5 Lessons I learned in 2017

Ironman World Championship swim start 2 lessons

It is no surprise was my most productive year yet. There were many firsts. My first full Ironman( which was also my first marathon and first century ride), first 4-mile swim, first triathlon relay, first time at Kona, first podcast appearance, first appendectomy, and first red carpet event. Lots of highs and a few lows. But the big lessons were learned in between these big events. It’s easy to train when a race is around the corner. It’s much harder on a cold, winter morning when the sun won’t be up for another hour. Below is a list of my biggest takeaways from last year.

1. Find the way

To finish an Ironman, one needs to put in the training. That training takes time. To set aside the time I needed to sit down and take inventory of the ways I could make the time to train while not neglecting my family. It would have been easier to just say I was too busy and it couldn’t be done. Instead, I started from the belief that there was a way. Then  I proceeded to make the adjustments needed. To get out of the house in time for early morning workouts I set out my clothes and gear the night before. Before going out of town for work or vacation, I found where the local pool and gyms were. On one trip to Florida, I even connected with the local open water swimmers and found a rare gem, Lucky’s Lake.

Lucky's Lake Swim sunrise - 5 lessons I learned in 2017

One thing really struck me today. When it comes to rationalizing taking the easy way out, there is no limit to my creativity. When applying only half that creativity towards solving a difficult problem, the solution falls into my lap. Many times it involves getting up earlier, limiting time on Facebook, or other small discomforts. When discomfort is no longer a limiting factor, the way is revealed.


2.Stick to the plan, but listen to my body.

One day in early February, I started feeling sick. Then I noticed a small pain in my gut. That turned into a sharp pain and got worse through the afternoon. My wife drove me to the hospital to check it out and doctors discovered I had appendicitis. I stayed there overnight an had surgery the next morning. Three weeks of no workouts. If you’ve been on a steady dose of training, looking at 21 days of unfulfilled workouts can drive a person insane.

Recovering from appendectomy in hospital - 5 lessons I learned in 2017

In years past, I have jumped back into the training schedule where I left off. To literally add insult to injury, I had to dial back the intensity and duration of the workouts when I was able to start exercising again. The setback fed growing doubts about my readiness to take on Ironman Santa Rosa, my first full Ironman. Well, this was nothing new. Plenty of times in combat I have seen a mission plan change when reality sets in. Adjust to circumstances and don’t stay too rigid. What could I do? Going back to the serenity prayer echoed in recovery groups I found serenity to “accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”


3. Ask for help

My default pattern of action is to take things on myself and shoulder the burden. I don’t do this out of contempt or pride but from a place of self-reliance. This year I had the chance to support a charity I believe in, the Sentinels of Freedom. In the past, I solicited donations myself for an online fundraiser. That was successful to raise $5,000.


This year I decided to set an audacious goal of $18,000. I knew  I could not do this alone. Taking an uncomfortable step, I asked for help from my community to host a silent auction. I was worried people would feel burdened and might say yes, begrudgingly. Why did I underestimate their hearts? When I started asking, I found several people eager to help. Like they had been waiting for this chance and were happy I had finally asked them. I learned that, like Sebastian Junger wrote in Tribe, people are created to work together and crave the teamwork involved in facing a common challenge.

Once I got over the fear of being vulnerable and asking for help, I started to believe more in myself and the mission. Raising money to help wounded veterans was important and my neighbors and friends were happy to find a way to tangibly support the troops. People I had not seen since high school, parents of friends I had not talked to since middle school, and neighbors I had only casually known all jumped in the fray and volunteered their time and resources. Together we raised over $11,000 at the silent auction alone. More impressive, was all of this came together in less than 6 weeks. In another case, I did not ask for help with our annual Alcatraz swim and disappointed my friends in the open water swim community. It was a painful, but valuable lesson in communication and the limits of what I can take on.


4. Speak From The Heart

When I registered for Ironman Santa Rosa, I glanced at the final question that asked what my story was and why I was competing in triathlons. Who reads this stuff anyway? I almost skipped that box but decided that I would take the chance to speak from my heart and say why I raced and how endurance sports have played a major part in my recovery and healing. It turns out that people do read that stuff, as I found out when I got a call from Ironman’s PR firm. People were listening. Had I not decided to speak from my heart and open up, I would not have been invited to race in Kona.

