The Body Issue

Be impeccable with your word – this is the first agreement that you should make if you wish to be free.” – Don Miguel Ruiz

As a heads-up to readers – this post may stray into the realms of over-sharing. I suppose that, for a number of mounting reasons, I thought it necessary to share anyway.

There were a number of motivating events for this article.

Most recently, I was listening to an interview with natural body-builder Steve Cook, where he touched on the not-so-glamorous, and perhaps downright harmful, elements of the world of competitive body-building – specifically, the severe body dysmorphia, eating disorders and bouts of depression that can easily accompany a life spent hyper-analysing one’s physique. This is only amplified by the fact that success and accomplishment in such an objectively bizarre sport rests only on the subjective opinions of four judges, all of whom seek to identify minute flaws in the mountain of hours you’ve spent manipulating your physiology.

An awareness of my own insecurities with my body had been gradually accruing over the years, and so hearing someone as prolific as Steve and interviewer Ross Edgley discuss it openly was perhaps the trigger for me putting my growing thoughts and realisations to paper.

My conscious awareness of it may be relatively new, but the symptoms are as old as my entire (albeit brief) career in athletics to date.

Skin-fold testing by the Sports Institute at my school in eighth grade left me with the ingrained habit of pinching the skin on my abdomen on a multiple-times per day frequency. The frequency of ‘tests’ would fluctuate wildly, depending on what I had eaten that day, and its perceived ‘goodness’. This unfortunate impulse continues to this day. My levels of frustration and anger, things I now understand to be expressions of a diminishing self-esteem, would ramp up over the years if I spent just one day without training. I came to realise, only in the last eighteen months, that my largest sense of self was dependent on physical fitness – and largely reflected by external measures of validation. I realised I couldn’t imagine genuine comfort with my own self if I wasn’t at a certain level of physical fitness, and if my body didn’t appear in a certain way. Despite trying to pride myself on a lack of ego, and limiting vanity as best I could, I found myself reluctant to head to the beach or pool unless I could try and get in a quick weights session beforehand. Things that I cringe to write, but true nonetheless.

I’ve been using the past-tense when I describe these unhealthy symptoms of body insecurity, and I really shouldn’t be – moving away from this is a daily-practice for me. It’s something I have to consciously try to resolve. The habits of excruciating self-analysis and critique are pretty deeply rooted.

The reason I am sharing this is because I think experiences of body dysmorphia, disorders of diet and a grossly unhealthy relationship with one’s physical body are far more common in men than is typically discussed. A conversation with a training partner, himself in phenomenal shape, around the time of my marathon-swim further highlighted just how not alone I was in having such toxic thoughts swirling in my mind.

Within the field of gender studies, the measurable effect that Barbie dolls have on the body-image of young girls has been well-documented – with Barbie herself possessing an almost impossibly-petite physique found in less than 1 in 100,000 Australian women, and theorised to have a body-fat score so low that menstruation would be prevented altogether.

When one stops to consider the shapes of the male action-figures that are presented to young boys (traditionally), a similar image is quickly painted. My Saturday mornings as a growing child were filled with the bulging biceps, ridiculously-chiselled abdomens and shredded-quadriceps of the likes of Tarzan, Batman and Hercules – all expressing no emotions except anger, never experiencing fear, and solving all their problems through easily-justified violence. Early adolescence saw a shift to the steroid-riddled physiques and CTE-inducing antics of professional wrestling.

In the aforementioned interview, Ross and Steve discussed the stark contrast between the GI Joe action-figures of the seventies, and the modern versions of the same toy – the present-day soldiers possessing massive chests and arms that would surely leave the admittedly ‘normal’ looking originals feeling totally inadequate. This gradual hyper-masculisation of children’s toys has been theorised to have helped contribute to the number of teenage boys using illegal metabolic steroids more than doubling between 2009 and 2012.

Realistically, there are probably an infinite number of factors that effect our perception of our bodies and our selves, and our increasing societal obsession with the inherently impossible pursuit of physical perfection.

I would hope that it would be evident from my writing and my time in endurance sport thus far that I am completely in favour of pursuing physical improvements, and of expanding our capacities for strength and stamina. Chasing personal development through endurance sport is entirely central to my sense of self, and by its nature, seeking to improve one’s self physically is not inherently unhealthy.

