A difficult breakup at age 50 led Lisa to take a hard look at herself and her life and start a serious workout regimen then challenge herself further by signing up for triathlon training. She’s now a competitive triathlete with aspirations to combine this passion with her love of travel and her desire to support women.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in a New Jersey suburb called Totowa, about 20 miles west of Manhattan. I am Italian American and the eldest of two. My sister and I were athletes with my sport being softball. I learned how to pitch at a very young age and continued playing softball through college. My dad was one of my coaches up until high school and both parents were actively involved in my sports/athletic life.
I graduated with a BA in Psychology from Rider College in Lawrenceville, NJ and thought I would continue down the path of becoming a Psychologist. That never happened yet I did land a job in the Human Resources department which, looking back, at times had similar roles and requirements. I decided I wanted to continue my career in this field so I enrolled in the masters program at The Milano School, which is part of the New School for Social Research in New York City.
I graduated with an MS in Human Resources Management and continued my career within the human resources field. After a few years in HR, my career took a turn to the world of software application implementation and business process work. My various jobs led me to Minneapolis for 18 months, then to Boston for another 18 months, then back home to Manhattan, where I stayed until I was 41.
After realizing that I wanted to make a difference in the world, and that living in Manhattan was not for me, I quit my job at age 42, traveled solo for six weeks, and ended up in Portland, Oregon. I began graduate school in 2004, two months after arriving, and proceeded to work in a volunteer capacity for a non-profit organization called Children’s Justice Alliance. I became immersed in the world of children whose parents are incarcerated and consider this to be one pivotal point in my life.
Upon graduating with my Masters in Public Administration degree in 2009, I researched working at non-profit organizations and talked with employees who worked at non-profits and determined that I couldn’t make ends meet. So I decided to return to the world of systems implementation and analyst work for one primary reason: the salary. During my time in Portland, I became involved in community work as a volunteer with a few organizations while earning my salary in the world of business analysis and software implementation.
When did you start to think about making a change?
After an emotionally challenging break-up at age 50, I took a step back and looked at myself; I didn’t like what I saw. After some intense self-reflection work, I joined a gym and was given my free personal training session with a trainer who also was a triathlete. After hearing myself say I have always wanted to do triathlon races and giving him excuse after excuse about why I haven’t and why I can’t, I paused and said screw it, sign me up for training sessions for the summer 2012 tri season. My 50th year on this earth was one of the two most liberating years for me.
This “aha” moment seemed as if it just happened. However, as I write this in hindsight, it becomes clear that the break-up was the final straw to the culmination of a few years of not living my authentic self.
I had a second “aha” moment two years later, at 52, when I realized that for all of my career life I did work that society expected of me and which I thought I was meant to do. I was good at my job, liked my work, but a big part of me was missing. Somehow I had lost myself along the way and was able to find myself and my courage through the triathlons.
During this reflective “aha” period, a friend mentioned a friend of hers who had quit her job and completed one year of travel around the world. I read and reread her blog. I sought out other women who traveled solo, checked my finances, and researched parts of the world I wanted to visit. I also enrolled with a volunteer organization where I planned to take an assignment somewhere outside the US (Vietnam was my first choice) and help teach English. I connected with friends living in Europe and started to plan potential visits.
After nine months of planning, I gave notice and left my job in January 2014. I traveled for seven months, four of them solo. I can’t begin to tell you the excitement and liberation I felt when I clicked ‘Book ticket’ on the United Airlines website for my one-way ticket to Thailand. I had no idea where I was going except to volunteer upon arrival at a post detox center in northern Thailand for two weeks, possibly do a one-week retreat at Plum Village in France, and maybe teach English in Vietnam through a volunteer organization. For the first time in my life, I had no clear path and couldn’t wait for this next act of my life to start.
But when I returned home after seven months, I felt I did not belong. After struggling to adjust to being back in the place I’d called home, I reached out to a friend of mine who recently became a life coach and whose focus was on people who were thinking of a career change or who had quit their jobs and were wondering ‘now what’. She too had left her career and traveled solo; I decided to reach out to her because she understood some of the feelings, emotions, pains, and joys I was experiencing.
What is your next act?
I am a competitive triathlete (competitive with myself!). I love the sense of accomplishment I get after completing a race. I love the camaraderie with the people I work out with; I love how I feel after a bike ride, swim, or run. My first trainer told me I’m an endorphin junky and he was so right! I love the sense of accomplishment after finishing a workout or race. I love the act of commitment and dedication I show towards myself.
