Tap out or pass out

This was written around this time last year, about a couple of my “mountains”. It was written mid-climb, when I was trying to decide whether to keep going or to abandon the adventure. They were obstacles that had me seriously questioning both my self-worth as an athlete and whether I was going to continue lifting or not. I have since climbed a bit higher and learned a few things in the process. I’m publishing this because maybe someone out there is tackling the same mountain range as an athlete and needs to understand that not only is it possible, it’s worth doing. Things that make you stronger should not be allowed to destroy you, they should make you happy. (Even front squats. Maybe. Jury’s still out on those. I’ll get back to you.)

And as a side note, the other side of the peak is pretty damned fun, but there are still more mountains ahead. There are always more mountains. 🙂 ….


I was training once with a couple of friends and there was an exercise one of them was attempting to teach me. The effective way of teaching it was fairly light weights moved with perfect form through a partial range over and over and over to drill starting position and the first movement of the lift.

“How many?” I asked.

“As many as you can. Let’s see when you tap out,” was the response.

The other friend laughed and said, “I think Vicky with pass out before she taps out.”

(For the record I since I’m not still doing it, I *must* have tapped out. )

I took this as a tremendous compliment. 

I saw it as a sign of how hard I could push myself and understood that pushing myself harder and harder was the key to getting somewhere as a lifter. My job was to never tap out; it was to get all of the work done with whatever I had left in the tank, draining it if needed. And let’s be utterly frank here, to get to a world-class level of training requires consistently pushing yourself. That is a given and a part of the process. You have to do that day after day for a very long time with great consistency and you get out of it what you put in. But even champions have their limits and I’m starting to understand that maybe those who become champions are not just the folks with higher limits, but those who also learn how to read themselves and use their training thresholds best.

When given a training program, I believed I had to get through it in its entirety, as-written, with prescribed weights, regardless of what else was going on in my life, using whatever means I needed to. If that meant training eight or more times a week to get through all the work, I trained as many times a week as it took. If it meant planning my whole life to allow for training, I took a pass on hiking with friends so it wouldn’t mess up my squats, ate at home before going out to dinner so that I could stay on-plan nutritionally, froze my ass off in ice baths because my legs hurt enough that I woke up with tears on my face in the night, spent a fortune on massage (worth every penny, but it added up), did extra mobility work before bed, used so many supplements it got a bit silly (and expensive), went to bed early and forwent social gatherings for more sleep, allocated funds to training and travel instead of other household projects, and pushed myself over and over again into what I can now see was for me a seriously red danger zone from which recovery was very difficult and that strained my marriage and family. When I simply couldn’t get all the work done to spec, I spent far too much time and effort beating myself up for it. Rather than looking for a new route for the goals I held dear, I let my all-or-nothing approach kick me in the self-confidence, telling myself that the path I was on was the only road to where I wanted to go and the problem was me and my inadequacies. That internal dialogue is utterly unhelpful, but so very difficult to rescript.

There is a dark place that training can take you, like that cave that Luke Skywalker goes into on Dagobah. In that Place, darkness is magnified by exhaustion and fear creates demons. We don’t talk about it much, but if you’ve ever gone there you know the Place. It’s not pleasant. What is in there is what you take with you and the darkness is of your own creation and all within your head, but so very real and it can feel like a tunnel with no ending. It’s exhaustion and stress rolled in drive and determination and it can consume a person because the way you see out of that Place is the same stuff that put you there in the first place.

My husband is a good man and loves me very deeply. He’s my best friend, confidant, and honestly one of the finest people I’ve ever met. I look at him pretty often and think, “How on earth is it that he sticks around for *me*?”. He is tremendously proud of me and what I have achieved even though he really doesn’t understand why I do it. But in recent months (editor’s note: please remember that this post is a year old) my training has been the sole source of our conflict as he can see what I sometimes refuse to acknowledge; that sometimes too much is not “necessary overload” and that change was needed. Sometimes too much is, in fact, too much, and not helpful to progress. And while he acknowledges that decisions surrounding my training are mine to make, he also has a bigger picture in his head of what a beautiful thing my life can be, how amazing our life together is, and as my best friend he guards that picture for me as I do for him when each of us has a tough time. 

That picture matters, to both of us.

