Too Damn Hard

Christopher Virtue

Strength and Conditioning, Coaching, Athletic Performance

I’m suffocating. Somehow air will not fill my lungs. With each gasping attempt at swallowing oxygen it seems less enters. I have this strap wrapped around, no rather a boulder with its enormous size slowly compressing my chest as it collapses under its unfathomable weight.

 

The disorientation from the sudden onset dizziness could have been from the lack of oxygen or maybe I was unknowingly clocked in the head because remember, there's a big boulder on my chest. Is this a panic attack? They do reside in the family history. Wait, what is that? I now hear a high-pitched whistling noise. A bird? Asthma? That’d be unusual for I have never experienced an asthma episode in my decades on this earth. I’m sure as shit suffocating.

 

 

“TOO. DAMN. HARD,” my pap bellows as he draws out each syllable with a sly grin. Expelled with a smugness where you know he’s right but at the same time you just want to smack him. My pap was a career steelworker. Born and raised in Weirton, WV, he started at a young age at the industrial giant known as Weirton Steel.

 

Later, he was transferred to an area we Hoosiers like to dub "da region" which is settled in the upper northwest corner of the state. Life is different in da region when compared to the rest of the state. The Crossroads of America is mostly rural rolling hills vast with farmland whereas da region is mostly flat and industrial, claiming our parcel as a suburb of Chicago.

 

Many years before I was born my pap realized he was on the wrong path, or maybe he simply did not like the path he was on. A man of the steel mill, over-weight, over-worked, under-slept, with a healthy smoking habit to boot.

 

He once told me he woke up one day and decided to start running. As he jetted off early that morning, with each stride came a huff and a puff and some pain. He couldn’t make it a quarter mile. Four decades of blue-collar life and a quarter mile later he’s walking back home.

 

The next day he went a little further. The next a little further. Fast forward a few years and he’s running marathons. A man in his near 60’s averaging 50 miles of running per week.

 

My aunt is also a marathon runner. My sister is a collegiate distance runner. My dad just ran his 30th marathon this spring at 58 years of age (started in his early 40’s). This spring, my step-mom qualified and ran in the Boston Marathon which was the final state in a conquest to complete a marathon in all 50 states. And then there’s me—who I would affectionately classify as "husky."

 

Catching Your Breath

The cowboy is on the side of the road in Connecticut. No longer on his bike, rather hunched over on all fours. Heavy head bows to the earth, bathed in sweat and now tears. It’s all come to a screeching halt.

 

The weight of his self-chosen task, the negativity of all the experts behind their keyboards, and the undeniable damage and fatigue his body has endured the previous 29 days. James Lawrence, also known as the Iron Cowboy, is a triathlete. An Ironman many times over. A world record holding endurance athlete who has set out on a quest. 50 Ironmans. 50 states. 50 days.

 

Roughly 8 years prior his wife, Sunny, signed him up for a fun run—a 4 mile run that absolutely crushed him. That performance lead her to signing him up for a marathon, which he reluctantly completed.

 

 

He then found the bike and the rest has led to day 30 of 50—29 Ironman distance triathlons in the bag. He’s overcome logistical nightmares, hurricanes, a wreck in Tennessee because get this, he fell asleep on the bike. He fell asleep on his bike!

 

But here we are on day 30 on the side of the road, dismounted from the bike and conceding “I just don’t want to ride my bike anymore,” and assumed his position in the grass, head buried in calloused hands. It all has just become too damn hard.

 

Too damn hard.

 

I should stop. It’s the wetsuit. My wetsuit has instantaneously shrunk and is now entrapping my chest to the point of suffocation all the while being surrounded by a few hundred strangers. There’s a buoy over there.

 

I’ll just wade over and unzip my death trap. I’m just going to quit. It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in June. The air is crisp, on the brink of warm with the sun rising in the sky as I feel its sensation on my shoulders. While the weather and environment were co-operating the list of things going right ends there.

