Tuesday, May 27, 2008

There Is No Spoon

I have always been, athletically, just "slightly above average." Nothing ever came easy to me - I remember working my ass off the summer before my junior year in high school in an effort to make the varsity football team - I ultimately did, and became a starter, but didn't set any school records or anything. I was never a consistent basketball player (though, interestingly, I'm much better now than I was in high school...sigh.) Track was really a joke - the highlight of my illustrious career coming in running the 400 hurdles at one track meet, to be locked in a dead tie for last place with another kid from my school (his name, incidentally, was Jeff). I was determined to beat at least him, so gave it everything I had - but leaping over hurdles is hard damn work. In you-can't-make-this-stuff-up fashion, he and I spent the last 200 yards literally tripping over every single hurdle, toppling in a heap onto the ground, scurrying to get up before the other one did so we could breathlessly stumble to the next hurdle, only to trip over it. I imagine we looked like two drunken idiots chasing chickens or something. He beat me, by the way.

So when I started triathlon - 5 years ago now (sheesh, how did that happen), it was with zero expectations of myself except to finish. Period. I embarked on training for that first Olympic triathlon in '04 with a simple goal to finish, and it was so sweet when I did. I did a Half Ironman in '06, and lay in a heap afterwards, 6 and a half hours since I'd started, unbelievably satisfied with just crossing the line. And of course, Ironman, where really, I don't care who you are, the order of the day is to cross the finish line.

In general in my life, I have high expectations of myself. I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, I'm optimistic, I believe in the power of thought and the mind, I sincerely think just getting to the starting line is a victory in itself. But somewhere in the vast history of me, I'd come to a conclusion - without any remarkable process or decision - that I was capable of just so much, and not more than that when it came to the resurgent athlete that was me, embarking on triathlon at 30 years old. It's interesting because all the knowledge I've developed over these years, all the science and discovery...I never applied any of it to getting"faster". Just...efficient, so I could reach the finish line.

This changed last season, after the injury, when I had only two races, both fall Sprint triathlons, to prepare for. Applying myself only to short, speedy workouts started to slowly reveal things I hadn't anticipated. I found satisfaction in the heavy breathing, the bursts of intensity - things not experienced when just training long distance with a goal "just to finish". So this winter, when I started training seriously for last weekend's 13.1 and the Half Ironman later this summer, I decided - for really the first time ever - to seriously apply myself to getting faster. To make my workouts hard work - not just long work. To focus on a speed and tempo and determine myself to stay there. And, as you know, that went increasingly well, and each week I was surprised that it got easier, and the results more dramatic, and I was consistently exceeding my goals and having to revise with more difficult goals.

Very recently, though, I feel like the last piece of the puzzle kind of clicked into place. The epiphany came unexpectedly and in tiny chunks rather than one big AHA! - it started with watching The Matrix, one of my favorite movies, and for whatever reason seeing it from a different perspective than I'd seen it before. I was finding meaning, instead of just being entertained. I started talking more on this blog about Rate of Perceived Effort. Some friends were writing that they were making strides in training that surprised them as well - that what they had thought possible was being exceeded. Other, smaller things here and there that by themselves would have gone unnoticed, but instead seemed revelatory when I gave them thought in a broader perspective.

So last week, when I time-trialed my 5k in training, wondering if I could possibly get under that elusive 7:00/mile mark I'd chased for so long, the familiar wall came, the dreaded slowing of the legs, the sensation that I was running through mud. And it came just when I knew it would - about 2 and a quarter miles into the run. And I responded just how I usually do - well, that was pretty good - 2.25 at under 7, keep that up and maybe next time it'll be 2.5 or even farther, one of these days you might get all 3.1 miles under 7:00... - and that's when, without a lot of forethought, I thought of the scene above. Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead, only try and realize the truth: There is no spoon. And there came with it a mental note about Rate of Perceived Effort - that my effort is only what I perceive it to be. Powerful words, those. If that's true, than I should be able to manipulate that in some way. I should be able to define it to my purpose in some way.

I was tired and worn out and ready to be satisfied with the effort, I think, because I had conditioned my brain, over these years, to expect and respond to to the level of fatigue I was experiencing. What if I'm not fatigued? What if I'm not tired? What if I have another gear, enough left in me to reach 3.1? So - and it sounds simple because maybe it is - that's what I did. I'm not saying it was easy, because it wasn't and I was tired. But I picked my head up, concentrated on turning my legs over, and most importantly cleared my head of what I was expecting, and just ran as fast as I could.

