The clerk at the 7-11 on Pacific Coast Highway smiled as I brought the coffee to the counter. “Where are you going at three o’ clock in the morning?”

To my very first triathlon.

I signed up for the Malibu Triathlon (1.5k ocean swim, 40k bike ride, and 10k run) as my first training event to prepare for the Indian Wells 70.3 Ironman in December.

I pulled into the parking lot at Zuma Beach on Saturday at 4:14am.

I asked around and found the check-in tent. Then I got my timing chip and race bib and made my way to the transition area, where I racked my bike and found a volunteer to write my race number in marker on my upper arms and left calf.

Sooner or later, I knew I’d have to have the Conversation.

The Conversation began when I was a freshman at UCLA. I remember looking around at orientation and thinking, “When is someone going to figure out that I don’t belong here?”

If it’s left unchecked, this irrational fear of being exposed as a fraud can become what psychologists call imposter syndrome.

Sure enough, the voices started:

You’re 52 years old.

You’ve had asthma your whole life. Multiple surgeries on your back, both shoulders, both knees.

You’re afraid of swimming in the ocean. Even the veteran Ironman competitors say this is the hardest event to swim. Today is big surf. Look at it. Listen to it. BOOM. You don’t know what you’re doing. The lifeguards will have to fish you out.

You don’t belong here.

These thoughts are invitations to a mental party I no longer attend.

One feature that distinguishes Open-Source Learning from traditional school is the concept of Mental Fitness. We practice mindfulness to understand and navigate our focus, memory, and emotional landscape.

I practice what I preach.

After I finished setting up my gear, I zipped up my wetsuit, headed back to my car, got in the driver’s seat, set the timer on my phone for 10 minutes, and closed my eyes. I sat still and listened to my breath.

Some people call this meditation. Some call it zazen.

I focused on my breathing. I allowed whatever thoughts passed through my mind to keep right on going. Every time I got distracted by a thought, I refocused on my breathing and listened to the sound of each inhale and exhale against the compression of my wetsuit.

I sat.

And then suddenly 10 minutes had gone by and the alarm on my phone went off.

When I opened my eyes it was daylight.

I headed to the beach and eyed the start.

I felt ready. At least, I felt as ready as I was going to get. It was time to get going. I took one last selfie and headed out.

Almost as soon as I ran into the waves, I got smacked in the head by another swimmer. The impact dislodged my goggles and they started leaking. The saltwater stung my eyes. I made it out to the first buoy but I still had over a kilometer to go and my eyes were really smarting.

“Hey do you need a hand?”

One of the lifeguards paddled over on her board. It’s legal to ask for help during a triathlon as long as it doesn’t give you an advantage, so I put my elbows on the board, took off my swim cap and goggles, dumped out the water, put them back on, snapped the cap back into place, and kept swimming.

The swim was rough but I finished, staggered out of the water, crushed the bike ride (that’s my favorite event), and survived the run.

I finished my first triathlon.

I am not fearless. For weeks before this event, just the idea of swimming in the ocean made me feel anxious every time I thought about it. I can’t avoid fear, but as Norman Schwarzkopf put it, “Courage is being afraid and going ahead and doing your job anyway.” That is something that I can test and prove to myself. And when I do, I feel stronger for the experience.

There were so many little moments that made my day. Every volunteer, lifeguard, law enforcement officer, and EMT at the event was kind. Athletes of all shapes, sizes, ages, and ability levels called out to encourage each other: “You got this!” “Way to go!” “You’re almost there!”

Yes. We are almost there. We’re also right where we belong.