 

The night before, being the naïve newbie triathlete, I decided to make adjustments to my bike. I’m fairly proficient in mechanical matters, fixing what was once broken. Learning from books and manuals and applying that knowledge to my DIY repertoire but one thing I have not mastered is tightening a damn screw or bolt without stripping the sucker.

 

I did it to both of my children’s cribs, changing tables, and now I have done so irreparably to a stem bolt affixing my handlebars to my CAAD 8 Cannondale bike that I bought for a steal at $300, popping the bolt head right off. Go figure. I’ll just wake up at 4am so I can be at the Indy Speedway Lowe’s hardware store when it opened at 6am to, I dunno, buy some tools to remove said broken bolt.

 

I arrive at the race venue, forgetting of course the athlete parking pass my wife printed off the day before, and decided to scrap any attempt to rescue my stem. I tighten the other three stem bolts to the point of stripping and pray I don’t lose my handlebars at 30+ mph.

 

While coming to this conclusion I’ve also discovered that during my repair misadventure the night previous I had dropped my CO2 cartridges from my saddle bag. Every rider at one point or another will experience flats out on a ride. You swear loudly, live in denial for a moment, dismount your ride and proceed to fix the flat.

 

One of the steps in the repair of a flat is the use of a CO2 cartridge. Replace the tube and pop one of those in a tire and bam you’re back at it on the road. I now had a total of zero, the ones that escaped my bag now sitting idly in my garage 90 minutes away.

 

So, let’s add hoping I don’t nail a pothole at high speed only to blow out a tube to that pre-race prayer. Just put on your wetsuit and let it go, swimming has been going well for you in training up to this point.

 

Wanna live freely, why isn't it so easy?
I should read a book, but I keep watching this TV
And I know this lifestyle doesn't really feed me
I just tune out to the voice inside that's speaking

All my little problems keep on building up and building up
All my good intentions just ain't good enough to find the love
So I smoke until my lungs are full
Drink until I lose my cool
Apology's my middle name and one day, I will change
But I'm okay with who I am today
I'm okay with who I, who I am today

- Macklemore, Intentions

 

Congratulations on Your Upcoming Pain and Struggle

In 1992, Scent of a Woman hit theatres earning $130 million+ despite a $31 million dollar budget. It was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, winning Best Performance by an actor.

 

That actor was Al Pacino. Portraying the retired Army Ranger Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, a blind alcoholic and overall toxic individual. A young man named Charlie, who attends the local private preparatory Baird School, is hired to watch over Slade while his family leaves for the Thanksgiving weekend.

 

Charlie is unlike his other classmates. He comes from more modest means than his counterparts. He has to earn his way by his work and effort rather than his last name. Early in the movie Charlie and a fellow student with a well-established last name, George, witness a few classmates prank the school’s headmaster.

 

He and George are ordered to inform on their fellow classmates or face discipline themselves. Initially they both agree to stay quiet and are given the Thanksgiving break to re-examine their position of silence and in turn Charlie’s chances of acceptance to Harvard.

 

Enter Slade and his infinite wisdom and his own agenda. Slade leads Charlie on a coming-of-age adventure in nearby New York City. From the blind Slade zipping through the cobble-stone streets of Brooklyn in a Ferrari to the tango with a young and elegant stranger.

 

The two begin to learn each other and their respective places in life. Charlie uncertain and scared of his future should he remain silent, and Slade annoyed and fatigued with his past and his pre-meditated plan to end it all, not before advising Charlie to inform on his fellow classmates and move on to Harvard.

 

After a struggle and Charlie convincing Slade to continue on living they return from New York. They part and Charlie attends a formal inquiry back at school. He maintains his silence as George has cowered behind his last name and weasels out of responsibility.

 

Return Slade to Charlie’s side. He interrupts the formal proceeding brashly and passionately in defense of Charlie’s position. During this rousing speech he goes on to say the words that have been ingrained into my brain by my pap:

 

“Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard. Now here’s Charlie. He’s come to the crossroads. He has chosen a path. It’s the right path. It’s a path made of principle—that leads to character.”

 

The Iron Cowboy getting back up.

