After a life-altering accident, Alan Gulledge learned to set powerful goals, face his fears, and move forward with faith. He now helps others learn reach their physical goals as a coach.
Alan Gulledge – Setting Goals, Facing Fears and Recovering with Faith
Alan Gulledge has lived in Virginia, California, Honduras, and Utah. He was a Division 1 collegiate track and field athlete in the pole vault who was fortunate enough to win conference championships, competed in the NCAA finals and appeared in the top 50 in the pole vault for world rankings in the 2000 Olympic year. Once he retired from pole vaulting he began to explore the world of triathlon/endurance sports and has been hooked ever since—having competed in over 200 competitive endurance events.
Alan qualified for the Boston Marathon and became and All-World Ironman tri-athlete (top 5% division worldwide). After receiving his undergrad in Psychology and getting his MBA had a 13 year career in corporate sales. About 8 years ago he left the sales world to pursue his passion of working in the world of health and fitness. He is the owner and operator of TriFit Evolution a small strength, endurance coaching and personal training business located in Arlington, Virginia. His goal is to help others achieve their fitness goals. He married his sweetheart, Laura Dawn two and a half years ago and they have been blessed with a beautiful son.
Loving the Process
Alan says he could never sit still as a kid. He was always wanting to be running outside. Alan became a pole vaulter in high school, but he actually joined the track team after moving to Utah in order to make friends. At first, he was the worst one on the entire team at the pole vault. Alan was very competitive and started practicing more and more. He would drag his twin brother to the track on Saturday mornings to help him get better. Alan says even though he wasn’t a gifted athlete, he believes that applying yourself and working hard is what it takes to become better.
In college, Alan loved training for pole vaulting. Most of the time, he was running, working in the weight room, working on technique, plyometrics, running stadiums, and working on aerial and body awareness. Alan truly loved that process. He retired from pole vaulting in his mid twenties.
Alan moved to California and that’s where his friends introduced him to the triathlon. Again, he was not very good in the beginning. He could barely swim across a 25 meter pool doing a unique combination of many swimming strokes. He was familiar with challenging athletic goals, as he had tried to qualify for the Olympics in the pole vault the year before. Alan thought pole vaulting was difficult and that a triathlon wouldn’t be as challenging since it was just running, riding a bike, and swimming.
He was wrong. Alan did not do well in his first race. In triathlons, they put you in a division based on age, so your age is written on your leg for the race. He remembers women in their 50’s just flying past him on their bikes, and he was this 26-year old collegiate athlete. That was very eye opening for him and made him want to work even harder to excel. He thinks that is a good life lesson to learn: even if you aren’t a natural or something, you just work on the process and become something that you never imagined you’d become.
In September of 2015, Alan was two weeks away from running an Iron Man. An Iron Man involves swimming 2.4 miles, riding a bike for 112 miles, and then running a full marathon, 26.2 miles. This was not Alan’s first Iron Man and he was excited. He was poised to do well as an amateur in his division. On that fateful day, Alan decided to go out for an easy training ride of about an hour. He was riding across a bridge on a bike path alongside a major highway. There had been a car accident and another cyclist was distracted by the accident and crossed over into Alan’s lane and ran into Alan head on.
The force of the impact went down his spine and caused compression fractures in three of his vertebrae. He also broke a rib and his left knee and hand were severely damaged. Alan was in the hospital for four days, rehab for four months, required knee surgery, and then had four more months of rehab after the surgery . The whole healing process took him out of training for a year and a half.
Just before the accident he had started his own personal fitness company. His livelihood depended on his ability to work with clients and he was no longer able to do so. Alan faced major setbacks both professionally and athletically, but says that amazing doctors and other medical professionals, as well as wonderful people in his community rallied around him to help him get through it. The road to recovery was very long but Alan says he is stronger and faster now than he was before, a miracle in his life.
Lesson One: Patience & Gratitude
Alan says one of the biggest lessons he learned during that long period of recovery was being patient. Life can be very fast-paced and everyone has their own agenda and things to do. The timeframe of life (especially back east) is now and yesterday.
