“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them- a desire, a dream, a vision. -Muhammad Ali
By Glyssel Cobo Lee
I have read many race reports that are filled with training stories and detailed accounts of someone’s Ironman race. People write about their nutrition and the motivating factors involved and the commitment needed for the months of training required to complete an Ironman. My reasons are different. My race report is different. My motivating factors go back seven years. I have lived in denial for seven years. Depression. I have it. I have had it and I have denied it for seven years.
Last year I had to admit to the fact that I suffer from depression. Years of denial led me on a path of self-loathing, anxiety and worthlessness. I needed help but I still rejected the notion of seeing a doctor, let alone medicating myself.
I registered for Ironman Texas even though I felt like a complete failure. But the daily reminders I gave myself about not “being good enough” increased. I believed the only thing I could control in my life was swimming, biking and running. For eight months, I swam, biked and ran as if my life depended on it. Every Monday I ran 15-18 miles. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I taught spin, often staying on the bike for several hours after the class and then I would swim. On Fridays, I taught spin then ran 6-10 miles. On weekends I rode my bike (I call her Delilah), swam, and/or ran. I thought, “I can control it!” I did not hire a coach because of the fear that someone would know “I’m not good enough.” There were times I depleted my body so severely, I suffered from dehydration and rapid weight loss. I kept moving until two months before race day when I lost my grasp of the few things I believed I could control. I started having difficulty getting out of bed, among other things. I called my doctor and I accepted the unacceptable - medication and therapy. I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I continued training, forcing each training day and reminding myself, “it was the only thing I can control.”
The hardest part about depression is feeling the need to hide it from friends and family. As a child, I wanted to be an actor and the last few years have proven that if I want to quit my day job I could definitely take on acting. I could cry all the way to work, park the car, put on a smile, and teach a spin class or conduct a university lesson or teach adults to speak English. Afterwards, I would get back in my car and tell myself that I was a hypocrite, a liar, and a fake.
Surprisingly, my spin class was popular. People from spin class began sending me friend requests on Facebook and sharing with the public how much they enjoyed my class and what a motivator I am to them. Again, I felt like a hypocrite. My very good friend, Emily, wrote me a letter in which she wrote, “your energy and positive way of living life is amazing.” I felt like a liar and cried after I read the note. At the university, my evaluations came back gleaming with comments from students like, “she is an inspiration,” and “when I become a teacher I want to be like Professor Lee.” Other comments included words like, “best teacher”, “motivational”, “passionate and moving.” Whom did these people see because clearly it was not the “me” that I knew.
I told my friends and students, whether at the gym or in an academic setting that they could do anything, they could push themselves, they could believe in themselves, they could find inner beauty, they could set goals, they could reach further across thresholds- I meant every word. I believed those words whole-heartedly and deep in my soul. I believed others could do those things but I did not believe that I could.
I knew my depression became severe after my son’s birth, almost seven years ago. Then eighteen months later, my daughter was born. Postpartum Depression, for me, evolved into something evil. It led me to create a life that bound me by shackles to the skeletons in my closet. These demons filled me with regret, shame and guilt. Depression is certainly a battle against evil.
On May 17, 2014, as I crossed the finish line at Ironman Texas I heard the words, “Glyssel Lee, you are an Ironman!”
For months, I hung on to the mere possibility of that moment, those words. I thought, perhaps, if I could be an “Ironman” I could fight the skeletons that continued to pound at my closet door.
During the course of the race, I realized that I did not really control anything. The training happened because of commitment. The opportunity to compete happened because I signed up for Ironman. There is little to control and everything else is just life. I could not control the weather (although it was beautiful but a bit warm). I could not control whether I got a flat tire (thank goodness I did not because I can barely get my tires off my rims). I could not even control the fact that a week before the race my taste buds decided to dislike the bike nutrition I had used on long training rides. The last thing you want to do is change your nutrition before the race. I did it anyway! I took a huge risk by changing my nutrition from the nutrition bar I had trained with to a completely different nutrition bar and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was a potentially risky decision that turned out to be great in an uncontrollable situation.
