Building Joy

July 8, 2015
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Untitled (your body is a battleground), Barbara Kruger, 1989

My many hours in the gym getting my body prepared for the Games—practicing techniques, building endurance, stretching and mobilizing my joints—are only one half of my work. As much as training is about pushing your body to the limits of its fitness, it’s also about mental strength and positivity: breaking the patterns of any negative thoughts that might hamper you and creating positive expectations for your performance. I used guided meditations from Invictus during the CrossFit Open and the Masters’ Qualifier, and I’ve continued the practice now.

My current focus is on the sheer volume of effort I’ve been putting in during these days of preparation for the Games. I am pushing myself up to and beyond the edge of exhaustion. I need to be able to approach my days with a smile on my face, with a sense that each repetition brings me more power, more energy, more fulfillment.

 

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Repeat after me, Barbara Kruger, 1985-94


To that end, I asked Heidi Fearon, one of the Invictus coaches, to create and record a meditation for me based on the “power of yes.” In it, she guides me toward what she calls “building your joy”—finding vitality and exuberance in my work. Every day, upon waking, I listen to her words.

“Breathe into your determination and enthusiasm. You’ve got this. You’re present and focused. Yes….You are open to the possibility of what is in this very moment, and that is….Yes…You are able to focus intently on the present moment, the moment of…Yes.”

Untitled (no), Barbara Kruger, 1985

Untitled (no), Barbara Kruger, 1985

 

 

Time Again

May 17, 2015
The Alarm Clock.  Fernand Leger, 1918.

The Alarm Clock. Fernand Leger, 1918.

Time is on my mind. Measuring my performance by reps per minute, pacing my lifts so they start slow and finish fast, all in a matter of two elapsed seconds, noting the skills that need to be mastered before competition—is there enough time for me to master this? Time expands—when I’m working at my best, the ten seconds from setup to lockout in the deadlift feel like an hour—and contracts. Only three months until the Games.

In the gym, I’m constantly surrounded by time. The analogue clock on the wall, the countdown timer, my wristwatch, my timer app, a stopwatch: I use them all, sometimes simultaneously. I break hours into minutes, minutes into ten second intervals, those intervals into second-long movements. I turn my body into a metronome. The sound of my own breath keeps pace.

Whenever I lose myself in the physicality of time, I’m pulled back into the awareness that time equals achievement. Can I fit more pull-ups into a minute than I did last week? Can I shave time off my mile run before the Games? Even as time suspends during an intense workout, the countdown clock is ticking away in my mind.

L'horloge (The Clock).  Fernand Leger, 1918

L’horloge (The Clock). Fernand Leger, 1918

Claudia Hammond, in “Time Warped,” talks about the many ways in which we perceive time: “We construct the experience of time in our minds, so it follows that we are able to change the elements we find troubling — whether it’s trying to stop the years racing past, or speeding up time when we’re stuck in a queue, trying to live more in the present, or working out how long ago we last saw our old friends. Time can be a friend, but it can also be an enemy.”

The constraint to be the very best I can be on July 21—the day the 2015 CrossFit Games begin—could seem hostile and looming, but I actually find it exhilarating. Urgency makes every moment feel vital, which makes the days feel slower, more meaningful. I feel, as Joseph Campbell put it, “the rapture of being alive.”

 

Pluck

April 8, 2015

GeorgePlimpton

George Plimpton came onto my radar in 1983, when he famously volunteered to help plan a fireworks display to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. My son Bo was born on that same night in May, in a hospital room within sight and sound of the spectacular celebration. Afterward, Plimpton, who was already prominent in social and literary circles in New York, was named New York City Fireworks Commissioner; his book about the experience, called “Fireworks,” was published a year later.

During that time, I learned more about his previous work, which seesawed between editing high-brow contemporary fiction at the Paris Review, the literary journal he co-founded and edited (impressive, but not what interested me most about him), and (what did) experiencing and writing about a series of madcap fish-out-of-water adventures. While not limited to participating in professional contact sports for which he was completely untrained, many of his self-effacing, sometimes doomed to failure, always fun, exploits were exactly that.

Plimpton’s obituary from 2003 says, “As a boxer, he had his nose bloodied by Archie Moore at Stillman’s Gym in 1959. As a pitcher he became utterly exhausted and couldn’t finish an exhibition against 16 stars from the National and American Leagues (though he managed to get Willie Mays to pop up). And as a ‘professional’ third-string quarterback, he lost roughly 30 yards during a scrimmage with the Detroit Lions in 1963. He also tried his hand at tennis (Pancho Gonzalez beat him easily), bridge (Oswald Jacoby outmaneuvered him) and golf. With his handicap of 18, he lost badly to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. In a brief stint as a goaltender for the Boston Bruins, he made the mistake of catching a puck in his gloved hand, and it caused a nasty gash in his pinkie.”