I powerlift. But I am more than a powerlifter. I’m a human being of weird and wacky abilities, skills, and interests; a woman (with all the strengths and weaknesses that this entails), a curious and inquisitive person, someone who loves exploring ideas, cultures, and places, a photographer, hiker, kayaker, lover of nature and animals, friend, wife, mother, dog-wrangler, cat-herder, coach, gardener, artist, and craftsperson.

Because my job and hobby revolve around lifting, it’s easy to lose sight of the other parts of my life sometimes. But the other parts of my life are what make Me. I love to hike and explore, to see new views and feel the sun and rain on my face and smell the earthy richness of simply being in nature. I like watching thing grow, nurturing things that are new and tender and seeing them become strong and beautiful. I love the feeling of taking a vision in my head and translating it with my hands, mind, and heart into paint and paper and fabric so that something beautiful and never-before-made comes into being. I love the feeling of kneading bread and feeling the texture change beneath my hands and of making food and laughing with friends while we eat it. I take absolute joy in becoming a part of the water while in a kayak, feeling myself rise and fall with the swell of the ocean, playing with wave and rock and feeling my body drive the boat through the water. Crisp summer nights sitting around the fire with my family close make me whole. The barbell is an important part of who I am, but it isn’t the whole picture; the heavy things in my life become so very much heavier when they are given too much weight. And sometimes things that are made to be too heavy are not making you any stronger, but are, in fact, weakening you.

The other day I found myself sitting in a coffee shop wondering if I actually want to continue lifting at all. Recent training has been a bundle of negative thoughts and emotions and drains me more than it gives to me. My mind is exhausted from both months of training and months of recent turmoil. I have lain alone on the deadlift platform at least twice in the past ten days and cried until I had nothing left out of frustration, despair and exhaustion (one of the benefits of a private gym is that you can be broken as needed and no one sees). Training is not fun when you spend it crying, alone, and in doubt. My soul feels crushed and bruised and I’ve been wanting to hide from the world a while because I feel like I’m not meeting expectations.

But there’s a little voice in the back of my head that I am trying very hard to listen to because I think that maybe that small, quiet voice is one I can trust. It is the deepest, truest part of my self and it has steered me right in the past, when I wondered if I should run or stay. That quiet little voice says that the reason I’ve stuck it out this long and the reason that I will not stop trying to find a way through at this point is that lifting and getting stronger is a part of my heart’s blood and that the self-same thing that kept me coming back to that bar in recent days, when it was a battle between sweat and tears (and the tears were threatening to win), is the same thing that will let me sort this deal out now. That voice also whispers that it is only possible to be hurt this badly by and to fight this hard with yourself for something that you in fact love incredibly deeply. And that I really do love lifting and the lifting community.

So now I am trying to appreciate the lessons that have been evident in the last while; that my actual job is not to pass out before tapping out, but to learn precisely WHEN to tap out (and by that same token, when to push harder) and never to get to the point of passing out. To do other things that fill my life with meaning and to put the barbell and everything associated with it down regularly. To rest well to be mentally excited to train well. To set limits and boundaries so that the negative aspects don’t intrude more than they are worth. That means making decisions and taking steps to make my training fun again, whatever those mean for me.

My job is self-preservation and strengthening, not self-annihilation, and you don’t get stronger by hitting a wall over and over and over again. 

You just end up with a dented head and a bloody wall. And after a while you lose enthusiasm because the wall never gets softer, you just bleed sooner and sooner until there’s nothing left.

I’m not playing that game anymore.

I’ve decided that my job is to lift as Vicky, with everything that she brings to that bar and to the sport. I guess for a while lately I have been having a hard time knowing who that was precisely and what she needs to be that person. But I know and like that Vicky when she’s there. I actually like her a lot, when she’s happy and strong and feels alive. I can see her in pictures from nationals, approaching that bar with confidence and fire, or in pictures from last summer laughing with her family and there’s no one else I would rather be than that person. I think maybe if you can say that about your best self, you’re winning at the important stuff in life.

I’m going to continue to learn precisely when to tap out (and when to keep going) so that I can come back and tap again the next day. And the next. And every day after that until I become what I know I can be.

My plan is to become a better and even more freakishly strong version of me than I know about right now. That’s pretty damned exciting…. and I think “exciting” tells me it’s the right track.

Epilogue: She learned, is still learning, is getting freakishly stronger, and is training mostly happily ever after… But still doesn’t like front squats. 


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