Laura: First, tell me about how you got into triathlon.
Rami: My friend Casey was describing the finishing chute and what it felt like for him to do an Ironman. I had heard of people doing Ironman before and it seemed like it was something that was so far out there that I could never imagine myself doing it. And by the time I talked to Casey, I thought well maybe that’s something I could potentially do. It seemed like a big goal that I could shoot for. It was something I had told myself before I could never do so it might be interesting to try and push myself.
L: So you had your sight set on Ironman from the beginning.
R: Yes, that was my motivation.
L: You did your Ironman in 2018, and now it’s 2021 and you’re still a triathlete, focusing on the 70.3 distance. What has made you stick around after accomplishing your Ironman goal?
R: Part of it is the community, there’s you and other people in the NYX group …
L: That’s it?
R: Well I like the races. Every time I go to a race I get the competition going a little bit and it’s a fun payoff. Gosh I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer for why I’m still doing it.
L: Is there anything potentially self-growth related that feels exciting or rewarding about it still?
R: Well especially in the last year – yes. What I’ve enjoyed is that each race has felt like it’s been a different theme. Sometimes it’s about time, sometimes it’s about my biking, sometimes it’s about getting over some of the swim stuff. It does seem to change each time and gives me a chance to focus on something different.
L: Yeah it’s interesting, I’ve been doing this sport for 11ish years and when I look back on it, the challenging races are the reason I’m still here. If it had all gone well the whole time, I think I would have said “alright I guess I have nothing left to learn,” and I would have moved on. But the fact that there have been hard races – I’ve DNF’d an Ironman – I think that’s why I’m still here. I know there’s still more I can uncover. So maybe that was part of it for you with what happened at 70.3 St. George?
(For reference, Rami had a panic attack during the swim at 70.3 St. George this past May. You can find his story in this article.)
R: Your comment about the DNF thing – I think there’s also part of me that would like to someday push myself hard enough that I DNF.
L: Cool! I’m into that.
R: OK good, because I feel like I often think “don’t push too hard on the bike so I don’t blow up on the run” and I’m trying to work myself out of that mentality a little bit towards, “OK you’ve completed 8 or 9x 70.3’s at this point. You’ve done a full Ironman. You know you can do the distance. Why don’t you try to push yourself hard enough that you could potentially DNF?” That’s one of those maybe bucket list things.
L: Well I’m excited to talk more about that with you later, but now that you’re not afraid of the darkness anymore, where we go from here could be pretty exciting!
R: It could be!
L: OK so let’s talk about that darkness a little bit.
When we first announced NYX, tell me some of your initial impressions when you first heard that our tagline was about embracing the darkness?
R: Well my initial initial impression before I read anything or talked to you was almost a little bit confused – like is this a tough guy thing? Are we all gonna dress in black? It sounded kind of dark and ominous. But very quickly, I read the website and saw what that meant to you and Alison and Julie. So at that point I got on board pretty quickly and thought that sounded like a fun adventure. It aligned with the idea that I wanted to try Ironman because I wasn’t sure if it was something I could actually do.
L: Let’s talk about St. George. It was our 1st race after 2020. We hadn’t raced in a while and we hadn’t been in open water in a long time. Can you walk me through it?
R: Well going into that race, I felt confident because I had done that race before. I had been in that reservoir and didn’t think it would be a problem for me. But almost instantly when I hit the water I felt panic. It was probably a few hundred yards into the swim where I had to pull up and stop completely. I spent what turned out to be 15 minutes sitting there in the water trying to convince myself that I could continue.
L: In your race report, you wrote that your first strategy was trying to rationalize your way out of it. Why don’t you think that strategy worked?
R: Well after talking to my dad who does brain research, and processing a little bit more in hindsight, I think what happened is that I triggered a fear on some level in my brain where rationalization wouldn’t work. So I could sit there and think about it all I wanted but I had triggered a level deep enough that it wasn’t going to work.
