The “No Excuses” Award: Interview with Meg Tobin

Laura: Let’s start with your story. Who is Meg Tobin?

Meg: I am a recovering corporate marketer. I was a roadie for 15 years, so I did electronic moving lights and toured with bands and then I got into corporate marketing. I’ve had a number of different careers and tried a lot of things in my life and been pretty successful at a lot of them. I came to triathlon in the midst of an ugly divorce. I had been an athlete growing up; I swam and played field hockey at a high level through college. I just thought you played sports through college so when I left school, I just went to the gym, lifted, did Pilates as a mom, but that was kind of it and it was pretty sporadic. 

While I was going through the divorce, every time my kids would leave I would not know what to do with myself. About 6 months in, I was pretty sick of myself because I was drinking wine, sitting on the couch, and watching bad TV. So I joined a gym, got a personal trainer, and my goals were to run a mile without stopping and finish a spin class without crying. Those were apparently not big enough goals (I was told that immediately) so 3 weeks later I ran a 5k. My trainer asked what I wanted to do next and I had known Ironman athletes through work and my company sponsored adventure racing – I had done like 1 day of that and cried the whole time because I was bad at it – so I said I wanted to do a triathlon. 

Seven weeks later I did a triathlon. My personal trainer was my coach. He was a fantastic trainer but he knew nothing about triathlons so I did everything wrong. It was a hot hot mess, but I was just so hooked and I had so much fun. That was in 2007 so it’s been a long journey. It’s my church, it’s my therapist (not that I don’t have other things in those areas). I’ve learned so much, my kids have learned so much, and I’ve grown so much as a person. I feel like triathlon and training and racing has taught me who I really am.

L: What was it about that 1st triathlon that made you think this sport was for you?

M: I think the biggest thing I learned there was that I can do things I never thought I could do. I don’t even have to be incredibly good at them to love it. I was the gifted kid who had to be good at everything so I only did sports I was good at growing up. Triathlon was so out of my comfort zone. I was good enough at a couple of things where it was like “ok I can get better at this, and then this 3rd thing I really suck at” but it didn’t matter. Those are some of the biggest lessons that I think my kids have gotten through this: just because you’re not good at something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick with it and put your all into it, and that you won’t get something out of it. I think we’re always looking for quick wins and something we really excel at. My triathlon accolades have been slow coming but that doesn’t make it less worth it. It actually makes it more worth it. I went to my 1st world championship this year and I’ve been in this sport for a long time. Whether it was accidental or not can be argued but it doesn’t matter because I decided when I lined up that I deserved to be there and that was the joy of the day – that it was a long journey to get there and it was so so worth it.

L: It sounds like by the time you lined up for your 1st triathlon, you had been going through some challenging life stuff and it was the perfect timing for an identity shift: no longer needing to be “good” at the sports you participated in. Bringing it back to the “No-Excuses” award, do you think that the way that you got started in this sport set you up to have that mindset? I think a lot of us rely on excuses like “I’m not good enough” and “I’ll never be good at this,” and that doesn’t seem like it’s one of your concerns. Would you agree with that?

M: When you emailed me to tell me about the award, I thought “how funny” because when I first started with Julie in May, I had so much going on. I had tech failures, I had changes at work, I had all this stuff that was happening right as I signed on and I thought “Oh my god, she doesn’t know me very well and she’s going to think I’m the excuses queen.” I had to shift workouts, my tech didn’t work – I still got it all done but I was worried that she was going to think I was full of excuses. And that’s not who I am, I get shit done. Ok, back to the question, Meg.

I was psyching myself out the day I had to go climb up to Ward. I looked at my husband and I was like, “Julie is the kind of weirdo who thinks going out and climbing 10k feet on a Saturday is fun.” That makes me want to cry, but I want to be like Julie. And the only way to do that is to hear your excuses, and then you tell them to shut up. In Ironman, you’re going to hear those things in your head, you’re going to have those excuses, and then you’re just going to tell yourself that that’s not true. I have as many excuses as the next person: I’m too slow, this is embarrassing, etc. but it doesn’t matter because I know that those excuses are what holds me back from getting better. 

L: So maybe it’s not about eliminating excuses but about not giving them power.

M: Exactly. It’s not allowing them to be stronger than you. 

L: Do you think it’s important to hear them out though? I think a lot of times we try to shove them down and pretend they don’t exist and then they can creep up on us when we’re not paying attention. 

M: For Ironman Cozumel, I had to do a ton of mindfulness training. I knew my training was there, I knew I was prepped and ready, and I have done enough to know that shit happens on race day. You can’t control the uncontrollable, all you can control is knowing that you’re prepared and that how you react to adversity is the make-or-break of the day. So to me, it’s a delicate balance of hearing out the things in your brain that want to make you stop and then having the answer and not let them have the power over you. But it’s also not shutting them out too quickly with syrupy positivity. You have to know where they come from, that it’s reality, but it’s not the whole story. So it’s being prepared to answer them with balance and more power.