Ironman World Championship name list - 5 lessons I learned in 2017

Instead of limiting myself to small talk in conversations, I am making an effort to speak from the heart more and more in everyday life. It turns out that many more people are willing to have these conversations than I originally thought. When I can be authentic, even in passing, I give others permission to do the same.


5. Be here now

In the past, races were an exercise in time travel. I would envision crossing the finish line and how great it would feel to be done. That means I essentially spent anywhere from one to six hours wishing I was somewhere else and missing most of what was actually happening. That’s a lot of wasted time and energy. Long distance events can send the mind spinning with thoughts like “How can I keep going for that long?” and “This is uncomfortable. So if it’s bad now, it will be much worse in a few miles. I can’t do that.”

Future-tripping, time-traveling, overthinking, catastrophizing…….we have many terms for grasping at doubt and panic.


Meditating on Mt. Diablo- 5 lessons I learned in 2017

This year, I returned to the joy of this moment. With conscious effort, I brought myself back each time I noticed the mind wandering. I didn’t blame the mind or judge myself for getting lost in thought. After all, the mind is a powerful force that helps us plan, reason, learn and visualize. Sometimes it’s just out of balance or overdeveloped. Like the guy at the gym who only does bicep curls. Coming back to each moment I put my mind in each stroke of a swim. I feel my body in the water. I can be here.

When my mind started to worry about how much longer I could last, I acknowledged that thought and let it pass by. I cultivated gratitude for simply being alive. I gave thanks for having this body that could exercise and grow tired. This is easier said than done. My meditation practice is a pillar of this skill. Sitting still and focusing my awareness on my breath and body, allowing thoughts and feeling to pass by. Allowing them to be there, but not push them away or hold on to them. This is a practice. Why do it? So much is happening in the present moment. So many sights, sounds, smells, and sensations all occurring at once.

Running on the trail - 5 lessons I learned in 2017

When I can notice this present moment, my discomfort is only one of many things occurring and not the totality of my existence. My legs feel fatigue and ache, but equally true are the bold colors in the trees around me, the blue sky that provides my lungs with oxygen each breath, the smell of oak and pine, the sound of birds or cheering spectators.


Practical Application for 2018

This coming year I have recommitted myself to authenticity and community. Believe it or not, one of my biggest fears is interacting in social situations. The starting line of a full Ironman does not rattle me so much as an open-ended conversation with people. I mean, God forbid they enjoy my company and we become friends. Then I would have to trust them and be vulnerable.

To be more authentic and community-oriented, I decided it’s time to take on something I’ve wanted to do for a while now: hosting a podcast. I love talking with inspiring people in the veteran community. These conversations are best in audio format, so along with a fellow Marine and triathlete, Rich Dreyling, Transitions from War will have its own podcast. Rich and I are recording the initial episodes now and will have them up on iTunes come February. If you would like to support our costs of recording, online hosting, and producing great content you can donate to our Paypal account.

If not, please continue to see what we have in store for this year. Rich and I will provide you with great audio for your commute.

Rich Dreyling poses after finishing Take the Rock Alcatraz Swim - 5 lessons I learned in 2017

Rich Dreyling poses after finishing our Take the Rock Alcatraz Swim in September.


Here’s to a fulfilling and productive 2018!










Author: mike

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4 thoughts on “5 Lessons I learned in 2017

  1. Mike, thanks for being authentic and sharing your story with us. It is very motivating and reassuring to us that are on similar journeys. Thanks for having the courage and humility to connect not only with others but with us fellow veterans. I too raced my first Ironman this year and have a lot of wonderful lessons learned along the way.

  2. “Why did I underestimate their hearts? When I started asking, I found several people eager to help. Like they had been waiting for this chance and were happy I had finally asked them.”

    I LOVE this, Mike! I can relate. It’s amazing what can happen when we ask for help. Can’t wait to listen to the new podcast!

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