L: Well fear is an emotional response, right? So we can’t get out of an emotional response with a rational solution. We all tend to trick ourselves into thinking that we behave as rational beings when really the majority of our behavior is emotional. We get caught up when we want to believe that it’s not.
R: Absolutely, and what was frustrating to me was that I knew what was going on, but it just didn’t make any difference.
L: One of the things you did that probably helped you a lot is that you thought about how future Rami was going to feel.
R: In other races and even other aspects of my life, when I think back on how I performed, I realize that in hindsight I know some of the things I could have done better, so maybe in the moment I can do better if I truly put myself into that future state. Knowing who I am and the type of person I am and what I think is important – what would Rami of the future – who’s not caught up in this moment – do? And what would make him feel good about however I responded? It’s a way to help me remove myself from the moment and have a little bit more perspective.
L: So what did future Rami think you should do?
R: Continue, for sure. And that’s where the darkness piece really helped me. I couldn’t quite figure out how to continue, but I knew that future Rami wanted me to figure another way out of this other than just stopping. I knew that stopping was an option, but I knew that it wasn’t the option that future Rami would be the most proud of. If I had to stop, like if I was injured, then future Rami would have been OK with it, but I think he was trying to convince me to figure out something else.
L: That’s interesting. Future Rami sounds smart.
R: Smarter than present Rami for sure.
L: It sounds like instead of “future Rami” maybe it’s “bigger perspective Rami.” You’re caught up in the emotion of the moment and then you’re choosing to look through a wider lens, as if you’re an observer of the situation. You can zoom out and say, “Oh, this is the darkness. This is the situation you’re in.”
R: Yeah it definitely allowed me to zoom out and get out of rationalizing. It goes back to what you said about how we’re emotional creatures. I felt like it allowed me to remember, “Oh yeah, we’re supposed to embrace the darkness! This is a good thing.” So now me being in the water and panicking is no longer a bad thing. This is what I was supposed to try and figure out how to do. And that led me to thinking, “OK, if I’m supposed to be here, now I feel good about trying to do something about it.” And my body responded well to that.
L: I’ve had a version of this conversation with a couple people. Once people read the website and learned about our intention behind the tagline, they thought, “Yeah that sounds cool, that sounds like a badass thing to do.” And then the darkness always turns out to be the thing you don’t want it to be, right? It’s never just the time in the race where it got hard and then you had to push yourself. It’s something that makes you deeply uncomfortable. It’s usually a situation that you’ve never been in before. You find yourself in a place where you’ve never had to rely on a particular kind of strength. And in order to get through it, you have to cultivate something new. You had never been in that position in the swim, and it allowed you to show up and say “OK I didn’t want this to be the darkness but it turns out it is, and so now what?“
R: Right. And that’s what it was for me because it wasn’t like “Oh I’m in pain, my legs hurt, and I need to figure out how to crank out 50 more watts.” The darkness was “OK I’m in water with someone 10 feet away who can help me and I’m a good swimmer, but I think I’m going to die.”
L: And then once you got yourself through the swim, the rest of the race was kind of a celebration. It’s St. George so it’s still hard but you were prepared for the rest. Were there any other take-aways from the race, having had this experience of embracing the darkness?
R: It’s been empowering. I’ve felt like my capacity to address hard things has improved. I feel more confident. I don’t know what the darkness will be next time, but I feel like I’ll have a better capacity to handle it.
L: It will probably be something different next time. But I see you building more of a capacity to know that while you’re in the darkness, that this is not the end. This is not the end of my story right here. This is the middle actually, and I’m going to find a way to move through it.
Was there something about the fact that it was a team race, and that you had people there to support you, that helped?
R: That was a part of it and as I was sitting in the water going through all these things, there were components of thinking about the fact that there were people from the team that were right there on the shore, there were people on the run course that I knew that I was going to see later, but I even thought about Hibbs while I was in the water. I thought, “you know Hibbs is going to be watching me on the tracker,” and I remember climbing up out of the Grand Canyon with him and to some extent I was thinking I don’t want to let Hibbsy down!
