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Body

The Zen of Aggression

February 9, 2015

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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.

How I Eat

February 3, 2015

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I have eaten “clean” my whole life. I grew up in the Santa Clara Valley of California, when it was predominated by large family-run farms, and access to fresh fruits and vegetables was a fact of life.  Except for the few years during which my mother bought canned peas—motivated, no doubt, by convenience—everything green on our table was no more than 48 hours from the ground. There were no fast-food spots in my town then, so I didn’t try a Big Mac until, when I was 22 years old, I revealed I’d never had one to a boyfriend while we were out in his car. He promptly hung a U-ey and remedied that.

Later, in the late 1980s, while living in New York and just after I had taken up bird hunting and fly fishing, I decided to try an “Eat What You Kill” diet. I owned a small farm in Connecticut where I raised sheep, goats, and chickens, grew my own vegetables and fruit, and it was close enough to several fish and game preserves that it was possible to shoot pheasant, partridge, and quail, and to fish for trout. Needless to say, when I announced this at the “ideas” meeting at Allure, where I contributed at the time, I became the punch line for many an office joke.

I have always deeply valued the ritual of eating. I think it starts long before you actually sit down to the dinner table, at the moment when you are procuring the food—whether by hunting, gathering, or driving to the grocery store and shopping for it. Cooking is, for me, a meditative process. And setting the table is, for most meals, like preparing for sacrament, even in simple ways like using a linen napkin or a favorite piece of silver flatware to eat a lunchtime salad. So by the time everyone finally sits down to eat at my house, it’s with a hallelujah chorus. During the 2000s, I owned a ranch and vineyard near Santa Barbara, California. I wrote a book about some of the more memorable meals and parties I held there, often paired with wine made from grapes grown on the property.

Fast-forward to the present.

My commitment to CrossFit training meant rethinking my whole way of eating. First, I had to give up alcohol, which I did about 18 months ago (this is neither total abstinence or, necessarily, forever; but since that time I have had about 10 glasses of champagne or tequila on as many occasions). And, since becoming a full-time athlete, I started to appreciate just how closely related what I eat and when I eat it are tied to performance. For the first few weeks, I’d felt weak and depleted, so I ramped up my protein intake. It seemed to help, but maybe the slight uptick I felt was because I was getting used to the intense training days. It seemed like I could get more from my food.

Enter Matthew Walrath. He’s a top athlete (and, like me, an aspiring Games competitor) who trains at my gym and is also a nutrition coach. In his email signature, he identifies himself: “Speaker – Coach – Ball of Energy.”

After I gave him the results from my Resting Metabolic Rate test (RMR), he made me a diet plan (to be shared in a future post). The biggest surprise was learning that I was not eating enough. He recommended four eggs for breakfast. I usually ate one. Oatmeal? I had sworn off it when I jumped on the Paleo bandwagon.

Since starting Matthew’s plan (back in the fall) I have reduced my body fat by 4%, but I have not lost weight—I’ve built muscle.  All I can say about eating this way is that it sure makes pull-ups easier.

 

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Finding My Weakness

January 27, 2015
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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.

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:

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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.

Up the Mountain

January 19, 2015
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Everest to the Gangetic Plain, Bill Thompson, 1983

 

(Read how I started training and competing.)

The 2015 CrossFit Open begins in two weeks and I am 59 years old now. I turn 60 this year, on a date too late to qualify to compete in that age class. But I am hoping to make a good showing in spite of the fact that I’ll be among the oldest in the group. Plus, I am going in this year knowing that I still don’t have some skills that will be critical for qualification in the CrossFit Games. Handstand walking, muscle ups, linked pull-ups in high volume: I don’t have them, but I will continue to work hard until I do.

I don’t know what the future will bring. Friends who have known me for many years are very supportive when they say, “Look, you have climbed Mt. Everest, you can surely win this.” But climbing is not a competition and no one is keeping score like they do in CrossFit.

 

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My goal is to make it into the stadium in 2016 as one of the 20 qualifiers aged 60+ to compete for the title of the Fittest on Earth. Success in CrossFit competition has practically nothing to do with climbing a mountain. But when I think of what lies ahead of me, I am reminded of the moment in 1996 when my expedition leader Scott Fischer called our first team meeting. He told us, “From this point on, everything you do or don’t do, what you eat, what you think, what you feel must be oriented toward the goal of making it to the top of the mountain, if you expect to have a chance at success.”

Boom.

January 1, 2015

New Year’s resolutions have, for me, always taken a positive spin. I cannot remember a single midnight on December 31 when I promised myself to stop or do less of anything. Rather, I typically resolve to fill the coming year with more of something I truly enjoy. I figure that, as my days become packed with whatever that something is, less interesting and less desirable pursuits will simply get crowded out of existence.

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Last year at this time, I was at home in California, and trained at the gym on both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That I chose to work out while others were preparing for parties measured my commitment to a daily practice of the athletic skills I had, in 59 years, never learned, like gymnastics, weightlifting, running, and swimming. I train hard because I like it, and because I am serious about discovering the degree of excellence I can achieve.

This year, I am resolving to make my experience communal by writing about it here for myself and for others. This will be as much about discipline as my training schedule. To fuel my writing, I’ll need to pay closer attention to my workouts and how and why my body responds the way it does. That attention, too, will have to be brought to bear on my feelings. I don’t want to just write a report. But examining and sharing my feelings will be as hard—and require as much practice—as learning to handstand walk.

And then, I know that observation affects outcome. In writing about my training, I will find weaknesses—and strengths—that I can bear down on, and I hope I’ll find that more mindfulness equals refined techniques and a stronger inner game. To perform at your best, you have to think and think until you stop thinking, and that’s where I want to be.

I hope you will be patient when I stumble. It is an inevitable part of learning at any age (and there may be more of it as I turn 60 this year). And when I do, I hope that you and my other readers will help me as my coaches do by catching my falls, and patiently explaining how I can do it even better tomorrow. This isn’t a how-to, or a training guide, but I hope it will be entertaining and maybe even inspirational and thought-provoking. I believe that I will do better with your support and empathy, and I hope that you will be here to cheer me on for the next 18 months.

Happy New Year.

Boom.

 

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