I would argue, however, that we can easily brush over the blatantly unhealthy and detrimental elements of physical pursuits like this – pretending instead that behaviours that may well be genuine problem areas in our lives are simply examples of our ‘passion’, or our ‘obsession’. We gloss over unbelievable perfectionism, or binge eating, or calorie-restriction, or a complete obsession with physical vanity, as mere signs of our dedication to the pursuit of gaining strength and stamina. Our relationship with something that should be bringing real joy and comfort, the act of moving and using our bodies as they were meant to be used, can so easily swing into the realms of toxic behaviour, in this era of social media-equipped personal trainers lighting up our news feed with topless gym pictures, of ‘eight week challenges’, and ‘washboard abs in five weeks’ magazine headlines.

As athletes, I think it’s crucially important that we all sit back every now and then and properly consider our relationship with training. It’s not necessarily an easy question to answer, that of ‘am I doing this for the right reasons’. The Passion Paradox authors Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg argue that the answer can be found in the balance between how much of what we do is motivated by intrinsic forces, rather than external sources of validation – instead of pretending that humans are immune to the often-nice feelings of ego and pride, they present that so long as the ratio is at least favouring intrinsic sources in the majority, then we are probably doing okay.

The problem is that these internal conversations are not happening enough, I feel, particularly within men. It took me, at least, over a decade of consistent physical training to even begin having that discussion with myself – leaving me now with ten years of unhelpful thought patterns and toxic behaviour to try and reprogram. As I said before, it’s a daily practice – it takes applied effort, just as training does, and patience, and self-compassion.

The most useful tool thus far has been this practice of real compassion with myself – ‘cutting myself some slack’. Our modern idea of high-performance training drills into us from the outset ideas of unrelenting hard work, of never-settling or missing a workout, of always pushing ourselves – again, done well, these might be useful characteristics to possess. I’ve always felt compelled to get in the gym or pool, despite how sick or tired I may be feeling, and that a failure to do so on a given day was representative of some kind of personal failure at large. That’s not at all to say that I have never backed off or missed training sessions – just that whenever I have, I would be filled with feelings of inadequacy and regret. A recipe for an unhealthy long-term relationship with a passion, evidently.

Now, I am constantly trying to assess how I am feeling about my training, and question what is driving me. When I have these natural feelings of exhaustion, or reduced motivation, I try to be gentle with myself. Rather than meeting these normal experience for any athlete with frustration, I try to be ‘impeccable with my word‘ to myself, and to just accept whatever my best effort may be that day. I’ve tried to reorient my personal goals to be far less influenced by external factors – rather than achieving a certain physical look, I am trying to improve my strength or power. Rather than concerning myself with body-fat percentage or resting heart-rate, as I have been known to do, I’m trying to find joy in the fact that I can do things now that ten-year old me would have been amazed by. Rather than concerning myself with winning certain events, I am trying to focus on goals that are dependant only on myself.

And its tough – it’s a genuine uphill battle. But what good is all this physical work if it leaves us battling demons and mental anguish that is so totally unnecessary? I was reminded of the line “riding your bike to your job at Monsanto” by my partner the other day, in reference to one unhealthy habit undoing all the hard work done in other areas.

If you’re anything like me, and you read this article, I hope that it can start to spark a conversation that we all should be having with ourselves – and one that I wish I had started ten years earlier.

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, but the second best time is right now.

The Swim

Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.” – Mahatma Ghandi

A couple of weeks have passed with no internet connection, fortunately providing me with ample time to reflect on my first attempt on an English Channel distance, open-water swim. The day, now a curious mix of both treasured and unpleasant memories, was nothing if not a day of constant teaching moments.

As perhaps with all Misogi attempts, it was a blend of both failure and success – of profound highs and all-consuming lows. The unavoidable yin and yang of endurance pursuits, I suppose.

In a purely literal, but perhaps disingenuous, interpretation of the word, the swim attempt was a failure.