The race was the most amazing and rewarding experience of my life. I was able to spend the two days prior to the race with one of my dearest and best friend, Marisol (Mari) Chavez. We packed up and left the Thursday before the race. In the past few years, I can recall only feeling a sense of true joy with my children but on the two days prior to the race, I felt true joy deep in my soul. I remember Mari saying, “Girl, I can’t believe you’re so calm.” I responded with, “I feel happy. I have done everything I can do.” The first time I felt nervous was when I started walking up to the swim start with thousands of others. There were green (men) and pink (women) swim caps everywhere. As my feet hit the water, I felt a sense of calm. When I was treading water, waiting for the gun to go off I looked around again and my first thought was, “this is incredible, we all have the same goal!” The gun went off and I began swimming. I was kicked a few times but kept calm and enjoyed the water. In fact, I was surprised when I finally approached the end because I looked up to take a breath and I saw people getting out of the water. I swam 2.4 miles. There at the shoot Mari and my very best friend Mayra (we have been friends since we were 14) were cheering for me. After, many triathlons in which I came out of the water crying (I am not a fan of open, dark, murky water) I came out of this one smiling, joyful, enthusiastic and ready to get on Delilah (remember that’s my bike).
The ride was beautiful. It was windy and of course, there were hills, but the scenery was amazing. It felt incredible to be out in the open air (snacking on my PBJ). At mile 70, I heard crazy screams coming from a car behind me. I was moving up a hill being hit by a gust of wind, when I heard, “Glyssel, Glyssel” and I saw Mari hanging out of a car window taking pictures. Mayra was driving. My legs started moving faster and it wasn’t to get away from my crazy girlfriends. Their cheers invigorated me!
Soon, although soon is relative when you are riding 112 miles I finished the bike portion of my race only to see more loved ones cheering for me. I did it; I rode 112 miles! I headed to the changing tent and put on my running shoes for the marathon portion of the race. I had 26.2 miles left to go!
The first half of the race went really well but I started suffering physically at mile 16 until I saw my friends Emily, Mary and Maciel. They were jumping, hollering, cheering and sending love my way. They shouted out the encouraging statements I give to them. “Move your legs!” and “Fight fatigue, recover at the finish line!” My legs began to move faster. Not too long after, I saw my mother, my amazing kids, my sister, my nephews and my dear friend Soila. I screamed with joy, tears streaming down my face. My legs moved faster. I had 10 miles to go. I told myself, “I can do anything for 10 miles!” The first 7 of the 10 miles were tough but I endured. As for the last 3 miles, my legs wanted to stop. I wanted to walk. I was tired! I looked at my watch and noticed I would not finish the race in the 14:30 hours I had aspired. I told myself I would be happy with a sub 15:00 hours, but it would involve moving my legs. “Push through this,” I said to myself. “You have to finish, it is part of your journey, and it is your healing process.” Through a few tears, I reminded myself of the joy I had felt the days before. My legs moved faster. I ran 26.2 miles. I crossed the finish line at 14:59 hours. I made my sub 15:00 hours. I was happy with myself for the first time in a long time.
I was never an athlete. I did not participate in sports while in high school. In fact, the first time I exercised regularly was in my mid-twenties when I joined a gym. I started running, for the first time, four years ago, ironically, to fight depression. I have many first and second place medals for different races I have completed. I even placed third in my age group for the first marathon I completed. Not one of those races or medals made me feel proud. I always left feeling as if I could have worked harder. I was not good enough by the standards my self-loathing had created.
Ironman was different! I enjoyed every minute of the 14:59 hours I raced because I did that for myself. I did it to prove to myself that I can do something right. There are many people in my life that I extend my deepest gratitude for the help, support and faith they offered to me during my journey. Jay, for the advice, help with our children and mentoring he gave me during the course of my training. His knowledge of the sport was invaluable to me. I am also grateful for Lisa, my coach; I finally got one, the last several weeks before the race as she calmed my nerves when I panicked, and Missy for the courage and strength of the bear (that is a different and beautiful story for another time). I am thankful for my beloved friends that kept me motivated and reminded me daily that I could conquer Ironman. I am proud to be my mother’s daughter and I thank her for her love and support. Likewise, I appreciate my sister and I am honored to call her my friend. Lastly, I want to thank Rich who believed in me when I did not, and encouraged me to register for Ironman. I would not have registered without his encouragement.
My journey is not complete but I have chosen now a different road. I am learning to walk the path of self-acceptance. As I continue that path, I will not hide who I am. I will finally embrace “me.” I got lost somewhere seven years ago but I am figuring out my way back. Mayra shared with me recently, that we are our own mothers. What would I say to three-year-old me?
I am slowly looking around the corners of my new path accepting the help I need to get better. One day soon, I will start walking my new path on my tiptoes, perhaps as the three- year- old me, but before I know it, I will be running all over that road embracing my new world as the forty-year- old me.I would say, “Glyssel, you are passionate, you are a dreamer, your heart is in helping others succeed, you are a lover, spiritual, strong, determined and vivacious. Be those things!”
I have written my story through many tears, some filled with sadness, others with hope, and yes, there were many filled with joy. I have also written my story because my next big race is to get well. To live, not because I have to register for a race I think I can control, but to truly live and be happy. To be well.