It was 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and 26.2 miles of running. One day of mental and physical toughness in exchange for a lifetime of glory — or at least that's what I was told to expect.
Every triathlete dreams of the opportunity to race an Ironman. At 20, I took a less traditional approach to accomplishing one of the most challenging international races. And I didn't have precise goals going into the race. Honestly, I just wanted to go have fun. Type 2 fun — something that's only fun after you've stopped doing it.
Most of Ironman Muskoka 2015 in Ontario, Canada, was a blur. After finishing, I walked toward the lake that I swam in 11 hours earlier. I realized that the Ironman was a culmination of every athletic endeavor that I ever set out to achieve. Although I thought I loved being a triathlete for the love of the sport, now I understood exactly how it saved me.
I am the president of the University of Michigan triathlon team. I'm a sap for cute puppies and babies. I'm a coffee addict. I'm openly gay. There were years in my life when I never thought I would be able to freely write "openly gay." Deep down, I didn't want to worry about being "out." I only wanted to be accepted and not feel that I was different. Over time, I aligned my ideal self with my real self.
My first encounter with depression was as a sophomore in high school. I felt constantly threatened and surrounded by a homophobic society. I also suffered from body image disorder. I felt worthless and helpless, and that I would never live a life of being truly happy. I didn't have anyone to talk to. I was afraid to accept my own weaknesses, and thus that anger could only be directed inward.
The idea of coming out initially was very frightening. I was never the most confident person. Starting in middle school I had issues with my lanky body type and didn't have consistent friends or hobbies. I always thought that I was different and less significant than everyone around me.
At the time I thought being bullied was normal. It was mainly guys who bullied me, so I avoided them. "This is what you get for being gay," I thought to myself. I think they bullied me because they knew I was an easy target, or because they thought I was gay — I always denied it, which for years destroyed me on the inside.
The summer before my freshman year of high school was when I joined the high school cross country team, never thinking that it would be one of the best decisions of my life. Avoiding my lack of self-confidence and distracting myself from accepting that it was OK to be gay translated to "running was going to turn me straight." I have a very active mind, and it is hard for me to solely focus on one idea. Running is the only thing I can do where all my other thoughts just disappear; all I can do is focus on my feet moving forward. Running was my own personal therapy.
I exponentially grew as a stronger runner as time went on and miles were logged. During my high school career, I broke different program records, was two-time MVP and two-time captain of swim team. I then was accepted to my dream school — the University of Michigan.
I considered starting college as an opportunity to rewrite my future, but for the wrong reasons. I thought I could spend freshman year trying to avoid being gay and try to turn myself straight. Was that a mistake. Being surrounded by a more supporting and accepting community, my sexual identity and true sense of self only grew stronger. Guys started openly hitting on me. It was bizarre — I did not know whether to tell the truth or keep living the lie. I had no idea how to act with my straight, cisgender friends, especially at parties. Michigan is a Big Ten School — we put college football and social life on a higher importance than our own sleep and nutrition.
Through the increasing inner conflict, my depression returned again full-throttle freshman year, and I was close to hitting another rock bottom. One beautiful snowy day in February I thought the only way of avoiding rock bottom was calling my parents and coming out.
Unfortunately, I did not get the initial reaction I was hoping for from them. One of my parents tried to convince me that I was in fact not gay, and too stressed from school to think rationally. I felt shattered; all the confidence I built to tell my parents was demolished, and was all for nothing. For weeks after that conversation our encounters were scant; meanwhile my depression worsened.
I battled my issues by doing what helped me distract myself — running. I joined the University of Michigan triathlon team my freshman year. I set goals for myself to help distract me from how depressed I was on the inside. I competed in Collegiate Triathlon National Championships. I saved up for my first triathlon bike. I completed a half-Ironman. I ran a marathon and qualified for the Boston Marathon. I completed a full Ironman triathlon.
As I accomplished my athletic goals, I gained more confidence that I am a worthy and capable human being. From being more involved in the triathlon team I gained what I thought was a true sense of community. I took a lot of pride in having friends and teammates who I could always rely on for social and moral support.
The minute I came back from Muskoka, Ontario, Canada to Ann Arbor after my Ironman I called my parents. Before even talking about the race, I told them that I wanted to talk about my sexuality again. I tearfully explained that I finally felt happy in my own skin and being my own person. My body image issues didn't give me anxiety any more. I told them about my previous romantic history with boys in college, which was still confusing to them. I told them that the reason why I never was in a real relationship is because I didn't trust who I am.
In the midst of me opening up my vulnerabilities to my parents, this was the first time I felt that I was truly their son. I was too blinded by my own insecurities to realize that my parent's acceptance was there for me all along.
Alex Fauer with his University of Michigan triathlon teammates.
I then came out to my roommates, who are all guys (being around cisgender straight guys gave me so much anxiety in the past) and I was given overwhelming support — more and more as I told my friends they showed me love.
It was a high with starting to talk about my sexuality around people. To be able to talk with my teammates, friends or roommates about how a guy looks was wonderful. It seems now like I am living in a different life than the homophobic one I knew when I was younger. It makes me wonder how my life would be different if I didn't grow up around homophobia.
It's easier to see benefits of being out now that I am here, but through several trips to rock bottom I never thought I would never be this happy. No bottom lasts forever. You don't even know how good everything is that you haven't lived to see yet.
But if I didn't hit my rock bottom I couldn't appreciate all these wonderful people and aspects of my life in it today. The key to my happiness and acceptance was always in my control. I was unable to achieve my own happiness because I was dangerously afraid of having nothing. The fact is that life will take you on a lot of adventures, but it's up for you to decide how. The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. I made it this far. I can handle whatever comes my way.
Alex Fauer is a 21-year-old junior at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He is a University of Michigan Hillman Scholar and will be graduating with his Bachelors of Science in Nursing (BSN) in 2017 as well as his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in 2020. He is the president of the University of Michigan triathlon team. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter and Instagram.