I had the opportunity to answer a question on NYE that I don’t get asked much, but that I contemplate when training: How do you put yourself through all of that pain?
The answer really boils down to two main components:
- The suffering lets me know I’m alive
- The suffering teaches me about myself and who I am
Suffering is such an odd concept to embrace, because humans are hard wired to avoid it at all costs. We learn at a young age that if it brings pain, we shouldn’t do it. We don’t go back to the stove to see if we can leave our hand on the burner a little longer this time; We don’t touch the stove again! We seek what is comfortable, and so far humans have done a pretty good job at that. We have huge cities, great technology, and we’re pushing that concept further and further every year (OrderUp, InstaCart, Uber anyone?).
So what is it that drives athletes to endure suffering, to abuse our bodies and push the limits of what we can take? The answer will not be the same for every athlete you ask, and I can only give you my answer.
My answer is that I find it cathartic. I find that it is in my best interest to cast myself into the fire to see how, what, and who I am on the other side. There is something about knowing and being known by suffering that allows a person such great freedom.
There comes a point in a race (if you’re running it right in my opinion) where you begin to hear a voice questioning you, why you are doing this and if it’s worth it. You must be prepared to either ignore that voice, tell it to STFU, or answer the questions. If you haven’t prepared, or you give the wrong answer, your day ends there. If you haven’t been there, and practiced your response, it’s extremely difficult to give the right response on race day.
And that’s the often-overlooked value of the training. Aside from just the obvious physical benefits, which are totally a necessary part of what I do, the mental toughness is something learned from pushing yourself to the limit week in and week out. Unless and until you get down and wallow around in the suffering, roll and revel in it, find out who you are in the midst of it and learn how you react to it, you will be unprepared for race day.
When I get into that suffering, when I’m down in the trench wondering if I should call it quits, if what I’m doing is worth it, I know that I have a choice. And making the choice to continue to suffer and to push my body, that’s when I know I’m truly alive. I’m feeling, but I still have a choice. It sucks, but it’s because I choose the suck. It’s hard, but it’s because that’s how I make it. I am directing this moment, and only I say when it’s enough, not the suffering.
I have learned that my body is capable of so, so much more than what I think it is. I have learned that I can endure more than I think I can; That when my body tells me it’s ready to stop, I know better. I have found a new strength, a second, third, sometimes fourth wind. I’ve found the strength to pick the pace up when I thought I could barely walk. I am so much more than the suffering, I just need it to get me to go there.
I wish my response on NYE were this eloquent, this well-thought out. I think I said something more like, “You learn to deal with it and love it.” I got some crazy looks for that one, but fortunately everyone moved on pretty quickly. But to those of you who are familiar with this game, you know what I’m talking about.
For those who are new to triathlon in particular, welcome! Don’t worry, I know everything I said above sounds terrible, but really, you do learn to love it, crave it even. You’ll get there. Start small. Search for it in your training, and know that when you feel it you’re making a break through. When you push through it, you’ve made an accomplishment. Eventually, you’ll know enough about your body to find it and love it, too.