 

When I clicked submit on my registration back in December I was angry for a week. Not scared, f-ing pissed. I knew it as soon as I clicked submit and was redirected to the congratulations page. Congratulations on signing on for months of pain and friction and struggle, not to mention the enormous time commitment. Because of that anger I knew I had found the lifestyle alteration I had been wanting—no, needing.

 

Like my pap, I may not have been on the wrong path, I just knew I wasn’t fulfilled by the current path I was on. I’m an experienced strength coach at a Big Ten university. I’ve worked with a diverse collection of coaches and athletes in my career. Individuals who have succeeded and failed based on their drive, effort, and passion.

 

The same qualities that I have tried to pour into my own career. So, I knew when I signed up for this particular race I could play the story of the next 6+ months in my mind. There would be good days and inevitably bad days.

 

Early on I’ll be excited and motivated because the realness of the quest is too far into the future.As I go along my body will scream, my mind will be challenged, and my resolve, my discipline, and my “why” will be in question. There will be more days like one I encountered in April.

 

Getting Past the Feeling of Empty

Come on Chris, no more f-ing around! What up, heart? Why you pounding in my chest like a kick drum? I can feel you beat in my throat. This is a damn recovery swim, bro. This is effed. 6 more laps. I can’t do this anymore. 4 more laps. Why am I in this water? 2 more laps. I could just quit. Damn, another set, time to push off the wall again. Ugghhhh, eff this. No wait, you got this or just quit and be done.

 

Sound familiar? That was the long conversation in my head that particular training day in April. The burden of a restless mind, I guess. Similar long conversations had been piling up lately. So much so that later that day I texted the wife, apologizing to her if my stress, anxiety, and depression had been spilling onto her. Just me being "soft," am I right?

 

Plodding around the Indiana University natatorium pondering quitting, bathed in depression and doubt all the while I catch a glimpse of a few Rio 2016 gold medalists training out of the corner of my foggy TYR goggles. I was a strength coach just feeling sorry for himself. I’ve always felt I had a high threshold for pain, strong in mind. A mind I believed I was able to always control. This was different.

 

Tyson Fury, World Champion Boxer, has been in the news recently for reasons good and bad but some have also touched on his battle with depression and purpose. He had this to say on the subject, "I didn’t have motivation to do it, zero motivation to do anything. Zero motivation to have a shave, zero to brush your teeth, even to have a shower…nothing.

 

I can’t tell you in words how I felt, how down I was. When you lose control of your own mind, you’re in a bad place, AND IT'S A SILENT KILLER. I got my tracksuit on in the morning and I was going to run 2 miles. I went about 200 yards and stopped. And I felt like I can’t run. I’ve run all my life; I’ve always been a very good runner, And I got 200 yards and I was totally gone. I could feel it in my belly. It wasn’t like a fat jelly; it was a solid brick. It was a horrible feeling.”

 

I’m a coach. I’m trained. I’m strong. I’m experienced. I entered into this business willingly. I always had a love for the behind-the-scenes nature of coaching. The feeling of an empty assembly hall still gets me every time I walk through to get to where I’m going. Every now and then I’ll go in there and just sit on the bench. Attendance = 1 in a 17k+ capacity arena.

 

You’re with these incredible young individuals when the cameras are off and no one is watching. The work that leads to the highlights you see on ESPN. If you’re worth a shit you’re in it for them, those that show up with a healthy combination of fear and dreams. The opportunity to live alongside these athletes, learn what makes them tick, smile, cry.

 

Programming for college athletes.

 

Those on the outside don’t see nor understand much of what makes up our/their normal routine. While we’re in it and working, I’m all over them. As soon as someone from the “outside” chimes in on what they think these kids go through I shut that shit down.

 

Strength coaches especially are often misunderstood, some of that being earned because of what outsiders see some do on tv and say in interviews. I could care less about the x’s and o’s of it all. That shit is pretty simple.

 

Sometimes when explaining what it is I believe we do here, I channel my inner Tom Smykowski from the classic movie Office Space, “Well-well look. I already told you: I deal with the goddamn customers so the engineers don't have to! I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can't you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people!?”

