Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Art of Suffering

Art, in its most essential form, is creation; the combining of disparate elements into an entirely new entity that reflects the truth of its creator.   Art is how we manifest our souls to the world.  For me, this broad definition unleashes possibilities to create and recognize art and beauty in everything we do, everyone we encounter, and everything we encounter.  The formation of our relationships, in combining our individual experiences, hopes, and dreams with those of another, become, in and of itself, living, evolving works of art.  Raising our children, pulling weeds, cooking a meal, meditating, praying or hiking can all be considered works of art if defined in this way.  If this is so, our lives, by definition, are a mural comprised of our own varied and diverse artistic works lived out day by day.
It is also true, then, just as with all artistic endeavors, that improvement can only be achieved through learning, practice, and repetition of our own artistic skills and techniques.  For truly skilled and accomplished artists, this learning and practice is carefully designed, highly focused, deliberate, and life- long.    And so it is with our lives.  Although we all choose to create different works of art over the arc of our lives and none of us are given the same raw materials with which to create that art, to truly be successful, we must be taught and we must practice.
Although we are all provided with diverse raw materials and mediums with which to create, there are common threads that link us all together; shared experiences and perspectives that provide the foundation of our communion together on this earth.  One of the most profound of these shared experiences is suffering.  It is the dark shade all of us have on our palette and provides the contrast to the vibrant colors that gives our paintings depth and meaning.  As with the shading on a painting, suffering provides the contrast to happiness and joy to bring depth and meaning to our lives.  Without suffering, joy and happiness would be hollow and meaningless just as without the shading on a portrait, the subject would hollow and meaningless. 
The ability to use the suffering that all of us must endure as a means to create something beautiful and truthful in our lives and the lives of others is the art of suffering.  It is one of the most important skills that we can develop over the arc of our lives, for if applied incorrectly, the dark shade of suffering can overwhelm all other colors of joy, happiness and satisfaction and render our life’s mural dark and formless.  And so in our never-ending quest to perfect our ability to create art from our suffering we must practice suffering.   
The question then follows, how does one practice suffering?  The thought is admittedly jarring and rightfully so.  I am certainly not suggesting that we should cause harm to ourselves or those we love for the sole purpose of practicing how to suffer.  However, there are proxies for real human suffering that provide us the opportunity to practice the delicate strokes required to turn our suffering into works of art.
Suffering becomes destructive, rather than creative, when an imbalance of negative emotional energy poisons the soul.  The soul, combined with our minds and bodies, forms the trinity that makes us who we are.  As three parts of one whole, when one of these are weakened or destroyed, all are weakened or destroyed.  The essential skill in the art of suffering is transforming negative emotional energy into positive energy and action so that the soul is strengthened, rather than weakened.  The repetitive strengthening of our souls, in turn, strengthens our bodies and minds, which in turn enables us to master the art of suffering.  It is a process akin to the tempering of steel. To make steel, iron is combined with different alloys, depending on the use of the steel, and put through what is essentially a suffering process. Cast iron is good for some things, but it is not very tough or hard. Tempering is a heating and cooling process which is causes the metal to suffer so much its internal crystal structure actually changes. Depending on what process is followed you can change brittleness, ductility, elasticity, tensile strength and other characteristics. Done right, it is an impressive change. Done wrong you end up with a useless blob.   Just as the metallurgist fundamentally understands the process and designs it for the precise outcome, we need to understand and design our own journey and how to use the tool.
This is one of the primary reasons why becoming a triathlete has changed my life.  For me, the skills used in training for an Ironman have been, and continue to be, a very effective proxy for teaching me the art of suffering.  Anyone that has attempted this can attest that training the soul and mind is just as, and probably more, important than training the body.  From the moment the alarm clock goes off in the morning, requiring you to leave the comfort of your own bed to go train, to constant vigilance in eating properly, to the pain incurred in countless miles spent on the road or in the pool, transforming negative emotional energy into positive actions is a constant task. 
What I found is that as I master these small, constant, repetitive episodes of suffering I am able to apply these skills to other, larger more complex and intense episodes of suffering in my life.  While these episodes are still painful and difficult, I am getting better at turning them into the shading that provides texture to my life’s work.  I am by no means perfect, so I will continue to practice.

