Monday, January 18, 2010

Pursuit of Happiness

The other morning, I was doing some strength work while watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

Before you write me off for keeping up with them, I don’t mind a certain level of mindless chatter when I’m working out in the basement. I’ll admit to watching Tough Love, For The Love Of Ray J, Animal Cops and just the other day hit rock bottom with Jersey Shore. But this is not about my exceptionally poor taste in television while working out. It’s about a conversation I overheard on the show.

In the show, the ever-famous Kim was despondent over her break up with Saints running back, Reggie Bush. So, Bruce Jenner, Kim's stepfather, offered up some advice. Now, you need only have grown up in the late 70s to know who Bruce Jenner is. The man on the Wheaties box. The decathlete. Olympic gold medalist. Amidst Kim’s woe-is-meing, Bruce asks her to look at the break up from Reggie’s point of view. Or what it takes to be an athlete at that level. He tells her there is a certain amount of selfishness you need to have with your body, with your emotions to achieve that level of athletic success. You get a once in a lifetime shot at being at your physical and mental best.

I barely see my husband. Or if feels that way. On Saturday he left the house before 7 am for a 5000 yard masters swim practice, returned home for a few hours before riding his bike in the basement for over 2 hours. Sunday he ran 10 miles before heading out for another 90 minute masters practice. I see him in between workouts, in an endless transition from one activity to the next, of filling up with fuel for the next session or recovering. Weekdays are much the same. He leaves before 7 am, works until 4:30 pm before heading out for the evening workouts. And finally gets home after 7 pm.

It’s a lifestyle I know very well. The one I used to lead too. After work there is play but it’s different than the play of other people. It is the "play" of an athlete. Playing with the pursuit of a goal is what makes an athlete and athlete. It’s a fire you cannot fake, a competitive drive to stop at nothing but the goal. Scrapbooking is a hobby. For the athlete, sport is not a hobby. Sport is a pursuit, at times self-focused and myopic but to achieve great things you have to have tunnel vision for your goal.

I’ve thought about this a lot mostly because I cannot seem to find something that fills the space in my life that sport used to occupy. Sure, I coach, I teach, I still exercise – but it’s not the same. It’s vicarious and limited. And what I have always liked most about sport is that it is limitless. Right now sport is also not competitive. It’s not driven. It’s a bunch of “doing” because I can still do things. But I struggle with not having a goal. Athletic goals usually have numbers attached to them. For me, some days, I’m just happy to be at the pool nevermind what interval I hit for my 200s. Right now, sport is not the same.

I try to find another hobby but something is missing. It’s that pursuit. The pursuit of a goal, the process, the feeling of being of driven. I miss the small steps of success you make toward the bigger goal. I miss the feeling of running fast. These days I’m cranking out a pace that’s 1 minute per mile slower than my usual easy pace. While I’m still grateful to be running, and realize that even that pace isn’t that slow, I still miss running fast. I miss gasping for air while trying to make the interval at masters. I miss pushing out more than recovery watts. I miss the feeling of doing work and feeling like it is getting me somewhere. It’s that work + time = progress equation that is missing here. Right now I do single-legged squats on the upside down Bosu and years as an athlete make me expect to get stronger. The other day I fell off the Bosu smack on my butt right into a chair that then crashed into the wall. It was a dramatic reminder that I am losing my balance and maybe even some strength. That is the equation of pregnancy.

Being on the other side now, watching my husband come and go from workout to workout, I see how selfish and focused the pursuit is. But I also know that for that selfishness, there is a payoff. Achievement and pride. The feeling of I did that, I worked hard for that, I made it happen. For the athlete, these are very valuable things. For as selfish as the pursuit seems, I envy the way he looks when he comes home from running. Or the stories he has to tell about a torturous swim workout with a 1400 yard warm up, descending 100s on a tight interval and a hard kick set inserted at the 4500 mark. I want to be doing that. I miss that level of selfishness. Or maybe selfishness is the wrong term. Maybe it’s absorption in your athletic goals. Is that selfish? I don’t know – but from years of being an athlete I will admit that is what it takes.

I can’t do sport like I want to right now so I do find that watching others do sport sometimes fills that hole. It doesn’t matter the sport, we are all athletes, I can relate. The other night I was watching an old favorite of mine, pro bull riding. JB Mauney, one of the top riders in the world right now, was atop a bull when the announcer was talking about how he was coming into form before the world championship. He was talking about how any athlete knows the mental focus it takes to be at your best. I found myself nodding my head. I know that feeling. I can taste it. Thinking about it makes me salivate. And makes me want to focus intently on a goal.

Earlier that day I watched ice skating. It was the national championship with two spots for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics up for grabs. The second place couple was most likely going to be awarded the second Olympic slot. Upon realizing it, the girl in that couple started crying. And she didn’t stop. Of course I have not been to the Olymipcs, but I got what she was feeling. Every athlete has tasted that level of success. Whether it was finishing their first triathlon, crossing the line at Ironman, or bouncing back from injury. We’ve done something that meant that much to us. In between tears, the skater mumbled something about 8 years to get to this point. And I think about that – 8 years. 8 years is 416 weeks of work, of practice, of sacrifice and grit. 8 years...

