Losing to Win: Learning to Take Responsibility for My Story

If you don’t know me very well, you might not know that Strongman, my sport, my hobby, my athletic pursuit, one of my greatest passions, is a lot more to me than just something I do to stay in shape or entertain myself. 

For me, Strongman has been a refuge, a place of rediscovery and a training ground for who I want to be. It is a spiritual disicpline. It has helped me cope with anxiety and depression, and helped me prevent bad habits from becoming lifelong demons.

Strongman, particularly training for competion and actually competing, is a how I endlessly dig into, reveal, develop, and learn myself. I have always needed something like Strongman, and when I found it, I no longer felt compelled to drink to melancholic rumination while chain smoking on my fire escape – I had something better to channel my angst into. And lifting gave more back to me than any physical vice ever did. 

So with that in mind, I want to talk about how one of my biggest disappointments helped me get back on the road to trusting myself and becoming as successful as I can be as a competitor and as a person. 

Last Strongman Corporation Nationals in 2016, I bombed, placing 37th out of 43 in the overall weight class (middleweight). It was my second time there, and like a lot of green athletes, I had big aspirations. But I didn’t have the mental methodology or trust in myself to get there.

Since then, I’ve obviously had the generic big goal of “do better next time.” Be stronger, be faster, get your head right. But what does that look like?

There are a million small pieces to these things – the obvious ones being good programming, skill practice, proper fueling, adequate recovery. I’ve been working on those consistently and I know that I just need to keep doing them.

But what about my head?

What was off last time?

A million more pieces. 

Stress. A bad work environment, more stress, my old friend anxiety…and lack of belief. Lack of mental discipline. Lack of strong mental habits to reinforce my physical ones.  I had contests where I was much more mentally present and calm, and Nationals was a shitstorm of bad circumstances for my head game. It wasn’t just Big Day jitters, though that was certainly a factor. For whatever the many reasons were, I wasn’t able to bring my A game, my best self – I didn’t bring who I knew I could bring, and it was devastating. 

In every one of our heads, there is a running monologue, a narrative, a story that we tell ourselves about who we are, and consequently, what we are capable of. I have taken great effort to become conscious of this narrative, and conscious of the ways it both helps and hinders on every aspect of my life.

The narrative I was telling myself last October, underneath my excitement and enthusiasm, was You’re Not Enough. You’re Too Weak. You’re Too Inexperienced. 

Day 1 I felt solid, and the first 3 events I completed respectably. I legitimately was not quite strong enough to do very well, but I was happy about my numbers. And then Day 2…I completely psyched myself out. There was no physical reason for my events to go as poorly as they did. I choked. I barely got the max distance 225 lbs husafell more than 100 ft (despite having taken 275 lbs for about 100 ft in training, and done at least twice that distance with around comp weight), and my keg medley was a glacial 34+ seconds (even though I had been smoking my conditioning). My poor performance on the husafell mentally destroyed me and I gave up.  I wasn’t there anymore. I felt like I had let myself down and felt deeply embarrassed. 

Shonda Judy Photography

The story – YOU’RE NOT ENOUGH – came true. I lived out the unconscious mantra I had been telling myself for weeks. 

I cried a lot that night and struggled to hold back tears while my friends placed topped 10 and got their Arnold invites. I was legitimately happy for them, especially my coach, who fought brutally all weekend through an injury from the first event. I was so proud of them, and it made my utter contempt for myself that much worse.

My boyfriend patiently listened while I sobbed and rambled. But out of the total mess, right before we decided to turn in, clarity happened. I say happened because it really seemed like a fairy godmother dropped into the room and tapped me with her wand, bringing me out of my self pity.

“This is what you needed. This was the best thing that could have happened. This was your worst fear, and you survived. This will make you invincible. This will give you the courage to admit what you really want – You want to win.”

I want to win.

Since I started competing, I never quite considered myself strong enough to even deserve to aspire to winning. It felt hubristic and silly and unrealistic. 

But my hedging my desires didn’t make them go away. My refusal to freely admit my true and ultimate desires – to place and go to the Arnold – created a chaos and internal conflict within me that drained my energy and maybe even caused some of my error. 

And the truth is, I want to win. And it feels damn good to admit it. And since admitting it, I have gotten a lot of clarity in what I need to do, and I actually feel a remarkable decrease in stress. And the beautiful thing about self-honesty is that it can snowball. In the last 8 months I have become more honest with myself about all kinds of different things totally unrelated to Strongman. Truth begets truth. Clarity begets clarity.