Friday, May 10, 2013

St. George Half Ironman Recap - What I learned

When you decide to take on something as daunting (at least for me) as an Ironman race, you tend to try and read as much as you can in order to try and prepare yourself as best as possible.  I have done a lot of reading about other people’s experiences in an effort to try and prepare myself both mentally and physically for the challenges that I will face in November when I jump into the water in Arizona for the full Ironman.  Last Saturday was the midpoint of my journey, where I completed a half-Ironman in St. George, and what I learned was something very different than I expected and nothing I ever read in anyone else’s race recap.  I can honestly say that I learned more about myself and my perspectives on the world in those 7 plus hours than I ever expected.  I have mentioned previously that for me, running, biking and swimming have a calming effect on me that allows my irrational, anxiety prone brain to slow down and my rational mind to take over.  This, combined with the emotional highs and lows that I experienced over those 7 plus hours allowed me to crystalize perspectives in a number of areas.  I’ve tried to capture these in my own recap of the day. 
As my father drove my brother-in-law and I around St. George on Friday to make final preparations for the race the next day, he said something that struck me, “The thing about a race like this is there is no cheating.  It’s not like a team sport where if you haven’t put in the time you can get away with it, or ride the coat tails of others.  It’s just you vs. the course.”  That statement hit me like a ton of bricks.  A wave of doubt and anxiety ran through my brain immediately.  I could rely on no one to get me through the day and I would have to rely on nothing more than what I did or didn’t do for the six previous months leading up to the race.  Had I done enough?  Would my knee hold up? Would the difficulty of the course and the heat of the day get to me?  What would I do if I couldn’t finish?  What would I say to people?  Those thoughts ran throughout my head for the rest of the day, throughout the night and into the next morning.
Saturday morning was a blur and to this moment I still am not sure how I got from my hotel room to the lake.  My first real recollection is getting on the shuttle bus and realizing that I had forgotten my water bottles.  A brief wave of panic set in before I calmed myself down with the realization that the first aid station was only 10 miles into the bike.  As I prepared my transition area, slid my wetsuit on and headed for the water, a brief moment of calm came over me.  It was brief.  As the freezing water filled my wetsuit as I waded into Sand Hallow Reservoir, I could feel every doubt I had ever had about the race hit me all at once.  I shifted my mind to what I knew I could control, focusing on my form and breathing, and let go of everything else.   I made it out of the water with no troubles whatsoever and had a very comfortable swim.  I transitioned to the bike, excited to see my wife, kids, parents and family that I knew would be waiting for me at the first aid station, about 10 miles in.  As I made my way to the corner where they all were, my spirits were immediately buoyed as they cheered me on.  As I passed them, I couldn’t wait to see them again, another 15 miles up the road.  The next 15 miles passed quickly and it wasn’t long before I saw them again, just as excited and supportive as before.  I felt confident and happy.  It would be the last time until I crossed. 