Another thing I like about the community and what was so critical for me in that moment is that there’s a sense of identity of a community. I think it’s helpful to figure out what our group identity is and what my identity is within the group. Being able to refer to that and remember what kind of person I am is what helped me a lot.
L: Can you tell me a little bit more about what you think the group identity is?
R: Well I’ll tell you what it’s not – I’ve heard this from you, and I felt it in the water too – it’s not about winning at all costs or all about your time. We’re here to support people, we’re here to grow, we’re here to develop, we’re here to be part of something that’s bigger than a race. So I think that helped me because as I’m sitting in the water, I’m trying to figure out who am I and why am I here and the team was a great support and inspiration. The idea of them being out there was motivating but some of the motivating – like I said – is from people who weren’t even there in St. George. So who I am in this group and what type of person I am is going to help me figure my way out of here.
L: Do you have any inclinations about who you are in the group?
R: I don’t know, but the group makes me want to be the type of person that grows out of this. There’s something better at the end than how it started. It’s weird because especially tied up with all the other stuff I’ve been going through, the race seems insignificant but the experience still felt very significant.
L: Yeah I can relate to that. Triathlon has always felt like a microcosm of my life. I can be working through certain things in my life, trying to become a better person, and going through bigger broader experiences, then triathlon is a way for me to test myself. It’s an opportunity to prove to myself that I’ve integrated what I’m working on; to make it tangible. For example, if I’m trying to become a more resilient person, and cultivating new skills to support that, then a race is an opportunity to test myself to see how this plays out. How does the new more resilient me show up? Can I be open and compassionate enough with myself to show up in a new way?
R: I agree and the way you describe it makes sense because you know, that was my slowest 70.3 time ever, but the sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that came out of this race was way more than my PR.
L: And you said more fulfillment than your full Ironman too, right?
R: Yes. It felt like a bigger challenge to me. It wasn’t that it was 70.3 miles, it was much more about the experience.
L: So maybe your identity within the group has something to do with the fact that what you can overcome is bigger than a race? You can use races to prove to yourself that you can overcome hard things and maybe that rubs off on some other people and they’ll think, “Look how Rami was brave in this race, and maybe I can be brave like that too.”
And it’s not only that you were brave in the way that you got yourself through it but what I think is more important is the way that you shared it. Most of us like to hear stories of other people’s bravery but it’s hard to tell our own because we have to tell the whole story, which includes the fact that we were also weak and afraid. We can’t be brave unless we’re scared. I know a lot of people were really inspired by your story.
R: Well that’s good because one of the things that was holding me back in the water was that I did feel so weak and beat down – to the point that it felt like it was too late to recover from it. I thought, “I can’t recover from this because I’m having a horrible swim and I’m weak because of that.”
L: But then you did! And like you said, that was your slowest 70.3 ever, and then you did 70.3 Salem and that was your fastest 70.3 ever! So we have run the gamut this year.
But since Salem, you lost your mom.
You shared with me your mom’s memorial service in which your dad brought up embracing the darkness. I thought it was so special that they’re so invested in you and what you’re doing that they know about your triathlon team’s tagline. Your dad shared your mom’s interpretation of embracing the darkness. My interpretation is on the website, but my interpretation is not the only one. There are so many different ways to have a connection with it.
Your dad said that your mom would say that “In the darkness, you should embrace your true self. You should be who you were created to be.” She thought that it was about not allowing the darkness to make you forget who you are, but allowing it to reveal your true self to you. Can you talk about your mom’s interpretation of that a little bit more?
R: I’ll try.
I was also surprised – I didn’t know my dad was going to talk about that. I think it just happened to fit really perfectly with some of the important things about my mom that he wanted to talk about, especially as she was going through her cancer treatment. What I think would be the scariest thing in my life is knowing that death is right around the corner, and she seemed really set on tackling it head on.
One of the things she thought about was that there are these rooms in your life, and most of the time those dark rooms are places that you’re too afraid to look into. But she wasn’t going to let fear of going into the dark rooms stop her from experiencing the wholeness of life.