Alan says his recovery taught him to slow down and work through the process. He learned to appreciate the things he had taken for granted. Alan prayed for patience and faith and doing so helped him to have a different perspective. He often thought about how he, as a competitive athlete, was worrying about getting a faster marathon time or a higher bike power or a smoother swim stroke but during that time it was a blessing just to be able to move without pain.
This experience helped Alan think about those who experience chronic pain and those who can’t walk at all. He remembers running and wondering if he would ever be able to run without pain again. His doctor took some x-rays and told him that he was extremely lucky. If his head had moved at all when the accident happened, he would more than likely be in a wheelchair or worse. Even now, while he trains other athletes, he looks back on a regular basis and reminds himself to be grateful for all that he can do.
Lesson Two: Service & Humility
Alan says another thing that he was extremely grateful for was the support of others. When tragedy strikes, having people that come to your aid can seem like a silver lining. He had people reaching out to him that he hadn’t seen in almost 30 years.
Alan took time to say a prayer of gratitude for all the wonderful people who were so helpful in his time of need. The service of others taught Alan another important lesson: humility. Alan considers himself to be fiercely independent. He doesn’t like to ask for help, but prefers to do things on his own. While he believes it’s important to be self-reliant, experiences like his require us to humble ourselves.
Alan says he had to work on humbling himself and allow others to do things that he would normally do on his own. With his injury, he had to lay on his back for an extended period of time, and he was bedridden for weeks. He found himself, an athlete, requiring help to get out of bed, take a shower, even go to the bathroom. He had friends who would sleep on the floor in his apartment in order to be able to help him in the middle of the night when his pain medication wore off and he couldn’t move.
Alan thinks that many times we aren’t willing to ask for help as often as we truly need it. We often talk about the virtues of service and how we strive to be Christlike and loving towards others. But in order to do so, we also have to provide others with the opportunity to serve. If we don’t ask for help, we are withholding precious opportunities for service. Alan realized he could give others those opportunities by saying, “yes, please bring me meals or just come sit with me while I watch Netflix,” one of the only things he could do at the time. Sitting with him was something Alan considered a service.
We often don’t think that we are helping others by allowing them to serve us. We view it as being a burden. But Alan experienced a shift in perspective and learned that he was truly allowing someone else the opportunity to learn and serve. Alan has learned that life is about both giving and taking. Finding the balance between the two is crucial. Alan believes that if we don’t allow others into our lives to help us, we become prideful. All too often we see accepting help as a sign of weakness. Alan believes this can be corrosive to our spirits.
Lesson Three: There’s Not Always a Why
Despite the extremely difficult challenge Alan faced, he doesn’t remember asking God why he had to go through this. Alan thinks sometimes we try to hard to attribute meaning to things that happen to us. While he remembers trying to find meaning in his accident, he also says that we don’t necessarily have to have a reason for everything.
We tend to think that the trials we go through are going to be a blessing, but that’s not what people want to hear in the moment. Hindsight is 20/20, and Alan is grateful that he went through what he did and he sees the blessings that came from it. But he also says he’d be fine if it had never happened. “We often try to look for meaning but sometimes terrible things happen, whether it’s trauma, illness, or someone passing away too soon.”
A Painful Example
Alan had some friends from high school who were coming back from a camping trip they had taken together. The driver of the car fell asleep at the wheel and the car rolled. Three of his friends died. All of them had given a few years of their lives for church service. They had their whole lives ahead of them.
When Alan attended the funeral, he thought that the church leader, Jeffrey R. Holland, who spoke would give a talk about there being a reason and to have faith and that this was God’s will. That was not the topic of his message. Mr. Holland said that sometimes we don’t know why things happen and that it’s ok to question and not have the answer. Terrible things happen and that’s simply part of living in an imperfect world with imperfect people.
Build Back Stronger
Even if we don’t know the reason why, Alan believes that when we go through a process, whether it be grief, physical rehabilitation, emotional rehabilitation, or something similar, we come back stronger. If we do the physical, spiritual, or emotional work, Alan says it’s like strengthening a limb or a joint. We have to take it one day at a time, one foot in front of the other, and keep our focus and perspective and be grateful for what we do have.