L: So when you’re in a race or any challenging training situation, and you hear these excuses come up, you’re not surprised. You knew the kinds of things that were going to come up. dIs that what I’m hearing?

M: In order to be able to meet them where they are, I had to look my excuses dead in the face. I had to look really hard at what was holding me back mentally. I knew that if I just pretended it wasn’t so bad, and if I didn’t meet it head on, I knew it was going to continue to hold me back. You know, you get caught up in “this is the time I want to finish in.” The thing I tell my athletes when they get so tied up in what they want their finishing time to be is “sure, that’s highly probable in all of the best case scenarios but that can’t be your why going into the day.” Because if that’s your why, if it gets derailed, then your brain will start to tell you it’s not worth it because you’re not going to finish in under 7 hours or 6 hours or whatever it is. And if that’s your only goal – and I think that’s no matter how good you are or how fast you are – that’s what makes you quit. 

L: That’s one of the questions I wanted to ask you: in order to have this “no excuses” mindset that you seem to have, it has to be about more than a finishing time or even any other external goal. So do you have something that you’re holding out in the distance about what you want to be or create?

M: One of the things I did for myself when I left my coach last year and started my own coaching business was I wrote a coaching mission statement. And I kind of had to write an athlete mission statement at the same time. It’s a pain in the butt, but it’s a really good exercise. Sure you should have goals like races you want to do or times you want to hit – those are all good things. But when you line up, that can’t be your only goal. It might not happen because you know, you’ve got weather or flat tires or anything like that.

L: Is that because goals and why are not the same thing?

M: Exactly. So when people say go to your why – for me it’s like that mission is far deeper than just a simple why – it’s based on who I want to become: as an athlete, as a coach, as a person. Those all inform all each other.

L: Who do you want to become?

M: I want to be an empathetic coach and athlete who leads by example and drives diversity in our sport. 

L: That’s beautiful.

M: Do I want to get better? Hell yeah. Do I want to continue to lead? Yes. I want to be a good listener and I have to do for myself what I ask of others. 

L: That reminds me of James Clear’s work (author of Atomic Habits). He talks about how habits are like casting votes for the kind of person that you want to be. Your habits are how you embody a particular identity, so more importantly than focusing on distant goals, the idea is to build a system of behavior that aligns with the type of person you want to be.

Can you tell me what embracing the darkness means to you? 

M: I don’t know if I really got it when I first started. The darkness can be external and a lot of it is internal too. Julie and I talk about the chimp brain or the monkey brain and the voices inside my head that want to derail me from my mission – that tell me my legs hurt or my foot hurts – and you have to listen and learn what is discomfort and what is pain. Pain you should stop, discomfort is not going to cause long term damage. So I think that embracing the darkness means that the discomfort is going to come, and it’s being able to look it dead in the eye, assess it, and answer it. Know that it’s going to come and that you have the tools to deal with it. I could still walk the last 2 miles of this freaking marathon because I could literally crawl and still finish by the cutoff but I made a deal with my coach and with myself – the most important one of those 2 is myself – that I would run the whole time. That sense of accomplishment is important. For me it’s been so empowering because I know I can do anything now.

L: It sounds like you are so internally focused. You have such a strong idea of where you’re going and what you’re trying to became and create, that achieving your goals is simply the byproduct, right? The way that you’re accountable to yourself – if there’s nothing else that I am able to portray through this whole entire interview – that’s it. That you have found a way value yourself enough that being accountable to yourself is the most important thing and that’s what allows you to get this shit done.

M: Absolutely. So first of all, I am a 53 year old woman, and it’s not that I don’t give a flying F about what other people think about me, but I spent years trying to be the best mom, trying to be the best colleague at work, trying to be the best mentor. When I started triathlon, my mom during my divorce said, “you need to care for yourself, you need to do some self-care.” Now self-care can mean a lot of things but my idea of self-care is doing triathlon. And then it was like, “oh don’t you feel bad about leaving your kids,” but I was doing self-care! And self-care is not just pampering. For me, self-care is embracing the darkness. It’s looking at the things that I do to hurt myself. Prioritizing myself can seem selfish to others but I am a better person, a better coach, a better mom. I can’t expect my kids or my athletes to be accountable if I can’t be accountable to myself. That’s been a hard and long lesson to learn. Embracing the darkness is the internal work that you have to do. If you’re worried about not trying a workout because it’s going to look bad on Strava, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. I don’t care if somebody sees that I did a 15 minute mile on Strava because the important thing is what I got from it and how grew from it. A lot of embracing the darkness is putting your ego aside. I’m sure there are people who do this because they’re good at it but that is not me. 

