As I finished Ironman Switzerland last July I came to the realization how often we underestimate our own potential, our capacity to go beyond limitations, set audacious goals, find the faith to persevere despite the odds and steadfastly search for the courage to believe something seemingly impossible could actually be possible. My finish in Zurich came eight years after my first Ironman after a journey that was much longer, tougher and strewn with doubt than I ever anticipated it would be.
In 2001, I finished IM Canada, loved it, and set my sights on 2003. Training was going as planned until May of that year when, at the age of 42, I was offered a full scholarship to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin and made the radical decision to go back to school full time. As a result, I withdrew from the race and moved to Texas while my husband remained in Canada with the kids. In 2005, I returned to a crumbling marriage and a life-altering diagnosis, Celiac disease (an allergy to gluten), for which there is no cure except a complete removal of gluten from the diet.
Perhaps as a refuge against the emotional and physical chaos in my life at the time and a manifest desire to negate the reality of Celiac, I began to focus on triathlon training (imagining on the good days that I could eventually return to the Ironman distance), only to be thrown another curve. I was hit by a car while commuting home from work one afternoon and wrecked my right shoulder. Despite doggedly trying to train through the injury ( with many, many physiotherapy sessions and shoulder tapings), the damage was done and I was unable to swim, let alone do any distance of triathlon. In 2006, I had surgery and rehabilitated for a year much more than just my shoulder. My husband and I began to rebuild our marriage. The last of our blended-family of five girls left home. We began to face, head on, the substantive changes in lifestyle that Celiac disease demands and I returned again to training, only this time with the aim to have it support my new reality rather than deny it. As for my shoulder, it healed wonderfully, although I was left with limited range of motion. The surgeons said this would seriously impede – likely negate – my ability to do another Ironman.
And that’s when the swells of doubt hit. I was forced to reflect on exactly what I was doing and why. Not only was I faced with the painfully slow and frustrating process of relearning and reincorporating swim techniques, but the glacially slow adaptation to my bike training and the amount of time I could stay in an aero position. As for running, I went back to basics, focusing on how to swing both arms the same distance so as not to throw off one side or the other. With the Celiac, I had to diligently guard against gluten 24 hours a day while trying to find foods I could eat, test them out and deal with the inevitable and awful effects the wrong ones had on my system. I was lost, struggling to find the reason to carry on with triathlon.
What I found is that I believe in potential, possibility and the infinite capacity of the human spirit. And for me this means there is no other option except to try. There were 2,250 people at the start of Ironman Switzerland. Each person embodied this notion so aptly captured by Jim Collins: “…success is falling down, and getting up one more time, without end.”
Triathlon, with its demands for mental, physical and emotional stamina and its ability to show athletes who they are and what they are made of, gives us the opportunity to learn how to endure – how to endure not just in our training, but in our work and our lives. With its requirement for endurance through discipline, commitment and courage, (no matter the distance), triathlon builds strength, breeds success and sustains faith – faith that we as human beings have a profound and amazing capacity to overcome.
Alberta’s Suzanne Flannigan finished Ironman Switzerland in 13:54:27.