Thursday, June 4, 2015

On Passion and Process: One Thing Leads to Another

It's easy to introduce one of my favorite people in the world to talk about passion -- or in this case, process.  This wonderful piece tells Annie's athletic journey.  I've known her for 17 years and I am still learning from her, and about her.  Sometime in the next 5 years I'm hoping to pull her out of the water, careen her from her tri-bike, and steer away from road running - and BACK to rock climbing.  I've missed my first and best climbing partner these past few years, but I'll be there running alongside her during this next pursuit.  Read on and enjoy her journey!  --Vera

Love this couple. 

One Thing Leads to Another -- by Annie Hughes

From the looks of things, you’d think all that matters to me is swim-bike-run-eat-recover.  It turns out that training to perform your best in an Ironman takes a whole bunch of swim-bike-run-eat-recover.  And yet athletics aren’t even a passion of mine.  So why train eleven to fourteen hours a week for fifty weeks?

Forty years ago I was an art student.  People who knew me then don’t recognize me now.  Art was a sedentary, creative and introspective career. I wanted to be an artist forever.  I’d never done a sport.  After all, I was an adult when Title Nine came into being so I hadn’t been exposed to sports when I was young.  Art was my thing.

Then, thirty years ago I became a parent.  Art faded into the background.  Parenting is actually kind of like Ironman training, a long road where you can’t see the end from the beginning.  You just do the work and somehow trust the process.  It turns out I loved parenting more than anything I’ve done before or since!  But when you parent successfully, you work yourself out of a job.

One thing leads to another in my life.  With our youngest finally in school, I slipped away to celebrate my fortieth by backpacking for a week in the Grand Canyon.  There was nothing to do but walk, gaze at this wonder of the world and think.  The age of the Grand Canyon compared to my forty years gave me the new perspective that my life was just a flash in the pan.  I might as well do the things I enjoy because my little life would end before I knew it.  Now, at 60, I feel this even more urgently.  On that trip I decided what I enjoy is being with people, helping people, and experiencing things. Making things, even beautiful things, while all alone in my studio wasn’t what I was looking for.

I returned from the Grand Canyon and a friend I met on that trip introduced me to rock climbing. 
Soon I’d met Vera, my climbing partner and friend. The next thirteen years were some of the happiest of my life, climbing with a group of women, holding each other’s lives in our hands metaphorically because we were good friends, and literally because we belayed each other.  We climbed together almost daily, for thirteen years. 

Climbing is an engaging puzzle solved mentally and physically.  I became fit and strong for the first time in my life. When I climbed I thought about nothing but the next move.  I was focused, on high alert, moving through space and time, across beautiful rock in the great outdoors.  High alert, but at the same time relaxed -- life’s concerns receded until I called “Take!” at the climb’s end, or fell into the safety net of my friend’s belay.  Climbing is not solitary like art.  It’s social because a belay or spot is needed, and it is fun to support others and watch out for their safety.  Climbing gyms are easy environments for making friends.

So after forty sedentary introverted years, I’d found a sport!  I haven’t stopped moving since.  Sports in general began to make more sense and catch my interest.  While winning a race or climbing to the top aren’t really important events in themselves, sports, races and games are opportunities to practice for the important challenges life throws our way.  Climbing taught me to face risks, keep moving despite fear, be responsible, overcome obstacles, and care for others.  I learned to break big goals into smaller steps, believe in myself, persevere, be patient when I can’t yet see the solution, rise to the challenge even though I might fail, and to work on my weaknesses.  One of the harder lessons was learning to ignore the doubting little voice that whines who do you think you are? -- You can’t do this!  You’re not strong enough and you’re too old!  You are going to get hurt, you’re in trouble now!  My mentor and climbing buddy Mattie taught me to shush that meddlesome voice with a firm, “Be quiet, I’m climbing!” and then change the subject in my head.... “now, what am I going to do here?”

Six years ago when Vera wanted me to join her for some mid winter personal training, I met Pat
Gilles of Pat’s Gym.  Pat’s Gym is not a place to read a magazine on the treadmill; it’s billed as a gym for highly motivated and elite athletes..... but I was just an average recreational climber, and one who integrated new skills slower than my climbing partners.  In other words I thought of myself as not being athletic.  As I’ve said, I was also sometimes frozen by mental struggles on the climb.  Mental toughness was not yet in my bag of tricks.  Highly motivated? — well for that you need a goal and I hadn’t found that yet.  Pat helped me define a goal and began to train me for it.  I saw that I could trust him and learn from his challenging workouts.  His expected me to work amazingly hard and never hold back.  I learned to give everything I had, even if I might fail trying.  Through a sprinkling of successes, and more importantly the hard earned improvement from doing lots of demanding exercise sets, Pat earned my loyalty and trust.  The training process was well worth my time and effort.  I began to develop as an athlete.  It was rewarding to pick a goal I couldn’t imagine and then do the work needed.  In time I reached my goal, often exceeding it.

Pat introduced me to indoor rowing because he saw I had talent on the rowing erg.  I was powerful.  I’d never been told I had a physical talent.  I prepared myself to race on the erg, with Pat as my trainer.  We worked from April to February for my race at the CRASH-B Sprints, the world championships of indoor rowing.  I took 5th place in my age group the first year.  The following two years I got faster, more mentally disciplined, fast enough those next two years for the manufacturer of the rowing machine, Concept 2, to fly me to Boston to race at CRASH-B.  I took a second and a third place, competing against athletes who’d rowed indoors and on the water continuously for decades!  I broke the eight minute barrier last year: 7:57!   Racing sub 8 minutes was something I’d not have dreamed possible.

Rowing races lit my competitive fire.  It wasn’t wanting to be better than others that motivated me to race.  Competing was about discovering my potential and then pushing it as far as I could toward excellence.  Having a goal race gave me a target and a time frame.  It took discipline to train nine months for an elite competition lasting only a few minutes.  I had to be strong mentally too, and that is so hard to develop without a tough goal.  Why do all that work just to do well in an eight minute race on a stationary machine, for heaven’s sake? — as authors David Shields and Brenda Bredemeier say in their book True Competition, competition is a special form of cooperation, each participant pushing the others to excellence.  Excellence is satisfying in and of itself.  There is intrinsic power associated with skillful or powerful movement.  Excellence in the more significant arenas of life, excellence there can change the world.  Sports are a good place to practice skills that make a difference in life.  Do the work, cut no corners, surround yourself with others with good work habits, take care of yourself, be honest and fair, make no excuses, risk failure, and build your tolerance for physical and mental pain.

I never wanted to do an Ironman until I thought about it differently just after watching Ironman
Wisconsin again last September.  Pat and I were talking about it and he posed the question, “Wouldn’t it be exciting to try for a different world championship, to see what is involved in endurance events compared to what you’ve done in rowing?  And haven’t you liked having a big goal to work toward?”  Absolutely!  So I’m preparing for a thirteen or fourteen hour race finish.  I’m enjoying learning to swim and run.  I had been a so-so runner and a horrible swimmer.  Now I’m a pretty good runner and just a bad swimmer which actually is an improvement! I’ve always loved cycling and have years of experience recreationally.  I’ve become a strong cyclist.  If I win my age group I will be awarded a berth in the world championships of Ironman races in Kona Hawaii!  Anything’s possible.  The journey will challenge me and change me and that makes me feel alive.

Now I need to go to bed.  And then swim-bike-run-eat-recover-swim-bike-run-eat-recover-swim-bike-run-eat-recover…..

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