Lesson Four: Let Go of Fear
Through his experience, Alan has learned how to approach those he coaches now with more patience and understanding. Running with a limp and constantly in pain was yet another humbling experience, and he channeled that into his coaching. Alan coaches many people who are coming back after an injury. He understands what it is like to be afraid of pain if you perform a certain movement.
When he was in rehab after his accident, his physical therapist had to teach him to trust his injured knee again. He had developed a protective stride because he was afraid of the pain he might experience in his leg. He likens this to real life when we are afraid to move forward with something because we are afraid it may hurt us in the end.
Obviously we want to heal, but we also have to unlearn that fear. We have to consciously make a decision that we aren’t going to let the pain of failure, pain, trial, or tribulation, get in the way of our progress. Instead, we have to find something else to focus on.
Lesson Five: Focus on Your Goals
As a coach, one of the first things Alan asks his clients is to tell him about their goals. Then Alan is able to help them break down the big goal into an achievable process. Breaking a goal down into bite-sized, manageable chunks is an important part in setting the course. Then their whole training cycle is process oriented. Alan then reminds them of their big goal on a regular basis. He believes that having that focus is crucial, especially when coming back from a challenge or injury.
Keys to Setting Appropriate Goals
But how do we set appropriate goals? Alan says there are three keys.
- Set a specific, time bound goal. (Example: I will lose 10 pounds in three months by exercising 40 minutes three times per week).
- Have a process written down or recorded in some way that you are going to follow.
- Have someone who you are accountable to. Of course you are accountable to yourself. Alan’s clients are also accountable to him as their coach. Alan also thinks it’s important to have someone else, like a spouse, friend, partner, coworker, or family member to be accountable to. He explains that those who stick to these three keys are the ones who are successful.
Alan also believes in involving God in your goals. He often finds himself preparing for an event and kneeling down to say, “Lord, I have done my part. I did this training and I need you to help fill in the gaps. Help me to be focused on whatever else it is that I need.” While Alan knows that coming first or last doesn’t make a difference in God’s eyes, he also knows that races matter to him, and because racing is important to him, it’s important to God. The greatest accountability we have is to God.
Favorite Bible Verse
Alan’s favorite Bible verse is Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord in all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.” Even if things don’t go our way and we aren’t delivered from our trials, we still need to remember and worship God. Our trials can be used as stumbling blocks or stepping stones, we just have to choose which one.
Lesson Six: The 40% Rule
Recent studies have indicated that your mind gives up before your body does when you are pushing yourself physically. There is a phenomenon called the 40% rule. When you think you have reached your physical limit, you have actually only given 40%. You have another 60% effort left to give.
Alan says this is a good reminder to have a little tough love for ourselves. We need to push ourselves a little harder each day in order to reach the goals we have set. It is important to remember not to push yourself to the point of injury, but Alan says it is good to make yourself hurt, in a good way.
Getting outside of your comfort zone can be helpful physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Alan says that during his rehabilitation, pushing his limits made him more present. He had to check in with himself. Was he hurting or just uncomfortable? On the other hand, Alan also says it’s important to practice self care in the form of getting enough rest, taking time out of your day to meditate or pray, and do something that helps to calm your mind. It’s all about balance.
Alan takes a holistic approach to combating life’s difficulties. He believes that the soul is the body and spirit combined, so we have to nurture both.
- Scripture Study: In trying times, the first and foremost resource he would recommend is any type of scripture.
- Get Inspired: Alan also recommends listening to inspirational talks or podcasts.
- Exercise/Stress Relief: From a physical standpoint, Alan says that exercise is a great stress reducer and also influences our behavior and mental health in a positive way. Physical activity can be a great preventative treatment for stress. Take the time to take a walk, go for a jog, ride your bike, take a hike.
- Diet: Watching what we eat is another facet of physical health that can improve our wellbeing.
- Alan also recommends the book, “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins. What Alan took away from the book was that it’s important to look at yourself every day and ask, “Am I the person that I want to be?” (Please note that David is a former marine and uses some harsh language in the book).