Catch Me If You Can

A couple weeks ago, in attempting a snatch, I threw the bar behind me for the first time. As the bar flew backwards, and with no weight to counterbalance me, I fell forwards onto the wooden weightlifting platform. I landed on the same knee that I destroyed when I got my first adult bike, and was failing to learn how to not get my front wheel caught in railroad tracks in Boston. Those falls had torn more and more away from the front of my knee; the skin has essentially been replaced by a big, blotchy, shiny patch of scar tissue.

I haven’t thought of cycling much recently, other than in a spectating sense, but the fall reminded me of the mental fortitude that’s forced on you when you ride alone enough. The kind of resilience you develop when you end up having to pull yourself out of sometimes awful situations on dead legs, fully aware that help – in any form – isn’t coming. Cycling often requires a good dose of “I’ll figure it out if it happens” and the willingness to get lost, with the faith that you’ll find your way back because you got yourself into this damn mess in the first place. It’s probably why cycling is a sport particularly appealing to lone wolf types; personalities that are open to hectic, solo ventures, who like to go to places you really shouldn’t on two wheels.

hookgrip casualty.

hookgrip casualty.

But cycling never taught me confidence. It was, instead, insecurity in my ability and speed that fueled training rides and trainer sessions. I wanted, desperately, to be better, faster, stronger, because so many people had said that I was too slow, too heavy, too whatever to be a “decent” cyclist, and I’d believed them. The reality is that you can do a lot with cycling even with the debilitating insecurities that I had. It fuels the dieting, the training rides in winter, the hours spent on a trainer. Because if you’re convinced you’re not good enough, you try harder.

I took that mentality with me into CrossFit, then weightlifting. It worked, for about seven months. Since late December, my snatch 1 rep max stubbornly stayed at a measly 30kg. No amount of strength training seemed to work to pull anything over 30kg over my head. I leaned into my insecurities, trying to stoke the fire that fueled rides, trying to bully myself into raising my 1 rep max. Instead, my doubt creeped into my lifts. I would psyche myself out once 30kg was loaded onto the bar and my form would fall to pieces. I held back tears of frustration in class. I considered quitting a lot.

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Something changed around late April; the box offering daily weightlifting classes and an additional coach who seemed to see something that could be salvaged were two big ones.  At one class, paired up with a friend, K.H., who is significantly stronger than me, I kept missing that 30kg snatch. We were supposed to do sets of two, but I’d get under the bar maybe once, only to have it crash in front of me the second time. In the end, I never got that two rep set, but for once, it wasn’t not fun trying. Plus, I got something a lot better. After K.H. got a new two rep max, she watched me again fail another attempt.

“What’s impressive,” she said, “is that you’ve lifted 30kg like 50 times.”

I realized then that I’d been looking at weightlifting entirely the wrong way. Missed lifts, until K.H.’s comment, had been failures. All I was seeing were non-reps and reinforcement of my belief that I couldn’t do it. The other side of those missed reps was acclimatization to a weight I’d only been able to pull once or twice. It actually blew my mind.

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Her comment was undoubtedly a part of my piling on 5kg to my snatch two rep max in the space of a month. Another part of that was the observation that I was lifting scared.

“You’re still catching the bar in a safe place,” my coach said, “be more aggressive. Get under it like you know you’re going to catch it.”

Unlike riding, the scenery never changes with weightlifting. The adventure is always the same: you, a barbell, and a bunch of heavy plates. There’s no risk of getting lost and having to find your way – physically, anyway – home. There’s no mess to get out of, no situations where a cell phone barely works and you’re hopelessly lost in the middle of nowhere.

But weightlifting starts with a brash belief that you can, one more time, launch an uncomfortably heavy barbell high enough to get under it, often while your whole body feels like deadweight. It requires, before you step up to the bar, that you not only believe you can make the lift, but you execute with that confidence. That you dive under a potentially lethal barbell with the conviction that you’ll catch it, or at least, not drop it on your head.

