It was never part of Adam Hill’s life ambition or his genetic constitution to wear a speedo in public, let alone to compete in a triathlon. For the first three decades of his life, he was a poster child of non-athleticism, obsessively unhealthy habits, and intense fear of pretty much everything.
Yet at the age of 33, with the physique that could only be described as sasquatch with a dadbod, he put aside his insecurities and took his first step towards an outrageous dream to qualify for the Iron Man World Championship in Hawaii. It was a dream shared by nearly every other triathlete in the world, reserved for the top 1% of all athletes in the sport, a sport in which Adam had exactly zero experience.
In Shifting Gears, Adam shares his harrowing, inspiring, and a sometimes clumsy story of transformation, from the origins of a debilitating anxiety disorder to his battle with alcoholism to his rise to the top of the triathlon world stage. Here’s my conversation with Adam Hill.
Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast. My name is host Benji Block, I’ll be your host today. We’re honored to be joined by Adam Hill. Adam has just come out with a new book. The book is titled Shifting Gears: From Anxiety and Addiction to A Triathlon World Championship. Adam, welcome to the Author Hour.
Adam Hill: Thank you for having me, I’m honored. Thanks, Benji.
Benji Block: Yes, it’s going to be a fun conversation. For listeners who may be new to you, Adam, and unfamiliar, can you paint a picture sort of your life right now? I know we’re about to jump into some of your backstory but tell us a little bit about yourself?
Adam Hill: Sure. For most of my life, I was a chronic non-athlete, unhealthy and getting into really unhealthy habits. When I was young, in my teens, I developed an anxiety disorder that kind of exacerbated a lot of the unhealthy issues that I had, led me down a path of drinking heavily, which led me into the alcoholism where I found myself for the next decade or so.
Then, an accident, a DUI accident led me to getting sober, which is something I never thought that I’d be able to do. I’m a real alcoholic so that means that I was hopeless for a very long time. I ended up hitting my bottom and finding some hope in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and finding that I could become sober and I got sober. Did that, I didn’t think I could do it but I did and it kind of gave me this impression that I could achieve things that I didn’t think I could achieve.
Long story short — and we’ll dig into it, but — I ended up getting into triathlon and having a goal of qualifying for the Iron Man World Championship, which was a difficult goal since I had never really swam or biked around that much before but I ended up doing it a few years later. Yeah, the rest is history.
Anxiety and Fear Can Actually Be a Superpower
Benji Block: Now, written history, which is wonderful. Let’s start here a little bit. When you take on the task of writing a book; that’s no small feat, that’s a time commitment and obviously, you’re going to put in work. Why was this the right time to get this written out and put this story on paper?
Adam Hill: Well, it gave me a little bit of time to essentially resonate on the process of actually qualifying and finishing that and then kind of moving into a point where I was beyond the competitive phase and starting to train others and coach others down that path. I ended up kind of shifting some of my career focus into a coaching path and wanting to help others to realize what’s really possible for themselves.
It’s — for triathlon — when you tell people about that and that you’re getting into the sport, the first thing you hear from most people is, “I can never do something like that” or “I can’t swim” or “I can’t do that” and immediately, that’s the trigger. I used to say the same thing. So I really liked the idea of trying to bring people into this part of the triathlon as a transformational catalyst for their lives.
Benji Block: I resonate with this. This is all about you but on a personal note, I totally thought marathons were out of my realm of possibility. We have some similar overlay there; triathlons are way harder but I just ran my first marathon and it sounds there’s some similar overlay there.
Just taking on something you don’t think is possible and making it possible, doing it, putting in the hard work. So I love that you’re coaching people up and I mean, even after doing, running a distance I never thought I could run, a triathlon sounds rough. Thank you for doing that work, I think it’s extremely important.
Adam Hill: Absolutely.
Benji Block: Let me ask you this; when you work on it, are you thinking about the specific people you’re coaching? Are you thinking about how this book is going to impact so many people that you won’t even be able to coach? Because it’s a multiplying effect. Who are you imagining reading the book?
Adam Hill: I’m hoping that beginners who are wanting to get with the sport of triathlon that maybe don’t feel like they know how will read this book and recognize that it is possible for them. I am also hoping that people who are struggling with anxiety or fear in any kind of way, recognize that anxiety and fear can actually be a superpower. There’s certain elements of this mental issue that are empowering.
