I finished my first triathlon in the pouring rain. The choppy waves made it nearly impossible to catch a clear breath while I swam. The wind whipped hail-hard rain drops into my face, making my skin burn as I rode my bike. The dampness in my running shoes pruned my feet, causing blisters by mile one. My anxiety spiked the moment I arrived at the race site and continued to grab me by the intestines at every stage. Only a few minutes after the starting horn blasted, I flipped over to my back in a full panic to try to steady my heart rate. Backstroking through a crowd of flailing strangers, I gave myself a pep talk.
You’re not dying. This is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. But you can do this. Just keep going.
When I finally crossed the finish line, just under two hours later and completely soaked through, I was ecstatic. I told anyone who would listen how badass I felt for finishing. As I squished in my shoes back to the car, I told my husband that I would definitely be back for another triathlon. I remember thinking, I was made for this.
My mind was made for enduring. Moreover, my mind was made for convincing my body to endure. I knew exactly what I needed to tell myself in order to finish what I’d started, regardless of how it felt in my body. It was a skill I’d honed all my adult life.
After a painful and messy first attempt to come out to my family, I’d promptly married my high school boyfriend at 19-years-old. Together, we joined a series of conservative churches and college ministries, each giving me different tools for controlling my “sinful desires” towards women. Whether in the Orthodox church or the Catholic church or the Evangelical church, divorce was not an option. Neither was telling my husband I didn’t want to have sex with him. It didn’t matter if penetration was physically painful, no matter what position we tried or how gentle he was. It didn’t matter that I needed to be three whiskeys into my evening to convince my body to respond to his advances at all. I had a duty to my husband and to his sexual needs.
You’re not dying. I would remind myself. This is hard. But everyone’s sex life is probably hard. You can do this. Just keep going.
My first triathlon became my first three, followed by my first olympic-length triathlon, cycling century, and half marathon the year after. My husband was bemused but generally supportive, cheering me on from the sidelines of nearly every early race. My family joked about my being the least likely athlete in the family and they weren’t wrong.
Dear reader, I am not biologically made for triathlon or any of its component sports. I’m a very short human, with arms to match. My tiny feet end up covered in blisters no matter which hi-tech sock or which women-specific shoe I put them in. A small curve in my spine means I pull to the right as soon as I’m tired, sometimes veering completely off the swim course or swimming in circles. There are bad knees on both sides of the family and one of mine has already sent me to surgery. My skin breaks into hives at the least excuse or welts without copious sunscreen. I use two types of inhalers.
And yet, I thought to myself early on, I was made for this!
I hadn’t learned to push toward pain by accident or as some sort of natural gift. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers conducted an ethnographic study to better understand why people willingly subject themselves to extreme activities, often at their own monetary cost. Among their findings they write, “By flooding the consciousness with gnawing unpleasantness, pain provides a temporary relief from the burdens of self-awareness.” I’d found myself at home in a sport perfectly suited to a closeted lesbian. In endurance sports, I could train my body to be what I wanted to become—something that despite numerous attempts in church “healing” ministries, I’d been unable to do with my sexuality.
As I backstroked through the whitecaps in my first race, I’d discovered my superpower. I could convince myself to just keep going. Even when I was afraid or full of doubt. Even when I was exhausted. Even when I hurt. In endurance sports, my pain wasn’t a failure—in fact, it was often a badge of honor.
You’re not dying. This is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. But you can do this. Just keep going.
And I did. I kept going for more than ten years. In part, the same structures that kept me going in athletics also kept me in my marriage. The discipline I applied to my training gave me renewed zeal for the disciplines for being a better spouse. The part of my mind I learned to push into when my body hurt in a race was there for me in bed, too. And in truth, my marriage wasn’t all pain all the time—I genuinely liked the person I’d partnered with. Most of the time. Like any race, there were lots of really happy, rewarding moments and a sense of accomplishment as the years piled up like mile markers. Two high school sweethearts defying the odds felt like some sort of medal.
Yet the more I trained, the more I started to suspect that ignoring my body’s distress was a limited strategy—more limited than I was prepared to acknowledge. Yes, I could will myself to keep going, but the ignored pain of a blister or a muscle had more severe consequences. Consequences that were worse the longer I ignored the signals my body was trying to send me.
When my body hurt, ice, painkillers, bandages, and grit could only stop the gap for a while. I started going to physical therapy for my knee problems. I started seeing a therapist about my sex problems. Both encouraged me to think of pain as a friend who was trying to tell me something I needed to hear. I tried to learn to listen to the body I’d spent years learning to ignore.