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And from these adventurous experiences, he invented a new point of view for writers to communicate human experience. He called it participatory journalism. One of his books, “Paper Lion” (1966), about his time in the NFL, eventually inspired me to quit my job as a television producer and to discover physically demanding adventures for myself, and to write about them. But, unlike Plimpton, I was not willing to show up green and hope for the best. The interest, for me, was (and still is) to analyze the process, discover the wonders, and endure the (sometimes painful) struggle to achieve mastery.

In 1996, after I’d summited Mount Everest, I was introduced to George Plimpton by a mutual acquaintance as I was leaving a restaurant where they were still seated. I was flattered when he said, “I know who you are,” and invited me to visit him at his home office several days later. His wife, Sarah, greeted me at the door, carrying one of their two-year old twins in her arms. She led me through a narrow hallway, past a warren of rooms, into the famously cluttered library overlooking the East River. Plimpton sat at his desk, a manual typewriter within his reach, among papers, books, awards, and mementos layered upon every surface, including the floor. He asked me to recount details about the weather, acclimatization, my team, and the food. His questions would have struck me as childlike and naive, were it not for his well-known worldliness, highly refined demeanor, and patrician lockjaw accent. At the end of the hour we spent together, he summarized his thoughts. “I have greaat-ly enjoyed my liiiifetime of pursuits as an ama-tee-ur. But I really admiii-yah your spirit of aaahd-VEN-ture and com-MIT-ment. That takes pluck. Keep aaaaht it, girl. It will bring you greaaat pleasure.”

Asterisk

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Photo by Mel Blanchard

 

This week, I am summoning all my pluck to take the long view—toward finishing the Master’s Qualifier and the possibility of earning scores which will take me to the Games—and to treat sore muscles, bloody hands, a collarbone bruise, and exhaustion rather than dwell on them. I will share some of my recovery practices in a future post. And I hope you will post some of yours with me here in comments.

 

Whirlygirl

March 27, 2015

P1420820Yesterday I made good on a promise made to myself almost 20 years ago: to fly helicopters again. I first earned my Pilots License during a very busy time in life, when I was juggling motherhood, work, and a marriage, and I stopped when I moved away from a house in rural Connecticut which had convenient access to a helicopter and interesting places to go in it. Now I have returned to it during another busy time. But it’s no coincidence. Performing in the CrossFit Open has been more mentally stressful than it has been physical: the competition has been all-absorbing for the last five weeks. I believe that the best way to recharge my mental batteries is to engage in an activity that demands full attention. So I fly.

The urge to fly runs in my family. My dad was a bush pilot in Alaska, my brother was an aerobatic pilot who performed in weekend air shows, I was married to a man who was and still is a passionate recreational pilot, and we have a son who flies both fixed and rotor wing aircraft. I like helicopters more than airplanes because the places you can go in them are much more fun.*

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Gia and Models in the California Desert. Chris von Wangenheim, 1979.


I fly the tiniest non-experimental helicopter there is, a Robinson R22, and I do not aspire to fly anything else, except the equally basic R44, which has four seats. Robinsons have very few moving parts, appealing to someone like me who is not a motor head but who is a gadget freak. If you open the cowl doors, as every pilot does in pre-flight inspection, you can easily see every connection and how it works and test its integrity with your own two hands before take-off. Once in the cockpit, the pilot is directly connected to this remarkable little machine with the cyclic, collective, and two foot pedals. I love this feeling, which is, to me, a sensation similar to rock climbing, without the physical exertion. Climbing air: a perfect activity for a rest day.

Yesterday, I spent an hour of flight time reacquainting myself with the aircraft. I did fine flying straight and level as we surveyed the snowy mountain peaks of the San Bernardino range. Next week, I will learn to hover again. I am betting that it will take me at least five hours to relearn this critical skill, which took me ten hours to master in 1995. It will probably take about 30 hours to be fully proficient to fly solo again, so long as I minimize time between lessons.

The range of the Robinson is about 250 miles and it travels at 110 MPH. This means that hiking trails of Big Sur, the ski slopes of Mammoth Mountain, climbing rocks in Joshua Tree, and the surf beaches of San Diego will be within my reach. This is my incentive. I will be logging my adventures here, so please stay tuned.