I didn’t swim the full distance of the English Channel. Eventually, the current became far too strong, the wind far too insistent, my muscles far too fatigued and my struggling metabolism wholly unable to keep my core temperature in a healthy range. After an entire day of sincere and stubborn battling, I threw in the towel and head for the shore, an hour or so before the sun set on the river. I gave almost all that I had to give, and that day, it wasn’t enough to carry my body thirty-two kilometres down stream.

I didn’t do what I set out to do.

This all being said, when I stepped out of the longest and murkiest river my country has to offer, there were absolutely no feelings of failure or defeat. Instead, I was wrapped in feelings of deep satisfaction. I was immensely proud of my efforts throughout the course of the day. I had faced real fear, uncertainty and true adversity for ten hours. Despite my incomparably generous and ever-present support team on kayaks, I was very much alone in my self-imposed, watery predicament – no one could do the work for me, and the wind and river weren’t going anywhere.

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I had been caught off guard by deceptively icy waters, a strong wind and current that had no concerns for my bold plans, and muscular contractions that were failing me with increasing regularity. Eventually, my leg muscles were violently and painfully cramping nearly every hundred metres. If I ever stopped moving to eat or tend to a screaming muscle, my core temperature would drop into hypothermia. These mounting problems arose far earlier in the day than I am proud to admit. Eventually, all the Vaseline and Gatorade in the world couldn’t help me.

But crucially, I kept going, until I simply couldn’t anymore. Things were unbelievably tough for almost the entirety of the ordeal – as was genuinely expected. I had set the bar characteristically high for myself, and in the act of trying to clear it and falling short, had improved my capacity for endurance, my personal growth, and my understanding and confidence in my own ability to put my head down and work against a mounting desire to stop. I put fear of likely failure aside, arguably some kind of reputation on the line, and front-crawled down the river until I was no longer able to.

I had done what I set out to do.

Just three months ago, an Ironman Triathlon distance swim of three and a half kilometres was the definition of a marathon swim for me. How could I possibly finish swimming twenty-five open-water kilometres, my head buried in murky water for an entire day, and feel like a failure?

This is a far-cry from how I might have felt in the past about such an attempt. Shifting away from an unhealthy, perfectionist vantage point is a daily practice for me – I’ve certainly conditioned myself to judge my own endeavours from a completely unrealistic space. The Lewy Horwood of two years ago would absolutely have deemed this effort as a failure on all counts, and would have been suitably heart-broken by it. It continues to take constant, applied work to become less obsessive, less self-deprecating and develop a realistic sense of self. Therefore, being able to very publicly fall short of my intended goal – the entire day being streamed live on social media and GPS tracking – and walk away feeling nothing but a profound sense of pride and gratitude was a huge victory for me.

I stated constantly before the swim that I completely accepted the very real possibility of failure looming ahead of me. The English Channel is a heck of a long way to swim, after all. The day offered a rare opportunity to put my proverbial money where my mouth is, and demonstrate just how willing I am to work against the odds, and to grow and learn when things don’t ‘go to plan’.

We should all do these things more often, I think. Not everyone’s things are swimming down rivers all day, or climbing rock walls, or choking strangers in sanctioned competitions, or running ultra-marathons. But the lessons and their applications are exactly the same. We should be less ruled by the prospect of failure – in fact, we should re-brand and reclaim the word. We should truly extend ourselves. We should bite off more than we can chew, fall short of the ridiculous mark, but find ourselves further than we ever thought we might. I don’t think we really learn a thing when everything just goes to plan – failure is our greatest teacher, by far.

It struck me that the two capacities I am most grateful for are my body’s ability to recover physically (I was able to hit the gym and pool after a day’s rest), and my mind’s capacity for moving forward, win, lose or draw. No part of my psyche was disheartened or driven away from pursuits like this – in the car trip home from the river, I was already deep in thought about the next challenge, and what I would do differently.

I was fortunately taught from a young age not to rest on my laurels or be broken by my failures, and to return to the work.

It seems only fitting to close with one of my favourite Stoic philosophy lines –

No man steps into the same river twice: for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

Thank you, to all, for your support, and for reading! I am eternally grateful. Here’s to returning to the work.

