A truth learned many times in many different ways: Anything worth doing will at some point lead you through a moment of despair. On this year’s Ironman Wisconsin, for me that moment came exactly where it usually does: Deep into the Second Loop of the bike course, just before the third of the three hills they call the “Three Witches.” This year, my legs forced me to stop at the top of one of the longest and fastest downhills on the course. I could feel that the cramps were coming, and if they hit while I was flying forty-plus miles-per-hour down Timber Lane I would probably not be able to negotiate the sharp left turn at the bottom.
I stopped, and straddled my bike just as the cramps hit. Every muscle in my legs seized with such force I thought that they would tear from my bones. Big lumps moved up and down my thighs between my hip and my knee as if small animals with sharp teeth and claws were burrowing just beneath my skin. I collapsed onto my handlebars, trying to take as much of my weight off of my legs as possible. I told myself that cramps are just the body’s way of purging lactic acid. These would pass, just as they had before.
Which made me wonder: If I knew this from before, why was I here again? Well, in a certain way, this moment - or more accurately the moment just after - is why I was there.
Going to big mountains taught me that big goals all have a certain psychological shape. First, you experience the excitement and fear of reaching beyond yourself out into the unknown. Big goals should scare you a bit. Then, the mundane dailiness of preparation and training becomes calming, and perhaps even boring or all-consuming, in both good and bad ways. (The thing you set out to do takes over your whole life, and probably the lives of everyone around you…) Meanwhile, both anticipation and dread alternate and build as the launch day looms closer. (Expressed best through the conflicting statements you hear from your inner voice: “I can do this!” and “What am I thinking?!?!”) Finally, the day arrives and you are committed. Once you set out, there’s a giddiness born from learning that the going is never actually as hard as you imagined it.
“Piece of cake,” you chuckle to yourself, “what was I afraid of?”
Not long after - if you’ve chosen your goal right, if it’s big enough to stretch you and to ask you to become something more than what you are - you will meet despair.
Many don’t understand that the despair is necessary. It’s not why you’ve set out on this path, of course. There are easier ways to suffer if that’s all you want to do (though many in this world have no choice - despair is part of their lives, not something they visit.) Despair comes either abruptly or after a long grind, but always in that moment when you’re not sure you’re going to make it after all. Any goal worth achieving will bring you to this point, the same moment that has turned many others back. Deciding what happens next determines whether you will succeed or fail at what you set out to do.
After despair, many things can follow. Ultimately, while it’s nice to reach your goals, from a psychological perspective it doesn’t matter whether you succeed or fail as long as you push beyond despair. If you do this, you can experience joy and depression, strength, confidence, fear, exhaustion, and - ultimately, hopefully - growth. (Yes, you’ll grow from failing, too.) If your goal is big enough, you’ll experience all of these things. But if you don’t squeeze yourself through despair’s narrow aperture you won’t get beyond it, and you won’t learn what happens next.
Learning what happens next is what’s driven me for a long time. It’s addictive, because just as you can’t step into the same river twice, you can’t step beyond despair in the same way every time. This is why when the time in my life seemed endless I went on long expeditions. When I began to have less time - and more commitments to family, work, community - I took shorter and more intense trips, often solo. Then I began doing long trail runs alone. These days, I do Ironman-distance triathlons, mostly because they are close to home. We live practically on the course for Ironman Wisconsin. I wouldn’t do an Ironman if I had to travel for it.
This year was my fourth Ironman in the past nine years*. I’ve managed to shave time off of each one, and I’ve finished them all comfortably with some time on the clock. While there have been hard moments, in each I’ve known that if I just keep moving at some point I will reach the finish-line.
Training for Ironman is always hard, and I could do better. The major barrier to performance is my head. I’ve talked to several coaches about it. They agree that for all the physical conditioning that you need to do Ironman is mostly mental, and I just don’t respect or fear this event enough. The event doesn’t scare me into extra training time, or even close to all of what I’m assigned by my coaches to do. Things are busy in my world, and there are a lot of demands on me that sometimes preclude training. At the end of the day, I’m comfortable going out onto the course with perhaps less preparation than others.
There’s a reason for this: Doing an Ironman isn’t nearly as hard as many days I’ve had outdoors. For one thing, there’s so much support: Cheering fans, friends, and family; food and drink any time you need it; and volunteers are stretched out about every half-mile along the course. For another, if something really bad happens - or if an athlete just decides to quit - somebody will be along shortly to pick them up and take them home.
By contrast, the hardest of the hard days I’ve had in the mountains were at remote, hard-to-reach places when I was stretched to my physical and mental limit, sometimes low on food and water, too hot or too cold, and often alone. There were no SAG wagons. If I sat down and quit, probably the next person to come along would be the one who found my body.
Someone wise once told me that you bring children into your life; you don’t bring them into the world so that you become consumed by theirs. This was really good advice, and I’ve always taken this approach to Ironman as well. It’s just a part of my life, it’s not my whole life. I have other commitments and interests, and I don’t want my whole world to be about Ironman. That first year in 2005, I didn’t even tell anybody I was doing it because I didn’t want every conversation for the whole year to be about training and Ironman. Honestly, talking about a two hour swim is quite a bit more boring than actually doing it. Want me to prove it? Here, let me tell you all about every stroke, breath, and flip-turn of my last long swim…
Goals such as Ironman are completely absorbing. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. While you might think you’re focused intently on something outside of yourself - this thing that you want to do - remember that it’s your goal and that you do most of it alone, and for yourself. It feels great to become completely absorbed in what you’re focused on, but with Ironman this focused absorption can easily tip over into self-absorption. It’s important to stay balanced with family, friends, and other interests. Making Ironman just one more thing you do, and not making a big deal about the daily grind, is something I’ve noticed in each of my favorite Ironman athletes. I’ve tried hard to emulate this behavior, and model it for my kids as well.
This year, I noticed that what I was doing daily did not align well with what I would like to be doing with
We could change the world.
So going forward, I’ve decided that in order for me to be involved with Ironman it’s important to do just this. Let’s change the world.
In 2015, I am signed up to do Ironman Wisconsin again. I have a number of personal goals for this event (which I’ll share in shorter blog posts over time) but the most important one is this: I will raise a minimum of $5,000 to bring clean water to communities around the planet, working with Team World Vision. Lack of access to clean water brings a different kind of despair to people all over the world, so please help me push through to the other end of that narrow aperture by donating today.
Raising this money is a big goal which scares me quite a bit, and I can’t get there on my own. So thanks in advance for your support. We can do this together!
Brad Werntz is founder of Boulders Climbing Gym and sales director for Buff. He graduated from Northwestern, majoring in Fiction and Poetry. He's dad to Emma, Misa, and John-Pio and a gentle, loving husband to me. He's climbed lots of mountains so if you ever want to know about that just buy him a beer and a salad and he'll share those stories with you. He's also known for doing the laundry, keeping my wine glass full and cooking delicious seasonal soups.
* Brad completed Ironman in 2005, 2008, and 2014; in 2007, he was hit by a car during the final month of training, so under a doctor’s admonition and with broken bones in his leg and stitches in his face he completed only the swim and half of the bike course.