Asterisk

Meanwhile, 15.5 was announced last night, and it consists of only two moves: rowing and thrusters. I am fairly proficient at both, and I actually enjoy rowing, but the kicker is that they will be judged for time. My plan is to approach it like I have done before: in today’s go I will get the feel of it. Monday will be for real. The Open final scores will comprise the first score in the Master’s Qualifier (which is a semi-final step to qualify for the CrossFit Games, my goal). I am currently ranked in 3rd place Worldwide in the Women’s 60+ Division. So on Monday I will leave it all on the floor (now that I have learned the value in doing so), and post my results here.

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Stephanie Seymour. Photographer Herb Ritts

 

*Essentially most state laws allow helicopter pilots to land anywhere it doesn’t say you can’t. Safe and courteous pilots always obtain permission to land at their destination before takeoff.

 

 

Letting Go

February 25, 2015

reinhold-messner_h

A few weeks ago, I attended the annual dinner of the American Alpine Club. I look forward to it every year because it is the one day when passionate climbers from all over the world crawl out of their tents, peel themselves off vertical faces of rock and ice, and trek to a common location—this year it was held in New York —for a weekend of lectures and gatherings, formal and informal, and a chance to swap camp stories. From these meetings, there are many flashes of brilliant insight.

Such was the case with the weekend’s special guest and honoree, Reinhold Messner, the most famous living mountaineer in the world. Messner gained renown as the first person to make a solo ascent of Mount Everest and as the first climber to ascend all fourteen eight-thousanders (mountains 26,000’ or more above sea level) without supplemental oxygen, at a time when this was thought to be humanly impossible. At the AAC dinner, he spoke about some of these amazing feats to an audience which included many of his mountaineering friends and peers, people who, too, are intimate with and motivated by the underlying philosophy behind those feats.

“Obstacles energize me,” he said. “The main power to reach a summit is not muscles, it is willpower.” He talked about the power of the mind and working “in the zone,” also known as “flow.” Messner considers this state of total, energized absorption a bridge between stages of frustration and satisfaction, of tension and release, to success.

While I have never come close to his mountaineering achievements (like comparing someone who plays on a local softball league to Derek Jeter), in at least one way I am like him: I enjoy hard work and a deep commitment to facing physical challenges. But here is where we differ: whenever I am very near to achieving a great success, mere steps from a summit or reaching a long-sought PR with a barbell, a little voice inside me whispers “no.”

I’ve never been able to give myself over to a state of flow. I have been near that point, but, unlike Messner, I’ve always thought of it as a precipice where self-control must come in and save the day.

Have you ever been close to success and then, for no apparent reason, listened to that little negative voice? How do you let yourself pass from a state of self-control into “the zone”?

The Zen of Aggression

February 9, 2015

waxman-snatch-pull

 

This morning, I had a private training session with the legendary Sean Waxman—a champion Olympic weightlifter who has coached many of top athletes in the sport. He’s as big as a refrigerator, with hands like ham hocks, but he’s also gentle and kind, and as enlightened in spirit as he is strong in body. I’ve been working with him casually since last November, but I stepped up the program to weekly one-hour intensives after I lost my nerve in the NorCal Masters and my fear cost me my spot in the competition.

We were working on the Olympic lift called the Clean: pulling the bar from the floor to the shoulders in one clean movement. This was the lift that had rattled me in the NorCal Masters. There is a formula for estimating what a person should be able to Clean based on a percentage (80-85%) of the pounds they can bear in a back squat. I can back squat 205 pounds. So it is reasonable to expect that I could eventually achieve #150 in a Clean. Your reaction might be, “Whoa, that is way too much weight.” Let me reassure you that it is not my immediate goal. But in the CrossFit Games last year, women my age were expected to Clean #125, and in the NorCal Masters the women in my division were Cleaning #115. Clearly, something is holding me back from my potential, but I hadn’t been able to figure out what it could be.

Today, Sean identified it: I lack aggression. I was skeptical. This isn’t football or boxing we were talking about. This is me and a barbell. Until a few years ago, when I started to learn about Olympic lifting, I thought that weightlifting was a crude display of (mostly male) strength. But now that I have done it for a while (and even though I am far from proficient) I recognize it as an elegant, sublime, and artful sport, more like surfing or rock climbing. Success depends on mastering a series of delicate, subtle actions. Aggression seemed like the opposite of what I’d come to appreciate in lifting.

But Sean talks about the nuanced deployment of aggression—channeling its power to get up to and beyond one’s potential. He explained it this way: each time I prepare for a lift, I run through a series of deliberate actions. I sit in my chair, resting and visualizing the rhythm of the barbell moving upward, then I walk to the chalk bowl and ready my hands, then I stand in position, straighten my back, squat down and put my chest up—all done in a calm, meditative, Zen frame of mind. This ritual, Sean told me, should culminate when, at the moment I tighten my grip, I tap into my aggression and rip the barbell off the ground.

