These weren’t the wave baffled waters of a lane lined pool. These were undulating 8-foot rolling waves in the Mediterranean Sea. The horizon appeared and disappeared in rhythmic succession. Equal parts terrified and awestruck, I reflected on where I had come from and where I was going. The next day, I would take on my first ever full Ironman triathlon. I would do so on NBC Sports TV series “Quest for Kona.”
The Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile marathon. It is dubbed one of the hardest single day endurance events in the world. This is something I didn’t dare dream I could do after I left the Army in 2005. Dreams are a funny thing. Which ones come true? It turns out, the ones you’re willing to relentlessly pursue regardless of the odds against you, real or perceived.
14 years earlier, after serving one tour in Iraq in 2003, I found myself lost. Not just to PTSD, but to the sense of purpose and identity the Army provided me, which left as our plane flew across the ocean, on its way back to the states. I bounced around once in civilian life. Taking on low paying jobs with no chance for growth so I could afford to self-medicate and deal with the nightmares and anxieties of PTSD. If I drink enough, I’ll have a great time and cocaine won’t let me sleep! It was my healing plan and it was working. Until it didn’t.
In 2008, after 3 years of substance abuse, I attempted suicide. I wish I could say surviving the attempt was my wake-up call, but it wasn’t. I limped through life, met my wife, had two daughters, received a PTSD Service dog, went to film school, and still fell apart. Nothing I did seemed to fill the void. In 2015, I found myself with another plan to attempt suicide. I confessed to my wife, and so began my commitment to take back my life.
I entered a 5.5 day warrior detox program which changed my trajectory, but didn’t save me. No matter how much I read or engaged in healing I kept missing the military. Maybe I should join the police? How do you get into the FBI or CIA? Can I do contract work overseas with a PTSD diagnosis? Could I re-enlist? But I knew there would be parts of all those jobs I would hate or would be detrimental to my family. So what was it that called me back? Physicality. I missed being physical.
Around that time, I figured perhaps I should finally check out a long-time dream to finish a triathlon. I knew next to nothing about them, but found a local race, signed up, learned to swim, and did it. The short race was an incredible experience, but the training was what changed my life. I found metaphors in every run, in every ride, in every success and failure. Training was the divining rod to help me find the next area of growth to pursue in my journey. It led me to Ironman France, and my life was never the same.
I put my face in the salt water of the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Nice France and stared into the abyss and began my odyssey. Swimming terrifies me. I’m almost certain a monster lurks just beyond my eyesight. It’s so apropos the swim begins the race. As in life, growth and healing lie beyond that which terrifies us.
On my bike, traveling up the mountains of southern France, I was forced to dig deep into a primal place where the warrior lives just to keep pedaling mile after mile of steep climbing. Those climbs made me feel like a kid again, hiding in his room from his father’s rage. But this time, I fought back. On the run, I fought for every step. It felt like daggers pierced every muscle in my body. I begged myself to collapse. To end it. But for some reason, no matter how dark it got, my body kept moving forward. Even though I knew I couldn’t beat the cut off time and would fail to finish in front of a worldwide television audience, I pushed forward.
One phrase kept repeating in my head. For those who can’t, I will. When things were at their darkest, when hope was lost, when I looked for someone to pull me off the course because the pain was to great, I reminded myself that far too many of my brothers and sisters will never feel pain in their legs again for they were lost. Far too many of my brothers and sisters will never feel the burn in their lungs that comes with great effort because they are paralyzed. Far too many of my brothers and sisters will never dream again, for their eyes were closed, never to open again.
I used to feel guilty I was alive and able bodied when so many weren’t. But now, when the burn enters my muscles or when I grit my teeth to keep moving forward in workout, a race, or through anxiety and depression I remember. The burn, the pain, the anguish is a collective voice from the fallen willing us to do the one thing they can no longer do. Live.
I finished my race that day in France. I beat the 16-hour cut off by 10 minutes and became an Ironman. Endurance sport and fitness teach us so much about life. I spent so many years searching for magic pills to take my pain away. I used to think they didn’t exist. But now I see they do. They exist in places that are incredibly hard to reach. We risk everything to get to them. We suffer for them and once we reach them, we realize it wasn’t the magic pill that changed us. The journey did.
Eric Beach is a Veteran and athlete with a passion to help other Veterans heal as he heals. He is the Co-founder and Director of Veteran Relations at Project Echelon.
The Art of Goal Setting by Eric Beach
Quest for Kona Episode