Sometimes, you just have to lose control

Published 9:36 AM EDT, Fri May 24, 2013

Story highlights

Tabitha McMahon was pushed out of her comfort zone on a training trip

Letting go of control was hard, but McMahon wasn't going to let fear rule her life

McMahon isn't alone -- many people have a hard time giving up control

Editor’s Note: Tabitha McMahon is one of six CNN viewers selected to be a part of the Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge program. Follow the “Six-packon Twitter and Facebook as they train to race the Nautica Malibu Triathlon with Dr. Sanjay Gupta on September 8.

(CNN) —  

It’s a beautiful spring morning in Florida. I’m standing next to my shiny new road bike on the side of a road, weeping.

Passers-by probably assume that I’ve taken a tumble from said bicycle. They’re wrong. So why the tears? It’s simple: I feel completely out of control.

When I was chosen as a member of the CNN Fit Nation Six-Pack I was thrilled. But almost immediately the fear, doubt and worry set in. In fact, my exact words to Dr. Sanjay Gupta were, “I’m so excited and a little bit terrified.”

I soon settled into my new fitness routine. Each workout was challenging and, for the most part, served to build my confidence. I was running longer without breaks, I was swimming faster and I stopped falling over on the bike.

Three months later I boarded a plane to Clermont, Florida, to meet up with my teammates and coaches for a week of intense triathlon training. The schedule was ambitious, leaving me physically exhausted at the end of each day. But Coach April knew we could rise to the occasion, and we did so repeatedly during the week.

A few days into training, we tackled our first group bike ride. For me, this was the first time riding in traffic, and I was anxious. I was paired with Denise Castelli, a Fit Nation alumnus, and we fell into place at the back of the pack. When we took a right and headed onto the main road, I freaked. There was no paved shoulder. We were riding on the white line, and I had to trust that drivers wouldn’t plow into me.

I was focusing on cycling, clipping in and out of my pedals and following Castelli as close to that white line as possible. Then she asked me to pass her so that she would bring up the rear.

My brain just shut down. For the first time in my training, the voice telling me, “You can’t do this” was simply too loud to ignore. I pulled over and wept.

Instead of my usual optimism and tenacity, I was consumed by fear and the foregone conclusion of failure. I was terrified of how close the passing cars felt and how fast they seemed to be zipping by me. I didn’t trust the drivers to see me, and I didn’t trust in my cycling ability to be able to stay out of harm’s way. I had pushed past the boundaries of my comfort zone, into a place where I lacked control. That is not a place I’m used to visiting, let alone taking off my coat and staying awhile.

There were other challenges for me during the week of training. Don’t get me wrong; I had some amazing successes and workouts that just clicked. But there were times that the sentiment, “What did I get myself into?” reverberated in my mind.

I quickly realized that my fear of losing control was jeopardizing my triathlon goal. Worse, it was robbing me of the joy of my journey. Nope, not going to happen on my watch.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

1. I’m not alone. There is a ton of literature indicating that the fear of losing control is a prevalent issue. The toll that living in such a heightened state of fear, anxiety and stress can have on a person is also well-documented. A quick glance at a list of common phobias, such as fear of flying and enclosed spaces, reveals that a perceived loss of control is the root of most fear. Knowing I’m not alone prevents wasting energy wondering, “What is wrong with me?” and instead focuses me on changing my perspective.

2. Desiring control is wanting certainty in an uncertain world. Folks with this fear are usually perfectionists. I need to accept that no one is capable of controlling the future. To break out of the anxiety-filled cycle I have to give up the notion that I have some superhuman level of control.

3. Accepting that I can’t completely control the future does not mean that I stop taking responsibility for my actions, decisions or thoughts. I can control my attitude. I can choose to rise to the challenge and genuinely try my best and be proud of that regardless of the outcome. I can make the best choices given the information I have at the time, understanding that nothing is certain.

So how do I quit the control cycle? I have to be brave. I have to have courage that I am doing my best with the tools I currently possess and that will be enough. At the beginning of this journey, my friend advised me to “lean into the fear” of triathlon training. That sentiment rang true during my time in Florida.

I’m proud to say that these hard-won lessons have served to galvanize my resolve. I returned from Florida more determined, more committed, more courageous. My first week back, I squeezed in two extra swim workouts and a yoga class in addition to my regular training load. And I have enjoyed every minute of it!

The joy has returned to my journey, and I don’t plan to let it get away from me again.

I know that when I cross that finish line in Malibu, it won’t be the capstone to a perfect race because there is no such thing. But it will be my race. And that will be more than enough.

Follow McMahon on Twitter @TriHardTabitha