 

Back to James Lawrence, the Iron Cowboy, an endurance world record holder and he's on the side of the road in Connecticut because he just doesn’t want to be on his bike anymore. On his reflection of this moment of the 50.50.50 he had this to say:

 

“Massive struggle, massively trying to figure things out and incredible amounts of trauma. Day 30 I’m in Connecticut. I’m 80 miles into the bike ride and I literally pull off to the side of the road, I chuck my bike and I curl into a ball and I start crying.

 

And I had to start focusing on all the reasons and why’s I was out there. And by themselves one reason was not enough for me to get back on my bike and do 20 more Ironmans. But as I started going through the list of everything that I was doing and why I was doing it…its interesting because I would gather them all together and I’d focus on this (his hands in the shape of a round container) big ball and I would bring it in close to me and as soon as I focused on that I started to experience a rebirth.

 

Because now I was focusing on the very very next moment that I had control over. And everything that I was trying to accomplish and why I was there. And I call this process now looking back on it both a rebirth and putting on my uniform which was the alter ego and my uniform was those yellow sunglasses you seen me wear in some of my pictures.

 

And when I put those glasses on that’s when the Iron Cowboy comes out. And that dude is a bad bad man. When you discover that and how to flip that switch that’s when nothing gets in your way and that’s where you shift focus and you realize what your purpose is.

 

And I knew if I had the courage to get back on my bike and finish that day and then do the 20 more my life would be different. And this whole process was about 8 minutes. The whole thing from complete meltdown to breaking all of the purposes and whys down to the realization and the rebirth and getting back on and going.

 

It can happen that quick and we’re moments away every day from a decision that’s going to completely change our life. Every single moment of every single day has a massive impact on where you ultimately end up.

 

And so that was a huge turning point but it was all the decisions before and after that lead to that moment. If the journey you’re on is big enough, and is going to have enough impact and change your life and others people’s lives, one reason is not going to be big enough.”

 

You’re not going to grab on to the bouy, dude. You’re not going to flag down a kayaker nor are you going to take off your wetsuit. Lift your head out of the water and just breathe. Keep moving forward. It’s going to slow you down but it will not stop you.

 

Finish the swim and move on to the bike. Don’t worry that a mile into the ride your chain will pop off its ring during shifting. Finish the race, because it’s what you said you were going to do, and re-evaluate and adapt to what you have in front of you. Six months of training has lead to a miserable dress-rehearsal for Steelhead 70.3 but there’s three weeks left and you’ve snow-balled a huge amount of whys.

 

The Iron Cowboy

 

Facing the Crossroads

One thing Lietenant Colonel Frank Slade failed to mention about the crossroads is that it's less of a big fork in the road and rather an uphill rocky path with many smooth paved exits along the way.

 

Comfort is all around us. I used to choose it on many of occasions. I do a little less now. I’m a good father but I want to be a great father to my kids. I’m a good coach but I want to be a great coach for my athletes. An example in which they can look up to and confide in because they know you’re keeping up your end of the deal.

 

You feel anxiety and depression not from comfort but from friction and action and you overcome. One stroke at a time, one step at a time, one breath at a time. David Goggins, former Navy Seal and ultra-endurance athlete, said it best, “without friction there is no growth.” Hard is living a life of comfort. Hard is living life unchallenged, knowing we once did that stuff when we were young.

 

Too damn hard is an excavation of self and purpose rather than just the intention to. Too damn hard is a life of voluntary friction. Friction that leads to growth. A path worthy only to those who choose it.

 

I had this vision of my death
Surrounded by people I love and respect
And a baby blue Cadillac hearse
Pulling me 'round the block that I rep
The greatest fear that I've ever kept is dying with regrets
Like was I just alive for success
Or did I leave a better life for the rest?
My greatest achievement isn't the dollars
My greatest achievement isn't the followers
My greatest achievement isn't the accolades
My greatest achievement is my daughter
Waking up in the morning, being a father
Watching the light kiss her eyelids
Hearing her sing along to Chance
And being like, yeah, that's my kid

- Macklemore, Excavate

 

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