This isn’t the post I intended to write. That was meant to be the fifth edition of my annual pro triathlon budget—a feel-good account of my best season ever, both on the race course and at the bank. That post is still coming, but another felt more urgent.
You’d think that after such as a season, I’d be on easy street. Basking in the glow of a job well done. Taking my pick of sponsor contracts. Excited about my ambitious season ahead. Brimful of confidence. However, my reality hasn’t been so rosy. In truth, it’s been the most challenging off-season of my career.
I’ve always struggled with anxiety and perfectionism. From late adolescence to early adulthood, these two negative forces ran rampant, driving my accomplishments while exacting a high toll. In recent years, I’ve become more adept at managing these tendencies, or at least channeling them more productively. But sometime following last season, as the high of a four race winning streak faded, I began to face some all too familiar demons, as well as some new ones: pressure, expectation, overcommitment and a newfound degree of public scrutiny.
Layered on top of this was an unexpected worry: a creeping doubt that I would somehow squander my talent; talent that I had finally been forced to acknowledge, long downplayed with a self-professed narrative that I was only making progress due to a meticulous approach and expert guidance, not innate ability.
On the heels of those wins, I said yes to every single request. The incorrigible people-pleaser in me couldn’t say no! I did dozens of interviews, podcasts, shoots and talks in a matter of weeks. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the scenes, I was busy meeting with sponsors, renewing contracts and pursuing new opportunities. I kept up this frantic pace for months. I felt shackled to my phone and computer for hours every day on top of my other activities as an athlete, borrowing heavily from my dwindling personal time.
I had always prided myself in being one of most accessible and transparent pro triathletes, openly sharing my personal email address and responding to every direct message across half a dozen social media platforms. I owe the triathlon community a debt of gratitude for all the support, guidance and encouragement I’ve received over the years and this felt like a way to give back. All this interaction, though overwhelmingly positive, also began to take a toll on my time and energy, not to mention the ill effects of excessive screen time.
One unforeseen and insidious consequence of this relatively high profile career is that everyone has an opinion on how you should conduct things. From armchair quarterbacking race execution and season planning, to offering unsolicited advice on how to run social media and sponsorship, every decision I made felt like it was under the microscope. Even posting a photo in which I look a little tired or lean could trigger a barrage of well-meaning messages expressing concern. My mistake was feeling compelled not only to listen to every opinion, but to provide a thoughtful response. Interaction that I had once cherished began to feel draining.
For the first time, I also faced some outright animosity and even a touch of homophobia. One vicious email I received informed me that I had lost my humility, that other pros whispered behind my back, that I wasn’t the person I once was. As much as I wanted to shrug this off, I’m embarrassed to admit that it touched a nerve. Despite striving for authenticity, was I still true to myself?
“But Cody, these are good problems to have! First world problems!” That’s what I kept telling myself. It didn’t change the fact that my anxiety had become a dull roar that showed no signs of abating. Despite taking my longest post-season break from training in a decade, I came back feeling no more restored. The introvert in me felt completely tapped out. Tellingly, I didn’t even want to see my friends and family over the holidays. I chose to spend New Year’s Eve sulking alone at home. Somewhere along the way, my life tipped dangerously out of balance and everything began to suffer.
My greatest insecurity about sharing thoughts this personal is the risk of coming across as self-important, entitled or attention seeking. I have no delusions of grandeur, trust me. I joke that I’m like a C-list personality strictly within a sideshow of a sport, not exactly a bona fide public figure! Still, I felt crushed by the weight of commitments, expectations and accountability to dozens of stakeholders and thousands of “fans” (a term I still feel weird using). I caught myself yearning for the simplicity of my amateur days, when I was driven only by my passion for the sport.
Was this post prompted by my recent DNF in Taiwan? No, but that experience was definitely a much-needed wake up call. Tensions always run high leading into my season opener. I catch myself suffering from a degree of “impostor syndrome”. I feel this niggling doubt that whatever intangible factors—je ne sais quoi—that accounted for my past success will have evaporated over the off-season, never to be found again. My season opener is this cathartic expression of relief that I’ve still got it.
Obviously Taiwan didn’t unfold that way. Long story short, I arrived very fit, but depleted both psychologically and physically. Not surprisingly, I came down with the worst illness of my adult life. I can cope with a disappointing race; however, the travel home was truly harrowing. Two delayed flights, a raging fever and nausea, a lost bike, a laptop left in security, a cracked phone and 46 hours later, I finally made it home. Bedridden for days, this adversity burned away the mental fog that had clouded my perspective for months, leaving me with newfound clarity. I resolved to learn from these mistakes, to make the necessary changes and to better respect my limits.
I tried to express some of these thoughts in an interview earlier this year, but the key message was apparently garbled. It came across as something like “Cody is burnt out.” Let me set the record straight: I’m far from burnt out and I have years of unfinished business in triathlon, a career I feel tremendously privileged to pursue. This sport has just delivered another humbling series of lessons just when everything seemed to be falling into place.
This also isn’t a cry for help. Far from it. Here’s some of the best advice I’ve been given: Carefully select a group of trusted confidants (not sycophants) who will provide an objective perspective and sound advice, call you out on your bullshit and offer support. Beyond them, tune out the noise. All of it.
With all this in mind, here are some guiding principles I’m striving for:
- Get comfortable saying no.
- Carve out personal time.
- Take myself less seriously.
- Focus on fundamentals.
- Tune out the noise.
Thank you for sharing this adventure with me.