All the training in the world ultimately doesn’t mean shit if you lift scared. So I started to fall, diving aggressively enough to throw the bar back and slam onto my knees. It makes missed lifts look a lot worse than they actually are – usually, you just end up with some impressive bruises – and there’s a weird sense of confidence in knowing that you tried lifting that weight with no fear. That you somehow managed to wipe the slate clean of doubt, insecurity, the knowledge that your muscles are close to dead, and replaced it, for a brief second, with pure faith.

Note my coach looking not horribly disappointed in me, for once.

Note my coach looking not horribly disappointed in me, for once.

A million thoughts still run through my head as I approach the barbell, about form, triple extension, where my weight should be, my elbows. “What the hell,” I think, as I grab the bar with hands white with chalk. I vaguely imagine completing the lift before all thought drains from my brain and I’m pulling, falling, diving to catch another snatch.

Of Asics Weightlifting Shoes and Camel Toe

“Oh my God, I accidentally saw that part where her leg, you know, meets her groin…?” A friend told me earlier this year.

“You mean, her labia?”

“Well, not the entire thing, but yeah, part of it.”

“Ew, gross,” I’d said.

As my State-side visit neared its end, I was increasingly becoming anxious about going back to the box. Not only because of the inadvertent two-week hiatus where I’d packed most of my workout clothes and then used them just once during my trip. Toward the end of last year, a girl had joined my CrossFit box, shit had hit the fan, and I got splattered with it.

It wasn’t just her tendency to wear thin running shorts and leggings that didn’t cover her butt or hide the shape of her nether region. It was more that within two months of joining our box, she had thrown herself at our happily-married coach. Despite friends pointing out how blatantly she was flirting with our coach, I first assumed she was overly friendly and maybe didn’t quite understand the concept of boundaries. Maybe she was excited to join a new box after an allegedly poor experience at her previous one. She seemed nice, she was good at CrossFit, and we became friendly.

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That initial assumption was napalmed at a year-end party that a box member had organized. After the party, we had all lingered outside the bar, waiting for someone to take the initiative and lead the way to the after party. It was cold and we were all trying to keep warm, hands stuffed into pockets. As I shot the shit with my coach and a few friends, the girl slid up to him, rested her head on his upper arm and slipped her hand into his coat pocket.

Things got pretty weird after that. I made it clear that I didn’t need friends who lacked a moral compass, the box owner eventually found out about the shady behavior, and the girl, for the most part, cut it out. She still apparently hates me.  

When faced with sticky situations, I generally choose to delete myself from the locale or social circle involved. Despite the fact that I love my box, I started avoiding classes and only coming by the box during open gym hours when I knew I’d be alone. The additional support the box provided this girl for her attempt to get into regional championships, her strength, and her proficiency at WODs made me feel small. I’d done nothing wrong but I felt like the outsider. I considered quitting every week.

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By coincidence, however, I’d ordered a pair of Asics lifting shoes prior to the year-end party. Handmade of thick suede, the heel is lower than competing models and they look like Soviet-era relics in comparison to the Nike Romaleos or the Reebok Legacy Lifters. There’s no cool Velcro strap, and unless you go the custom route, there are only two colors. But they’re also the best lifting shoes you can buy.*

Unfortunately, they’re also expensive. The money had been spent, though, and the shoes were on their way. There was no going back.

The first time I got under the bar with these shoes on, I finally understood why people say that lifting shoes are a worthy investment. If you’ve ever ridden a fixed gear after doing most of your miles on a road bike, that’s what wearing lifting shoes feels like. Except the plastered-on feeling is on your feet, not your butt.

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Although I’ve tried lifting with plates under my heels to  replicate the effect of lifting shoes, it never felt stable. The soles of my feet seemed to cave in towards the ground. With the Asics, the stiff leather soles keep my feet glued to a hard, supportive surface which means I can grip the ground more effectively. The lack of any cushioning translates to the feeling that I’m lifting barefoot, but with enough support to keep my heels raised. Lifting in normal sneakers feels like standing on a soft bed in comparison.

People say that lifting shoes will automatically add 5kg to your squat max. I can’t say that I’ve been gifted those instant gains – for a number of reasons, I haven’t tried to max out my back squat this year – but I can say that squats feel good in these shoes. My muscles still feel awful during the movement, but I’m not trying to feel out the “tripod foot” in soft, cushioned shoes. Instead, I can grip the floor through my shoe and drive up through my heels with a little more efficiency.

