Karsten Madsen | Mismanaging success
Canadian national cross triathlon champion Karsten Madsen thought he had it all figured out after he saw some success, and then quickly everything came crashing down. He talks about his difficult times in 2017, combatting anxiety and depression and how he's rebuilding himself.
— By Karsten Madsen
“Mismanaged” is really the only word that comes to mind when I think about my 2017 season. This story really starts at the end of 2016 when I thought I had hit rock bottom. A calendar year went by and I was worse then where I left off the previous year. This is a self reflection/internal look at how poorly I managed my own personal success, which I believe we can all relate to.
In 2016 I was an athlete that thought I had it totally figured out for the first two thirds of the year. I was becoming super fit, winning races and doing things in the sport I never thought I could actually do. Sponsors and prize money started to come though. This dream of mine was starting to pan out. With the success came pressures — most of it coming from me. I became hungry, addicted and selfish. I let that creep into parts of my life where it didn’t belong. I was starting to crack apart before the Xterra Worlds in 2016. Simple problems were insurmountable to me. I was not confident nor decisive. At that race, I had a poor performance in the race and I totally snapped. I came back from that race and completely blew up my personal life.
When 2017 rolled around I got on a plane to Barbados without cleaning up my mess of problems. I really felt like I wanted a change of scenery. Instead of really dealing with the issues I had I put everything into training. Through January to April last year I put forth some amazing training. I was hitting massive hours, my swim and bike were at new levels from the year before. I was rolling at an unsustainable rate. Things started to slip for me, but I found a way to rise above it and put forth my best ever performance at Xterra Alabama. At the time I thought it was based on being happy with my surroundings and new training location. The reality was that I had a great result based on the relentless work I did from January to April. My Coach warned me about this result — in April and May I was no longer doing all the little things in training that I did before and he was worried it the good result had gone to my head.
I was and still am most proud of that race. But Craig (Taylor) was right — it totally went to my head. I started to slack off a little bit, going to parties and enjoying late nights in Barbados and not worrying about high performance. I felt like I could take my foot off the gas after that one good result. I slowly lost confidence and fitness. I was training mostly alone going into my biggest race (ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship in Penticton) a race I wanted to win and others expected me to win. I was internally starting to fall apart. My training before the race was a mess. Two weeks out I was sick and unlike Alabama I did not have a big block of fitness to back me up. I honestly knew deep down I had let this slip through my fingers. The fact I placed 8th was surprising considering what I had done going into the race. The internal anger I had for myself was nothing like I had ever felt. I was trying to hold it together and not let the people around me know. Calling my coach was probably one of the worst calls I had to make. There was nothing he told me I didn’t already know. It was a race I could have won or podiumed in considering three months before I was ahead of the guy that won the world title I had dreamed about for 3 years. All that aside I let people down that put so much of their time into me.
I headed back to Barbados once again now trying to prep for Xterra Worlds in Maui, but it was too late. My heart and head didn’t believe in myself anymore. I started experiencing panic attacks and anxiety. A year had gone by and nothing had changed, I was literally right back where I started. Deep down I knew I needed a new high performance group to be part of. Instead I was short-sighted and was trying to make Barbados work for training when it was clear to me and others around me I was not happy there or training alone. I was the worst version of myself. I was only using triathlon to justify being in Barbados, where I used to see it as an opportunity to do something great and become a world champion or something more.
I came back to Canada in December 2017 truly didn’t have a plan. I knew I needed to make changes to my life but I was not going to rush anything. First I needed to be back in a group doing honest and intended work and then had to decide if Guelph was going to be a place for me or if I was even going to continue with triathlon. Unlike the year before I put training second and put finding a happy headspace as the priority. I went on a trip out west and didn’t press myself to get workouts in. I had long talks with the people closest to me. I decided to make a fresh start, and went down to train with members of the national team in Arizona. It motivated me to get out of my comfort zone in a high performance way like I used to do with like-minded people that all want to do great things. Within a week I felt like the guy I used to be — I was back on track with my goals and had a roadmap to achieve them.
2017 was a dark internal struggle everyday for me. The hopelessness of when you are depressed is something I would never wish on anyone. I hated the person I was how I managed relationships around me. It’s lame to say but truly always the darkest comes before the dawn. I was at my best with my back against the wall and worked hard to find my way out. I took the time and reached out to people I wronged. I take the full responsibility for my failures within that year. Thanks to all my supporters and the companies that make what I’m doing possible. They all took the time to help pick me up this December. I’m on firm ground and working hard for redemption. I don’t know what the future will bring but I know when I toe the line again I’ll be back to putting my best foot forward.