Trouble in Paradise

A triathlete's take on persevering through struggle

Trouble in Paradise

How can you overcome adversity like an ultra-endurance athlete? The first step is to envision yourself already at the finish line.

I had already swum more than 5 miles in the warm waters of Kailua Bay when I felt the first sting hit me. No big deal. A pinprick. I could take that. Then a few more. Hmm, I thought. This might not be good …

I looked up at Bree Wee, my assistance kayaker (and an Ironman champion), who had been with me the whole way, and said as calmly as I could manage, “There are jellyfish around here—let’s move out a bit.”

When you’re on a long-distance swim, like the first stage of the Ultraman World Championships, your kayaker is your guide. You don’t want to waste energy on navigation; you just want to keep your head down and keep moving forward. I relied on Bree to keep me swimming in the right direction and keep my energy levels up with lots of verbal encouragement.

The entire experience of being a triathlete is like that. Even though you’re racing alone, you’re never really alone. In the Ultraman World Championships—which consists of a 6-mile swim, 261-mile bike ride and 52-mile run—an individual support crew of at least two people accompanies each athlete over the entire course. There are no aid stations, no outside support, no announcers to scream your name along the way—and very few fans, as the course is just way too big.

Your support crew are your cheerleaders, drill sergeants, psychologists and nurses with one goal: to keep you pushing toward the finish line. This is on top of a coach who oversees your training regimen and helps develop your race strategy.

You have to be one tough (and lucky) athlete to even get an invite to the Ultraman; only 40 extreme distance athletes are asked to race every year. Typically, about half have already completed an Ultraman. Just finishing is considered a victory, and that was one victory I could practically taste.

But at that moment, I was more concerned with what I could feel—more and more jellyfish stings, like little electric shocks running up and down my body. The emergency boat had circled around to warn us about a pool of jellyfish ahead. Several swimmers had already been attacked, and one swimmer was pulled from the water.

As I was swimming, I could see hundreds of jellyfish moving toward me. With each stroke, I swatted the water in order to clear a path. Here I was, using my good arm to push the jellyfish away, while my legs had to kick harder and harder so I could keep moving forward. I knew something was up when the emergency boat remained right behind me and my support crew. As the stings became more frequent, it became clear I was swimming right into the middle of the jellyfish pool.

Bree saw the trouble brewing. “I’m trying to get you out of here, but there are more and more,” she said.

A second later—boom. Thousands of stings hit me simultaneously—on my legs, my good arm, my neck, all over—and I started to panic as I tried to pull the jellyfish off me. I could feel hundreds of tentacles on my legs and neck. I was starting to lose feeling in my good arm because of the venom. I felt like I was suffocating as the jellies hit me.

The rescue boat was behind me, and the officials aboard saw that I was struggling. They pulled up beside me within seconds. I shouted, “Get me in the boat—hurry, hurry! They’re all over my neck.”

The rescue staff pulled me into the boat, and someone started rubbing ointment all over me to neutralize the venom. At the same time, I heard the driver of the boat on the radio, saying, “Swimmer down! Swimmer down! We’re on our way in. He’s out of the race.”

I heard the boat start up, begin to pull away and …Wait just a minute. Bringing him in? Bringing me in? Out of the race? This couldn’t be happening. This wasn’t how the race was supposed to end. What was the lesson in this? I’d been training for this race for the past 12 months. This was supposed to be my time.

All these thoughts went through my head within about 60 seconds that felt like hours. But I couldn’t have made it this far only to fail.

That’s when I heard a voice in my head: “Get up and get back in the water, and you’re back in the race. Don’t lie down here. Get up, get up.” In my mind, I saw and heard my coach, Dave Ciaverella, saying that this is just another challenge.

Bree must have seen my face, because she shouted, “He’s fine! Look at me, Jason. You’re fine. You’re going to be fine.”

Her words brought me back to myself. I knew what I had to do. Before the rescue staff could stop me, I jumped off the side of the boat, stinging in pain—right back into the same pool of jellyfish. I had never kicked and pulled so hard in my life. My adrenaline was going through the roof. I didn’t even know how fast or slow I was going—all I remember was kicking nonstop for what seemed like the next hour.

With every stroke, I would look to my side and see Bree’s smiling face. Every now and then, she’d throw her hands up in the air and yell, “You’re doing amazing, Jason!”

I started to tear up. Here was another challenge that I had pulled through. Soon, Bree yelled, “There’s the turn into the bay, Jason. We’re almost there.”

I started to hear the announcer’s voice: “And here he is, folks. He just hit the turn into the bay. From Kailua-Kona, Hawaii—Jason Lester!”

It was November 2008. I was on the Big Island of Hawaii, in my adopted hometown of Kailua-Kona, competing against some of the best ultra-endurance athletes from around the world. There, I became the first physically challenged athlete to ever complete the Ultraman World Championships. I went on to win the ESPY Award for Best Male Athlete with a Disability in 2009, becoming the first male triathlete to ever win an ESPY.

What if I’d never jumped back in the water after being stung by the jellyfish? Where would I be? Never stop—that’s my top tip for overcoming adversity.

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