People are always surprised when I tell them about that race. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2010 I raced the Rigby Lake Triathlon in southern Idaho.
Memorial Day around here means there is a 50 percent chance of 70 degrees and sunny or 40 degrees, wind and possible snow. That year was the latter. It was 45 degrees, and at the start of the race, the weather couldn’t decide on snow or rain. It was awesome. I was unprepared for the weather, got a flat tire on a borrowed bike and was completely numb on the run. I have been in love ever since.
Like that first race, my life has been a series of mental illness related “tri disasters” that have derailed my progress but not my determination to reach the finish line of my race against mental illness.
My first race was in the middle of my first semester of college. The week after my second semester ended I developed anxiety and panic attacks. I had depression problems through most of my teen years and had been on and off of medication. But this was something new.
For those of you who haven’t experienced a panic attack, it is much the same as open water panic. It can make a routine swim feel like a life-or-death situation for no reason at all. It can make sitting in a classroom feel like a close encounter with a bear. Because of this I dropped out of college. I continued to try and figure it out, all while relying on triathlon training as my escape. I felt that if I could make it through a panicked swim, I could get my race back on track. It would have worked had I not crashed on the bike.
After dropping out of college for the second time (with a 4.0 and a full-ride scholarship) I got on the medication merry-go-round. The meds messed with my body so badly. I lost the power in my biking legs, my speed on the run and any desire to train. I went to over a dozen psychiatrists, naturopaths, counselors and nutritionists to try and find relief. After more than 20 medications, I quit counting. Nothing helped.
In 2012, I raced my first Olympic-distance race. Two months later, my body figuratively ate pavement hard. A new doctor recommended a medication that made me gain weight. Fast. I gained 45 pounds in less than a month. I was so sick. As a triathlete, I loved trying to push my endurance and strength to new levels. In less than one month I was just hoping to make it up one flight of stairs without losing my breath. Losing the athlete part of me intensified the anxiety and pushed my depression to new depths. The thoughts of suicide and constant panic attacks pushed me toward giving up the race. But my love of triathlon helped me get past that crash and out on the run.
Pain and thoughts of doubt crept up on me just like many people experience in the last leg of a race. In the last three years I have regained most of my athleticism and have seen glimpses of the finish line. I will probably never be able to go back to college. That has put my dreams of becoming a triathlon coach in doubt. But I will never give up that dream. Just like the closing miles of a race, I know that I can grit my teeth, push back the pain and make it to where I want to be.
My life since then has been a lot like my first triathlon. It has had a lot of things go wrong and has given me a lot to love. I have the most perfect, beautiful wife who is patient with my triathlon addiction. She is always supportive and encourages me to train and race. And she even makes “Team Hallam” shirts for all my races. We have an energetic one year old, who is already obsessed with bikes (I taught him well). My anxiety will be with me the rest of my life, but so will my love for my family and my love of triathlon. I’m further from the thoughts of DNFing and one step closer to the elation of reaching the finish line.
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