It may sound strange to hear that but that very thing — there is a hyper-focus there, there’s a self-awareness there that if you can channel all of that in the right way, you can really excel a lot in life and I want to challenge people who are really struggling with that to try and see how anxiety can be a superpower and really elevate their lives.
Benji Block: Well, let’s dive into some of your story and the content here. I’ll start with a quote and we’ll go back to your childhood because I think this sets the stage for things that come in your life — but you say this, you say, “Taking the easy way out and avoiding risks was nothing new to me. Throughout much of my childhood, I steadily learned that behavior. I would aspire to do something great, face ridicule from my peers and then I would decide to give up.”
“Fear was a constant driver in any decision I made and it slowly and silently imprinted itself into my psyche early in my life.” In this part of the book, early on, obviously, you’re giving context to your childhood, you’re talking about 13-year-old Adam Hill. I wonder if you [could] maybe fill out that picture for us, who were you kind of young in life and where was that anxiety sort of brewing?
Adam Hill: Yeah, absolutely. That was a time, I would even go back further into my late single digits when I was seven or eight, nine years old. I wasn’t very social. I had a hard time with getting along with friends, I tended to be kind of taken advantage of a little bit on that front.
I think that was where I was really challenged first was this socially awkward or socially anxious kind of person that in me just bred this kind of constant conversation in my head about what other people were thinking about me, how they would respond to me, or how I could impress them or how I could get in their good graces and I didn’t really associate that with anxiety. I never knew that that was anything strange, people just thought I was something of a spaz.
I just kind of lived like that and getting into my teens, when I was more into my adolescence, that began to get a little bit more extreme to the extent that I just didn’t really have any friends or anything like that in middle school. I didn’t really want to lean into that and it just became a fear of everything that any teenager wants to experience in terms of playing sports.
You know, getting into the batter’s box with baseball, always afraid of getting hit with a ball or getting into a football game where it’s tackle football game, I’m afraid of getting tackled or the wind knocked out of you. Those kinds of things always were just really heavy on my mind.
Benji Block: Adam, are those things that you were consciously aware of and you were avoiding because you were putting yourself mentally in those situations or was it this kind of underlying hum of anxiety that you couldn’t really name at the time?
Adam Hill: Yeah, it was like this desire to participate and then, in the moment, the fear of the negative aspect of it, instead of focusing on what great result could come out of it. I would always focus on the negative consequence that could potentially attack me.
Benji Block: Right. I think there’s a lot of people that may be to varying degrees will resonate with that and I think that sums it up really well. After high school, things really take a turn. You describe this sort of internal torment, explain some of what brings on that shift where there’s anxiety, right? It turns to something, I would say, deeper or different.
Adam Hill: Sure, yeah, absolutely. I think it helps to kind of go back a little bit and say that in high school, I did need a good group of friends that I did bond with quite a bit and there was a period of time for about a few years there where things were really good. I think that I did still have that underlying fear of the cliques and the people that were outside of that friendship that I had.
When I got into college, I discovered something that a lot of college students discover, which is alcohol. Immediately, it impacted me and just to my experience, the very first experience I had with alcohol was extremely positive. It was the exact experience that shouldn’t happen to any college student. I drank three or four beers, that was enough for me. I became the life of the party. I made friends, I was social. I enjoyed the heck out of myself and I went home at a reasonable hour and went to bed.
There’s no consequences to it but it was just this amazing feeling of, “Oh my gosh, here is my solution. This is the thing that’s working for me.” I feel all of that anxiety that was — or that worry that I didn’t really even know existed that I didn’t know, I didn’t have a name for it but it went away. Whatever was causing me that, it was just like, now, I have this alternative of, “Oh my gosh, I can talk to girls. Oh my gosh, I can make friends” and it was — it had that element of it.
Hitting Rock Bottom… and Reviving The Spark with the Iron Man Triathlon.
Benji Block: Let me just ask you this; you kind of have that lightbulb moment, right? It almost becomes like a holy grail feeling and then what’s that progression? Because obviously, it doesn’t stay there but I would think at first, it’s like, Oh my gosh, this is like the magic pill.”
Adam Hill: Yeah, absolutely, it felt like that. There was no indication to me that I would be a problem drinker because those early experiences were not problematic. In fact, I was often told by my friends in college that I [could] handle my alcohol very well, that I would drink people under the table, and that sort of thing.
There was almost this empowering element to it but very quickly, after many months and maybe a year of that, just little problems started to develop. There would be a point where a police officer would stop me because I was carrying a beer in my hand and I would get in trouble for that or it would be that I would maybe blackout and I wouldn’t remember something for a night and at that point, it was like, “Well, okay, a lot of people do it.”