What I love the most is that I don’t even think about training; I just do it (no Nike pun intended). The mindset around training has become a part of my day. I don’t even think about it. It goes without saying, however, that there are some days when my body and mind are just so tired that I can’t work out; thankfully this isn’t the norm.
The race season officially starts in June and ends in September, at least here in Oregon. I have competed the Sprint distance race (1/2 mile swim, 20k bike and 5k run) and one Olympic distance race (0.9 mile swim, 40k bike, and 10k run) have stayed within the Portland metro area. I start the season by doing a practice triathlon, called the Mock Tri with the Portland Triathlon Club. It is a great way to get myself acclimated to racing again.
Races are categorized by age and the age is determined by how old one will be in the year of the race. For the 2016 season, I race in the 55-59 age category as I turn 55 in 2016. For the 2012 season, I came in 3rd place in all races I did (and in my age category). I took 1st in my division in the Sprint race and 2nd in my age category for the Olympic distance this season.
I work individually with a strength coach and also take his group strength training classes in Portland. I recently started taking swimming lessons, which allows me to swim in open water (in a lake and river) and helps me swim better when alone during my pool swims. As an aside, I don’t swim enough in open water and for those of you training for your first or 100th race, swim in open water as much as you can. I try to work out five to six days a week; that can include any combination of activities.
I have always eaten healthy, so eating for the race season is no different. I don’t eat processed foods or fried foods much, but I do find that when I exercise hard and often, my body craves protein and carbs. I try not to eat much meat but haven’t kicked the habit completely. Eating during training is a funny thing—you need to eat a lot of carbs to keep the fuel going yet it feels counter-intuitive to be that hungry all the time and ingest more food than you thought you would ever eat in a day.
As far as my support system, I look to my coach during the sessions and to my training mates when I bike with a group or another friend. However, I am a loner in the sense that I feel more comfortable running, swimming, and cycling by myself. I do find that training with others is a great motivator for me and I am learning to do more of that.
Off season, I keep up with running outside whenever I can; Portland’s weather is favorable for that. I do have to say that time on my bike either stops or dramatically decreases off-season. If I have the money, I’ll keep up with my gym membership and swim indoors once a week. My friends and family are super supportive; they know that I have a lot of energy and they love what this training and racing has done and continues to do for me. While they aren’t usually present at the races, I always feel their support.
I played competitive softball since I was in grade school through my freshman year in college. I’ve always had a competitive edge and find that this endorphin junkie side helps me moving forward. Training is hard work and it takes a lot of time and effort. It also can be draining at times so having this innate sense of competitiveness and experience participating in a sport most of my life has truly helped me at this phase (next act) in my life.
My favorite part of the race is the reaching the finish line! My second favorite part of the race is the cycling portion.
I have found a supportive and fun community within this sport. I work out, and have met, people who are training for ironman and ½ ironman races, all levels of the multi-race sport (duathalon, tri, aqua/bike race) and those who aren’t racing yet love the sport of cycling or keeping in fitness shape.
Why did you choose this next act?
The triathlon training and racing picked me. I never gave it a thought as to why I chose this next act. Looking back, I realize that my love for competition and commitment to sports was something that had always been a part of my life, and that part had been missing for a very, very long time.
I was sick of hearing myself give excuses and when I said out loud that I was going to train for the 2012 season, it all just happened. I realized that my life for a while was one big excuse and I did not want to live like that any longer.
What challenges are you encountering?
When it comes to maintaining my training regimen, I have to be diligent at working out in the morning before work and in the evenings after work (or during work hours if I have evening plans). I’m a social being and when I don’t get the right combination of friend/community time along with my training time, I feel a bit “off.”
During the triathlon training and season, one challenge is keeping my promise to continue racing to the last race in September. It is a long season and it takes a lot of time, energy, commitment and dedication to continue. After a race, I find I stop doing most of my training for at least a week. I lose the motivation post-race for some reason. I get my motivation back when I realize that I start to fall into old patterns of giving excuses to myself about why I am not exercising, which then leads to decreased brain energy both at work and at home. It is a wake-up call to me not wanting to fall into old patterns.
The most challenging part of the completing a race for me is the open water swim. I wouldn’t say I’ve gained the confidence of swimming in open water as of yet but I do it anyway. I recently chose to not sign up for a race because of my fear that I couldn’t finish the swimming part. Whether that is grounded in truth or not, I chose to listen to my self-doubt and fear—or was it my realistic voice telling me the truth, I’ll never know, will I? I have learned however to get in the open water as much as possible and started to take swimming lessons this season. The instructor owns a home on a lake and our lessons are there. It has helped me tremendously and I will continue taking those lessons as it definitely boosts my confidence.