L: Ok so I want to go through the steps of 70.3 Worlds because you qualified and raced in your 1st ever world championship, right? Was that your goal going into the season?

M: I went to 70.3 Oregon – it was kind of my first race back, it was my first race with Julie, and it was kind of a comedy of errors. I had all these athletes racing – I love to be with my athletes but it’s not usually my own race – although I did better at Cozumel in terms of setting boundaries. Actually Julie setting boundaries with me helped me set boundaries with my own athletes. I went with my athlete to roll-down because I thought she could get a slot and then I got a slot too. She was going and I was like “hell yeah I’m going!” We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare but my whole goal for worlds was that I wanted to feel like I deserved to be there by the time I get there. So I put on my big girl panties – we had a vacation planned but we changed our plans, went to Colorado, and I climbed some big hills that scared the shit out of me. I wanted to go to a Dave Scott track session, do this crazy swim, and climb big hills. The week was all about being out of my comfort zone. In the first ride, the altitude kicked my butt, and I came off the bike like “I want to go to bed,” (whiney face) and then 2 days later I did the harder of the 2 rides and I felt so good and so strong and so tough and that was really mentally helpful for me to go into Worlds.

L: What is the correlation between between doing things that scare you and having that lead to you feeling like you deserve to be at Worlds.

M: Because I’m not as speedy and have outward success in terms of podiums and things like that, part of my thinks I don’t deserve to be there. So if I bring it back to my mission, then I deserve to be there if I incapsulate my mission, and if I’m living to my mission. Getting out of my comfort zone is part of that. Going to Worlds and not being prepared – it’s one thing to get a slot and it’s another thing to not be prepared. And that day was so crazy that the fact that I was prepared is what helped me get through it. For me, going to Worlds is showing up and putting your best foot forward, meeting the challenge, and not giving up. It wasn’t that I went so that I could get faster and beat people. It was so that I could get stronger physically and mentally so I could put whatever my best performance was out there.

L: So maybe the uniting factor is that doing stuff that scares you isn’t just about building your physical capacity, it’s building your mental capacity to be able to take on the limiting belief that tells you, “I don’t know if I deserve this.” Changing our belief systems requires intentional practice. Through your actions, you’re casting votes for yourself as a tough, deserving person so that by the time you get to Worlds, the idea is to have enough votes that you believe it.

M: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. 

It’s self respect. Nobody is writing home about my World’s time but I’m super proud of that race. People were walking up hills faster than I was running up them and I knew if I moved to a run/walk I could probably finish faster, but I wanted to run that entire race no matter what it looked like, no matter what the clock said. That was hard to do at Worlds because I didn’t want to miss the cutoff. But it wasn’t an ego race for me. So watching people power walk past me while I was running up the inclines – someone actually said “you could probably walk faster,” but that was not my deal. And then it paid off in Cozumel because on the 3rd lap, I was running. And people walking were saying to me “Wow you’re the only one left running.”

L: That’s why that shit matters. When we know our mission and we take action in alignment with our mission, it comes back to support us in ways we never could have imagined at the time.

M: One hundred fold.

L: So when you lined up at the start line at St. George, did you feel like you deserved to be there?

M: I think partially. I think I did. I was nervous about the day and my nerves weren’t about what the time clock was going to show but whether or not I was going to accomplish my mission. I knew the day was going to be a little crazy, but I had no idea how crazy it was going to be. And that was the greatest thing about that day because that was the first time where I had a day like that where it seemed like the universe wanted to kill me and my brain wanted to kill me and I also felt like nothing was going to stop me. I knew going out onto the second loop of the run that it was going to be hot, I knew it was going to be uncomfortable, I didn’t want to go, I knew it was going to be lonely out there, but I also knew I could accomplish my mission. So I was a total dork running around the circle because I really wanted to run into the finish line and/or quit but when I went around the circle, I knew what to do. I acted like a total goof. I screamed “uno mass!” and I threw my hands up and people started cheering and that made me really happy. I didn’t know Julie was on the other side of the traffic circle witnessing this and when I ran past her she said, “you’re a total badass,” and I thought, “yes I am,” and I knew then that I was achieving my mission. Even though that last loop was hot and all of those things, it was definitely a bit of a victory lap. When I finished, I asked Julie my time which was a dumb mistake because then I cried because it wasn’t where I wanted it to be but when I processed it, I remembered that wasn’t what my mission was for that day.

L: Yeah I don’t think anyone’s times in that race were what they thought they were going to be.