Shortly after I left my family, my stomach began to churn and I began to feel extremely nauseous.  The cool of the early morning had worn off and I was beginning to feel my body slowly heat up and the hills that I had climbed in the first 25 miles had left my legs burning.  I still had 31 miles to go on the bike (including a four mile climb up Snow Canyon) and a half-marathon to run and I felt awful.  I began to focus on how horrible I felt and how much I still had to go.  “There is no way I am going to be able to run a half marathon feeling like this.”  “How am I even going to make it up the climb up Snow Canyon?” “I should have paid more attention to nutrition during my training?”  I felt dejected and hopeless.  My pace on the bike slowed and my legs began to feel even worse.  It was in that moment that I thought about what I wrote in my post right before the race.  I committed to giving my best for eight and a half hours no matter what the outcome was.  No matter how horrible I felt or how much it hurt, I would not let my doubts and fears get in the way of meeting the commitment I had made to myself.  I knew the suffering that I would feel for the remaining five hours would be nothing compared to how I would feel if I quit and let my doubts get the best of me.  I would carry that pain for the rest of my life and I knew it. 
I also knew that the family was waiting at the base of Snow Canyon and couldn’t wait to see my wife’s face.  It always gives me strength and helps calm me down and I would need all the strength I could get as I began the brutal four mile ascent.  I could see her up ahead, standing ahead of the rest of my family, waiting for me.  She knew.  She always knows.  We made eye contact and I could feel my spirits immediately rise.  Just like every challenge I had ever faced since we met, she gave me the look that meant she believed in me, she was proud of me, and she had no doubt that I would be successful.  As I passed my daughter and son my spirits continued to grow as I could see their excitement, Victoria frantically taking pictures to mark to occasion and Ian cheering in that “laid back” way of his. Neither of them with any resentment or anger over all the time I had to spend training, but supporting me because they knew it was important to me.  My children inspire me every day, and certainly did on that day.  My parents, who have always supported and sacrificed for every single dream or goal I have ever had no matter how big or small, were still there for me, my biggest fans, even at the age of 36. 
There is not much I can say about the climb other than it was physically painful.  I was able to shut my brain off, grit my teeth and suffer.  Sometimes, that’s all you can do.  The good news is, it ends.  And the canyon did end.  As I made the right turn at the end of the climb, I knew that the rest of the bike was mostly all downhill. I enjoyed it, knowing that the next thirteen miles of the run would test me.  I began praying for my knee to hold up.
As I rode into the transition area to begin the run, I was tired but I had prepared myself mentally to suffer.  I was on the last event and the end was near if I could just power though.  My only concern was my knee.  Most of the first 6.5 miles were uphill, so I knew that they would be the most difficult, but once I made the turn from home it was all downhill, both literally and figuratively.  I stopped at each aid station, putting ice anywhere on my body that would hold it, drinking, and thanking the amazing, enthusiastic volunteers that had come out to help.  I kept waiting for the smallest twinge in my knee to signal an oncoming inflammation.   I neared the turn and the whole crew was there waiting for me, again, having spent their entire day in the hot sun following me around so that they could catch a quick glimpse of me and give me a word of support.  “The next time we see you will be at the finish!” I had made the turn, it was all downhill from here.
My legs were spent, so even the final 6.5 downhill miles were challenging, but nothing like the first.  I spent the time reflecting on what I was about to accomplish and everyone that had helped me along the way; everyone from my wife, children and parents to my friends and colleagues at work that sent messages offering words of encouragement.  In a way my Dad was right, I had to physically conquer the course on my own and I couldn’t cheat it.  But I had an entire support team of hundreds of people that helped me every step of the way, in ways both big and small. 
As I made the final turn that led to the finish line, the street was lined with people on both sides.  I could see the finish line and every tired muscle gained new strength as I began to pick up the pace for a strong finish.  In hindsight, I should have slowed down and taken it all in.  It was an amazing moment.  In the finishing chute a hundred arms attached to beaming kids reached out for high fives and I swerved from one side to the other, slapping as many as I could.  Up ahead I could see, right in the front, my amazing support crew, ready to welcome me home.
I crossed the line and had a few moments alone to reflect before my family was able to catch up with me.  What went through my mind in that moment I will not share, but it was a moment of clarity and satisfaction that I have rarely experienced.    

A few thoughts on the day…
Doubts are toxic and debilitating.  None of the doubts I had before or during the race helped me to accomplish anything.  In fact, they only made things more difficult and stressful and impacted my ability to perform.  Accepting the pain and hardships and focusing on what I could control made all the difference.  
You can only be the best “you” that you can be.  I got passed by a LOT of folks during the race.  I mean A LOT.  In the past that would have really bothered me and been a huge hit to my self- esteem.  If I would have focused on that, I would have spent the race justifying why they were faster. “They probably have more time to train.” “ That guy has a nicer bike.”  Instead, I focused on doing the best that I could on that day.  Nope, when I finished I definitely wasn’t the fastest, but I may have been the happiest.
My family is the BEST.  Not only have they supported me through all of the training, they’ve encouraged it every step of the way.  Instead of being annoyed by my time away, my wife has worked, even when it has added to her already crazy schedule and workload.  My kids have been my greatest fans at every step of the way.  I am blessed to have their love and support.  I have also been blessed by amazing parents who have always been, and continue to be, models of selfless dedication, love and commitment to their children and one another.  I would not be the man I am today without them.  My sisters have always been so much more than sisters; they have been my best friends since birth.  During many challenging times in my life, they have been there to lift me up.   
To this day I cannot explain why I felt no pain in my knee.  Only one week prior to the race I ran six miles and I began to feel extreme pain at mile four.  It may have been that I rested the knee for a week, or that my therapy finally kicked in just in time. It may have been all or any one of those things, but I just feel like there was something else.  We all need to form our own opinions about what that “something else” is or isn’t but for me, I know a whole lot of people were praying for me that day. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Learning From Failure