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The only drawback I’ve experienced is the lack of cushioning makes for a harder landing. I noticed that my heels would occasionally hurt after a lift, and that they sometimes felt bruised for a couple days afterwards.

“Is this normal?” I asked my coach.

“Probably,” he said, “I think I stopped noticing.”

That was a couple months ago and he’s right. It becomes one of the aches and pains that come with weightlifting way too much in your mid 30s. Like being constantly, visually assaulted by genitalia that you have no interest in, you eventually just get used to it. And in the end, both are a small price to pay for solid weightlifting classes at my favorite box.

* The Asics shoes are considered world-class, but those with less ankle mobility might want to consider the Nike Romaleos or the Reebok Legacy Lifters which provide a higher heel.

Snatching Back

“Kaiko,” my coach said a few months ago, as he watched me try to snatch, “stop getting flung away.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And I don’t mean just by guys.”

I stood there, sweaty, with third-degree burns from that roast. The whiteboard declared that we’d be doing snatches, and I’d been attempting to heave the barbell and two oversized, red, plastic plates weighing 2.5kg each, over my head. To accomplish that, I was bouncing the bar off my hip flexors instead of scooping it up, then getting pulled forward before swinging the weight back towards my body to get it over my shoulders. My arms were tensed up and straightened throughout the lift. It seemed to me what a snatch should look like, except it was completely wrong.

calloused hands

Fortunately, the vice grip I had on the barbell and the tension in my arms naturally died after doing about 20 snatches for a WOD. By snatch 26, my coach was impressed with my form enough to be shouting out praise over the increasingly irritating pop music.

“Good snatch, Kaiko!” he said, “you’re not wasting any movements!”

I was sweating uncontrollably and turning increasingly pale. My lungs hurt but everything else was becoming numb and useless. I had stopped concentrating on form, on all the small things that need to come together for a half decent snatch. I was too busy trying not to die.

There’s very little that is more fun than learning the Olympic lifts. But the process can often feel a lot like trying to date in Tokyo in your 30s: first, you spend a lot of time and energy trying to control things you can’t, then, once the deadening exhaustion sets in, you lose all the fucks you thought you could give and, ironically, start getting better at it.

I’ve been learning this the hard way. There were the ghosters, the friends-with-benefiters, the guys who can’t take rejection, and the guys who just want to sext. So far, it’s been a string of failed attempts. Most times, I fix one way I approach things and something else goes completely wrong. Other times, I need to step back, take a break, and re-group.

barbells

In the process, I’ve learned that rushing things can get you hurt or at least make you feel like an idiot, but, taking a few risks isn’t a bad thing. That having more confidence and a little more faith in myself never hurt, and meaningful progress always involves being uncomfortable. And that for every failure, there are ten, twenty, fifty more chances to get it right.

They say you get back what you give. What they don’t tell you is that you can give your best but a lot of the time, you have to wait to get it back. It’s not your day or your timing is off or it’s not meant to be. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your best at every try, or half-ass your pulls and expect a great result. As exhausting, frustrating, and infuriating as it can be, you have to keep pulling with the hope that one day, everything will boomerang back to you. And since you miss all the shots you don’t take, eventually, I’ll set myself up at the bar again and try to get something off the ground without looking entirely stupid and/or disposing of my dignity.

back at the bar

A few weeks back, after a crush didn’t pan out, I arrived at the CrossFit box to another torturous WOD.

“We’re doing this ‘Heartbreak’ one,” coach said.

“But, no,” I whined, “I’ve had enough of that this year.”

He laughed, because he somehow believes I’m capable of more than I think, and we did it anyway.

Measuring Progress

“How’s therapy?” friends who know of my weekly appointments to keep myself reasonably together occasionally ask, “is it working?”

“I don’t know,” I always say. It’s an honest answer, but I leave out the part about how, since I had lacked the self-awareness to realize how not okay I was until I was severely not okay, assuming that I could now somehow judge my progress is either a testament to how much my friends believe in me and my capacity to make progress, or, perhaps more accurately, how little they know about my descent into sadness. Sometimes, when pressed, I’d offer that, “my therapist thinks I’m doing okay.” People seem to take this as a good sign, but given that she has also congratulated me on not being a manipulative sociopath, I probably set the bar kind of low with that relationship.