Now I’m starting to make these justifications for it and then, by the time that I start to realize that it’s becoming problematic, I’m so engrossed in it or so immersed in it that I don’t know how to escape it because every time I wake up in the morning, I’m feeling this crippling anxiety. When I was about 20 years old, 19 or 20 years old, I had my very first panic attack and this was the first indication in me that I had some anxiety.
I didn’t know what it was but this was on a night where I was sober, I wasn’t drinking. I was just simply studying for an organic chemistry exam and it suddenly hit me in my head, this reality came to me that I might be HIV positive. There was no reason for me to assume that there was no reason that I should suspect that, there was nothing going on that I should assume that that was the case.
It was so certain in my mind that it crippled me and I even magnified it. It made me feel so paralyzed with fear and terror that I didn’t know really what was happening in that point. I would come to realize much later that that was a panic attack and it was the first of many that would be crippling me throughout my experience in college and then, at that point, I realized that drinking — when I was drinking — I didn’t get those panic attacks. So that’s kind of what led me down a further path of even going further down the path of alcohol.
Benji Block: Reading the book, you sense this marriage internally of fear and anxiety and drinking just kind of feeding each other constantly. Is that sort of what you would explain that season as?
Adam Hill: Yes, absolutely. It was hellish because the only way that I could calm the fear and the anxiety and these irrational fears, completely irrational, would be to drink and oftentimes if I’m drinking, I’m drinking into a blackout. That exacerbates the fear, that exacerbates the anxiety because the next morning, I wake up, I don’t have a memory and I’d start trying to imagine what I was participating in which was typically nothing of course but it would start to — my imagination would start to go wild and my anxiety would get much worse.
Benji Block: Did you move from social drinking to solo drinking? Did it change up the time of day that you were trying to drink to cope or what did that look like?
Adam Hill: Yeah, typically, I would try to social drink as much as possible to make sure that that was justified but it did turn into solo drinking. I wasn’t much of a bar drinker. I didn’t like going to bars or anything like that for the very reason that if I was around people, the more chance of embarrassment or shame or humiliation the next morning of not knowing what I did would come in. At least, if I was in a controlled environment of my own home, I could at least manage that part of it but yeah, I became a solo drinker.
My wife who has been with me through all that time had to deal with that, a lot of that, but primarily I try to manage my drinking through a set of rules like only drink after 5 PM, only drink at night, you know, those kinds of things which in my mind justified it and said, “Well, I have control over this” but in reality, it’s just evidence that I had no control over it and I have no control over it.
Benji Block: It’s interesting because I would think that there [would] probably be some people too if you had rules or whatever — it’s such an easy way for it to stay hidden like people that are around you that probably didn’t fully know the full scope because you had ways that in your head was justifying it but in reality too, it’s hiding it.
Adam Hill: Absolutely. I was employed. I continued to work and white knuckle it through my day, most days doing everything that was asked of me and primarily probably doing as much as I possibly could despite the anxiety and despite the shame and the fear and everything because I wanted to maintain that persona or that perspective for others.
Benji Block: I think that’s a key point to hit on because those that would now know that they were once addicted, the stories that I’ve heard, that’s such a common thread where there was some semblance of keeping their life intact and it was able to be hidden under the rug for periods of time. Then obviously you have your moments where you admitted to yourself — you talked earlier and we’ll get there about the rock bottom that you hit but — man, it’s hard to see warning signs as a friend or as a family member sometimes because people are really good at hiding it.
Having those conversations and trying to be there for people is obviously so vital. You have this quote, you say, “The problem was not the surroundings, the problem was me. I carried that internal turmoil with me wherever I went and I numbed pain with alcohol. I justified it all because I was still able to function within society around me.” I think that sums it up really, really well just that couple of sentences there. Now, let’s go to rock bottom, right? What was the rock bottom for you and that sort of awakening experience?
Adam Hill: Yes, it’s still very hard for me to share about [it] today but it is important because it is something that we — when we’re in these kinds of diseases that we’re so out of control, we do things that we don’t ever think that we would ever do and one of the things that I never ever wanted to do because I hated it so much was drink and drive. My rock bottom was I had driven in a blackout and I crashed into another car.