The thing that I have always loved about sports is what they have to teach you about life.  Many of my greatest lessons and role models have been as a result of my participation in athletics, either as a player or as a coach.  One of my first memories is of my father coming to wake me up early on Saturday morning, long before the sun came up, to take me to hockey practice.  Not only did I learn dedication, sacrifice, hard work and teamwork from those early mornings, I learned how to be a father.  I learned how to be an effective leader by watching and observing the many coaches I have had throughout my life and when it came my turn to coach I learned that serving others is the only true path to happiness. 
On Saturday I will be racing in the St. George half Ironman.  I have thought a lot this week about what this experience will have in store for me and the lessons that are to be learned.  I had hoped to be better prepared for this race.  As I was training, I developed and injury in my knee that has kept me from running consistently for the last three months.  The longest I have been able to run is about six miles and in the race I will have to make it through 13 miles after swimming 1.2 miles and biking 56 miles.  The swim and the bike I am prepared for and have trained very hard for.  It is the run I am not prepared for.  My greatest fear is not being able to finish the race.  In a half-Ironman distance race I only have 8.5 hours to finish.  If you are not able to finish in that time, you are disqualified and taken off the course.  Without my injury I would be able to make that time with no issues.  Now, I simply don’t know what to expect. 
I have lived my entire life with anxiety issues.  Over time I have learned how to manage these, but it requires daily effort and focus.  Sports have played an integral role in helping me deal with my anxiety in a number of ways.  First, they help take my mind off of all my worries and allow my irrational mind to slow down for a while.   Second, they have helped me learn how to turn fear into action and how to confront my doubts head on.  Finally, they have helped me learn how to turn failures into motivation, rather than allowing them to shut me down.
So as I go into this weekend I have to admit that I am scared to death.  I will be so nervous on Friday night that I won’t sleep and Saturday morning as I stand in Sand Hallow Reservoir ready to start my swim my anxiety will be at a fever pitch and nearly uncontrollable.  But when the gun sounds I will go.  I will give it my all for those 8.5 hours and if I am meant to cross the finish line in that time, I will.  And if I don’t, it will be because there was an important lesson for me to learn in failing.    And when I am in the water in Arizona in November, waiting to start the swim for my full Ironman, I will be ready and willing to accept the lessons that will have to teach me as well.
Check back next week for my race recap and I will let you know how it all went!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sports as Religion?

 "The comparisons between sport and religion are under-studied. On the surface both offer places of communal gathering, heroic figures, rituals, and are steeped in a quest for betterment. Sport and religion both celebrate group values and offer excitement and heightened emotions. Sport and religion are grounded in disciplined practice, a devotion to a cause, and a belief in the unseen. And both require faith.   The primary difference however, is that sport is profane and of this earthly world while most religions focus on the sacred and a life beyond death."

-- Scott Tinley
Two time Ironman World Champion and Triathalon Hall of Famer

I read this quote in an article written by Scott Tinley who won the Ironman World Championships back in the 80s and I found it fascinating and insightful.  It brought some clarity to a lot of thinking I had been doing around this journey and why I feel such a spiritual connection to it.  Ever since reading the article I have done a lot of thinking about it and the connection between religion and sports.  Here’s my take.

It took me a little while to get comfortable with actually saying this, but I believe that sports are a religion.  There are a few layers and clarifications that go along with this statement, but after giving it a lot of thought, I am totally comfortable with saying it.  Let me explain why.

For purposes of my argument, I would like to clearly state my definition of “religion”. I believe that in its simplest form, the only true purpose of religion should be to provide humans with a way to encounter and live into the spiritual existence.  This existence may or may not include a belief in any formal deity or theology.   Now, there are many different opinions and views on what that spiritual existence actually is, and my intent is not to get into any of that.  My intent is to show that sports do provide a path for encountering that spiritual existence and as such, can be considered a religion as I have defined it.

At the center of my argument is the intent of the individual in participating in any “religious” activity.  I know many people who attend church every Sunday but for them church is not a spiritual activity at all.  For them attending church is a way of meeting cultural norms, a social activity, a requirement to maintaining status in the community, and a number of other reasons that do not relate to any spiritual ends.  My point here is that although they are participating in a traditionally accepted “religious” activity, their intent or motivation is not centered on living into a more spiritual existence.

On the other hand, I know many athletes, myself included, that find the act of participating in sports a highly spiritual activity.  Again, the key here in my mind is intent.  For me this all started when I began playing Lacrosse.  Lacrosse is an ancient game that the Native Americans used as a way to honor the creator.  They believed that the game was given to them by the creator and as such participating in the game was much more of a spiritual activity than a physical one.  Games were used to help cure the sick, end droughts, bring favor to the people in times of need, or give thanks. As I learned the history and purpose of the game, I began to tap into those ancient themes and playing it became a highly spiritual experience for me.