The World’s Slowest 5k

Fatigue is an emotionally-driven state.” Ross Edgley

I’m not normally a huge fan of training diaries or typical race reports – while at the elite level they can certainly grant the audience fascinating insight into the mind of an individual during a particularly gruelling event, generally speaking, I am personally less interested in hearing recaps, the ‘what’, and more interested in learning the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind athletic performance.

This being said, I thought I’d break my own paradigm on Misogi thus far and recount the latest personal boundary-exploring workout that my training team and I have endured – an attempt at climbing a vertical rock-wall as many times as possible, to failure, with the aims of comparing the vertical gain to famous mountain peaks across the globe.

The end result? A nine-hour, maximal-output effort (for three athletes with absolutely no pedigree in the world of rock climbing) of 5800 completely vertical metres (the altitude of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania).

The 1160 repetitions of the relatively short, but entirely unforgiving, wall brought on more blisters and callouses than our unprepared hands had previously thought possible. What started as a relatively sustainable and consistent pace, blocked into climbing sets of one hundreds metres at a time, slowed throughout the course of the day, until eventually each single climb of the wall seemed entirely impossible.

As with all Misogi attempts to date, the day commenced with a group meditation session – a habit that I am finding increasingly useful for building a strong mental disposition at the outset of a task, and one that I certainly plan on employing in each and every future endeavour. The meditation is a chance to decompress from the stress and distractions that naturally accompany preparation for any big event, and facilitates increased mental clarity and the opportunity to emotionally ‘brace’ for the challenge at hand.

More than anything, the time spent in silence best allows me to properly consider how I may feel in two, or three, or nine hours time, and to meet those historically ‘negative’ feelings with a sense of peace and acceptance. Rather than naively hoping that perhaps I’ll be spared from any huge discomfort on this particular day, the minutes devoted to pre-event mindfulness allow me to prepare for the inevitability of this discomfort – and grants me the opportunity to consider how I will respond, ahead of time.

The entire endeavour was just one great exercise in the development of work capacity, “the most underrated aspect of physical fitness” – put simply, the total amount of stress that the body can physically perform, recover from and positively adapt to. Building a higher work capacity allows us to train harder, more frequently, and to recover more rapidly. Hard work is all that separates elite athletes from aspiring athletes. We can get so easily caught in the weeds of specificity, and complex training methods, that we can gloss over the fact that, eventually, to improve, we just need to do more work.

The hope was that in introducing a huge amount of ‘stress and stimuli’ in the form of vertical climbing, both my and my training partners’ bodies would become more fatigue-resistant, our skeletal muscle better able to make sustained contraction after contraction, and our working minds more adept at handling fatigue – useful traits to have when undertaking a marathon swim, as I will be in three weeks time.

The ultimate goal, rather than achieving a particular vertical mileage, was simply to get to a point of complete exhaustion and physical discomfort, and, crucially, to continue. Part one was far more easily achieved than part two.

The whole point was for the event to get messy and unpleasant, as I had to continually remind myself when things did indeed get rather unpleasant. If this had been avoided, and we had stopped at the onset of fatigue and physical pain, then the hours already put in would have largely been for nothing.

I think so many athletes only really hit this huge mental barrier of pain and discomfort typically on the day of a race, rather than in training. The two-hour mark of the marathon becomes the only time in the training calendar where these hugely important occasions of ‘true’ exhaustion are experienced. These moments, with energy stores depleted, muscles screaming, and defeat looming on the peripheries, are the ‘bread and butter’ of endurance sports – and therefore how we respond to them defines our ability as endurance athletes.

Why then do so many of us seek to avoid these instances? In doing so, when the unavoidable fatigue does indeed set in at the late stages of an event, we are taken almost by surprise – unprepared for its arrival, and ill-equipped to manage it. Grit and mental toughness are not just trainable – they are only trainable; attained only through first hand experience.

A Misogi effort like this is essentially a dress-rehearsal for race day; plunging oneself into this too-often-avoided scenario, and forcefully providing an opportunity to develop the cognitive skills and techniques to endure more and more discomfort.

I’m hugely fortunate, as I have mentioned in earlier articles, to have the team that I currently have to train with. They all share an appreciation for these teaching moments of total bodily exhaustion. Jack is only a late-notice phone call away, eager to jump into any ridiculous challenge, and Julie wakes up next to me every day. The two of them are some of the toughest people I know – and both of their attitudes, their strength and fortitude, and their desires for self-improvement are completely contagious.