The problem is that it’s difficult to measure progress you can’t see. There are no progress pictures you can take of your mental health, no benchmark VO2Max, lifts, or WODs. There’s no road map or training program. Other than the uncomfortable realization that I was more unhappy than I’d like to be, there wasn’t much else I was sure of.

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If the first step to addressing your own bullshit is recognizing the problem, they say the second step is acceptance. Somewhere in between, you’re assumed to have pulled yourself back to a functional state and mentally prepared yourself to address your numerous hang ups. It’s an uncomfortable experience made even more frustrating by the fact that no one actually tells you how to get from step one to generally happy. Even when you pay for professional therapy, you’re left to claw your way out yourself while answering vague questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “how do you think you can deal with this issue better next time?”

“What do you mean, ‘next time’?” I’m tempted to say, fully prepared to take the easy way out and avoid, for the indefinite future, whoever in my life had created whatever unpleasant situation I was complaining about.  “Does there have to be a ‘next time’?”

It’s the same question I voice at the CrossFit box, except, because no one there is paid to give a shit about my feelings, I’m bluntly told yes, I will eventually have to put myself through that extremely painful experience again. That the increasing weight on the bar or the heavier kettlebells are entirely for my benefit. This information usually annihilates the last thin thread of willpower I was clinging to to stay both upright and conscious. It also seems fundamentally unfair. I understand my therapist’s attempts to turn me into a better person – that’s what I pay her for – but no one told me building character was part of CrossFit or Olympic weightlifting.

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Yet, as if to make up for the fact that I can’t snap under the bar with anything that resembles speed, the harder I’m thrown, the faster I seem to come back. This could be proof that I’m still clinging to learned behavior, that I’m still seeking out situations which maximize my suffering. I like to believe, however, that this time around, I’m at least limiting my masochism to the CrossFit box.

I will concede that this is by default, not by choice. The beauty of any activity that corners you into playing self-defense so you don’t die is that it doesn’t leave you with much energy for remaining high-strung for the rest of the day. It just sort of beats you into acquiescence of whatever might have previously evoked some type of strong emotion. Completely drained of the majority of my will to live, I’ve been forced to stop fighting the things I can’t change. Exhaustion has led me not only to acceptance, but to exercise-induced Stockholm’s Syndrome, as, inexplicably, I’ve taught myself to love it. A few weeks ago, I stood in front of the whiteboard, staring at the WOD with a friend, as if I could change the numbers or exercises by glaring at them.

“Well, at least it’s box jumps, not burpee box jumps,” I said.

“So basically,” my friend said, “you’re saying that since coach isn’t going to kill you, you’re okay with him punching you repeatedly in the face.”

This probably isn’t the form of acceptance they talk about in therapy. You’re probably supposed to choose to accept things rather than be cornered, then beaten, into it. Sometimes, however, the amount of bullshit you’ve allowed yourself to get away with dictates that nothing else is really going to work.

It doesn’t seem like much, but I’m going to go ahead and call that progress.

Surviving through CrossFit

A couple days after I published my last post, I got my heart broken.

It wasn’t the usual breakup because I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone as intensely. It wasn’t because the feelings weren’t mutual; and so, it completely obliterated me.

The first two weeks, I couldn’t function. To be honest, I don’t really remember much of those two weeks, but for the next month, I woke up with a nervous pain in my chest that would explode into wailing sobs throughout the day. I lost my appetite and stopped eating. I wanted to disappear. Life ceases to have meaning after you lose someone you thought was the love of your life. In a lot of ways, I still don't see the point in it.

It would be nice to say that it drove me back to the bike, but it didn’t. I threw myself into CrossFit instead.

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Maybe I was doing it because I had nothing else to do, and the bike had its own share of burdens. Maybe it was a convenient distraction that I’d already paid for. Maybe, in the end, I kept going because he had gotten me into it. But I had fallen in love with CrossFit by myself, and those first few weeks, it saved me. The searing of straining muscles, the feeling of pain reduced to numbness from exhaustion and exertion, the suffocation, the sensation that I might be drowning. It all mirrored my state outside the CrossFit box but somehow, there, there was catharsis.

