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Just a few steps up the hill and it was all I could do to not drop to my knees and start crawling. My normal tactic of staring at the horizon and focusing on the end of the challenge just wasn’t working after everything I’d been through that day… I was realizing that continuing through the mental and physical pain was my only option.

It was Uganda’s first official triathlon, consisting of a lake swim and a short but mountainous route around Kyaninga Gorge near Fort Portal. The thrill of taking part in this event – the highs and lows of training – had built from uncertainty to a “pumped” state that consumed me for nearly two weeks prior to the race.

Some speeches, some logistics, and the 40-some other competitors and I hiked down the gorge to the lakeside. I hopped around, completely unable to contain my excitement until we finally were allowed to dive in – and the water was perfect! It was cool, clear, and clean, better than any lake I’d been in anywhere else. After a few minutes, I could no longer see anyone near me when I breathed, so I took a few strokes on my back to find everyone else… maybe I had gone the wrong way, or they called everyone back for some reason? But no, my childhood of competitive swimming was paying off! I relaxed and focused on not getting lost on the way back to shore.

When I made it back up the now brutal hill to my bike, my friends were there, cracking up to see me pop out of the bushes first! Coming up that hill, and then biking up another hill on a mediocre bike, after the swim, put a completely new strain on my heart and lungs. I was wondering if I’d perhaps misplaced one of them in the water. But in those moments I still knew: with all the work I had put into training, I could make it to the top of any hill on my own steam.

Then, downhill on the bike! Mountains covered in farmland and wilderness spread out before me, and I could slip into Oregon-mountain-biking mode – “look where you want to go, not where you don’t” says my biking buddy Carl – flying over bumps and guiding the tires through the best paths. But it would not stay so pleasant! I hit a larger dip in the road and the front brakes caught, rubbing the tire and creating an awful squeal. I jumped off the bike and pulled and squeezed with all my might to loosen them again, but completely without luck. After three guys whizzed past me, I had my first moment of panic. What if this meant I had to give up? With so much effort to get to that point, so many hopes about finishing, the thought started to crush me. If this bike still works at all, only you can stop you, I told myself. I confirmed that the tires weren’t flat, thank goodness, and decided that I could do it anyway.

I received quick rewards for getting back on that bike! It only took a few minutes to adjust to the added resistance (it’s just like going slightly more uphill than everyone else, I kept saying to myself) and the community lining the road was better than any cheerleading team I’d ever seen! “We are supporting you!” and ululations came from all sides. Really, there may be no better place in the world to put your aerobic skills to the test!

Albeit at a somewhat reduced speed, I floated up and down those hills hollering with the crowds, barely able to keep my eyes off the stunning landscape. Finally the lodge came into sight again and it was almost disappointing to be finished with the ride! As soon as I threw the bike down and started running up the other side of the hill, doubts kicked in again. My legs were jello: it was a serious challenge to stay upright! This was much more difficult than my trial runs at the gym (true, I was expecting this, but like so many things in life, reality exceeded my imagination!).

Again I was saved by opening my eyes to the beauty around me. For two kilometers, the hills were more rolling, and the crater lake spread out to my left, flashing in the sun with each step. I could see the lodge – known to me now as “it’s over once I get there!” – and the scattered group of people ahead of me… and I saw them all suddenly slow down, as they reached the bottom of what I can only call a murderous hill! It tapped my very last reserves, draining me of any conscious thought. The only thing I could do was to remove sitting down, crawling, and a nap from the mental list of options for ending the horrendous climb. After that, I simply quit thinking until reaching the top – any thoughts carried the threat of surrender!

Finally at the top, I started jogging. All this after just seconds before I did not think I would ever run again! From that moment on, it was one jellified muscle after the other expending just enough effort to keep me from falling forward as I let gravity pull me back down the hill to the finish. I’ve always maintained enough energy to finish races in a sprint, but not on this day. I did, however, manage a tiny celebratory hop over the finishing ribbon. So much effort – over so quickly! Those intense moments just never last as long as you feel they should.

Many people don’t understand the appeal of getting involved in these tests of endurance and willpower that we call “sports.” But there is so much about it that mirrors life – and this keeps me focused and confident through every day challenges. In the end, it isn’t about who you beat or how fast you go, but pushing through the moments where you doubt yourself to remember that your goals are indeed worth the pain it sometimes takes to achieve them.