When the same situation presented itself in the last mile of the half marathon, it was predictable. I was ready for it. When I started to slow, I just took control of the situation instead of thoughtlessly letting it control me. I've done the same lately on the bike. And, as usual, triathlon imitates life imitates triathlon - I've found elsewhere in my life, away from the game, that it's useful to recalibrate just a bit on this or that thought or expectation. I imagine I seem a delusional idiot, mumbling under my breath half my day, there is no spoon there is no spoon there is no spoon...

You know when Neo finally "sees" The Matrix, and his place in it, and it all suddenly makes sense?

I feel like that lately. I mean, lacking the sense of heroism and bullets being shot at me and world-saving stakes and all. I think the convergence of time, maturity, and experience have created a new environment in which I'm playing the game this season. Everything has slowed down. I see it all for its immediate gain and its long-term purpose. Everything is clicking, and I'm finding myself unconcerned about things I used to obsess about. Things like... race day breakfast, or which days to do what for training, used to confound me, and I'd tweak and experiment, hoping to find the perfect solution - now I keep it simple, and it works. On the bike - I had a really tough ride on Sunday, and for the second time was left knowing I couldn't run 13.1 afterwards if my life depended on it. But I'm understanding why with each experience - constructing a mental checklist of what to adapt, change, attend to. And I'm not at all worried about finding my way with it. Even race day - CznE asked me after the 13.1 if I'd really be devastated if the day had gone south and I hadn't had the great race I knew I could have. And truly - no. Would I be disappointed? Sure, but I'm beyond a place where "how well I do" - whatever that means - is the sole basis for my satisfaction in this thing. That's the ultimate challenge, sure - executing what you know you're capable of - but it's not some final prize. Not yet, anyway.

And, I'm free of all the context that really defined Becoming Ironman One. I read back on some of those posts, and I was making sense of all kinds of things. Every ride, every run, every accomplishment or failure was some high drama metaphor as, through the course of it, I made some kind of sense of myself and the death of my Dad, of getting older, of moving on past those things that we all eventually move on from. Becoming Ironman One was a total catharsis for me. Everything had some parallel, incredible meaning. That was an incredible experience, and embodied One, and I don't regret any of it or would want for anything different form the experience. But - it made it doubly exhausting. I'm much, much, much more resolved with those things in my life now, and don't need catharsis - certainly not through triathlon. It's good for me - it allows me a clear head to just enjoy the game. Explore it. Learn from it.

Anyway. If you've found yourself confounded lately, hitting proverbial walls, unable to attain or achieve what you believe in your heart is possible within you - I say, check yourself. Could be you're more than you think you are. Could be you can bend spoons. That is, y'know. If there were any.


Jason said...

Damn man....you get it every time.

IM Able said...

I've struggled recently with this undercurrent concern that so many of my limitations are sourced in my own mind. My (old) coach told me once to just get out of my own way, and there was a lot of wisdom in that. I think I need to allow myself to evolve a bit and leave the machinations of finding meaning and purpose to everything behind, in exchange for just doing.

Somewhere I lost a little of the doing, for fear I was missing out on the experience. Your post has made me think a little more about this...thanks for that.

RobbyB said...

Now that's what I call a breakthrough!

anneglamore said...

I'm married to a triathlete, and our 3 boys (9,9 and 12) are slowly picking up the sport. I think it's a great confidence booster if handled correctly, and gives kids a number of forms of exercise to keep them fit as they grow.

Plus, it makes Mama cry when one of them overcomes a hurdle.

Anyway, my latest post talks about this (with pictures) and I'd love to encourage other triathletes to get their kids involved. The travel and cheering and now participation have been FUN for us!

ps - My hubby is heading to Alcatraz in a couple of weeks and is fired up!

Triteacher said...

Woah, very cool. Mind-bending in fact.

R. Jeffrey Davis said...

Simply profound. Thanks for sharing and I will try to put that "inside me". Remember, there is no spoon.

KodaFit said...

Before my last couple of races, I've gotten in the habit of watching a couple of your video, to physch myself up.

I think next time, I may just take a print out of this post with me and read it right before I start.


Of course, I'm still going to watch the videos - those are still pretty damn cool!

TriSaraTops said...

I love this post, and once again, we're totally on the same wavelength here. It's funny, because I guess I thought Ironman would be some kind of pinnacle or pedastal, but what I've come to realize is that it was a beginning of sorts.