Internal Dialogue at the Edge of Exhaustion

Less than two weeks to go now before we leave for the Paralympics.  This is the brutal time of training, when workouts are all about intensity and coasting through a session feels worse than if I’d done nothing at all.  But compared to the previous 200 or so weeks of workouts, these last two weeks are the easiest to get through, the goal is close enough to taste.  The rest of the quadrennial, when a Paralympic medal is an abstraction at best, lonely training sessions are guided by different motivations.  Some of which I’d like to dig into now…

One, two, three, four…Two, two, three four…Three, two, three, four…Four, two, three, four…Push, push, breath, push.

During my most intense workouts all internal dialogue is reduced to a few basic commands, rhythmic and precise. When taken to their extreme, the simplest acts of breathing and pushing a wheelchair require a focus deep enough to drown any superfluous thoughts.    Counting laps on the track or tracking hill repeats, the easiest way to gauge whether I’m working hard enough is if I can think about anything other than lifting my arms for the next stroke on my pushrims; stray thoughts signal spare energy and wasted power.  During a heavy lifting session there are times that the muscles performing a lift are pulling so much blood away from the head that my vision begins to whiteout, perhaps as good a signal as any of maximum effort

When I train alone, unaided by the buoying effects of competition, the best way to override reason’s natural aversion to pain is to trick it into thinking that relief is nearer than it is.  This is a constant battle between the rational mind and that irrational urge to push your body further than it wants to go.  I pick a point – the crest of a hill, a bend in the road – and focus on each stroke to reach it as fast as I can.  To stop my brain from organizing a muscular mutiny, I simply lie to it: just reach that point and this will all be over.  Then, just before I reach it, the mind is elsewhere thinking about the relief to come but the heart still pumps and muscles contract, and that irrational urge has already picked a spot farther down the road, higher up the hill. And the little bastard has won, tricked the mind before it realized it was being duped: come on, just a little bit farther and this will all be over.

Breath…breath…expand the diaphram, force the air into the bottom of the lungs, arms good? No. Getting better? Close enough, so what if you hurt, get moving now and it’ll be over quicker.

This is how I reach my red line and blow through it.  It’s is a precarious place to tread, you can approach within inches of your personal breaking point and still recover to get there again — but once you hit that breaking point it is all over.  No matter how hard you push after hitting it you just feel tired and slow, your body needs rest.  Proper time to recover is the only way to get back to where you were before you broke.  The art is to get as close as you can without actually crossing that line.  The more you flirt with your own personal breaking point, the more you can push it back, and the closer you get, the bigger the shove you can give it.  Then at the end of your workout when the finish is in sight, you feel your self approaching the breaking point and your mind starts preparing to shut down your muscles, some primal force takes over to push even harder, and if you just keep pushing you pass your breaking point, and your mind steps back and your heart takes over, pumps faster, delivers blood and oxygen until there is nothing left to deliver and your arms finally stop pushing, fall to your side, and hang in exhausted exultation.

There is no feeling like the deep, sleepy contentment that comes from utter physical exhaustion.  Before the pain of recovery there is a short window where the it feels like your mind slows down, but it’s really the rational part of your brain sliding back to rest, letting the intrinsic self step forward to take a look around.  It’s feeling without thinking.  There are times after a ride or a push where I’m packing up my gear, moving on autopilot with no inner dialogue, observing the world around me with the detached curiosity and amusement of a small child.  In this place the mind is free of clutter and left to revel in the ordinary.  The sedate man may train a life in meditation to feel the same emotional calmness that can come from willing your body to exhaust itself past the point that the rational mind would ever let it go. External rewards aside it’s not a bad path to tread.


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