And ambition begets ambition.

So, since last October, I’ve done a lot of thinking. I’ve asked myself over and over, “what do you want?”

And the answers keep coming back, clearer and louder. 

So the obvious next question is,

“What do I have to do to live this new story out?”

This isn’t about simply wishing I was stronger, or thinking I can will myself into my ultimate goals with magic.

This is about understanding that for me to be successful, every part of how I think of myself is important. Every part of how I treat myself is important. Everything I say about myself is important. It’s all important because ultimately it shapes the reality that I Iive out – in training, at work, in my relationships, and in competition. I believe this to be as true of training as it is of anything else – I can only create true value in what I put in the world if I truly love and invest in the value in myself. And that means being honest about everything, including my faults. 

I may not be strong enough or good enough this upcoming November, but that will only be because others worked harder, and showed up stronger physically and mentally, and I am at peace with that. I am at peace because I know when I show up in November, I will have spent a year living a new narrative, creating a new mantra, a new reality:

I am enough. 

I may not be the strongest, the most skilled or the most talented.  But I will keep getting stronger. I will keep practicing. And maybe my goals will change, maybe other pursuits will take focus over Strongman. I’ve changed a lot in the last few years and I’m open to more change. But right now, I want to win. And I’ve just started learning who I need to be to make that happen.

I’m starting to take control of my story.

It Doesn’t Get Easier, You Get Better

It’s gonna be Not Fun. You’re going to think things like, “Wow, I’m an uncoordinated potato person who clearly has existed thus far based on luck alone,” or, “I am a shame to my ancestors,” and “Can I die now please?”

It’s okay, really.  Beginning a new physical skill and fitness regimen, ESPECIALLY when you are in poor shape, is really, really hard.

And guess what? It doesn’t get easier, exactly. You get tougher, you get smarter, you become stronger, and hard work becomes a habit that doesn’t threaten you as much.

When you’re weak, it’s easy to feel the exertion and the pain and the effort and think “this sucks, I’m done,” because you would rather opt out of the difficult task than face uncomfortable truths about yourself that, maybe, threaten your ideas of who you are. It’s not fun or sexy or badass to feel your own weakness. But it is a crucial part of any kind of growth process.

It’s a mistake to look at someone who is at the pinnacle of their sport and think “Wow, it’s so easy for them, they’re so good at it…they must be gifted.” It is SO easy to look at someone strong and skilled and dismiss them as “gifted,” because it protects your ego and excuses you from taking responsibility for your fitness/skill/etc.

They might be more genetically presupposed to be good at that particular thing, and yes, everyone has different skills or abilities that they are more likely to be good at, but to be REALLY good at something, no matter what it is, you have to work really diligently and intensely. This takes incredible focus.  And it’s REALLY, hard.

Photo Scott Lloyd Photography

Cultivating a physical (or non physical) discipline that routinely challenges you is hard, but that is what makes it so empowering when you progress. You confront limiting ideas of yourself, you deconstruct your ego, and you grow.

It doesn’t get easier — but you adapt, and become stronger, tougher, more informed about yourself and more capable of meeting new challenges.

I remember the beginning, it was rough.

And it’s still rough, a lot of the time. But now I expect that, and I know how  much better it can make me because I have the proof of my body, my skills, and most importantly, my attitude.

Cara

The Beginner’s Gauntlet: You Don’t Hate Working Out, You Hate Being Out of Shape

Chest pains. Nausea. Body shakes. You dread working out, because this is what it means to you. Total exhaustion and PAIN. 

You avoid working out, because working out means pain. UNBEARABLE pain.

But this isn’t what working feels like. That’s what being out of shape feels like.

Don’t get me wrong, an effective workout should often be challenging and uncomfortable, but once you are in good shape, those challenges FEEL different. Your body, now accustomed to hard work, relishes the opportunity to push. A hard workout, while still painful at times, is not excruciating.

I swear I recently read a blog or a Facebook post that quipped something like “You don’t hate exercise, you hate being out of shape.” If I did read that, I cannot for the life of me remember where, so if you’re reading this and you know who wrote that, please message me so I may properly credit them for inspiring THIS post. Moving on.

When you are out of shape – that is, have low aerobic endurance and are generally weak, your body almost perceives physical effort as a terrible threat.

Exercise hurts and is totally overwhelming.