Fortunately, by God’s grace, everyone was okay and that was my absolute rock bottom. I came to in the back of the police car and spent the night in jail wondering what exactly had happened and what I have done and what had become of my life and where should I go from there. It was an incredible shameful experience on my side. Yeah, that was my rock bottom. I spend the night in jail. That was the first time I’ve ever really contemplated ending my own life.
Benji Block: Wow. Well, the good thing is the story clearly doesn’t end there and that’s why I love the title of this book, Shifting Gears, because there is several, you know — obviously, the book outlines the process that you go on from there, all the stuff that plays a part in it. But talk to me, one key component you highlight that ends up becoming part of overcoming anxiety as this idea of adventure, which eventually brings in the triathlon stuff.
We can’t get into all of the details here, that’s why you wrote a book, but when do you first of hear about the Iron Man? What’s this sort of transition period where now adventure becomes this thing and the Iron Man becomes a quest?
Adam Hill: Well, it’s interesting how a seed is planted and the seed was planted for Iron Man way back a decade earlier. I think it was around 2006 or so that I first saw the Iron Man on television. I was watching all these people and I just heard about the crazy distances. 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, a 26-mile run and that was the thing that caught me. It was the marathon on the back of a bike ride on the back of a swim.
It blew my mind and I saw these people doing it and I saw people crossing that finish line in a full slow motion and all of the grandeur that they give but they were normal people. They kept on talking about how they were doctors and lawyers and all of these normal people and I thought to myself, “Well, they can do it, what if I could do that?” And as quickly as that thought came into my mind, it was replaced with, “No, no, no, you can’t. Remember, you’re sitting drunk on your couch, you just smoked a cigarette outside” and all that kind of stuff.
All of this self-shaming and all of these telling myself and putting these block brick walls up saying that I could never do something like that came into my head. So I just resigned myself to the idea that I would never do that again and I cracked another beer and went on just feeling sorry for myself after that. It wasn’t until I was about a year sober — and that year sober was important to me.
When you’re sober, because everybody in recovery and in my first year of recovery, I did everything I was told. I had listened to these guys who had so many years, they said, “Don’t make any major life changes in your first year of recovery” and so I took that to mean that at one year of recovery, make a life change. Make a major life change.
Benji Block: Change your whole life.
Adam Hill: Exactly. So, I was actually recovering from a shoulder surgery — which I had injured doing something crazy kind of stupid like P90X thing to try and get fit quick kind of thing but — I had to get surgery on my shoulder and repair that. I was recovering from that and about a year sober and I was kind of climbing the walls thinking, “Man, I wish I could get outside. I wish I could do something, maybe I should start running” or do something like that.
For some reason immediately in my mind popped that time when I was sitting back on the couch watching the Iron Man triathlon and I remember that. I don’t know what brought it into my mind but at that point in time, my mindset had shifted so far to the other direction that I just had this year sober that I never thought that I could do and it was more of a what if, what if I could do that and then what if I could take it from there and it would just start spiraling into this, where could I take this kind of thing.
Maybe this is something that I can move into and this is something that — and it excited me. It immediately excited me and it felt right to me. It felt like it was something that I needed to do.
From “What If” to “I Will”
Benji Block: It’s cool to hear that shift because when we’re talking about even going back as far as you as a kid, right? In those single digits or when you’re 13 and there’s just that overwhelming sort of fear and removing yourself from things. And then when you’re drunk on the couch and you are experiencing those moments and then now, to see that shift happen and you’re going, “Okay. Well, like what if…” and then that “what if” obviously turns into, “Okay, I will.”
Now, there is a lot that goes into the movement from “what if” to “I will”, right? Training being one of those things, so I did want to quickly hit on that like what did it look like for you to train? What does someone do when they are starting to prepare for their first Iron Man?
Adam Hill: It was very messy at first. It was entertaining. There was a lot of trial and error because I really didn’t have any clue on where to look and one of the things I recognized as a true beginner in the sport and one of the things I’d recognized ever since that point is that a lot of people that are new to anything that specifically triathlon, there is this feeling of embarrassment, of getting started, of not wanting to engage with people that might know what they’re doing because you feel like — and I felt like — they’re going to laugh at me out of the room.
They’re going to think, “What are you trying to do in this sport? You have never even swam the length of the pool, you’re crazy,” you know? I felt that. I felt like I had to do a lot of the investigation online, behind the scenes, and just start kind of doing some things. So you know, I did all of [that] stuff like I just started running. I tried to buy a bike trainer, which I didn’t really know how to use, and was messing around with that for a little bit.
