The last time I felt this afraid I was staring at the door separating me from my first classroom of Nepalese elementary students. I listened through the walls as they yelled at each other in words I didn’t understand. I took a deep breath and pushed open the door.
Back in Lake Anna, Virginia, about to race my first triathlon, I recalled that fear. And just as I pushed through the door to the unknown in Nepal, I put my face in the water and started swimming.
That was two years ago.
Today, I am a five-time Ironman triathlete.
An Ironman is the ultimate endurance challenge, joining 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and 26.2 miles of running all in a single grueling day.
Here, I examine how the Peace Corps prepared me to be an Ironman.
The modest Peace Corps allowance forced me to explore more economical hobbies than the live concerts and downtown dining I enjoyed back home. For my first Peace Corps tour (Nepal, 2003), I adopted a frugal new hobby: dodging goats on a Peace Corps-issued mountain bike. On my second tour (Ecuador 2005-2007), I took up jogging with the locals. Today, biking and running remain my favorite forms of entertainment; they are also pillars of Ironman training. And just as I did in Peace Corps, I continue to refuel with lentils and rice.
In a competition that can last up to 17 hours, a lot can—and does—go wrong.
At Ironman Arizona, I had two flats before mile ten of 112, and only one spare tube. At Ironman St. George, when the winds kicked up waves so high that I couldn’t see to the next buoy, I floated on, and in the final few miles of Ironman Lake Placid, dehydration forced me to recalculate my goal pace. Luckily, rolling with the punches was a skill I developed in the Peace Corps. Each time the bus didn’t show, or a meeting started two hours late, or a strike meant no mail for a month, or the monsoon rain re-soaked my hand-washed, nearly-dried clothes, I was really just rehearsing to roll with the punches of Ironman competition.
I was also rehearsing to spend long hours alone. When my host families went to bed early, I fought through the homesickness and learned to embrace loneliness. As an Ironman, I do a lot of training alone. While racing, I am also alone: a face in the water prevents making friends while swimming, and to negate the possibility of drafting on the bike, Ironman rules prevent riding within 10 meters of other competitors. And by the time I make it to the final leg of competition (i.e, the marathon), exhaustion and pain replace the desire to converse. But none of that matters, because my experience in the Peace Corps taught me to be strongest in my moments alone.
Training and racing alone places exceptional importance on self-accountability, a trait I developed in the Peace Corps. With remote guidance and little direct supervision from country staff, I was accountable mainly to myself. I arrived to class on time, even if my local counterparts did not. On my own initiative, I found local language tutors and worked to improve my communicability. I reached beyond my given assignment as teacher trainer (Nepal) and public health educator (Ecuador) to build income generation projects, lead a violence prevention campaign, and coach a youth track team. As an Ironman-in-training, I am equally accountable to myself. No one stands at my bedside at 4:30 am when the alarm sounds. No one pushes me out the door to run. And when I get out of the pool, I am the only one who knows if I swam 2500 yards or 5000. As I cross the finish line, I am the only one who knows if I could have pushed harder.
This past October I crossed the most revered Ironman finish line in the world, that of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. As I charged down the finishers’ chute, I raised three small flags. With my left hand, I waved the flag of my country, the United States of America. And with my right hand, waving the flags of Nepal and Ecuador, I honored the children, the people, the goats, and the Peace Corps experiences that had prepared me to be an Ironman.