It kinda feels like you’re dying.

That’s not normal. But is is normal if you are out of shape and have just started exercise. It’s not very encouraging, is it?

Let’s call this the Beginner’s Gauntlet. And the Beginner’s Gauntlet comes with more than just with physical pain.

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Baby lifter Cara. About to attempt 225 for the first time, a little over 3 years ago. Also, not that long ago.

A decently able bodied adult without injuries or significantly limiting physical handicaps should be able to get their heart rate up, plank, row, deadlift around their own body weight, and pick up and carry at least half their body weight in each hand. You should be able to balance on one foot for 10 seconds (according to His Excellence, Dan John). You should be able to perform body weight squats. You should be able to exercise relatively uninterrupted for at least 20 minutes.

These are not super high standards either – and if it sounds like they are, then I think you know what you need to do.

But how do you get past the  Beginner’s Gauntlet?

Well, the first thing is acceptance. Accept that it’s GOING to suck a little bit, especially at first.

Realize that you are up to it. A few weeks or months of physical discomfort is not going to kill you.

Realize that it WILL END. This part is important – when we first start exercising, and we are in this  Beginner’s Gauntlet still, we think Oh god, it’s always gonna like this. This SUCKS. Why do people do this? NOT WORTH IT.
And then we quit. And we continue to feel like shit. And nothing changes.

I have a friend who recently has started training under my guidance, and we recently discussed some of the potential negatives that discourage beginners early on in the training process, and one thing stuck out to me:

The idea that you should already be good at it and you clearly just aren’t cut out for hard physical work. This is wrong. Our body are living adaptations at work and we actually crave physical challenge. If we didn’t, strength training wouldn’t work. We just have to stick with exercise long enough to remind it that this is a good thing.

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This took a lot of practice and I ended up going the barbell route versus the yoga route or the calisthenics route. BUT THERE ARE MANY ROUTES!

But again, the  Beginner’s Gauntlet is REALLY hard to get through, especially when combined with any number of mental barriers blocking you from working out (low body confidence, exercise knowledge anxiety, fear of being mocked at the gym, and on and on).  I am no psychologist, so I won’t try to pinpoint what exactly makes it difficult aside from the physical “It feels like shit a lot,” but I will give examples from my own experience.

My attitude towards exercise is often reflective of my attitude toward my ability to overcome obstacles, AND the level of respect I have for my body.

When I don’t think I am capable or strong, I start to fail, I start to give up.  When I feel self-loathing and don’t treat myself with respect and love, I start to abuse my body through neglect. “I hate my body, I’m too weak” — this is a horrible kind of internal warfare, sadly likely familiar to many.

Sometimes, sometimes that attitude can get you in the door to the gym…but it won’t keep you there. SO what is the antidote to hate, even hate for oneself? Here it comes, and you know it’s cheesy AND true;

Self. Fucking. LOVE.

And that can be fucking hard to muster. Sometimes it’s not there at all. This doesn’t make you a failure, it just means you’re a human being and you contain multitudes of highs and lows. Sometimes that love for yourself can be manifested as love for other people. If you don’t feel that love for yourself, maybe it can sound like “I want to be healthy and capable for my partner who loves me,” or “My community that needs me,” — you get the idea.

Love for yourself will keep you in the gym. Love will also give you the courage to fail, which you’re going to need, because you are going to fail, a lot. And that IS A GOOD THING. Because then you will realize that failure really doesn’t kill you – failure is an opportunity to get better.

In the gym, failure is an absolute necessity. In fact, I would say that the gym is one place where failure is IMPERATIVE. if you’re not failing or feeling like you are at some point,  you’re wasting your time.

How long does the  Beginner’s Gauntlet last? Well, it depends on how frequently you commit to exercising and how challenging that exercise. is, and how out of shape you are. There are tons of variables.

But it WILL END. And one day it you’ll wake up, go to the gym, and realize mid workout that you didn’t have to talk yourself into going. You went because you wanted to. You’re a little out of breath, but now you enjoy it. You take pride in it.

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This took some doin’. Also growing out bleached hair is almost as hard as getting in shape.

Listen, not everything in this blog will apply to every beginner. But everything in this blog DID apply to me, and if I felt these things, other people did too.

The  Beginner’s Gauntlet is tough. But one thing is certain – if you keep at it, you WILL get through it, you WILL get better, and you might just even learn to love exercise. You might just learn that it’s one of your favorite things. I know, I was shocked too.

