In 2008 Michael Atkinson wrote a paper that has become very well known in the endurance community – Triathlon, Suffering and Exciting Significance. What sets this paper apart from most published on any kind of physical performance is that it’s not written by an exercise scientist but by a sociologist. He noted that, “the ever-increasing comfortableness of modern lifestyle has bled everyday life of ‘exciting significance’ and how sports have increasingly stepped into the gap to give people a way to live adventurously, even a little dangerously, in an otherwise too-easy world.” Originally he believed that because of the increase in white-collar desk jobs people were looking for a way to do something physical, to feed their inner need for movement and excitement.
Anyone who has ever had love affair turn sour can tell you that there is a very fine line between love and hate, that pleasure and pain are sometimes so close together as to be nearly unidentifiable. Atkinson said that he thinks “that’s the essence of being human, to feel alive, to move beyond the comforts of familiarity. It’s about saying to yourself that you don’t want to feel dead on earth.” I’m going to go a step further and say that if you don’t feel pain you’ll never really feel alive. It’s only when you take on the big challenges that you will ever grow as a human.
A few years ago I was reading a book by this guy named Dan John and he constantly urged readers to get outside, to take up a new sport, to learn a new skill. So I’ve been doing that for the last few years, first with better learning the Olympic lifts and more recently with triathlon and other endurance races like Spartan Race.
Signing up for a race is a weird feeling. For something like Ironman the event is usually a year away. So you sign up in this exciting rush, hurrying to get your details entered because these events often sell out in minutes. By the time you get done you’re flushed with…something. Excitement, nerves, anticipation, fear, and the thrill of adventure. But then reality sets in.
No one in their right mind wakes up on a Sunday morning and thinks they should go for a six-hour ride and top it off with a thirty-minute run on exhausted legs. Yet when you sign up for Ironman you do, and more than that, you actually look forward to it.
The thing about these sessions, which come as a by-product of signing up for an event like this, is that you learn about yourself. One thing that bugs the hell out of me as a trainer is when people offer advice for something they have no clue about. The only way to understand what your client is going through at various times is to do it yourself. Only by experiencing that exact session can you ever know what it takes and how to overcome the mental barriers that appear. And for people who don’t train others, the only way to ever really get to know yourself, to find out how strong you really are, is to test yourself so far outside your comfort zone that it’s a dot in the rear-view mirror.
Humans thrive on challenges. Sail across an ocean that is supposed to be flat just to see if you fall over edge? Sure thing. Climb mountains so high that you can’t breathe? No problem. Yet in our safe, environmentally-controlled world we have no challenges anymore, and without these challenges we become less human every day. Humans are supposed to be curious, adventurous and hardy – we came down from the trees and proceeded to kick the crap out of every other species on the planet and dominate it like no other since the dinosaurs. Yet these days you’d think we were all so fragile as to be made of glass.
Without a connection to our physical side we lose our connection to our roots as apex predators. Atkinson’s study noted:
“In the hardest moments of a long race, the athlete’s entire conscious experience of reality boils down to a desire to continue pitted against a desire to quit. Nothing else remains. He is no longer a son or a father or a husband. He has no social roles or human connections whatsoever. He is utterly alone…The agony of extreme endurance fatigue crowds out every thought and feeling except one: the goal of reaching the finish line. The sensations within the body – burning lungs, screaming muscles, whole body enervation – exist only as the substance of the desire to quit…The desire to continue versus the desire to quit – the athlete is this and this alone until he chooses one or the other. And when the choice is made and he briefly becomes either persevering or quitting until, after he has stopped at the finish line, or God forbid, short of it, the stripped-away layers are piled back on and he becomes his old self again. Only not quite. He is changed, for better or worse.”
To me, the change for the worse is what happens when an athlete looks around at the rest of their life outside of competition and begins to realize that they are within the Matrix. Their soft, safe life lacks any feeling of substance and they feel disconnected until the next time they can go and get that same euphoric feeling of accomplishment, of overcoming a challenge. Take the easy option and succumb to the lounge chair after work, or take the hard option and lace up your runners and go and run until your lungs scream at you. Every day you push back into that same zone of discomfort you reawaken that inner man, that inner Columbus who looked complacency in the eye and told it to fuck off.
This is Project Mayhem. Right now find something that scares the crap out of you. It doesn’t have to be an endurance event. Enter a weightlifting meet, a Highland Games competition, or even jump out of a plane or give a speech to total strangers. But toe the start line. It’s only when you put pressure on yourself to overcome your fears that you’ll ever truly be human.
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