Thursday, October 28, 2021

Ironman California

What is dying?

Over the past few weeks, this question has been presenting itself in my journal entries, interrupting the flow between my thoughts and my fingers. For a while, I just kept writing it, allowing it to be there - not as a question to be answered but simply as a new lens through which to perceive my life. 

As Ironman California drew closer and I began to integrate this new lens, I found my first response. It read: 

There has always been proving and searching, but proving is dying now.

I have never raced an Ironman when I had already earned a ticket to Kona. Qualifying for Kona has been my goal in so many races and I was about to have an opportunity to race without that goal to fulfill. Alongside a new sense of pride, there was also a noticeable void. What would I put in that hole? What would I strive for? 

Maybe I'd like to see if I could finish in under 10 hours. The course was perfect for it, and it was at least something. But I knew I didn't want that in the same way that I had wanted to qualify for Kona. It was a size too small to fill the hole, so I thought about something bigger. I wanted to prove the next thing. 

Luna proved that she can hold her pee for well over 24 hours if it's raining outside. Ralph proved that he can shit on a sidewalk if it means getting out of the rain faster.

Maybe I wanted to win a race. The familiar pangs of uncertainty mixed with fear mixed with imposter syndrome rushed towards me and I noticed how strangely seductive those feelings were. Proving myself against my own doubts and fears is the drug I get the most high off of. 

It lures me in because it doesn't sound so bad. I can't even count the number of times I've said some version of: "I have an addictive personality so I choose to be addicted to healthy things like exercise (and to neutral things like chapstick)" in order to occupy my obsessive mind from something less healthy. Ironman has filled that hole too. 

But then what? What will come after I prove I can win a race?

More holes, and more needing to fill them. I don't want to operate from this space anymore. I want to allow something new to exist inside that space - something that grows out of wholeness, rather than scarcity.

Holding up the #10 for Ironman #10

Questions that I've been asking for so much of my life are tired now. Questions like "how fast can I be?" have become too shallow to hold water. There are new questions waiting to fill the space. Questions like, "what do I most deeply seek?" 

Meanwhile, there was something called a "bomb cyclone" going on outside causing flooding and 45 mph gusts of wind. There were so many little moments leading up to the race where my heart sunk in anticipation of it being canceled.  Any text or email I received about a race update, I thought for sure was going to bring bad news. I debated packing my "The Swim is Canceled" shirt for this trip but I didn't want to jinx it, so I left it at home. (Nailed that.)

My alarm went off at 4am on race day. I woke up to the news that the bike course had been cut in half. Not a full Ironman, but still an Ironman. We drove out to transition. I cautiously removed the plastic bags from my bike, as if the rain weren't going to soak through every last ounce of lube before the race even started. Tires pumped, bottles filled, I walked back to our car to sit in the heat for a few more minutes before getting on a shuttle to swim start. The quiet moments before the race are so magical; they are the last moments of my old self. This race was going to be uncomfortable, and that is exactly why I was there. I breathed deeply and prepared for the long day ahead of me that was going to provide me with an opportunity to leave proving behind. 

Right before I got out of the car, I saw the message that the race was canceled. 

And then I simply went back out into the rain to collect my things. 

Observing my reactions has always been more interesting to me than inhabiting them. Of course I was upset. My heart still hovers low inside my chest about a missed opportunity to see how I respond to adversity - an opportunity to let the race show me how and what to let go of. 

In all 9 of my Ironman races, there is always a turning point. There is always a moment where the weight of what is dying becomes too oppressive. I become overwhelmed with old thought patterns telling me I that can't persevere, that I have to slow down, that I have never done this particular thing before and that means that I can't do it right now. The moment asks, How will you respond? Will you choose to allow the pain, the discomfort, the old thought patterns to persist or will you choose growth? 

Even though there was no race to show me how and what to let go of, there was still the turning point. There was still the moment when I was about to get out of my car and head down to the swim start, followed closely by the news of the race cancelation, followed closely by a space which asked, how will you respond?

And what I witnessed was my new self, putting one foot in front of the other, just like I've done for the past 11 years that I've been a triathlete. But this time without anything to prove. Without anywhere to prove it.

It never works out how I imagine it will, although I love to imagine anyway. I should have known that allowing proving to die would require me to walk through a different fire than I could have envisioned. The hard lessons never go smoothly into the night.

So here I find myself sitting in an uncomfortable pile of unexpressed fitness, and energy, and creation. I feel like the outstretched rubber band of a slingshot, which instead of being released all at once, is slowly escorted back to its starting point: full and desperate for release.

