On Friday, I found myself watching I Used To Be Fat.
I am convinced that your social life during parenthood is similar to the social life during Ironman training. You find yourself Friday night at 7:30 pm, utterly exhausted from the week, laying on the living room floor watching something inane on cable while reacquainting yourself with a TP Therapy massage ball thinking quietly to yourself this is just the Friday night I was hoping for.
After flipping through the channels, a few minutes watching Fight Club (all time favorite ever make believe place from a movie: the cave where you find your power animal, similar to the pain cave but not as scary as the tunnel of fire), I found myself glued to MTV. For those of you born before 1980, remember when MTV truly was MTV? When fishheads fishheads roly poly fishheads was a music video? When Kennedy read the news and Adam Curry hosted Headbangers Ball?
I think being born before 1980 qualifies me to call those the good old days.
I Used To Be Fat requires little explanation. It’s a reality show about someone who used to be fat. It’s a socially insensitive program title but sometimes it is what it is. There are only so many sugar-coated excuses we can make for ourselves. Adults are classic excuse makers when it comes to being faced with an uncomfortable reality. You are what you are, or in the case of this show – you are what you eat.
This girl ate fast food every-single-day, because her mom bought it for her!
The girl wanted to lose 90 pounds in 12 weeks. Incidentally (SPOILER ALERT), she accomplished that, losing an amazing holy shit worth of 7 pounds each week. That’s a deficit 3500 calories each day. Or, 5 Nachos Bell Grande at Taco Bell (did you know that the most calorie dense item on the Taco Bell menu is the Fiesta Salad)?
Color me impressed. Sort of. I mean, if we all had an easy on the eyes personal trainer barking military-style workout orders at us on a daily basis we’d probably swallow a big dose of HTFU and drop a few pounds. As a coach, I found it interesting to watch the trainer. His workouts were pretty evil (and I’ll never pass up the opportunity to learn an evil workout) but what I really liked was his style. He was firm, honest and consistent. She said she needed a rest, he said to her you’ve been resting for 18 years. She said she wanted to puke, he said go ahead and then went into the bathroom to see if she was puking. She wanted to give up, he said fine, go ahead and stay fat. She cried, he told her she was afraid. In fact, forget the workout orders, what he was mostly doing was making her face herself, accept her situation and deal with it.
Helping an athlete face their fears. It’s part of the business of being a coach. Or a trainer. The girl was physically capable of what he was asking yet she was just too scared to ask her body to do it. In fact, one of the things she mentioned after several weeks of training is you can push your body much further than you think you can. So true! Each time she was faced with breaking out of her comfort zone or getting to that next level, she cried and said “I can’t. My legs are going to give out. I need a rest.” Let me tell you, a televised melodramatic tantrum from an adult is something to see.
But more importantly, something to learn from.
Fear. We all have it. It’s based in insecurity and mistrust of ourselves. As athletes we have many fears – fear of failure, fear of what others think of us, fear of pain. But more often than not, I find that many athletes have fear of their own success. We sell ourselves short and underestimate our ability. We know that while we are capable of getting to that next level, getting there requires a huge risk, perhaps pain. We are afraid that in taking that risk we will fail, we will hurt, others will judge us in our moment of possible weakness. Boldness, confidence and trust to take that risk is what gets us there. Are you brave enough to take those steps or will you sit there, underperforming and paralyzed by your own fear.
Sometimes I’m scared. I’ll be totally honest with you, I recently spent 40 weeks living in a very large body, moving at sloth-like speed and here I am with a racing season fast approaching. My first big race is 10 weeks away. Thoughts of will I be ready, will I ever feel fast, will I reach race weight – from time to time, when my guard is down, those insecurities float around my head in a flurry of anxiety and fear. Most of the time I manage them with building confidence and preparation, the only two secret weapons that any athletes has. Forget training approaches, magical coaches, supplements….if you don’t have confidence and consistent preparation you won’t have a chance at getting where you want to go on race day.
Last Tuesday, I did my bike test. I was excited, I was ready. But I wanted to try something different. It’s easy to focus in my basement, by myself. Down there, I’m always winning. I’m always number one. It’s just me against me. Which is fine but … let’s be real. On race day it’s never just you against you. It is a race. There’s dozens of other athletes either gunning for you, chasing you or breathing down your neck. What are you going to do when you get there? Fade or pick up the pace. How will you know if you don’t put yourself in those situations?
So I decided to put myself on a stage. I went to the training center and saddled up with Mike and Bill. Mike and Bill are two of Keith’s athletes. Keith gives them permission to pummel themselves, tactfully, each week on the bike. I sit, waiting for my class to start, and watch them. In the past two years, I’ve seen them bring the puke bucket out (and use it), cuss, blow tires and even blow up. It’s phenomenal. They’ll go for broke during the mainset and then 10 minutes later, like the two old Muppet in the balcony, be arguing about what’s appropriate etiquette on Match.com like nothing ever happened. Like 10 minutes ago they weren’t raging in 53 x 12.
They knew I was coming and put me on a trainer right next to them. They were doing some FTP teaser set, I was doing the real thing. We warmed up and then it was go time. I shifted into the sustainable balls out gear.
