Each day, I spend at least an hour in my car sitting in some of the most aggravating surface traffic this side of Atlanta, and because I hate the feeling that I am slowly watching my life tick away as I sit in my car stuck at the busted-ass intersections of Pinellas County (some of which I have been known to sit at through three full cycles of lights), I’ve found that listening to podcasts helps me feel like I am at the very least deceiving myself into feeling as though I am being productive with my life, like I am not just throwing whole hours of my irretrievably precious existence into the black hole of suck known as “car dependence,” never to be seen again.
One of my favorites is WTF with Marc Maron, mainly because Maron has a way of sitting down with some fairly random celebrities and interviewing them in such a way that I am utterly compelled by what I am listening to. I mean, I was riveted during his recent interview with Tom Green. You know, Tom Green. The guy behind “Freddy Got Fingered,” which Roger Ebert described as “a vomitorium consisting of 93 minutes of Tom Green doing things that a geek in a carnival sideshow would turn down.” That Tom Green. I came away from the interview with him going, “You know, that Tom Green sounds like a pretty decent guy. I hope he does well for himself.” Yeah, I know. I was surprised too.
So I’ll pretty much listen to any interview Maron does, because I never know when he’s going to dig up some sort of little hidden gem that will be totally relevant to my life or will blow my head wide open. This happened one evening a couple of weeks ago, while I was listening to his interview with Hank Azaria while driving home from a swim workout. Azaria is maybe best known for doing the voices of a million characters on “The Simpsons,” but I like him best as Agador, the flamboyant housekeeper in “The Birdcage.”
(There is a point to this, I swear. I didn’t just write all of this so I could share that photo with you.)
Anyway, Azaria was talking about how he has struggled with anxiety around being a performer, how he would get so worked up and hypercritical of himself that he would be terrified of performing. And then he talked about this three-step system he worked out with his therapist that helped him deal with his emotions in a productive and useful way. Here’s the basic gist:
- Take 30 minutes to give yourself credit for the things you did right.
- Take 30 minutes to consider the things you could have done better or the things you did poorly.
- Move the fuck on.
I relayed this information to Brian, who came back at me with some therapist-y jargon, which is not surprising considering that he is, you know, a therapist, but which also told me that I’d picked up on something that is considered legit in the world of counseling. I don’t remember the exact words Brian used to describe each stage, but I do remember the three steps I laid out above.
This seemed particularly relevant to me as I am the kind of person who, if left unchecked, is very, very hard on myself. Everyone who knows me well picks up on this. Bosses have said this to me, my husband has said it to me, my professors, my friends, even my pole instructor. I know that some people think this is practically a psychological requirement for anyone with even a glimmer of ambition, but I’ve found that this isn’t the case for me. If I start thinking only about all of the things I’ve done wrong, I will paralyze myself with anxiety and I will find myself doing nothing but sitting on my couch and poking dully at my laptop keyboard like some kind of glaze-eyed zombie.
Instead, I have found that I do much better when I offer myself a clear-eyed assessment of where I am and and what I am doing, particularly when I can point out things I’ve done well at and concrete ways to improve the things I have not done well at. (And no, wallowing in a mud pit of “I suck” does not count as a concrete way to improve.) Anyway, Azaria’s process sounded good to me, so I filed this little system of doing things away in my brain for future use.
What I didn’t realize was that “future use” was going to mean this past weekend. On Saturday, I took part in the Top Gun Triathlon. I went into the race feeling confident and optimistic, and as it was also the very first triathlon I’d ever done, I was looking forward to the opportunity to measure my progress over the past year. I had spent the better part of a year swimming, I’d been working hard on my bike after St. Anthony’s, I had been running in the heat, and I’d presumed all of these things would help me do really well at Top Gun.
This obviously didn’t happen. I won’t go into a full race recap because this was just a sprint, and not a particularly eventful one at that, but I will say that I was very disappointed with my performance. When I saw my age-group ranking, tears welled up in my eyes. I hadn’t ranked that low in months. I was deeply disappointed in myself.
But before I could slip too far into my mud pit of “I suck,” I remembered what Hank Azaria had said during the podcast, and I started reframing my thinking about the race using the guidelines his therapist gave him. First, I spent some time thinking about the things I did right:
- I showed up. I think this often gets blown off as a “gold stars for everyone!” mentality, but the reality is that everyone who shows up at the starting line of a race should get props just for being there. After all, we could all be tucked in our warm, cozy beds at 5 a.m. instead of slapping away mosquitoes while volunteers use thick black markers to write all over our extremities. Just showing up is definitely worth a teeny pat on the back.