All of a sudden 40 weeks in pregnancy doesn’t seem that long. I realize now that each week my body will get a little bigger, perhaps a little slower but the finish line will be here soon enough. I’ve already started to notice that some of the things I could do are no longer possible, my heart rate spikes too high with some push-ups. At 14-weeks you are no longer supposed be lay on your back. There is a lot I cannot do right now but still so much I can do – albeit it slower than I want to but it gets done nonetheless.

But as each week ticks by I find myself getting more hungry. More fired up. The athlete is still in there. A fire is building. I am intimately learning why women return from pregnancy stronger, faster. Spend 40 weeks stumbling over your own feet, carrying the weight of someone else inside of you along with your lungs pressed up to your throat, well, you get tough. You get hungry. You lose your selfishness and instead become selfless. You spend 10 months with your body not being your own, you hurt in new ways, you give things up, you sacrifice. You hold back. In many ways pregnancy is a lot like sport.

So, I suppose this is my goal now. Everything I do en route to July 28 is the pursuit. I’m trying to do everything I can to be strong, tough and prepared. I’m reading the books. I’m eating the right things. I’m sleeping a lot. And I even find myself envisioning it. Of course no race ever goes as planned but at least I will have the illusion of being prepared. That will count for something. I know at this race there is no personal best waiting for me but I argue there is something much better. And like the girl going to the Olympics, I too will probably cry.

You can take the competitive athletics away from the athlete but the athlete is still in there. In the past 13 weeks I realized I don’t workout to stay skinny. If that was the case, I would have stopped 13 weeks ago. I don’t workout because it’s sexy. If so, I would have stopped every time I looked down and saw my bloated belly sticking out from my increasingly tighter run shorts. I don’t workout because I’m obsessed. I work out because there is an athlete in me that begs to achieve a physical goal and because pushing the limits makes me feel alive.

I’m still very much an athlete and very much alive. And this is my pursuit of a physical goal. And just as soon as I achieve it, it's on to the next goal of getting back to making the interval, pushing out watts and running those fast miles.

11 comments:

Kate Parker said...

Wow. Thanks for putting way more eloquently than I ever could, EXACTLY how I felt for my two pregnancies.

The payback for 40 weeks of getting slower and fatter (well, besides the bundle of joy) is the post pregnancy workouts. Faster, fitter, lighter...by the day. They rock.

Mama Simmons said...

Totally. Get. This.

Kate is right. Post-pregnancy workouts, when EVERY TIME you get significantly faster than you were yesterday, are awesome. And it's totally possible to have your best year ever after that baby is born.

ADC said...

You've just prompted me to think about something, thanks. ;)

Mary IronMatron said...

You described it well. Thanks.
You have a gift in writing. Maybe that can fill the void for now? You should pursue it. You know that, right?
You can see why Mom athletes are so strong. It's taken from you--and you fight to get it back with a vehemence even you didn't realize you had.
Welcome!

TriGirl Kate O said...

Makes me think I should have #4, just to see that improvement post-baby....NAH! Wouldn't that suck--pregnant at 42. #1 Son would be mortified, becoming a big brother again at age 25.

I'll just live vicariously through you and Michelle!

Gail said...

Ah, Liz.....you are on the road to being more than an athlete. In a matter of months you will become the second thing you can never quit.
Training will never be quite as difficult and recovery will never be so easy.
:-)

fishsprout said...

I read somewhere about some guy training for Ironman. And, he commented on how much he had to sacrifice and how many of his son's soccer games he had missed and his son turned to him and said "It's ok Dad, you need to train for your Ironman."

My reaction was, "You are a selfish asshole, your child should not have to tell you it's ok to train."

I think we all need to be selfish at some point to help us discover who we are. But, when it consumes your entire life, it becomes a tragedy.

parismtnstriding said...

Motherhood worked for Dara Torres. Thanks for writing!

meredith said...

khloe kardashian is hot.

Angela and David Kidd said...

This makes me think maybe I should go ahead and have #2. And like others said, you've eloquently stated what so many of else felt. I was still running so slowly and fugily when I was 10 days past my due date, but dammit, I was still a runner. And I'm so glad you won't be in my AG when you come back post baby!

Alicia Parr said...

Liz, I wanted to grab you by the shoulders and shake some sense into you during the early part of this post. "Don't be so shortsighted!" I was saying to a quiet house, hoping that you were just applying that writing technique of dramatizing a point of view before presenting the counterpoint. So when you got to the part about the Olympian having a goal for 8 years I breathed a sigh of relief. Exactly!

You aren't JUST training and preparing for a late July event, you're continuing to lay the foundation to the be athlete-mother that you'll be 2 - 5 - 10 years from now. The athletic achievements you gain now during your pregnancy will continue to be a source of strength for years to come.

No matter how slow, they are NOT meaningless and they are relevant to YOUR GOALS. These goals just require a focus a little further out than the coming race season.

Keep up the fantastic writing. You continue to inspire many.