Yeah, so there is a lot of trial and error at the very beginning but actually, in my research, I came across a really important period of time within the Iron Man history, which was the Iron Work. When Mark Allen went out against Dave Scott in the Iron Man World Championship — and for years, Mark Allen could not beat Dave Scott. For years he just couldn’t, then one year, he kind of figured it out.
He hired this coach named Phil Maffetone, who helped him to work through this really easy heart rate training program and he started doing that the very next year, he went out and he beat Dave Scott for the first time, and then he went on to win five more times in the Iron Man World Championship. I looked at that and it resonated with me. I started researching Phil Maffetone and looking into his principles and I read his book, which was fantastic and that shaped the way that I trained for a triathlon.
I started using the Maffetone Method and I started practicing it with discipline and I found that that was the method that aligned with my training or with my goals and my plan as much as it could. That was a real transformative part of my training there too.
Benji Block: For you, out of biking, swimming and running, what was the hardest component?
Adam Hill: For me, it was the swim and that’s true for a lot of people. Before I got started, I was a surfer when I grew up. It’s different when you’re floating on a surfboard versus trying to swim and that’s where the anxiety comes in a lot too, when you’re swimming in the open water. I felt a lot of that and that happened to me a lot within the open water. Learning to swim and just getting the endurance to do it and finding the technique was very difficult. It still is today to be honest.
Benji Block: There is obviously some breakthrough that comes in your mindset just to be willing to put yourself in a situation like the Iron Man. I know lots of people have experiences when they do something this intense where afterward, there’s just this euphoria moment or some sort of realization or light bulb type thing. What happens when you finish the Iron Man? Is there any sort of big release or feeling that comes over you in that period?
Adam Hill: There are so many different feelings. There is the feeling of — the immediate feeling of triumph that I barely remember because I was so exhausted but just getting over that finish line and then walking along and seeing people congratulate you. Then there’s this feeling of amazement but there is also this feeling of a little bit of sadness because it’s over at that point.
There’s a combination of emotions there but then there’s also the feeling of excitement. It’s like, “Wow, when is the next one?” or “When am I going to…”, “I am still hungry, I want to go get food” and I’m like, “I don’t want to food because I am so sick.”
Yeah, there are all sorts of different emotions about it but it really truly is the most — if I look back on where the value comes from that, yeah, the finish line was great but it really is the journey. That’s what’s been so beautiful about it is because it’s transformed my life and it is so transformative in the process of getting to the finish line that yeah, that is just beautiful.
Benji Block: Well, we want people to go pick up the book and read the full story. There is so much in there that I couldn’t even ask you about but it’s a great read and I want to conclude with two questions. First being, if you could talk to yourself when you were at that rock-bottom/dark, low place, is there anything you would say if there is someone listening that maybe not obviously in the exact same space but somewhere similar?
Adam Hill: Yes, absolutely, that this is not permanent and change is absolutely possible. It’s hard to get through to people who are in their worse, who are feeling their worst. As long as they know that whatever they want to achieve is absolutely possible and that they just take one step forward. That is all that they need to do today.
Benji Block: Yep. And you can say that with weight behind your words because you are standing on the other side of what’s been a pretty remarkable journey. Last question for you is this, anxiety is something that you go through seasons with. I know there is obviously remarkable stories but I just wonder today where you’re at with anxiety, what’s your relationship like with anxiety, and what’s the evolution been there?
Adam Hill: That is such a good question and there is no poor answer to it because I still do struggle with it. It’s a constant, I live with anxiety and it doesn’t go away. You can transcend a lot of the things that a lot of the anxiety — you have a lot of the fears but you never get over it and even today. This week has been a big challenge for me personally where I’ve had a lot of anxiety and things like that and I tend to get overwhelmed.
The difference today is that I know how. I know the tools to be able to manage it and I know what works for me because I’ve worked with them and I know that the very first thing that I never do is pick up the drink to try and resolve it because that does not help it.
Benji Block: That’s good. Well, thanks for being vulnerable on the show today, Adam. I know your story is going to be impactful for many. Where can people stay connected to you and your work? Is there anywhere online for people to do that?
Benji Block: Wonderful. Well again, the book is titled, Shifting Gears: From Anxiety and Addiction to a Triathlon World Championship. It’s a great book. It’s on Amazon now, go pick it up and Adam, thank you so much for being on Author Hour today.
Adam Hill: Thank you, this was a pleasure.