March 21, 2008

The Bright Side Of Pain

I'm in the last stages of Ironman training. In less than 10 days from now I'll be sliding stomach first into the taper period, where doubts and pounds seem to build at a fairly rapid pace.

These last few weeks of Ironman training are always the most challenging. It's when the volume of activity in all three sports reaches it's peak. When the hours you spend exercising start equaling the hours you spend sleeping.

On any given week, I'm logging in 175 miles on the bike, 12,000 meters in the pool and about 35 miles pounding my legs on the pavement. I'm power lifting to build muscle mass and redlining through intensely fast workouts to build speed. I'm eating not to survive, but to recover. I'm sleeping not for relaxation, but for the ability to wake up before the next sunrise and push myself to the limit once again.

The rare moment when I'm not moving are spent with ice packs rotating around the various pain points of my body.

Because it's at this period of Ironman training when pain is at it's peak. It's constant. I go to sleep with tired legs and wake up with aching muscles. I grunt when I walk up stairs and moan when I try to get down on the floor. It seems the only pain-free peace I have is sitting on the toilet. Some days I never want to get up.

Everything hurts.
But still, the training must go on.

Last Sunday I woke up at 5:30am to do my 7 1/2 hour bike ride. 112 miles. 5500 feet of climbing. 20 to 30 mile per hour wind gusts. If everything felt fine, it would've been brutal. But, alas, I'm in the heat of Ironman training. Did everything feel fine? If by "fine" you mean "everything hurts," then yes, everything felt fine.

I started the ride off slowly, mostly because I was in too much pain to go any other speed. I got into my painstakingly slow groove and pedaled up the coast. 10 minutes turned into 30. 30 into an hour. My mind wandered about. I went in and out, into the here and there, the this and that. I thought of things and stuff and such and such. And soon enough I got to the rolling hills part of the ride.

I was relaxed and decided to push a little harder, to get up these hills and prove to myself that I'm in Ironman shape. I focused my mind, honed in my eyes, shifted my gears and pushed.

Ooh. Ouch. Ugh.

Within 15 seconds I realized that my plan wasn't going to work out so well. Screw this, I muttered. I backed off the gears, sat up and slowly spun myself up the hills. Frustration began to seep into the weak corners of my brain. The fluid of doubt started coursing through my veins.

Why do I do this, I thought to myself. I want to be strong, I want to be fast, I want to be better than me. But I'm not. I'm not. As I pedaled further, I sunk myself deeper into the downward spiral of despair. I doubted my ability, wondered if I'd ever feel like I could move faster than a snails pace. I bowed my head in sadness and looked down at the ground just as a snail passed me by.

It was at about this time that another rider approached.

Her name was Betty. She was going just a little faster than me so I mustered up everything I had, picked up the pace and held on. I needed motivation. I needed anything.

Betty has completed nine Ironman races and was just trying to get back in shape for the new season. As we rode together, we struck up a conversation of all things triathlon: the ghosts of races past and ghosts of races future. Of training and traveling and balancing life on the pinpoint of sanity.

You're training for Ironman Arizona? she said after I shared the info. That's right around the corner. You must be in pretty good shape.

I chuckled slightly. I might be in good shape, I said. But it's really difficult to tell. Everything hurts. Always. I'm always in pain.

She smiled a triathlete grin - the cheek to cheek gaze of somebody who has been down that road, who knows the feeling. I miss that, she said. I miss waking up in pain.

We talked on a bit further, but my mind revolved around those comments. I couldn't stop thinking about what she said. About the enjoyment of pain.

And somewhere down the road it started making sense. I suddenly realized the gift I've been given. The gift to feel. To know I'm alive. To sense in every moment of every hour that I've pushed myself to the limit.

If there is a bright side of pain, I suppose it is this. It is the constant reminder - every second of every day - that I am in shape. That I am doing exactly what I want to do. That I have set my goals and am achieving my dreams.

If there is a bright side of pain, it is the continuous reminder that I am proud of me. I guess she's right - why would I ever want to let this feeling go?


Cat said...

hold on to that for this afternoon's run!

Trihardist said...

I think it is also a testament to how set apart we are as athletes. Normal people don't pursue pain; if something hurts, most people stop doing it. We do it even more because our bodies say, "Hey, ouch, quit it!" and our brains say, "Hey, that hurts, it must be good for me!" The constant pain is a constant reminder not only that you're in shape, but that you're different (read: better) than 95% percent of the population.

And yeah, hold on to that thought for today's run :-)

1HappyAthlete said...

Sounds like you're just about ready for taper madness :)

Judi said...

Awesome post. I can't wait to read your race report. Go girl.

j. said...

thanks i'm a guy.