I thought I would kick off our health and wellness series with a little bit about my own struggle with mental health and the role that being a triathlete has had in my journey to wellness.
I have always set very big goals for myself and have always had the drive to meet those goals. When I was young, that goal was to go to the United States Air Force Academy and serve as an officer in the Air Force. At 22 years old, I found myself as an Academy graduate and brand new 2nd Lieutenant on my way to my first assignment as a Missileer charged with the command and control of up to 450 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. While the job was incredibly demanding and never what I would have imagined myself doing, it suited my personality and drive very well. We were constantly tested and evaluated and there were very clear cut standards of passing and failing. That threshold was at about 90% if not perfect, and you did not want to find yourself anywhere close to that line very often. With my natural tendency for and a clear cut line drawn of equally high expectations, I began to develop a picture of success that was very black and white. I didn’t just have that line drawn for when I was at work; I had it for everything.
I held everything together very well for a while, and was a picture perfect image of success. I was new to triathlon at the time, but was able to make my way onto the Air Force Triathlon team; I served as an ambassador for the base for dedication ceremonies; I got invited to the 2 star General’s house for dinners; the list goes on. On top of all of that I was a newly-wed to my college sweetheart, had the cutest little puppy, and had just bought our first new home. I could look at everything and see how fortunate I was and see everything that had come from hard work and perseverance. But I was slowly becoming unhinged. From any missed question on a test for work to any set of threshold intervals on the bike that I couldn’t hit sent me into a spiral of self-doubt and feelings of failure. There would be days that I would take off for a bike set that would end in a tearful phone call to my husband to pick me up and an email to my coach that I’m quitting triathlon. All of that from measuring my success like a light switch; it was on or off, 5-10 watts off from the target, from what I did a week prior, what I thought I could do, what I should be able to do, was it for me. This cycle with work, triathlon, and life went on long enough and more and more symptoms were showing up to be able to recognize that I was no longer holding it together. Despite how successful I was on the outside; on the inside I was crumbling and I sought help.
From there I learned a lot of what it meant to suffer from depression and anxiety. I learned that you can’t just happy yourself out of it. It took a lot of work and huge step back to claw my way back out of the hole I had dug myself into, but I did find my way back. Through that journey I began to learn how to not only manage, but also start finding my best me. That path to being my best me is now what drives me. That me is far from perfect; I makes mistakes at work and definitely don’t nail every workout, but I no longer defines success by one day, one number, or even one race. In learning to find that balance, I have found that triathlon fills a much healthier portion of my life; it is something that lifts me up rather than brings me down. In finding this healthier relationship with success, I have also been able to propel myself as an athlete. Knowing that not every workout is going to be golden now means that I very rarely don’t finish; even if things are not going great I am able to find a way to make the most of what I have to give. I still work a very demanding job, and I have never known a schedule where I sleep at the same time of day every week, I still have dark days, and there are still times where thoughts build up and I am only managing, not thriving. But now, training serves as one of the methods to help bring me back versus digging deeper down. I am thankful that when I am carrying every stress of the world on my shoulders I can head to my local masters swim, just do my best, and turn the world off for 60 minutes.
Whether I am at my peak of training before my A race of the year, or I am just getting by my primary goal does not change: I want to be the best me. At this point my husband has supported so many race-cations, new bikes, long training days, and hangry outbursts because he sees how much this helps me be my best me. Struggling with mental health has made it clear to me how important having a healthy relationship with goals and ambitions are, but that is a relationship we all need to have. The endurance sport community is amazing and definitely one that will welcome you for life, and welcomed and supported me long before I was fast. Going to Kona last season was one of the most amazing accomplishments and greatest feelings of my life, but it did not define me. I am the same person that just barely missed qualifying several years before and that plans to put my head down and work just as hard if not harder this year. I love who I am as an athlete, but most of all I love that being that athlete and using the same tools I use to race my best race, I use everyday outside of racing to be my best me.
Liz West, Vixxen Racing Vixxen-in-Chief
Liz West is the founder and manager of Vixxen Racing. She has been involved in triathlon for 10 years and is a 6 time Ironman Finisher. Liz lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and 3 dogs, and is a satellite operations engineer.
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