Swim 2.4 miles. Bike 112. Run 26.2.

Ever since I was 17, completing an Ironman triathlon has been high on my list of dreams. Something about the outrageousness of the challenge drew me in, “You mean I have to run a marathon after doing what?!” It’s such a ridiculous task, that its almost funny. Key word being, almost. I can only imagine what the thrill would feel like to cross the finish line after such a race. What incredible euphoria I would feel! Though this has been a dream of mine since I was 17, it has sat on the back burner for much of the last 7.5 years, saved for a rainy day.

Well, that rainy day came last year right when I returned home from traveling in India. After a year of traveling dirt cheap across the subcontinent, eating 30 cent meals of potatoes and rice all day every day, sleeping wherever I could, and paying almost no attention to my physical fitness or health, I came home and felt this deep desire to just feel healthy and connected to my body. So, I started running. And swimming. Aaaaand biking. And damn, did I feel good! I felt so good that I kept increasing my workouts to the point where I thought, “This is the year. This is it. I’m going to run an Ironman.” So, I paid the absurd amount of money they make you pay to sign up for one of these things and I took my training to the next level.

Fast forward 2 months and I was training 15 hours a week, including 28 miles of running, 7 miles of swimming, and 110 miles of biking. I had never felt physically better in my life. I was heading towards the Ironman at full speed, and then it happened. I was in the midst of an easy 30-minute run when I felt a SNAP in my lower right back, painful enough that it forced me to stop. Over the next two weeks, I limped everywhere and felt this constant nagging CRUNCH in my back every time I took a step. A doctor’s appointment and an MRI later, and I found out that I had a stress fracture in my sacrum. It would take 6 months to heal. And just like that, my dream was snatched away from me. No Ironman for me.

And not just that, but no walking for me. I had to be on crutches for 2 months, which meant I couldn’t work at my job as a restaurant server anymore. So instantly I went from exercising 15 hours a week, feeling in the best shape of my life, working 45 hours a week and making good money, to NOTHING. I could barely leave my house. I was devastated, and soon, I was depressed. They say, an idle mind is the devil’s playground, and boy, are they right.

Over the prior five years before any of this happened, an ugly demon had been growing within me: social anxiety. It started meagerly in college with a few uncomfortable encounters at parties, feeling exceedingly nervous to talk with professors after class, and worrying that I wouldn’t have anything to say when hanging out with friends. Manageable at first, this demon only grew from here. It was with me at my first job out of college when I feared speaking to my boss, it was with me in India when I felt terribly lonely and disconnected from other travelers, and it was with me even as I spent time with my closest friends and family. And, it was certainly with me when I fractured my sacrum.

The forced stagnancy led me down a dark staircase where my social anxiety and feelings of disconnection only got worse. Whether I was just meeting someone for the first time, or talking to someone I’d known all my life, the same internal thoughts were always with me: They don’t want to be talking to me. I’m so awkward. I’m too heavy and serious. Why can’t I laugh more easily? I can’t keep a conversation going. I don’t have anything interesting to say or share. There is something wrong with me. I am a bad person. They probably can’t wait to escape this conversation. I can’t connect with others. I’m not good at making or keeping friends. I’m just kind of a loner and I’m always going to be this way.

As things got worse, I started seeing a therapist, but that didn’t help. I started seeing a psychiatrist and that didn’t help either. I started taking medication, and that still didn’t help. I started working again after some time, and even that didn’t help. My mind had taken over and I was headed towards a dark place, riddled with negative thoughts about myself and my future.

I moved across the country to start a new job, and without the support systems that I had at home, things only got worse. I got to a place where I was thinking about suicide every single day. When I would wake up in the morning, it felt like there was a weight pressing me down into bed, holding me back. I would drag myself up, and on the bike ride to work I would think about how I wished I was dead. I didn’t want to be thinking these things, but I was. I couldn’t help it. I would continue to smile, and be my characteristically positive self externally, but internally, every conversation I had felt difficult. I felt so disconnected from myself and from others. It felt like I was an actor in my own life, and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was trying medication after medication, and nothing was working. A few times, at home, after work, I would look at all my pills and wonder, what if I just took all of them right now? Would it be enough to end it? These moments were the lowest I have ever felt in my life.

And then… I started running. And swimming. Aaaaand biking.

A few months back, in the midst of this all, I signed up for another Ironman triathlon. Despite feeling the way I did, I still held onto that dream my 17 year old self had conjured up. What would it be like to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 and run 26.2? I couldn’t drop it. I was still enthralled by the outrageous nature of this race. So I signed up on a whim, hoping that my sacrum would be healed enough to train, and that I would be able to muster up the mental and physical strength to train too.

And so there I was, depressed, socially anxious, and suicidal, and one of the few things I still couldn’t get out of my mind was finishing a god damn ironman triathlon! So I ran, I swam, and I biked. A lot. And little by little I started to feel better, not just physically, but mentally too. I started to feel more invigorated again, more like myself again. And in moments when I felt most depressed, I would imagine myself crossing the finish line of the Ironman, and I would imagine the out-of-this-world feeling I would get, completing one of my life’s goals.

And now here I am, 3 months into training for the race, praying that I don’t get injured this time around. I most definitely still struggle with social anxiety, and some days are way worse than others, but I try my best to not let it overpower me. I can’t say it’s all because of training, no of course not. I also have an amazingly supportive family and friends (especially my big sis Ati who talked me through many hard moments), a great new therapist, a determined psychiatrist, and I’ve started taking a medication that finally feels it’s making a difference. But the power of having a goal to work towards, something that drives me, cannot be understated. And the power of exercise, of moving my body, and feeling powerful and strong, cannot be understated, either. In many ways, Ironman helped pull me out of one of the worst moments of my life.

While I am lucky enough to have had family and friends who I could lean on, and a goal like Ironman to keep me safe in my worst moments, MANY other people do not. I’ve decided to turn my personal experience with suicide into one that can hopefully have a positive impact. I am dedicating my Ironman race to raising money for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. My goal is to raise $10,000 for this cause, a small contribution towards fighting a HUGE issue.

You can read more from Ori and how to support his cause.

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