My beautiful sister brought me a lei back from Hawaii that she had planned on giving me after IMCA, in honor of Kona being canceled. 

What you don't see is how long it took to stretch that rubber band as far back as it had been stretched. There were months and years of fine-tuning the elastic, stretching it out right to the edge, then recovering to refortify and integrate the new length. Then stretching out to the new edge, then recovering. And again and again. 

Even without a release, there is still transformation. 

Proving may be dying but I'll hold onto searching because I know, like we all instinctively know, that what we're seeking cannot be found in the broad daylight of our everyday existence. If we were going to find the thing that we are most deeply seeking in the light, we would have found it by now. 

There are so many different ways to search. Ironman has become an important portal for me. The seemingly endless reckoning between what we are willing to sacrifice and what is important not to sacrifice; between how dedicated we can be while still allowing the right amount of space for living. It's the perfect single day container to experience the suffering and joy of what it means to endure. It's the high of everything firing on all cylinders and then the sudden abrupt absence of firing all together, and putting one foot in front of the other anyway.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

A Unifying Theme

Recently, I realized that I've been studying flow for at least as long as this year. 

I've been searching for it for much longer. 

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (we'll call him MC) is the psychologist who first coined the term flow and has done the most extensive research on the topic. He describes flow as an optimal experience in which we may become so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. The key to flow is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the rewards it brings. 

Interestingly, the Bhagavad Gita also points us in this direction: "You have the right to work, but for the work's sake only. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive." 

MC has found that one of the key characteristics of a flow state is that there must be a unifying theme

Without completely understanding why, I've felt the urgent necessity of cultivating a theme before each of my Ironman races. I find it in my journals. As I read back through the preceding months of growth and struggle, I often find myself moving increasingly closer to a new state of being. Something is ready to evolve, and equally, something is ready to die in order to make space for the evolution. My conscious mind is not privy to what will come next or how it will play out. There are no guarantees about where this will lead me, but I feel the responsibility to clear the space, and Ironman is the ritual altar upon which I make my sacrifice.   

The underlying thread of truth in everything in my life that has come to its natural ending is weaved through the desire to belong. In earlier iterations, I had to let go of various cultural identifications of belonging. I had to unlearn the destructive misconceptions that 1.) I needed to obtain a certain measurable outcome in order to feel acceptance, and 2.) that belonging is synonymous with conformity; that it is our sameness that links us together. 

Through shedding the skins of these maladaptive ways of being in the world, I initiated momentum towards expanding into a quest to belong first to myself. I began the process of distinguishing between which thoughts, voices and ideas are mine, and which ones I've collected from media or other outside influences, which were more interested in maintaining a status quo than serving the growth of my soul. I began to listen even more closely to my inner knowing. 

It is in the letting go that I am able to merge with the universal current. The flow carries me towards a set of experiences which are exponentially more rewarding than any outcome that I could have set as a goal in the state of consciousness that preceded the flow experience. 

In their book, Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explain the phenomenology of flow through the following characteristics:

Selflessness: There is a loss of self-consciousness where action and awareness merge.

Timelessness: Time passes strangely; you feel as if time slows down or speeds up.

Effortlessness: Every action feels as though it is automatic; leading from one action to the next in spontaneous creative fashion.

Richness: Your mind feels as though it has access to a vast database of information.

Research demonstrates that flow is the single highest predictor of life satisfaction and meaningfulness. The people who experience the most flow understand how to leverage the flow cycle to explore the upper possibilities of human potential. It is integral for peak performance and wellbeing. In a flow state, you have access to:

  • 500% boost in productivity (research from McKinsey & Company)
  • 430% boost in creativity (research from University of Sydney)
  • 490% increase in skill acquisition (research from Advanced Brain Monitoring & DARPA)
  • improved decision making
  • increased endurance
  • increased efficiency
  • consistent motivation
  • enhanced wellbeing
I've seen many of my athletes have breakthroughs when they have moments of tapping into flow. Others are on the verge. What keeps flow just out of reach is when there's too much identification with an outcome. Achieving a certain result is attached to a perceived identity: 

I'll be a real athlete when I break this time barrier. 

I'll be able to rationalize the time/money/energy I spend pursuing my goals if I can just accomplish this goal; if I can validate myself with this result. 

I am not enough until I can prove that I belong in this category. 

The sad, although predictable outcome is that it just doesn't work that way. And many of us, myself included, go through painful battles against self, fighting relentlessly for these concepts to be true, until we become too exhausted or disheartened to continue. Then within that moment of defeat, we either give up and hang up our shoes, or we give up fighting ourselves and agree to pursue our goals in a new way.