As I transitioned into running and triathlon, I found that the time I spent out in nature physically challenging myself provided me a way to tap into my spiritual self in a way that I had never experienced sitting in a church.

Now, I think it is important to clarify that I am in no way saying that there is no place for traditional organized religion.  Attending traditional church is also something that is of great value to me and provides another path to experience the spiritual.  My point is simply that sports or athletics can also provide that experience and can add depth and texture over and above what is traditionally accepted as religion. 

I do have to say, however, that I have found that my experiences participating in sports are often more pure than my experiences in organized religion.  The reason is this; organized religion often makes itself the center of the religious experience rather than putting the spiritual at the center of the experience.  It is my strong belief that religions can be a way for man to draw closer to God (if that is your spiritual model) but that God does NOT need religion to draw closer to mankind.  I don’t believe that God will only accept one pathway to a relationship with him.  Again, in my opinion the key here is intent.    

I can honestly say that for me personally I feel I am closer to my spiritual self and God (my own personal model of the spiritual existence) when I am running down a trail in the wilderness surrounded by God’s creation.  I feel a more direct connection to God an5d spend the time in what feels as a very active, personal prayer and conversation with God.   

When training with others or participating in a race, this experience becomes a way to engage in fellowship with others, complete with rituals and a quest to better ourselves and encourage each other, much as a traditional congregation.

I want to highlight, as I close, that I do not intend this to be a critique or indictment of traditional religion.  My intent is to make the argument that engaging in sports or athletics should be, based on intent, considered as just as much of a religious or spiritual experience.

Finally, my argument in this case only applies to participation, not watching sports and athletics. I am not saying that I don’t think that there isn’t an argument there but I need to think through that one.   Need to do more thinking on that one.

I know that many of you will disagree with me on my argument here. Please comment below, I would love to hear your thoughts, ESPECIALLY if you disagree with me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

FATE -- or something like it.

On the face of it, endeavoring to complete an Ironman is extremely  selfish.  It is extremely expensive, requires long hours away from  family to train, and drains so much energy that you end up sleeping a significant portion of the time you could have with family.  So the question is why am I doing it and why is my family allowing me to do it?  The second question is easy to answer.  I have an extremely supportive wife that is willing to sacrifice all of herself to make others (especially me) happy, despite the additional hardship and work that will undoubtedly be in it for her.  It is one of the first of the endless list of qualities that made me fall in love with her.  It is also a quality that she has instilled in our children.  Not only were they willing to be supportive of me in this journey, they encouraged it, despite knowing that it would impact our family profoundly for over a year.

The second question is harder to answer.  Over the last few months I have read many responses to other athletes answering this question. It is, in fact, a standard question on the entry for for the Ironman race.  It is an obvious question to ask when someone tells you that they are going to try and swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run a full marathon all in the same day.  "Why are you doing that? Are you crazy?" tends to be the most common response.  What I have found that is most interesting, however, is that I have met a number of people whose response has been, "That's great! I completed an Ironman back in...."  This always floors me.  I guess it is because I anticipate that when/if I can call myself an Ironman I am going to make sure everyone knows about it.  Or at least I did when I started this journey.

My brother in-law Mike is a two-time Ironman and he is the one who convinced me to give it a try.  I didn't think about it for even a minute when he suggested it, I almost immediately knew that it was something I had to do.  A few months later as I was watching the Ironman World Championships on televison, I began sobbing uncontrollably watching the montage of people finishing the race. I actually had to physically remove myself from the house and went out in the back yard where I cried harder than I had in 25 years.

I believe in fate, or at least something that we as humans call fate.  For the purposes of this discussion, let's just call it fate and save that larger discussion for another day.  I have believed in it ever since I met my wife and knew in an instant that we would be married, despite a number of contradicting factors that indicated otherwise.  My belief has been confirmed through a number of other experiences since that time and I have learned to trust the feeling I get when I know that fate is calling me to something.  So here I am, knowing that this is something I am supposed to do but grappling with the reason why.

The thing about training for any sort of endurance sport is you get to spend a LOT of time with yourself.  This time has provided me with ample opportunity to reflect on and think about an answer to this question.  What I have found is that there are many answers. Some of the answers I think I know, there are many that I hope to know in the future and more still that I am sure I will never know, but will have a profound impact on my life and the lives of those around me.