Cara

 

HANDLE IT: Break Down and Prioritize Your Goals

Handle it.

When it gets hard, but you handle it.

When you’re tired, but you handle it.

When you want to give up, stop trying and leave it to someone else, but you handle it.

We are capable of so much more than we realize, but sometimes when we work on setting personal goals, we think “Oh that’s probably too tough for me,” or “I’ll just give up eventually anyway,”

We forget all those thousands of moments when you didn’t have a choice, because it was your job or your money one the line, or someone depending on you, or a crisis and you just reacted, and even though you didn’t want to and you were scared and tired, you just handled it.

Why can’t we trust that when it comes to our own goals and our personal desires, we can handle it?

Why can’t we trust that we do have the power to handle our aspirations and the challenges they bring?

Probably because they ARE SO BIG.

It’s scary when we want something big.

And if we’re scared of it, we give ourselves the option to back out – to avoid failure, and to quit before we even start.

When the Goal is SO BIG that you can’t even wrap your brain around the How To, it makes it really easy to quit. Here are some concepts that helped me  out a lot.

✖Whole-assed, not half-assed✖ When we decide to do something, we must really decide. In training (which almost always has some real life parallel for me) I've been working on TOTAL COMMITMENT to the task at hand. Being ferocious and completely committing to every single lift with equal intensity. This is hard. This takes practice. This takes self-care and self-confidence. You can doubt your strength and your capabilities, that is normal. But when the moment to act arrives, you have to COMMIT. Or it's not gonna happen. Excellence is a habit. Commitment is a habit. Presence is a habit. You decide your habits. It's on us to be more present in our work, in our training, in our life. It's up to us to show up and commit. #strongwoman #createyourself #trainingislife . . . . #motivation #discipline #inspiration #selfcare #womenwholift #barbend #strongman #startingstrongman #belleofthebar #sportsphotography #chickswholift #reebok #perfectnever #showup #meditation #zenandtheiron #healthyliving #weightlifting #fitfam #crossfit #badass #booty #strong

A post shared by Cara Brennan (@captainstarbuck) on

How do we apply that “This Is Not Optional, I WILL Succeed,” attitude that sometimes occurs naturally when we are at work or helping a loved one, to our personal goals? How do we make huge goals easier to start actually striving for?

One part of it could be in changing how we think about and prioritize our goals. If you are trying to change your body, or your career, or your habits, it takes a LOT of focus, focus that is easily robbed from us by work, friends, and the constant distractions of social media and entertainment. It’s not that ANY of these things are inherently bad, but we have to acknowledge how freely we give away our attention and thus our willpower.

When we give away our energy/willpower, it’s really easy to feel like we can’t handle it.

We lose ourselves in distractions all day, and then in the evening when we are idly dreaming about what we really want to be doing or have, we think “I’m too tired, I can’t achieve anything, I can’t handle it,” when really, you’re just wiped out.

You can handle it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or even simple.

Something that I, and I’m sure many others, struggle with is prioritizing activity. There is not necessarily a Best Way to Do This, but just thinking about how you schedule your day is a great start. If you have a job with downtime, maybe there are ways you can utilize your free time better.

For example, as a personal trainer, sometimes I have an hour between clients. Am I writing? Am I responding to emails? Or am I mindlessly scrolling Facebook? Deciding what to do with those free windows AHEAD of time has been really helpful in at least keeping me mindful of what I am doing.

You should see my Google Cal, it’s ridiculous — I started scheduling those free windows. At the very least, I’ll get a reminder on my phone that reminds me of what I said would be doing.

Big goals are usually intimidating, and the more you are emotionally invested in them, the harder they can be to actually start. That fear of failure is SO REAL. Make it easier on yourself to start, and dial them back a little.

Breaking down your goals into smaller, bite size and manageable steps really helps. If that goal is “Being in Athlete Shape” and having ripped abs and defined muscles and superhuman endurance, or “writing a best-seller novel” or “Curing cancer”, then yeah, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Maybe that “Grand Goal” (as Chris Duffin of Kabuki Strength calls them) can temporarily be:

“I want to work out twice a week consistently,”

and then even that can break down into

“Put my gym clothes on at 6 pm the second I walk in the door,”

and then that becomes

“Lay my gym clothes out before I leave for work so they are there staring at me when I come home and want to lay down,”

Noticing a pattern?

Break things down. Make them digestible. Make them actionable.

