About this time last year, I was seized by a crazy idea: that I, a halfway decent swimmer and neophyte runner, standing 5’2” in my socks, would research, find, train for and compete in an Olympic distance triathlon. For the uninformed, that meant I would swim a mile in open water, bike 25 miles, and then run a 10k, back to back to back.
I picked a triathlon, circled the date on my calendar, and spent the last 8 months training 6 days a week. Finally, in April of this year, after a long taper and several days of eating a really gross amount of carbs, I threw my Trek bike (size extra small) into the back of my car and drove to south Georgia to compete.
I’ll spare you the war stories (suffice it to say that hopping off a bike after two hours of intense exercise and knowing that you have a six mile run in front of you is a special kind of suffering) and just say that I managed to hit the time I wanted and I was happy with my performance.
But the triathlon itself isn’t actually what I want to talk about today.
I want to talk about the aftermath: about what happens after you work really hard at something, for a specific purpose or event, and then that event is over.
As it turns out, what happens in many cases is that you crash, at least a little bit.
In the aftermath of this race, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. Training was taking up an enormous amount of my time and energy; without it, I feel a little lost. I’m easing back into an exercise regimen, but it’s hard to convince myself to do high intensity intervals on the treadmill with no goal in sight anymore. And there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to start training hard again right away, because in many ways, the increased free time and mental space feels really freeing. A few days ago I drove out to a local trailhead where I’d done some training runs and just hiked- something I’ve been too tired to do on top of six weekly workouts. And I’m writing regularly again, after a few months of putting this blog and my writing practice on the back burner.
So why does giving up my six day a week training habit feel scary? I think deep down, the fear I’m struggling with is a fear of setting down this part of my identity. For better or for worse, I’ve been wearing my “athlete” label for the better part of a year, and I think I’m afraid that if I take it off, it won’t be waiting for me when I come back.
I experience this struggle in other parts of my life, too, and I imagine that many of you who consider yourselves life-long learners can relate. I’m continually confronted with the reality that there isn’t enough time for me to master all the things I want to master.
When I work hard to improve my performance in a certain area, or polish a certain skill, or acquire deep knowledge in a subject, it’s difficult to walk away from it because I know that I immediately start to lose the hard work that I’ve done.
I think about this often in the ceramics studio because my abilities fluctuate dramatically depending on how much I’ve been practicing. When I’m throwing a lot of pots I get into a state that I think of as being “in the pocket”: I can throw large pieces with ease and comfort, I lose time, and work feels like play. Czech writer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this as a “flow state”. But if I spend a few days glazing, or have to travel to a show, or just take some time off, it interrupts that process. I’m reminded of a quote by Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski: “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.”
I don’t have a good solution to this problem, but I have a couple of thoughts. Some people seems to be to carve out small chunks of time for lots of different things in their day: 30 minutes of Spanish practice here, an hour of writing there, and so on. This can feel difficult to me, and segmented, the way that taking six 50 minute classes a day in high school can feel: it’s difficult to get really deep into a subject this way. I tend to prefer to do deep immersion in a subject- to spend six months focusing on blogging, or training for a triathlon, or practicing a language. Then I move on to another subject while trying to do maintenance work on the first, knowing that I’m going to lose some of the abilities I gained, but having faith that I can eventually circle back around, catch myself up to speed, and then continue on from where I left off.
How do you juggle pushing yourself and improving your abilities in different areas of your life, without losing the hard work you’ve done?