How sports free us from chronic stress; and an Oceanside 70.3 recap
One way to think about sports is as a structure for overcoming obstacles, in competition. Get from here to there, jump from this to that, take this thing and move it over there—and do it fastest, or farthest.
Sports is a recognition that strength and self-transformation don’t happen by sitting in the bleachers.
Many of us now live in chronic stress and anxiety. In response, there is a trend toward slowing down: slow food, gentle movement, meditation.
When I was a teen and into my 20s, slowing down was the opposite of what I needed. Depression was kicking my ass, forcing its own kind of lethargy and detachment. I worked job after job where I felt powerless and bored. I had friends, but struggled to form deeper connections. Then I turned 28 and had to confront the life plan I had made—the plan where I was married, nearly pregnant, and in a career where I would change the world—was nothing like my real life.
How was 10 minutes of deep breathing going to help with any of that?
What I did do was, after only two years in triathlon, start racing at the professional level. And then I quit my job.
What I understand now is that I was grasping for a doorway, a threshold, anything toward meaning and happiness. Triathlon was the one place in my life where the outcomes reflected the work I put in.
Are heroes born or are they made? Do heroes have something inherent within them, or are they forged by circumstance?
In the archetypal hero’s journey, the hero is at home living an ordinary life when he receives a call to adventure. After help from a mentor, he demonstrates his commitment at an early trial and then becomes swallowed by the unknown. He fights his way through a road of trials, where he must confront his shadow self. This culminates in a supreme ordeal that earns him a supreme award. His identity is transformed. When he finally returns home, he is free to live in a way he couldn’t have imagined at the outset.
We need to be the heroes of our own stories. What I mean is that Gandolf may never knock on your door, Agamemnon may never summon you to Troy. But you can call yourself to action. And I believe, to find the freedom to live in bliss, you must not just accept but actively seek out the most difficult trials you can as often as you can.
An important part of sports is that it’s competitive. Fun runs and obstacle course events have value—but competition fast-tracks you toward supreme ordeal and toward pain, disappointment, and grief.
Sometimes the hardest part of racing happens after the finish line. The hardest is when I have to admit to myself I didn’t leave it all out on the pavement and as a result didn’t get the outcome I wanted. That’s disappointing. But it’s also part of the process of being an athlete to channel that into motivation for the next fight. And that translates into living, where I don’t deny my pain—I sit with it. I forge meaning, build identity, and and pick myself up again and fight the next fight.
What keeps me coming back to Iroman is that each race is a hero’s journey, on the scale of one day.
I raced Ironman 70.3 Oceanside this month. Standing in the starting chute, with 20 other women as the sun came up on the ocean, I barely looked at the waves that were about to spit us in all directions like popcorn kernels. Instead I was in awe of the women around me, women who’ve won multiple Ironmans, former Olympians. And then the really crazy part was when I remembered, I am here too. I am one of these super-women, too. And I am ready to RACE.
One reason I had such a good race at Oceanside is because I have put in the work, day after day, trial after trial, for now almost six years.
Another reason is because, last fall, I discovered within myself a way of racing that I’ve never been able to access before. It used to be that I would monitor my data, track my nutrition, make sure I was being strategic about pacing over the four-and-a-half hours. But now, I don’t look at any of that. When the gun goes off, I swim as hard as I can. And then I bike as hard as I can. Each minute, each pedal stroke, I’m pushing down everything I have to give, and when there’s a woman six bike lengths in front I hang on tooth and nail. And then I run, I run as fast as I can, until the finish line. At Oceanside, that was a 6:52 pace. By the end of this year I want to be holding sub-6:30s. That’s like a 13-mile sprint, for real.
When I am racing (or training my hardest), I am fully present. There’s no room for any thoughts outside of what is happening right now. This kind of focus and (it sounds strange, but it’s true) euphoria I can only seem to unlock when I am pushing beyond my limits physically and mentally. When I am in the moment, it’s a state beyond fatigue and much closer to revelation.
This is what I have learned about endurance racing: As soon as you start to think, “When is this going to be over?!” you get sloppy. You give the brain negative reinforcement by favoring the being over above the right now. Instead, we have to learn to lean into a difficult trial and sit on it.
I teach this in yoga, too. When I ask people to do difficult core work, I ask them to find a sense of comfort, to economize the effort. When I ask people to hold a long chair pose or goddess squat, I ask them to sit on it, it’s no big deal.
Like any hero on a journey, I think we are all looking for a unification with ourselves and the freedom to live. The yogis call this enlightenment, bliss, or oneness with God. Luke Skywalker might call this knowing there’s no death star trying to kill you—and also, family tree worked out, harmony with the Force, etc. A triathlete would call this the finish line.
We live in chronic stress today because the body can’t distinguish between being chased by a lion and a workplace where you are micromanaged, demeaned, and unable to succeed. We are living in a state of constant, low-level fight-or-flight.
One way out is to calm the body the f*ck down. Meditation can absolutely get you there.
But another way out is sports. When we simulate for the body an obstacle on the scale of being chased by a lion (like the “supreme ordeal” of an Ironman), then when it’s over the body can easily recognize it’s time to be in a rest state.
Now that I’ve been practicing yoga for a long time, I can be fully present in a meditation. Meditation or mindful movement is different than racing: less euphoria and more curious; less hitting a steel spike with a sledgehammer and more coyly easing in through the side door. But it’s a lot harder to learn something you can’t watch and that doesn’t come with a rule book, and it doesn’t work for everyone.
One reason I speak to women especially when I talk about sports is because women are typically the ones waiting in the castle while the man is called to adventure. Women are expected to refuse the hero’s journey because to do so would be selfish and aggressive, kind of gross, incompatible with home and family, and she would probably fail anyway. The chronic stress of domesticity and disempowerment is not the same as the thrill-stress of facing down a dragon.
Ensuring women have equal opportunity to participate in sports is not just about our right to physical health. It’s also about our right to be unified with ourselves and with our communities, to be free and happy.
What it takes to be excellent in meditation or yoga, in sports, or in life is the same. When you lean into the trials of an Ironman and reckon with your shadows, you return to ordinary life free. When you stop feeling fear in your life, you will race without limits. When you find self-compassion on the mat, you will race passionately and bring love to everyone in your life.
When I signed up for my first Ironman, I didn’t know what shadows I would face or how I would overcome the supreme ordeal. But I found out. I found out that when the pavement stretches to the horizon and the sun is at its zenith and there’s no shade and it’s mile 18, I am a person who moves forward. The last half mile of that race I could have been wrecked, but all I remember is running through town and saying (out loud, yes, like a crazy person): I am strong. I am patient. I am powerful.
This is who I am, and I learned it on that day.