After nearly a year of therapy, I let pain tell my husband I no longer wanted to have sex. Two months later he moved out, though we still attended the same church, had a regular date night, and announced our plans to divorce side by side to each family member and friend. It took longer for pain to convince me to find another Sunday service, to give us both more space to process the break up, and to carry less of everyone else’s grief. Pain took longer still to persuade me to stop training.
My fourth year of triathlon found me mentoring a team of newbie triathletes as they trained toward their first “oly,” the cutesy nickname for the olympic-length races. I trained alongside them, helped them fundraise, and passed along wisdom about balancing endurance with self-care. But it was a balance I wasn’t actually pulling off in my own life. The pain in my left knee grew steadily worse, but I refused to stop training. I was a mentor, a role model. I had to set an example—not of self-care, but rather of endurance.
You’re not dying, I’d tell my knee as it howled through each run. Running is hard on the body. But triathlon is supposed to be hard. You can do this. Just keep going.
I made it across the finish line of that race, my teammates cheering from the sidelines. In the pictures, you could mistake the grimace on my face for determination. But the look on my face was the resolve of someone trying not to keel over in pain. In the weeks that followed that finish line, my knee ballooned to twice its normal size and remained permanently stuck at a 135-degree angle. Unable to fully bend or straighten my leg, I pulled myself up the stairs to my office every day using my arm strength and the handrail. Ice, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, braces and tape, physical therapy, and my personal superpower were no match for the damage I had done by ignoring my knee pain for five months of intensive training.
Seven months after my costly race, I limped into the divorce courtroom. My husband and I had had a good run, but ours wasn’t a race I could push myself to finish. Divorce felt like both a relief and an enormous failure. The drawn out end of my marriage had been exhausting, and I was ready for my new beginning. But I was formally breaking my vow of life-long partnership and finally laying to rest the future I’d imagined for myself, as the straight woman I’d tried so hard to become. I’d failed him. I’d failed God. But I couldn’t ignore my body any longer.
Four months after finalizing my divorce, a nurse wheeled me into and out of knee surgery. In a pre-op appointment with the surgeon, he’d asked me “how serious” I was about the sport of triathlon. I told him I was done trying to place, but I still wanted to be racing when I was 70. I’d hoped to be married that long, too, but there was no procedure that could work that miracle—I’d tried years of self-discipline, “healing” ministry and prayer, and even a trial run with an open marriage arrangement. Still, I held out hope for a different ending when it came to triathlon. The surgeon outlined his three-part plan to put my knee back in working order, and I limped down the hall to set a date with the receptionist.
The cocktail of surgeries had included a minor repositioning of my knee cap, which the surgeon hoped would slow down the recurrence of the osteoarthritis that had frozen my joint in place. This meant that, in addition to the usual recovery process, the muscles in my left leg had to be retrained to walk with the hinge in a different place. All the supporting muscles had to learn to work together differently to move the leg forward. Working first in a pool with the assistance of the water and later on land, it was a full year before I could walk without a hitch and take steps foot over foot. It would be another full year before I was able to run my first 5K race.
My left leg wasn’t the only part of me that needed to be retrained though. My reflexive you’re-not-dying pep talk in response to pain proved to be more of a liability than an asset in my rehabilitation process. Repeatedly, I set myself back weeks by pushing myself to “just keep going” when a muscle tried to tell me it wasn’t ready. Pain was a language I’d long refused to be proficient in. I needed a different way of thinking about what it meant to endure.
In the 2017 Journal of Consumer Research endurance study, researchers note that “pain brings the body into sharp focus, allowing individuals to rediscover their corporeality.” In less-than-flood doses, the same pain that once disconnected me from myself has slowly reconnected me with a body I’d forgotten how to communicate with. My body. I’m learning to listen. I’m learning to respond to its desire and its pain, both languages that feel foreign to me. Sometimes it tells me to stop before the finish line, before the end of my workout, or in bed with my now wife. In those moments, I’m tempted to ignore what I hear. But then I picture myself at 70, nimbly shuffle-running towards a finish line with my wife cheering loudly from the sidelines. This is the new endurance. I take a deep breath and then I thank my body for telling me what it needs to get us there.
Erica Charis-Molling is a lesbian poet, educator, and librarian. Her poems have been published in literary journals including Tinderbox, Redivider, Vinyl, and Entropy. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Orison anthology. A Mass Cultural Council Fellow, she’s an alum of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch University. More of her work can be found at: ericacharis-molling.squarespace.com.