I started going to classes every day the box was open. I switched classes so that I could stay afterwards to practice everything I couldn’t do. When the memories ripped through whatever healing I’d managed, I practiced pull-up negatives and push-ups at home. Last weekend, I doubled up and went to two classes in one day.

It sounds crazy, I know, or at least, excessive. Overcompensation for a lost love and a directionless life. Seeking redemption from emotional trauma through physical pain. Or worse, a self-imposed punishment for a perceived general lack of worthiness. All embarrassing ways of coping with loss and projections of internal strife.

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But isn’t that how we all survive? You put yourself through solitary trials until one day you don’t wake up every day wishing you hadn’t. Until you reach a point where whatever you’re doing, day in and day out, is less of a coping mechanism, and the desire to do that thing or activity overshadows the frantic need to do it. Until that raw, open wound of true heartbreak becomes a more manageable – though lifelong – hurt.

I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m trying.

Prescription Dom Perignon

Every couple of months, I find myself in a compromising position, where the strangest part about my situation is not that I don’t have any pants on. It’s not that a virtual stranger is hovering over me with a giant popsicle stick, or that hot wax is involved. Or that I actually enjoy the process. It’s always something else with my waxing sessions.

There was the time in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where I swear the woman was using a pumice. It was so painful, it scared my hair into not growing back for nearly two weeks (unfortunately, it’s also been the best wax job I’ve ever received). There was the time I ended up hearing about how much skin you have to push, pull, and generally move around when you wax a scrotum. That time I got offered a job (I’m still not quite sure what to think of the fact that the only time I’ve been offered a job on the spot, I was naked from the waist down). And then there was that time that the nice lady working industriously over my nether regions was convinced that I really needed to get on Tinder.

Of course, I could lie. “I’m dating this awesome guy, fantastic in bed,” I could say. “I’m totally gainfully employed; love my job,” I could also claim. Yet, somehow, being deceptive at a time when you’re lying back, half naked, seems extremely silly. And because that translates to guys as well, I haven’t allowed myself to download Tinder. Besides, I like to tell myself, I’m not a reliable date. After all, I’ve been prescribed Dom Perignon.

Okay, it’s domperidone. Not quite the fizzy, alcoholic elixir – ironically named after a monk – of the French aristocracy, and more like a small, coincidentally pale yellow tablet that lets me eat somewhat normally. It’s the current fix for stomach problems that have been getting progressively worse over the past three to four years: hardcore morning nausea, a tight throat and more nausea after meals, and other unpleasant symptoms like bloating until I look pregnant.

And so, while I had hoped by this time that I’d be re-establishing those tan lines, I haven’t ridden outside in over two months.

It sucks. A lot. The worst part is the unpredictability. I’ll be fine for five days in a row, and kitted up and ready to head out on a long-anticipated outdoor ride, my stomach will suddenly throw a temper tantrum. I’d like to say that I’m coming to terms with it, but my friends would probably claim otherwise. They’d be right; I’ve been reduced – more times than I’d like to admit – to lying in bed in my bib shorts and sports bra, weeping in frustration.

It hasn’t been all bad, though. Usually, I’ve managed to make it to the gym a few times a week. One could argue, of course, that if I could lift, I can probably ride. That may be true; but fighting nausea in a squat rack near friends seems far more appealing and comforting than trying to keep a belly full of Skratch down while attempting to pedal myself home, alone. And though I still can’t squat for shit, I’m finally growing some arms. I’ve made gym friends I can laugh with, too, and lifting ensures I go home genuinely, honestly hungry.

On days I lift, the rest of the day can throw what it wants at me. It can involve stories about scrotums, some serious exfoliation that borders on sadism, or not-so-subtle hints that I need to get laid. It can involve that frustrating feeling of being hungry yet nauseous at the same time, for the entire day, or acid reflux that burns my throat and keeps me up at night. Even getting creeped on by the local creeper at the gym ain't no thang. I might not have my bike to run to, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be okay.

If not, I can always take more Dom Perignon.