I also have to keep my energy level up and be able to focus on my work. I am grateful to have a job I like with a livable wage, which helps to allow me to purchase individual training sessions and group trainings most of the times when I need them. I do not have the financial means however to buy all the gear and a new bike so I learn to use what I have. Being a triathlete can be a costly venture as there are race fees and membership costs along with the cost of the gear. To help defray the costs, one can purchase used gear such as a bike or wetsuit. One doesn’t have to work out with a trainer or join group strength classes or a gym as you can work out on your own.
There are times when I think of giving up, when I become unsure of my swimming in open water ability. But then, I wake up the next day and realize how good racing makes me feel and what it does for my body and mind.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
That I can do anything I set my mind to. That I have the courage and determination to follow through with something. That there are other people like me who have insecurities and force themselves at times to keep going. That having a healthy body is a big part in what makes me have a healthy mind.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would have tried to do an Olympic distance tri race in 2012, which leads to the bigger item of having more faith in myself that I could do it. I took the plunge and did an Olympic distance race this season. While I knew intellectually that I could do it, psychologically I held myself back. Finishing that race (and coming in 2nd in my age category) was such an amazing feeling. I would not have waited so long to challenge myself.
I have committed to more individual training sessions with my strength training coach (Shawn Bostad with Steelhead Coaching) and have asked for workouts that concentrate on getting me stronger to do the longer swim distance, and with having the strength to continue on to finish. (My body is getting tired thinking and writing about it!)
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Do not listen to anyone who tells you that you are having a midlife crisis. Follow the voice of your soul; she will never steer you wrong. It isn’t easy reinventing yourself after so many years of living in the shell—one you were never meant to live in. You will get pushback and negative energy and comments from some of the people whose support you yearn for. Push through it because your own support and words of encouragement are enough. The reinvented you always existed; she was living in the shadow of the public you, waiting for the right moment to show herself.
What advice and resources can you give those interested in starting triathlons in midlife?
Be committed to the workouts. Recognize that your body will hurt and your mind will tell you to stop. Listen to your body as long as it isn’t your mind telling you to stop.
Join a triathlon club. Find running groups with runners both at your level and more advanced. Do group bike rides. Get in as much open water swimming as you can.
Do yoga – you will need that sense of fluidity and balance. Follow your heart and passion and add to your life that which gives you joy.
For professional life coaching, Lisa Hoashi helps people get unstuck so they can move courageously toward a life and work they truly love.
Triathlete website for beginners and seasoned triathletes.
Runners World website and magazine.
For personal and group training in the Portland OR metro area, I highly recommend Shawn Bostad of Steelhead Coaching.
Race Center for PNW race schedules and related information.
What advice and resources do you have for those interested in traveling solo for months at a time?
Regardless of whether you are a planner or not, look into countries that hold some points of interest, throw a pin to a map, and book a flight!
Read blog posts by people who have traveled solo. As a woman traveling solo, one has to be super diligent yet the hype and fear instilled in us about violence abroad is not always accurate. Those of us who live in the US face more violence than in many parts of the world.
One’s finances do play a role in the choices you make about where and for how long you can stay yet it should not be a deterrent from making the decision to travel. Staying in hostels, pensiones, home stays, and other community type of environments helps to make the travel affordable (if money is an issue).
Volunteer with organizations or within communities as much as you can; your skills and desire to contribute will be met with open arms if presented properly.
Buy travel insurance; it is even required before entering some countries.
Read up on the country’s traditions, cultures and norms. Do not assume that what you know to be acceptable behavior as an American (or whatever country you call home) will be acceptable in the country to which you visit. And please be respectful to the country’s cultures and traditions. Always remember you are a visitor in another land.
Be prepared for culture shock and to unlearn things you were taught. Traveling solo is an amazing experience and you will learn so much about yourself and the world around you.
For access to the solo travel community, I love Solo Travel Society on Facebook and www.solotravelerblog.com. I follow Jodi Ettenberg and continue to read about her adventures on her blog Legal Nomads. World Nomads is another blog I follow.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
I want to travel again and this time my next act will be taking the racing and all that goes with it on the road. I have an idea that I want to turn into a tangible pursuit, where I combine my project management experience, networking aptitude, triathlon training, and race experience to help support women in midlife who want to do multi-sport races (whether racing or training for one)—preferably outside of the US.
I want my next phase of life to be meaningful to and for me, where I can take everything I have experienced and learned over the years and live and work outside the US participating in the multi-sport race in whatever capacity I find myself. My goal is to make a salary to help sustain my being abroad for a bit, while working in communities who need or want an extra pair of hands.
Contact Lisa Alfano at email@example.com