That’s what distinguishes a champion: the ability to deploy that fierce emotion in a split second, fast as lightning, and a split second later to let it go.

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I’m still learning. But I felt a palpable difference the next time I approached the barbell. And my one rep max inched up, to 110 lbs. Have you ever had a positive experience by channeling your aggression? Please share it in the comments.

Finding My Weakness

January 27, 2015
norcal_masters

photo by Charlie Mason

 

This weekend I competed in the NorCal Masters competition. While the field in my division consisted of only seven competitors, they were formidable: three of them were CrossFit Games athletes in 2014 and one finished in 10th place. For most of the two-day competition, I held a strong fourth place. I made the finals. But in that heat, which consisted of a succession of Power Cleans at #105 and rope climbs, I lost my game. Sure, I was spent from the eight previous events, and the lifts were at my one rep max—but they were at the high end for everyone. My competitors distinguished themselves with an ability to maintain focus and form.

I am beat up, sore, and exhausted. But I came away stronger in the long run, because my weaknesses were writ large for me, and I know what I have to train for in the coming months. I must learn to use momentum in my pull-ups—to kip them—and be able to do at least five sets of ten in rapid succession. While it was not tested this weekend, I also know that I need solid chest-to-bar pull-ups. I must improve my barbell work, so I become comfortable working at heavy weights and maintain form under pressure. From looking at videos of myself in that final heat, I can see that I had the strength to pull 105 pounds off the ground. But I failed, consistently, to get under the bar to lift it. That process is not yet fully routine, and it must be in order to compete at the level to which I aspire. And part of that failure had to do with my weak inner game. I need to find calm and grace under pressure, every time I step up to the weights.

 

I am going to take today as a rest day and restore my tired muscles and my spinning head. But tomorrow I will hit the gym with new resolve and focus, grateful that I was able to compete among a group of high-level athletes who helped me learn more about what distinguishes them from ordinary mortals. I will get there.

Suddenly, 60

January 26, 2015

suddenly 60 grid

I am 59 years old and I won’t turn 60 until April, two weeks after the conclusion of the CrossFit Open. It was logical to think that I would have another year before entering the 60+ age division. My training schedule has been laid out, since last year, with the goal qualifying for the Games in 2016—time enough to nail muscle ups, handstand walking, and a host of other skills.

“Prepare…not only for the unknown but for the unknowable as well,” CrossFit founder Greg Glassman has said. Today, I registered for the 2015 CrossFit Open, and this confirmation screen popped up:

Suddenly 60

So here I am, suddenly “60,” with my first chance to qualify for the Games only a few weeks away. I went from elation to panic in a matter of seconds. I’ll be training harder than ever. One reassuring thought: perhaps my relative youth—now I’ll be the youngest competitor in my division—will give me an edge.

Considering Anxiety

January 21, 2015
photo by Melanie Blanchard

photo by Mel Blanchard

Three days from now, I am going to compete in the NorCal Masters competition. The heats were announced yesterday, and, along with my starting times, I have the names of the competitors in my division, Women’s Masters 55-59. The roster includes at least two CrossFit Games competitors, one of whom, April Kitagawa, placed 10th in the world. Suddenly, things are getting real.

Immediately, I felt a crushing sensation in my heart, my limbs went limp, and “butterflies in my tummy” is a description too cutesy to accurately describe the overwhelming knot in my gut. These are classic physical symptoms of a condition with which most human beings are all too familiar: anxiety.

If my quest to make it to the CrossFit Games is about anything at all, it’s the opportunity to overcome a lifelong aversion—you could call it fear—of being objectively judged among a field of my peers and receiving a rank and a score for it. I’m just as afraid of winning as of losing. Up to this point, I have lived a life in which, for whatever reason (lack of opportunity or subconscious avoidance), I have “enjoyed” few of these moments.

There are great existential philosophers (like Kierkegaard) who have written about anxiety. While I do not pretend to comprehend all that they have written on the topic, versions of their thoughts, reduced to the size of a motivational poster like this one, I DO sort-of get:

Kierkegaard

It is an expression of my humanity to be afraid: the challenge is going to hurt and it will take everything I have just to finish. But people who are courageous act in the face of their fear. I am trying to channel Henry Fleming. Rather than allowing my anxious feelings to degrade into the dead end that is dread, I am going to read them as a signal that I am on the precipice of wonderful things to come, no matter what the score may be at the end of the game.