Make them something you know you can handle. Accomplishing something for yourself that you said you would do, no matter how small, builds confidence in yourself that you can do what you say you want to do.

This allows you to slowly build your goals bigger and bigger, all the while handling them with confidence and energy.

Action builds confidence. Give yourself lots of bite-sized very doable actions, and before you know it, you will build the willpower and guts to get after those Big Goals.

Get after your goals – you can handle it.

Big shout-out to my training client Jenna who’s use of the phrase “Handle it,” inspired this post.

Cara

You’re Not Shallow For Liking/Wanting Compliments

I read a post on This is Female Powerlifting that I enjoyed; wrote a whole thing and then realized I had a blog post! So let’s talk about external validation and wanting to look a certain way (maybe because of said validations, maybe not!).
 
I empathize with the writer’s many points and she touches on some things that I have also noticed in the lifting world and without. There is a laudable endeavor to transition away from making conscious assumptions about bodies’ capabilities based on observation and preconceived ideas/bias about what an athletic strong body ought to look like. I appreciate that in its complexity and I think general good-intent. The author expressed anxiety about having that view while still wanting to look a certain way, and being conflicted about that, so I write this to share my on take on this topic (and of course, welcome discussion!). Anyone who has spent any time in strength sports knows that those strong and capable bodies look like lots of different things. But I think it’s okay to want yours to be one thing while not holding that standard for everyone else.
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I am gloriously turnt up about my muscles because I made them for me. Also, I AM vain. So are you, maybe. It’s okay. 
I also sympathize with the author in that I was not ever categorized as “athletic” growing up. Now (in part to compensate), I actively endeavor to “look strong” – that is, to look visibly muscular. I find the aesthetic attractive and desirable for reasons that are more about telling a story with my appearance than about generally appearing sexually “desirable” (something usually assumed to be a root cause when it comes to how women present themselves,not without cause). My narrative is sometimes about demonstrating that I am strong – big muscles on women aren’t common, and thus I may automatically be labelled an “uncommon woman” as well as a strong one (as well as potentially less flattering things). I like it, and it makes me feel good and powerful. It’s something I am happy to invest extra energy into, and I utterly respect that many people choose not to/don’t want to/etc.
I do not assume that my goal is every female lifter’s goal, and I also make an active effort not to assume I know something about someone’s body based on its appearance (my work and experiences have taught me that those assumptions are often wrong). However, people are always going to have general assumptions about basic visible characteristics. Most people also don’t know enough about strength training or muscle in general to know that you can lift hundreds of pounds and not look like a physique competitor. That may very gradually be changing, but it’s going to take a while (I am happy to contribute to changing it).
 
I don’t think anyone needs to feel guilty or conflicted about wanting to look a certain way; it is a pretty basic human concern. We make millions of unconscious decisions based on what we see, and wanting to control or design your visible body is really, really understandable and it doesn’t make you a narcissist, or not hardcore enough about strength. It also doesn’t mean you tacitly endorse judging people based on how they look. It just means you care about how YOU look, and that is okay. It doesn’t make you anymore vain than the average person, and it doesn’t make you anti-feminist, or exclusionary to people with different goals and bodies. It also seems unrealistic to expect oneself to cast off all desire for external validation, especially regarding something you work really hard for. If a stranger looked at me and said “I bet you have a really fast Farmer’s carry,” I would BE SO FLATTERED. I also do not live for that to occur. I can be pleased by the external validation of an old coworker telling me my arms are getting bigger but also self-validate. For some of us, this may be something we have to practice, and that’s okay.
 
Your goals are YOUR GOALS and you do not owe to the world to tailor your goals or your desires to appear a certain way to anyone but you. Of course, many women are under a variety of pressures with regard to our appearances, many of which can be incredibly damaging. That is not what I am talking about (and is its own topic deserving of LOTS more discussion, of course). I am saying if you want to get jacked to “show” people you lift, GO DO IT, it won’t hurt anyone else, and it might make you feel great. It’s okay to enjoy external validation. It is clear that that cannot be your only motivator; that’s not healthy or reasonably sustainable (and for something as difficult as bodybuilding, external motivation probably won’t get you far). But you don’t have to throw the gainz-baby out with the old wheywater (<—trying desperately to make a lifty joke huehuehue).
 
I would love to hear other women’s thoughts on the article, as well as their take on getting external validation/learning to internally validate their progress, which is something we could talk about at length!)
 
C