FYI. This post’s topic is not pleasant. It is also not long. So if you are not ready for a bit of heartache feel free to skip this one, and wait for the next. We’ve got some races coming up in the next few months so there will be a return to race reports, training tips and building the stoke as we move into an exciting 2017 season.
But for now, I have a unique opportunity to discuss something that is close to my heart: Training though Tragedy. This particular tragedy is just too big to tiptoe around. Chelsey gave birth to twin boys one week ago, but only one of them was born alive. After growing together for over 39 weeks in the womb, “Baby B’s” heart stopped beating in the hours before we went to the hospital to have labor induced.
Previously in my life, I’ve had tragedies that felt massive. I worried if I’d be able to cross the divide back into any sense of normal. These were most often sudden heartbreaks – the unfaithfulness of partners that I had unshakeable trust in. Love that suddenly turned to unexpected and fierce pain.
I was lucky I think, in how I learned to deal with this. Short stints of drinking and despair were rapidly turned into something else. My twin brother – who was my main climbing partner, body building buddy, and best friend – would pull me out of my state of self-pity. He taught me to never look at myself like a victim. He would not try to ease my suffering. Instead he would simply help to shape it.
The days, weeks, or months following these tragedies always amounted to the most productive periods in my life as an athlete. I climbed harder, ran faster and lifted more. I established difficult and dangerous first ascents in the mountaineering world, pioneered human-powered expeditions in remote places, and performed at my peak in nearly every training session. But these times were not fun at all, and I would never – I could never – choose this path. Because tragedy happens to you, not the other way around.
I learned later of the Buddhist term Tu (Du, or Dhu) and finally had a word for what I’d been doing. The art of willful but necessary suffering. Later still I learned about the similar yogic ideal of Tapas.
This last week felt like stepping to the edge of a giant crevasse, and having another open up right behind me, both uncrossable. Standing at the edge unable to move forward or back – staring into the dark and cold of oblivion. The longer I stood there, the more powerfully I felt the urge to just step forward and fall. Of course I didn’t. Instead I waited. Eventually a small way forward presented itself and wearily I took it…to another chasm of grief. Again and again, I resisted the fall, moved forward, and found more grief. Nothing I’d ever experienced before had prepared me for this.
Except that it had. Everything had. The pain I was experiencing was the same pain I felt when my grandmother died, when I lost my friend Alex to a fall in the mountains, and when the woman I was planning to marry decided to sleep with another man. It was just deeper, stronger, wider. But it was the same. Like being dropped into the middle of the ocean and in the midst of the desperate panic for survival remembering the pond I learned to tread water in. And the river where I swam my first rapids after I flipped my kayak. The pool I raced my first race. The bay I completed my first open water mile.
The ocean seems so big. Too big. Impossible. But then I simply remember that I do know how to swim. And while I have no idea how far, how long, or even which way to go, I just have to start swimming.
I started training again the day we came home from the hospital. I cry through most of the sessions, and sometimes get so choked up it is hard to breathe. The moments when I can lose myself in the pure intensity of the physical pain are the same moments when I can simply immerse myself in the pure waves of grief. And almost imperceptibly it helps. It burns away a tiny bit of the sadness. Another sadness immediately fills the space, but it is a new sadness. Somehow this helps.
Chelsey has a more difficult task, as she heals from her emergency c-section. I know she is eager to be able to re-enter the Tu state, but is kept very busy breast feeding our beautiful boy, and will be back out in her beloved outdoors soon. In the meantime she is perfecting the art of highly functioning sleep deprivation, aggressive relaxation (seriously a thing), and “power pumping”, which is essentially interval training for her breasts (also seriously a thing).