It has been a rough couple of weeks. Rowan (our border collie) died rather suddenly last Monday and since then I’ve been riding a roller coaster of exhaustion, grief, training, joy at memories, excitement at a forthcoming competition, grief at the memories of other dogs remembered, joy at the imminent arrival of a new puppy, guilt at feeling happiness instead of focussing on grief, the ups and downs of training (some days are great, some off; that’s training most times, but stress exacerbates this pendulum) and exhaustion at trying to balance all the pieces of life on any given day. I think most people live with some of these elements or worse a lot of the time; I’m nothing particularly unique. Many have far tougher lives on a more regular basis.
But this week got me thinking about training and how it was the anchor that stayed constant through it all, about how I kept it going and about the other athletes whom I admire that persist in struggling forward in the face of far greater challenges when they could find any number of justifications for easing off or giving up.
Many people with absolutely wonderful intentions said to me, “You’re upset. Take a few days off.” And I could have, quite easily, just not trained. It’s remarkably simple not to train, and to justify it. You simply don’t go to the gym. When you’re hurt or frustrated, people are very compassionate and often say the same thing. “Maybe you should stop, find something easier, try a new hobby.” And the thing is that you absolutely can at any given moment. Nothing is stopping you. If you are sick, no one is going to hold a gun to your head and make you train or tell you to make up the lost ground (except perhaps a good friend or coach – if you have either or both you’re damned lucky) because no one truly benefits but you. And people will exonerate you from that missed work out, with the best of intentions.
But that’s not how this works. It’s not how you behave towards a commitment. You don’t do it only when it’s easy, convenient, or when you feel like it. What you feel like actually has no real bearing on the matter. It’s a promise you’ve made to yourself and such promises must be kept because they are the ones that are most important. How you behave towards promises you make to yourself is what defines you.
On the day Rowan died, I had some serious doubts about my physical capacity to be safe under the bar due to the extremity of my fatigue and emotional state, so I modified the workout somewhat and did what could be done safely (decreased the squat weights for top sets by about 5%). On all other days (including today), I was just sad and tired from a lack of sleep and too much crying, and while the weights felt heavier, they could be moved safely as planned.
I could have taken a couple of days off. Maybe some people would have. But for me that wasn’t an option because being sad isn’t a reason for me not to train. Being tired isn’t a reason for me not to train (if it were, I’d never train). Being worried isn’t a reason for me not to train. Being stiff or a bit sore isn’t a reason not to train. Being legitimately concerned about my ability to control the movement of my body and the weights due to any of the above? That’s a reason to modify the workout to fall within safe parameters. But it’s not necessarily a reason not to train.
When I decide to do something, when I make a commitment to MYSELF to undertake a purpose, I do that thing. When something feels hard, I do it anyway. If things feel heavy, difficult, exhausting and futile, it’s my job to figure out a way to keep going somehow. Marriage, training, careers, parenthood, musical or artistic pursuits, studies or great ventures, all will present you with ample opportunities to bail on them if you so choose. The world is full of opportunities to stray from the planned path and delights in selling those to us as reasonable rewards or digressions.
But I think we have it backwards. We ask ourselves, “Do I *feel* like training? What do I *feel* like eating?” We say things like, “It feels heavy/hard/not fun/uncomfortable so I don’t think I’ll do it. I’ll do as much as I can”. We use having a bad day as a reason to cut ourselves slack and the amount that we cut ourselves cheats us of true pursuit of our goals.
Maybe one of the most important things I learned from working with a coach over the past almost-four years (thanks, Nick) is that we give far too much weight to feelings about fitness or abilities and not enough to rational assessment, empirical fact and just doing the fucking work because it has to be done because you have a goal. Just because a weight feels heavy doesn’t mean you can’t lift it. Just because a thing feels hard doesn’t mean you will be beaten by it. You are always stronger than you feel. You have the right to choose which feelings to believe and you are absolutely allowed to override initial emotional reactions in favour of an alternate ending. If you walk out 162.5kg and it’s heavy, that does not determine whether or not you can squat it (assuming you’ve done the work). If you want to squat 175kg eventually, well, put in the workouts consistently and push the goddamned envelope in whatever ways you can with your body and mind. So what if it’s hard or uncomfortable? Do the thing, put in the time, and go after it.
What we need to teach ourselves to ask in the face of exhaustion and adversity is, “How am I going to do this thing, despite these obstacles? How can I make my way forward along this road that I’ve chosen? What resources can I find that will allow me to overcome these difficulties? How can I turn the impossible into manageable pieces? Who can I call on to stand by me and help me through, who will not try to talk me out of this? How much CAN I do and can I do a little more even than that?”
Not, “How can I get out of doing it because I don’t entirely feel like it and who will exonerate me?”
If your goal is to live, eat, train, or behave a certain way, you don’t look at the opportunities to deviate from your chosen path as viable options. You choose your digressions and enjoy them, but you are not their slave. You recognize that what you do on a daily basis adds up and you do what needs doing regardless of whether you feel like it or not.
At some point you come to understand that the things you learn on the road to your goal can be used to help you face other parts of your life. So when your relationship is going through a rough patch (they all do), when your loved one dies (grief comes to us all), when work or careers present challenges (because that’s how you learn), when you are dealing with injury or illness (inevitable), you turn to this thing that gives you strength, that has shown you time and again how to stand up under great weights, and you use what has given you.
This is a freely-made choice and you have chosen this path and its pain.
A way forward is always possible.
You are stronger than you feel.
Everything you are is temporary and evolving.
You can continue to grow.
Sadness and exhaustion can be temporary.
Live in the moment, but face forward.
Failure is a stepping stone to success.
Keep pushing, stay strong, and the weight on your shoulders will move.