Becoming an athlete when you’re already in your 30s is a funny thing. I don’t have any glory days to look back on from my teens and 20s, because aside from a few (very mediocre) years of wrestling in high school, I spent most of the years of my physical prime riding motorcycles, drinking a lot of beer, smoking a lot of cigarettes, and doing a lot of travelling for the Air Force. I am occasionally tempted to look back on those years with regret, and wonder what might have been if I had approached training with the seriousness and intention that I do today. But it doesn’t really matter. I can’t get that time back, and the best thing I can do now is make the most of my days moving forward.

 

I also understand that those days are numbered. At only 34, I already have a growing list of ailments and injuries that will, at some point, spell the end of my (admittedly modest) competitive athletic career. There’s the arthritis in my knees, the scar tissue in my shoulders from torn rotator cuffs, and the surgically repaired collarbone. I sound like a bear eating a bowl of Rice Krispies when I get out of bed in the morning, all growls, and grunts, and snaps, and pops.

 

 

But it’s not all bad. Because I started off so weak, fat, slow, and relatively old, I’m still riding a wave of PRs and progress that some of my contemporaries have already fallen off. I train with a few people who were collegiate athletes, and the difference in how we talk about our training and racing gives me a peek into the mindset I will, at some point in the near future, have to adopt. I don’t know when my last PR will happen, and chances are I won’t even realize it during the event, but I hope to handle the realization with the grace and determination of the older athletes around me.

 

The Internal Slave Driver

For the first few years after I started to train and race, I was unreasonably hard on myself. I had fun with my races, but the drive for goal accomplishment within me became almost destructive. It got to the point that I was racing way too much, entering events without a sufficient training base, and grinding through training with grim determination, rather than relaxation and joy. For somebody who was making zero dollars, my approach was entirely too businesslike.

 

The sense of urgency to race all the races was probably rooted in my regret for wasting my 20s. I felt that if I wanted to accomplish things like a 100-mile mountain bike race, I had to do it right now, because I was already behind some sort of mythical schedule. I became obsessed with conquering things; my body, endurance events, strength plateaus. I developed an almost unhealthy relationship with muscle spasms. I thought that not being able to walk up the stairs in my house after a race weekend was a normal thing. My wife (the most wonderful woman in the world and my frequent pit crew/massage therapist/nutritionist/fan club/shrink) even started to question why I was doing all this to myself.

 

The Gift of Experience

Gradually, that mindset has shifted. In part, I am more relaxed today because I have accomplished many of the early goals I set for myself. I have finished the race distances I wanted to conquer and attained a level of performance that the demons in my head found satisfying enough to leave me alone. The proverbial monkeys are off my back, and while I still have many goals to strive for, they have evolved to be about the quality of my performances, rather than checking off boxes.

 

More than that, the sense of my impending athletic decline and my experience with being sidelined from injury have combined to create a sense of gratitude in me for what I am able to do, which has replaced the obsession over what I have not yet done.

 

I believe that perspective is gained through experiencing life at the margins; at the edges of the envelope that most people will do everything in their power to avoid. The highs and lows of my fitness life have tempered my understanding and expectations of myself. I went from being a chubby smoker to finishing in the top 5-10% in half marathons. I’ve spent a winter sidelined for months with knee trouble, and a winter setting a half dozen PRs in the gym off of a strength program that I wrote myself. I have endured enough of the ebb and flow of motivation and performance that I am willing to forgive myself when things don’t go right, and fully embrace the times when they do.

 

 

A post shared by Pete Hitzeman (@petehitzeman) on

 

 

A Hot Run and an Unexpected Mantra

I’m not big on mantras and mental tricks. I haven’t adopted a mindfulness practice (yet), I don’t meditate (though I should), and there isn’t a pep talk I give myself every morning, or even before every competition. But a thought came into my head on a training run last summer that has become the central theme of my training mindset ever since.

 

It was a brutally hot morning in North Carolina. There was a stretch of weeks where the temperature and humidity would be 90°F and 90% by 10am, and it was destroying my training. Try as I might, I could never acclimate well enough to go out for much more than about an hour of work, and my paces were way off of where I expected to be at that point in my training cycle. I went out for a long run one morning with the intent of clicking off about 10 miles, but I knew 20 minutes in that that wasn’t going to happen.

 

As I trudged through the fifth mile of my six-mile loop, I started to get that miserable, “this is work” feeling that dominated my training a couple years ago. The feeling manifested itself in my body, hunching my shoulders, slowing my cadence, and making each footfall feel like a thousand pounds. My watch beeped to announce the completion of mile five, and with it a depressing split time for the level of effort I felt I was putting out.

 

But just as I was about to continue beating myself up, another voice in my head piped up. “Hey stupid,” it said, “any day that you can go out and run five miles is a good day. Relax. Every step is a gift.”

 

Put an End to Joyless Training

That phrase has been ringing in my head ever since. It has reinvigorated my love for training and given me the mental permission to deviate from my plans if my body says so. I am still goal-driven and I still work my butt off to make progress toward them, but I also allow myself to be imperfect more often. It is easier for me to scale a workout at CrossFit, or knock it off early on a long run if my stride starts to falter, or pull back the pace on intervals if I’m sucking too much wind.

 

The irony is that, since my attitude toward training has shifted to one of relaxed gratitude, the PRs have been coming faster than ever. This is due in part to an increase in the average quality of my training, since I’m more likely to recover and improve than push through too much fatigue. But it’s also because I’m not wasting any mental or physical energy being grouchy about what I can’t do, or haven’t done yet, or who is outperforming me.

 

I might never hit that 500lb deadlift or double-bodyweight clean and jerk. I may never drop my mile time under five minutes or qualify for Boston. I may never see the podium in a bike race, though these are all things I would like to do someday. But between now and then, every step, every pedal stroke, and every time the barbell leaves the ground is a gift. There may come a time when I can no longer do those things, and there are plenty of people I know who already would kill to be able to perform at even the modest level I can.

 

I hope that I can lend some of my experience and perspective to anyone reading this who is grinding through week after week of joyless training. Fitness isn’t always about fun, but neither should it be a solid wall of misery. Take some time to step back and look at your life and your capability, and appreciate the beauty of how far you’ve come and the amazing things you can do. Every step is a gift, so don’t waste it by being ungrateful.

Topic: