!" or "Yes, I'll jump! How high?!" until I hit my breaking point and my cup was effectively emptied. I found myself saying yes and/or settling for things that in the back of the mind I knew were not right for me—races, opportunities, commitments, people.

I pushed through a handful of injuries and bad luck at races and ignored some niggles, opting instead to throw myself into training and racing with the hopes of grabbing a few points to carry over into the 2017 season. I threw too much into my new job (well, yes, that's a good thing), purchasing a house and my social life to the detriment of recovery and training. And, you guessed it... ended up limping and injured.

I had these great plans for October and November—plans that spoke to my soul and had me jumping for joy at the prospect of adventure—that are having to be shelved for a few months because I was too busy running around to deal with the little, seemingly "insignificant" cracks. 

And as I've learned across the last few months leading up to today, mindfulness and slowing down does wonders in helping diagnose—but only so much. For me, the cliche rang completely true: "when things aren't adding up in your life, start subtracting."  It was only when I came to a full stop, emptied my cup entirely, forgot about what everyone else wanted and did some deeper introspection, that I realized I was chasing a lot of things I didn't necessarily want to chase.  

For starters:

Do I want to chase points to get to Kona or 70.3 Worlds this points cycle as a pro? 

Not really. Honestly? I would rather go do a cool race and take the pressure off at this point in my racing career. Taking a step back, I'm only 29, this is my hobby and I still have plenty of cash flow coming in through my day job. Pressure off.

Do I need to consider overcommitting myself to sponsors I don't necessarily need? Worry about letting down the ones I do have?

Not really. That's a huge perk of still working full time. Though I will say—those fierce few sponsors I do have, bring me joy with every interaction we have and the support they do give me. It's always nice to share the wins with my small but fierce support crew—hopefully more of that next year.

Do I sign up for races to support the little guy? Or because someone suggested it? Or because it's an easy paycheck or win? 

It I learned anything from this season, nope, it's probably not going to make a huge impact anyway. (Depressing, yet true). While I might still hop in the local races, it's not always necessarily worth it to drive X miles for a paltry paycheck.

Do I need to try to be someone I'm not in order to make other people happy?

Apologize to Slowtwitch for saying things I really meant? (Such as: doping is an issue we need to address/discuss in triathlon, manipulating your TUE med levels is pretty sketchy, transparency is key—I stand by all of those words) Host dinner parties or take visitors to dinner or invite people to stay with me when my house is a wreck from moving and that sort of stuff stresses me out and takes me out of my routine? Nah, I'm good. 

Do I need to chase the goal of being a full-time professional triathlete?

This one has been the hardest to swallow since we're told to take risks and chase our dreams and it's a chicken or the egg of "what if" as far as throwing yourself in full time. But maybe it's not the answer, not for me—at least, not immediately given that I'm crushing it in my current day job. Ryan Holiday says it best, "but here we are with a culture that urges us to roll the dice. To make the gamble, ignoring the stakes." Maybe the gamble isn't worth it just yet, and I'm okay with that.

It goes on and on.

This post is probably a touch too personal but I've gotten a handful of emails from aspiring pros or seen/spoken with other struggling pros and just wanted to say, you don't have to follow tradition and expectation. You don't have to follow the tips laid out in the recent "Life of a Triathlete" book that was published recently. I bought it, I read it, I thought it was stupid. (THERE! I said it. Sorry, MBK) Most of it was common sense or for the 1%—not how to become the 1%, but what to do when you get there. Yeah, not helpful for us up-and-comers. 

It's really sad to see a number of fellow athletes give up their dreams of racing pro, in large part because of the expectations and stresses that get placed on their decision to do so. With pro prize purses being cut and the value of professional athletes being questioned on a daily basis, it's hard not to get a little hung up on feeling like everyone's beating up on you. 

To that approach I say, screw that. You don't have to be anyone you're not and if you do make the fatal mistake (like I did) of trying to be that, you're only going to set yourself back. Ignore the ego that chatters when you finish at the back of a pro race (or age group, if you're an amateur) and see the "failure" instead as an opportunity for growth, learning and taking yourself to the next, even better, outcome. Level up.

I'm not sure what this post was entirely about—a little bit of venting, a little ranting, a little education and a little woe is me? Mostly I think it's me trying to provide a little insight into the pieces that otherwise end up on the cutting room floor versus the highlight reel that most triathletes share. Because at the end of the day, it's those pieces on the floor that help us all be stronger athletes and better people.

Okay, so what's next? 

  • No Ironman Arizona. I don't love the course and it was stacked anyway (even if I've started to get my training back up now that I'm on my way to recovery). 
  • With that, I'm off to Cozumel! No, not to race—but I will be there in a few weeks to play on the beach and put int big training miles and sherpa Amanda as she races.
  • I'll have a few frigid December weeks in Asheville where I'll get reacquainted with Zwift and layers and frozen fingers and toes.
  • And then I will be headed to Houston to live and train with the Magnolia Masters crew for a few weeks to be a student of the sport and learn from other successful full-time athletes (well, I'll still be working when not swimming—but you get the point).

And then... Ironman South Africa!

I needed a good long-term race to focus on and this really spoke to me. Honestly, I haven't had a bucket-list, many-months-out race goal for quite some time. The upside of being able to register within a few weeks of a race can be my downfall—I like having "definites" to focus all of my attention and training on and making my claim here is trying to do just that.

So instead of trying to jump straight into things and racing myself to fitness as I am apt to do, I am trying to have the courage to engage with the space between what was and what will be. Trade short-term gratification for the longer-term payoff. This perspective has left me tackling training runs, chilly rides and, yes, even my swims with a new fervor and excitement. 

I am grateful for the opportunity to grow this past year, rather than be discouraged by what could otherwise be perceived like a giant loss of time and self and energy.

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