I want to run a 5 k. I want to do my first triathlon. I want to do something I have no idea how to do but I know that I want to do it! Welcome to your goal!
Belief at the beginning of any undertaking is essential to guarantee success. If you believe in yourself and you wholeheartedly want to accomplish your goal, then you will. My advice is to ‘finish what you start and to do it with heart!’ Make that your mission statement. Write it down along with your goal and stick it on your bathroom mirror so that you can stare at it each morning and night.
I am an 11-time Ironman Champion but I wasn’t born that way. Like you, I started with a small goal. And then, I bit off another and another and before I knew it, I was racing around the world as a professional athlete. I am the first to admit that I had very little talent. And I had Cystic Fibrosis – a genetic lung disease resulting in frequent infections, limited lung function and shortened lifespan. But like you, I had a goal and an unstoppable belief. My attitude transformed me into an athlete.
As you venture onto your path to your athletic dreams, here is a little look at how I started my path from no talent high school runner to Ironman Champion and more importantly to being an advocate for sport, living full and chasing the impossible. This is a little snippet from the first chapter of my book, An Unlikely Champion.
First, a few basic facts. I was born in 1968, the youngest of four children. I was a happy, normal kid but often had to stay home from kindergarten because of severe allergies or a bleeding nose. But that was OK – I loved staying home with my mom.
The first thing my father, a factory worker, often did with his paycheck was head to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions for antibiotics for us kids. It seemed as if one of us was always sick with a chest infection and a cough. I was always coughing. Cough medicine was a nightly ritual.
I started running in grade school. When I told my track coach that I loved being an athlete, he replied, “You are not an athlete, Lisa. You are active but not an athlete.” I was not deterred. I kept running. But sickness became a part of my life. I would get sick every winter and endure months of antibiotics. The solution was our family’s annual March Break trip to Florida, where our parents would literally throw us kids into the salty Gulf of Mexico for a week. We would always return to Toronto healthy. There was still no suspicion of cystic fibrosis.
During my high school years in the 1980s, I focused largely on academics, determined to win an academic university scholarship. I loved school. I was running a little, dabbling in track and cross-country running, but my flat feet caused many injuries. My doctor said I would never be a runner. I persisted. My mother took me to get fitted for orthotics and we turned a “no” into a “yes.” I kept on running.
My math teacher was also the track coach and she suggested that I run more and study less. She made me a deal: if I went to track practice regularly and took an upcoming algebra test without any additional studying or preparation, if I didn’t achieve my usual mark on the test she would drop that mark from my overall grade. She wanted to prove that I could achieve high marks and run track at the same time. I got 99% on the test and learned that I could balance academics and sport. This was a vital lesson in my development. I kept running.
I did earn a full scholarship to the University of Toronto, but chose instead a partial scholarship at the University of Waterloo because of Waterloo’s co-op program, in which students study for four months and then work for four months. I studied math and computer science and ran varsity track and cross-country. I found a good balance between study, sport and life.
In 1989, I ran in the Brooks Spring Run-Off 8 km race in Toronto and met another University of Waterloo student who encouraged me to try triathlon. I was in! That summer was filled with triathlon, studying and great university fun.
But also that year, my sister suffered a lengthy chest infection, even coughing up blood. Doctors ruled out everything from cancer to tuberculosis and finally tested her for cystic fibrosis. People with CF have salty sweat and the presence of a high concentration of sodium chloride in her sweat chloride test confirmed the diagnosis. Because CF is a genetic disease, all of my siblings were tested. Neither my mother nor my father has CF, but they both carry the CF gene, resulting in a matching pair for three of the four of us, including me. But I was in university and feeling invincible. At least now, I thought, when I got a chest infection, I could take the appropriate antibiotics and get healthy faster! I saw it as win-win!
My mother quit smoking, banned smoking in our family home and prayed for a cure. The St. Michael’s Hospital adult CF clinic in Toronto became our regular checkup spot.
I continued to pursue triathlon as I studied at Waterloo and later in teacher’s college at the University of Western Ontario. I raced as an amateur triathlete but gradually made the switch to professional status. In 1992, I qualified for and raced as a professional athlete at the Triathlon World Championships in Muskoka, Ontario, completing a 1.5 km swim, a 40 km bike ride and a 10 km run. I began a multiyear run as a national team member for Triathlon Canada and made the transition to Ironman-distance events in 1997, breaking a course record in my first race.
For the next 17 years, I trained, raced and won with the best in the world, all while dealing with a lung disease that used to kill people before they were in their twenties. I have followed my racing career with a new career in broadcasting, coaching and public speaking.
My success happened because I made it happen. And the mantra I applied to every workout, every race, every speech and every undertaking that required a bit of gumption can take anyone to success in their own field: finish what you start and do it with heart. The approach I used to drive myself to success can be learned by anyone who wants to achieve success and fulfillment, no matter the goal.
My method involves a shift in mindset, a type of mental training that will carry you through times when your goal seems impossible. It starts with requiring yourself to finish what you start, but also involves understanding what winning, success and fulfillment really mean in your life. It includes consciously shaping your own attitude, realizing that you must always be the best “you” you can be rather than trying to be someone else. It involves leaving your comfort zone even if that means facing fear, and it means never ceasing to learn.
The first step is to truly understand that when you set your sights on a task you must finish it. A champion may not always cross the finish line first, but a champion always finishes. You cannot abandon the task just because things are not going well or because your ego is being tested or because you are afraid to fail. Pursuing a goal is risky. You have put time, energy and talent into the project. And it is frightening to be raw and exposed as you try to fulfill it. But there cannot be success without risk. I have taken that risk hundreds of times in my career. I’ve wanted to quit many times. That is a natural human inclination. When things get difficult and when it looks as if success may not happen, we want to escape the pain: the pain of failure, the pain of working through the difficulty, the pain of picking up the pieces. But in fact the only escape from the pain is to finish what you start. To finish, regardless of the outcome, is success every time.
Look inward at your goal or task that you want to do but that is easier left undone. Rather than avoiding the task and thereby avoiding possible failure, ask yourself how you would feel if you don’t do it at all. Ask yourself how you would feel if you do do it. Which of the two scenarios is more satisfying? Forward thinking is helpful in making the best choice. Inward thinking requires heart. Finishing requires both the head and the heart.
Welcome to your goal. Let’s get after it!
Finish what you start. Do it with heart.
You can read more in my book, An Unlikely Champion, which can be ordered online at www.AnUnlikelyChampion.com