There are 2 distinct ways we pursue endurance: we either allow it to be generative and life-giving, or we hold it too tightly and allow it to drain the life out of us. I've experienced both. 

Holding too tightly is the primary antagonist of flow. They cannot coexist.  

For so long you thought that if you just controlled everything that you could control, then it would all work out how you envisioned it. But the way that you envisioned it is what's stopping you now. When you once envisioned the glorious retrieval of your goals, you did so from a limited perspective. You couldn't see a bigger picture so you zoomed in on one that you could grab ahold of - something tangible and known. 

In order to experience flow, you'll need to set that aside now. Whatever it is, it is too heavy to bring with you. Flow requires you to be light, to not keep yourself tethered to the shore of that which you can see. 

In our modern society, without ritual rites of passage, I have come to believe that there's a group of us who choose triathlon as our way of proving ourselves, to ourselves. It is the embodiment of a new state of being which is the final step towards making it real in the world. We have a deep, soul understanding of the need for ceremony. 

In the preceding steps, we had to prepare ourselves: physically, mentally, emotionally. Then in the race, the new you that you've been growing and feeding is waiting to show you what else you can do. 

Let it show you. Allow it to be revealed to you. And know that the most challenging moments are the ones in which you'll find your new self. Obstacles are the hurdles that get us into flow. 

Here's how I experience flow, in my athletic pursuits, in my writing, and in my communion with the natural world, the spirit world, and myself:

I am in total alignment: mind, body, spirit. There is no process of thinking of an action before doing it. There is only doing as a result of alignment. I understand that my body has needs in order to maintain the flow, but I don't feel the weight of those needs; I have no corresponding feelings about them. They just are.   

I am outside of time. 

I am more the essence of myself than the solidity of it. 

I receive answers at the moment of questioning. I receive questions so that I may know the answers to that which I have been unknowingly searching for. 

It is the only experience in my entire life in which there is no underlying feeling of longing. 

I have an elevated knowing of the interconnectedness of things. 

I am on the edge. Balancing both carefully and effortlessly as to not fall off. 

One of the greatest gifts of my life is my connection to my intuition. Admittedly, my journey towards parsing out the differences between the voices of cultural conditioning and the one of my inner knowing was simply about bringing consciousness to my thought patterns. My intuition has been loud and unrelenting in its decision-making for as long as I can remember. I recognize it naturally. The hard part for me was about convincing myself that I would be safe, and still loved, if I let go of everything else. 

And if you too decide to embark on this journey, you'll learn as I did, that when you build a bridge of alignment with your inner guide, the natural flow that results is so inexplicably rewarding that the fear of not belonging begins to fall away on its own. 

So now, I find myself ready to embark on the part of the journey that comes after I've cultivated belonging within myself: to expand into the unique way in which I belong to the world, in community. As you may have guessed if you know me, or after making it this far down the page, I feel the most at home inside myself. My inner world is my comfort zone. I delight in spending hours writing, creating, and feeling deep connection with nature. I've built a beautiful home inside my psyche. 

But lately there's been a persistent tugging - something telling me that I can't stay inside forever - telling me that there is great connection that can be cultivated out in the world. Although I'm not exactly sure where to start, I'm hoping that sharing my experience of flow and intuition will help open some doors. 

In a timeline I once believed would be mine, today would have been the Ironman World Championship, the goal that I've been working towards securing for the past 5 years, since I raced there last. It was hard for me to understand why that wouldn't become my path. All of the signs seemed to align. I've finally come to understand that this other timeline that my soul chose for me will become more meaningful, in many ways that I know, but am not ready to share, and in many more ways that have yet to be revealed.  

But still I wonder, what will this next Ironman be about? Usually by the time I begin to taper, the unifying theme has begun to reveal itself. This time, all I have is the gentle insistence on setting the search aside, urging me to find peace in the not-knowing. All I receive in return for my inquiring is a softness, which says:

It's ok to not know. 
There's a gift in the not-knowing. 
Be courageous enough to walk into the fire with nothing but your unknowing. 
Be willing to allow the burning to decide what stays and what goes.           

So as I prepare to step into my next container of becoming, at Ironman California, I plan on bringing nothing but myself, ready to be transformed, willing to allow the next phase of myself to be revealed to me only when it's ready, open to the flow which has always guided me, to take over completely. 

New Bio, who dis?

As I've witnessed myself shift and change, I've been experimenting with some new coaching strategies. Most of my athletes know that ...