I know there are a lot of rooms in my life that I’ve actively tried to avoid, and a lot of them are tied directly to death and loss. One of the key things I want to take away from my mom’s death is to take this opportunity to make sure that I search out all those dark rooms and places.
L: What I loved about her interpretation was that the darkness can reveal yourself to you. We don’t get to uncover our whole selves unless we go through something hard enough to pull it out of us. I think that’s why a lot of us are drawn to endurance sports and getting out of our comfort zones. We know that there’s something we can find in the discomfort that we might never find without it.
I wanted to acknowledge your mom because this has been a hard year for you in general and I think her interpretation of embracing the darkness is important.
R: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my dad chose to share that about her because I think that was core to how she was living the later part of her life.
L: Well we have another race on the calendar this year and this darkness has been a theme of your year for better or worse. We’ve scaled back with training and you’ve taken some time off to deal with this loss, so we’re going into Oceanside 70.3 with some different goals. If there’s any darkness that shows up in Oceanside, is there a different way that you feel like you are now capable of handling that?
R: I don’t know how that will look but I feel almost interested and I kind of hope that it happens. Maybe because I feel so raw right now, I’ve really wanted to feel all of the emotion of all of this, so part of me is hoping that it will draw that out and that it won’t be a comfortable race.
L: I get that. Are you learning that the more than you allow emotions to move through you, the more they are free to be released and not get stuck?
R: Yeah and this is something that we talked about – you had asked me several questions that I didn’t know the answers to, and I think I didn’t know the answers because up until this point in my life I hadn’t allowed myself to think about some of those things because it was too painful. But I’ve gotten to the point that I’m in so much pain right now that I might as well just feel all of it. I can’t help myself from not feeling pain right now so I’m just going to try to jump into the deep end and feel everything. If there’s anything that I’m going to figure out about life, I think I need to feel those things and embrace those things.
L: Is there something that, alongside the pain, is also possibly liberating? That you can feel so raw and hurt and still be here?
R: Yes. I have an immense fear of death, and you know, people are afraid of death but it’s been something that has dominated my life in a really negative way as far back as I can remember. So having lost my mom, and I’m still here, it’s like one of the worst that I could have imagined happened, and here I am.
L: Well Oceanside does have an ocean swim so there are opportunities for some darkness out there!
R: Last time I did it, I remember getting my goggles knocked off by the waves so there’s that. But half of me wants to try to go out there and see what happens and hopefully it will expose something. You ask us to think about a mantra or what’s going to be our theme for the race, and I think in large part because of my mom and also consistent with how I’ve felt about racing before – gratitude is what I want to think about for this one. Gratitude for the fact that I’m here, that I can race. It was important to my mom to experience that. She thought that the ability to feel gratitude helps build joy in your life and in peoples’ lives around you. So I want to promote that. Gratitude for the people that are there racing alongside me, gratitude for my family, and for my coach that will hopefully be out there too …
L: I’m coming!
R: OK great, and gratitude for the volunteers. That’s where I want to focus – hopefully finding some darkness and then feeling gratitude. One of the things about my mom is that she was really good at being in a bad place and still feeling joy. She could be grateful to be with the people that she’s with, feeling sad together. I want to experience the concept that I can be in a bad place but I can be happy and grateful to be with the people that are around me, either experiencing it with me or supporting me.
L: I think that’s a great place to end this but just to throw in a piece from my psychology background – one of the concepts that I carry with me is from Carl Jung, who said that the paradox is our most valued spiritual possession and witness of truth. He said, “Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.” It’s our ability to feel afraid and also fearless; to be devastated and also hopeful. And when we can open ourselves up to experiencing two seemingly oppositional feelings at once, that leads us to growth and spiritual evolution. And again, it seems like something your mom may have known a lot more about than the rest of us.
R: I hope I can find a way to try to experience some of that in Oceanside, and hopefully a lot of other areas of my life.