- I finished. Yes, I did not finish as well as I would have liked, but at least I finished.
- I gave 100% of what I was capable of giving that day. Again, my best on Saturday was not the best I know I am capable of, but it was all I had that day and I didn’t hold back.
- I felt confident and strong throughout the swim leg. I have been working very hard at swimming, and it shows. When I started doing triathlon, I would tip-toe my way into the water, and then I would basically flail and panic my way through the swim leg, emerging at the finish toward the back of the pack. This time, I came out in the top third of my age group in the swim leg. Hard work – it pays off.
- I felt good for the first mile of my run. In the past, the heat has sapped me pretty quickly, and I’d find myself walking – even in 5Ks – because I just couldn’t deal with the heat. This time, I felt okay – at least at first. I think carrying a bottle of water with me and splashing it on the back of my neck helped, too.
- I had a good kick at the end. I saw a lady in my age group – one who had actually passed me earlier – and I chased her down and passed her with just a few yards to go before the finish line.
Then, I considered the things I screwed up:
- I need to keep spending time on my bike. I don’t know what happened, but from mile 4 through mile 10, I could not make my legs go. I geared down, crouched over my drops and focused on doing smooth, circular pedal strokes, and nothing, nada, nil. All that effort went, and yet the entire time I felt like I was trying to ride through the La Brea tar pits. I’ve been riding considerably more for the past three months – with my shortest rides being about 20 miles – but I still need to work harder. (BTW the following day I got my answer as to why my legs felt so sluggish when I woke up at 8 a.m. with some uterus-clenching menstrual cramps. As much as I hate to admit it, PMS really saps my energy levels something fierce.) The bike leg has never been my strength but even Brian could look at my split and tell that I had underperformed.
- I screwed up my nutrition. Normally when I finish my swim, I run into transition, eat an energy gel and then get on my bike. This time I was so amped that I skipped the gel and just sipped Accelerade and some water before getting on my bike. However, when I came back into transition after the bike leg I felt so fatigued that I started worrying I wouldn’t have enough calories to get me through the run, so I decided to take a few huge gulps of Accelerade before running. I did this even though I have never done that before and even though I know that race day is never the time to try something new. My stomach started sloshing and gurgling ten minutes later, and so I pulled off to the side to air-hork. I couldn’t get anything to come up, and so I spent the next two miles battling the nausea, which is bad enough on its own but intolerable when the temperature is in the 80s with humidity also in the 80s and there’s no shade anywhere to be found. Stupid. So, so stupid.
- I have got to figure out the run leg. You would never know that I am a fast runner by looking at my run splits.
- Brick workouts need to become part of my training plan. The number of bricks on my current training plan? Zero. I need to fix that. That, along with increasing my bike strength, will help me with my run strength. Each discipline informs the other, and if I am weak in one, it will affect all of the disciplines that come after that.
- Do a better job of navigating transition. I had used a bright orange swim cap as my landmark to help me find my rack in transition. This would have been an excellent idea, had someone five racks down not decided to do the exact same thing. As a result, it wasn’t until I found myself staring at a rack occupied primarily by middle-aged men that I realized I had totally screwed up my T2.
And then I moved the fuck on. I relaxed and, once the nausea faded, I enjoyed my cold Diet Coke, the company of my awesome husband and the fact that I was spending my Saturday morning at Fort De Soto, which is one of my favorite places in all of Florida (and maybe the whole world). Yeah, I made some dumb decisions and, sure, I was disappointed that I didn’t do as well as I would have liked, but how can I really complain about it? I’ve done what I can do, which is assess my performance and come up with a plan for the future. Anything beyond that is just self-flagellation for the sake of self-flagellation, which is cool if you’re into that kind of thing but I’m really not.
Two days have passed since the race, and I have to say that so far this way of analyzing my athletic performance seems to be working quite well for me, and I’ve tucked it away in my arsenal of psychological tools, alongside the old standbys like visualization and mindfulness.
How do you deal when you have a less-than-stellar performance? What thought process do you use to figure it out and move on?