M: Hah, true! It was worlds and it was the big goal, right? But I had a greater goal this year; I had a dragon to slay and it was all in my brain.

L: So I guess I should have asked the question differently. Instead of lining up at the start line at St. George feeling like you deserved to be there, it sounds like it was important to go through the race with that intention in order to solidify it. Was crossing the finish line, after racing in alignment with your mission, what validated the fact that you deserved to be there?

M: It validated the type of athlete I want to be. I’m fiercely competitive but I am also fiercely supportive. You know, it’s hailing, it’s windy, it’s awful, I’m passing people on descents, then other women are passing me on the climbs, and we’re saying stuff about the weather because it was biblical so what could you do but laugh about it, right? And that’s who I want to be. I’m here to kick ass and take names but the names I’m taking are my own and so I can also tell someone else to go get it up the hill. So I did feel like I deserved to be there by the time I crossed the finish line. 

L: You accomplished a lot this year in terms of solidifying who you are. You’ve held this vision out in front of you and it sounds like you believe it now; it’s not who you want to become, but who you are now. So what’s next? Is there more? Is it just about being this new you in the world now or is there another level?

M: I think both. I think in terms of personal growth and self-actualization, if we ever think we’re there, we’re probably full of crap. So I think I have a lot more darkness to embrace. But I think I slayed some big mental internal dragons this year.

Cozumel was a huge PR for me. When I finished that race, I was so proud of the athlete I was. I was more physically fit than I thought but I was so much more mentally fit than I thought. That doesn’t mean the excuses didn’t pop up but when they did, the amount of time between that and me having a good, solid, but not syrupy answer was much less. And maybe those excuses will stop coming. I doubt it because that’s not the way we’re programmed as humans.

I’ll hit my goals when I’m supposed to hit them and not necessarily when I think I’m going to hit them. This year I hit my 2 top goals and if I hadn’t had those 3 flats in IM Cozumel, I would have crushed my stretch goal too. I can’t be mad though because those flats were such a good learning experience. Julie sent a message to my husband that I didn’t get until the 1st lap of the run saying something like “don’t look backwards, only look forwards,” and I was like, “what the hell is she talking about? I’M AWESOME! I’m doing great!” And he said, “oh I think she thought you’d be mad about the flats and that you were going to be disappointed.” And that’s because Julie knows that when disappointment sometimes hits me where it seems like I’m not going to hit my goal, then I get in a hole and I pull everything down on top of me, which has been a depression thing all my life. But that didn’t happen! I didn’t think that the universe was trying to ruin things for me. It was just “crap happens and you have to deal with it.” And the more I dealt with it all day, the more I felt strong. That’s what embracing the darkness is. The more adversity you have to deal with, the stronger you feel, then the more ready you are to face more adversity.

So what’s next for me? Embracing more of the darkness. The more I learn, the more I feel strong, then the more I feel like I can accomplish. So I’m going to full Ironman Worlds this year! Accidental or not, you can bet that when I line up on the starting line, even if I don’t completely believe it at the starting line, by the time I hit that finish line, I’m going to know that I totally deserve to be there. And I’m already starting to believe it. Knowing how much embracing the darkness is working for me, the sky is the limit. I don’t even know what I can achieve in this sport still.

L: I have this belief that when we’re trying to do something like this – trying to up-level who we are and become the kind of person who can handle harder and harder things in the world – the universe presents us with opportunities to respond as our new selves. Building on what you said, those flat tires in Cozumel or the weather in St. George are opportunities to show up as the new you. When that sort of stuff happens to me, I don’t think that it’s the universe trying to shit on my plans, I think, “This is for me! This is here so that I have an opportunity to embody who I am becoming.”  

M: Yes! In Cozumel, there were torrential rains, there were lightning strikes near by, there were puddles up past my derailleur, and I was  thinking, “ok well maybe it won’t be 100 degrees,” but then the sun came out and it was blazing hot on the run, and then there was sewage that was on the run course, and then 2/3rds through the run I had a hot flash. I kept thinking, “is this all you got?”  

L: I love that you’re out there with your mission representing NYX. It’s not that interesting to us to only coach people who are fast and don’t have anything else that they’re trying to work on. We have our mission too,  as a company, and we want to coach athletes who are willing to put it all on the line and become a better version of themselves through endurance. The fact that we have somehow built our community around all of these amazing athletes who not only share that vision but are willing to embody it, is really special. So thank you.

Anything else you want to add before we wrap this up?

M: Yes, Julie is an evil genius. 

NYX Endurance

Our mission is to develop an endurance community that empowers each member towards both individual and collective potential. At NYX Endurance, we believe in the relentless pursuit of better. We believe there is no success without suffering. There is no progress without perseverance. There is no light without darkness. #embracethedarkness