No Matter What


Last week I got on a plane to Kona, Hawaii, home of the Ironman World Championships. For those of you who know me, I am a bit obsessed with the Kona Ironman. I used to say I would race it someday no matter what, but now I know better. No matter what can be a very tricky thing.

But I digress. I was supposed to be on that plane a year ago.

This journey started in the fall of 2013, when I suffered a pelvic stress fracture and began swimming and cycling to stay sane (a sedentary Rachel is a very grumpy Rachel). Then I decided that I was basically turning into a triathlete anyway, so I became one (it made sense in my head). Several months prior, I was asked to be a Team in Training honorary teammate, and I wanted to do my own event to raise money for Leukemia & Lymphoma research and awareness. But since I couldn’t even run across the street, a running event was out. So, while living in one of the coldest places in North America, I signed up for a triathlon in Hawaii. Never mind that you still have to run in a triathlon (which I couldn’t do), and I didn’t even own a bike. I’ve never been a details person.

I raised a ton of money right away, got an amazing deal on a bike from the fabulous guys at Euro-Sports, and started training as hard as a girl with a broken pelvis can train. But in January 2014, about ten weeks away from the race, I came down with severe pneumonia. I convinced my doctors not to hospitalize me, but what I couldn’t convince them to do was let me race. I was going to do this no matter what, I said. But what really happened was that no matter how much I cried (a lot) or how much I begged (just as much), the answer was still no.

Devastation.

My Hawaii post-cancer victory triathlon went up in smoke, like so many things before it. I hung out at the Rachel Schmidt pity party for a while (antibiotics were the main appetizer). But, not to be defeated, I chose another race instead: Vancouver in July. I still hoped to be in Hawaii for 2015, but I knew I couldn’t promise myself that I would do it no matter what. Because life happens. Injuries, illness, celebrations, catastrophes—they are often unpredictable and inexplicable. Such is the beautiful tragedy of life on this planet. We just have to roll with it.

It seemed so far away, and then, suddenly, there I was on the starting line, grinning inexplicably from ear to ear (even though in reality I thought I might vomit).

Feeling fast and confident, my plan was to go hard from the front and get away from the pack. I had seen a sea turtle on my warm-up, so I was feeling pretty Zen about the whole thing. But the whole pack apparently had the same idea. I got truly decimated—pummeled, kicked, swam over, all those things you hope don’t happen. (Yes, triathlon swim starts really are as crazy as they look. Worse, actually.)

I hit the sand thanking Sweet Baby Jesus that the swim part was over. If anyone ever tells you that swim workouts in the pool can prepare you for a triathlon, that person is a liar. But I was off to the bike, where all I did was ride hard in the crazy Big Island wind and hope to God that I didn’t get a flat tire.

When I hit the run I really was elated—the scary bits were over! But it was hot. So very, very hot. I threw ice down my shirt at every aid station. I forgot why I was racing. I hated racing. I never, ever wanted to race another triathlon again. In that moment, triathlons were the most stupid thing anyone had ever invented and I just wanted to sit down in the shade.

And then I thought of Amy Marsh, who is currently fighting for her life, waiting for a donor along with so many others. This race was nothing compared to that. I splashed a cup of water in my face and ran hard.

Resilience.

I finished sixth in my age group, and the five women ahead of me were all from Hawaii. (I was pretty happy about that, when I regained the ability to think again.) My quads cramped so hard from the final sand sprint that I couldn’t walk, stand or sit at the finish. I sort of slid myself down a palm tree and plunked into the sand. (I am always graceful like that.)

My life is not at all what I thought it would be. It is awesome and full and wild, but not at all what I thought. I often feel like I am “behind” because I lost a year to cancer and then a few more trying to figure out what to do next. But just think, if I had rigidly hung on to my plans, running long distances despite the pain, continuing with my PhD “no matter what”, racing the 2014 triathlon despite being sick, closing the door on new opportunities, what would I have missed? What other things might I miss, if I refuse to be open to what comes up?

I heard Danielle Laporte once say that deciding to do something “no matter what” can crush your soul and the people around you, if you’re not careful. Sometimes the “what” really does matter, and it’s in your way for a reason. Other times, you need to slap yourself silly, splash cold water on your face, and run even harder.

But how do we know the difference?

Until I figure that out, you can find me at the beach, swearing that I will never do another triathlon (while planning out my next race).

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