Goddamn this test is hard. Doesn’t matter than I’ve done it for the past 6 years, every time I do it I am painfully reminded that by the time I hit 10 minutes into it I just want off. But there’s still 10 minutes to go. Usually I pace it with the first 5 minutes easing into it, 10 minutes of locking in that this hurts but is not killing it pace and then go for broke the last 5 minutes. Maybe it was too much coffee, overheating or nerves but by the time I hit 10 minutes into it I felt like death.
If you’ve ever done this test, you know this feeling.
All of a sudden I couldn’t focus anymore. I started getting scared. What if I can’t hold this. What if I finish this test and my watts are lower than last time. What if people are watching and think, oh my god she’s so weak. It didn’t help that there was a mirror right in front of me. And then it hit me – I am riding in my jog bra. I just had a baby 5 months ago, what the hell am I doing with my shirt off! My belly button is forever herniated. Are people looking at me? If so, what are they thinking?
When I was done, I reflected on the test. The power increase wasn’t huge but I’ve lost 6 pounds since the last test (yay!) so I was a big winner in the power to weight ratio. And, sure, the numbers and data are all wow that’s nice but come race day, you are more than watts. You’ve got to be able to race your race. One of the bigger reasons we do tests is for the mental exercise. And what this test revealed to me was that I’ve got some work to do.
You see, I was hurting. I was worried what others thought. I was scared. Fear. In the safety of my own basement, I am confident as shit. When I’m on the stage, it’s a little different. And that’s why I did it. To see what would happen. To face those fears.
Dammit, it’s not easy! The best athletes make it look easy but don’t be fooled. It takes years of practice to solidify your head. And you must practice it! The mind is a muscle. Confidence must be cultivated. You need to find and the employ the strategies to bring it out in all situations – when things are going your way, when things are not going your way, when you're hurting. It’s easy to be brave when you’re winning, when you’re fit or already fast. It’s harder to stay focused and bold when you’re not.
The other day I was listening to an interview with Chris McCormack. In case you’ve been hiding under a lava rock, he’s the current world champion. He had a brilliant race this year at Kona but when asked about this favorite race, it wasn’t the winning one. It was the year before when he finished in fourth place. When he fell behind on the swim, struggled on the run and had to overcome himself. He talked about how he kept his head in the game and finished just a short distance behind the winner. That’s the one that meant the most to him.
I think the most meaningful training days and races are the ones where we overcome ourselves and our fears. We do something we think we couldn’t do. I see this often with myself in masters lately. I’m swimming with people I never thought I would swim with (yes, you can make gains in sport during pregnancy, all that time swimming slow and refining your stroke WILL COUNT!), leading the lane, dropping times that make me think maybe the clock is fast. Or the course is short. Maybe it’s a 22.5 yard pool.
So I’ve stepped it up with the big(ger) fish. And it’s scary. Rightfully so, on Saturday I got a little scared. We did something called a “challenge set”. It’s never a good sign when the coach has a name for the workout AND it includes the word challenge. 3x (4 x 100, 200). The 100s rotated from a comfortable to tight to easy interval then the 200 descended from an easy to balls out pace. The last interval for the 200s was in a time that I have never swam an open 200 in. There is only one word to describe doing this on a Saturday morning at 7:30 am:
The lane leader and I were called upon to decide the interval. There were two choices. Intervals we knew we could make with our eyes closed. Or intervals that required us to take a risk.
You know how I feel about intervals: you either make excuses or you make the interval.
The first two times through I felt a little shaky. I was making the intervals but didn’t feel great. For whatever reason, I started to doubt that I could finish the last two. So I let the guy behind me go in front of me. It was a fin to my mouth moment the second he pushed off and I realized now I would be behind him for the rest of the set. Turns out I felt fine and made the intervals all except the last 200 because I was in the back of the lane.
Insert fin >here<. I thought about it on the way home. Why did I get scared? I would have made the intervals. Why didn’t I give myself a chance? What’s the worst thing that could have happened? At worst, I could have blown up, stopped at the wall and then let the others swim away. At best, I could have set a new personal best, overcome myself, rocked the challenge set. And this is the byproduct of fear. When we let it interfere with our efforts, it sells us short. It leaves us with that nagging question….what if. What if I had just stuck with it. What if I had taken a chance. What if I just said forget what others think of me, what my stomach looks like or how much I might find myself in pain…I’m going for it.
It would be easy to attain our goals if we had a trainer shouting at us the entire time, telling us to give it a little more, reminding us that we can do it. We have to become that trainer for ourselves. We have to personally put ourselves in situations that require us to rise up and then….actually do the work once we get there. Build ourselves up. Take the risk. Don’t accept less.
I’ve got work to do and maybe when I’m done, they’ll have a show about me called “I Used To Be Scared.” Or, if you saw me at 38 weeks pregnant, I used to be large. I look back at pictures of me and ask Chris – good god was I really that big?
And all he says is…yes.
This week, I’ve got a few more tests. My goal is simple: to face the fears, to overcome myself. Monday I have my strength assessment with Kate. It’s been over 16 weeks since my last assessment. I’m not scared, I’m excited! But I know when push comes to shove or when I’m on the floor shaking in plank, I’ve got two choices; tantrum like a little girl while crying I can’t do it or mind of matter being brave enough to get it done.
I’m going for it. And JH’s wall sit record.