So the three of us climbed, well into the realms of genuine physical complaints. When we came close to pulling the pin, at the eight hour mark, I asked Jack how long he felt like he had been “genuinely in trouble, physically”. We both agreed that we had been in this position of increasingly difficult-to-endure fatigue for about four hours.

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Interestingly, as with perhaps all endurance events, the pain had gradually increased to a point, until it suddenly ceased to worsen – before returning with a vengeance, hours later, and ending our day at 5800 metres of altitude. For the majority of the day, however, the pain had been present, but manageable. In only the first hour of climbing, large blisters had appeared and torn on both of my hands. The pangs of early panic were undeniable, as I imagined how my hands might look and perform in six hours time.

But the blisters never worsened. My hands – or my climbing technique, or my mind, or a complex mix of all factors – managed to adjust to the challenge they were presented with, and I climbed on unimpeded, until finally complete exhaustion took over, and I was unable to complete a single repetition of the rock wall. Despite the blisters, it was a powerful reminder of the sheer adaptability of human physiology.

The day was a success for the three of us who climbed, in that we achieved what we had set out to do in the mindset in which it should have been achieved. The focus was far more on the process, rather than the outcome. Total height climbed, although a strong motivator, remained appropriately second to the more intangible development of mental strength and resilience.

I hobbled away from the training day proud of the physical output, but far more proud of the grounded, mindful and diligently self-reflective manner the three of us had performed it in.

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Swinging For The Fences

Far better it is to dare mighty things – to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure – than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much; for they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory, nor defeat.”       Theodore Roosevelt

Strategy and considerate preparation have almost always been crucial factors in most true athletic achievements to date. We collectively marvel at the perfect execution of a carefully constructed game-plan on the big stages, and rightly so. Countless NBA titles, heavyweight championship belts and Olympic medals have been won and defended due to strict adherence to a calculated strategy, capitalising on an opponent’s weaknesses or one’s own strengths.

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Alex Hutchinson raised what I thought was a very interesting point in the closing chapters of Endure (his most recent book, mentioned several times here so far), reflecting on both his own experiences as an aspiring Olympic middle-distance runner, and as a life-time spectator and colour-commentator for elite road running events. He explored the idea that, while indeed adherence to pacing strategies has been behind some of the most consistently successful distance running careers, and has prevented many an amateur runner from metaphorically falling apart mid-race, perhaps pacing in this manner places a self-imposed barrier in the way of an athlete achieving their full potential.

Logic would suggest that having minimal variance in average pace, for both elite and non-elite athletes, would produce a more even and predictable finish time – saving an athlete from the heartache of a race falling apart. With this in mind, setting out with a premeditated idea of what a realistic sustainable pace is for the individual, and adhering to it, would be more likely to produce a favourable result.

Hutchinson recounts, in his commentary of the 2011 Toronto Waterfront Marathon, that this approach is far from the ‘kamikaze’ style pacing variability of the East African champions who dominate the sport.

There is a certain ‘do-or-die’ attitude that surrounds elite Kenyan and Ethiopian distance running; perhaps motivated by national and personal pride, by the economic importance that prize money and endorsements hold in the developing world, and/or innate confidence stemming from the legacy of great athletes originating from the region.  Enormous group fartlek sessions in the thin airs of the Rift Valley are renowned for both the brutal speed at which they are performed, and the complete willingness for up-and-coming athletes to suffer, even if only briefly, alongside the established champions.

African distance athletes are known for this variance from ‘traditional’ Western approaches to running strategy – where North Americans and Europeans are typically methodical and deliberate, East Africans employ an unrelenting and seemingly unsustainable pace. When 96 of the 100 fastest marathon times in 2016 were run by athletes from East Africa, it would surely be a mistake to be dismissive of their unconventionally risky pacing strategies.

Hutchinson argues that performing in the traditional approach of carefully calculated kilometre splits may be unnecessarily confining – stating, “there is something inherently limiting about the fetishization of even pacing”. Modern sports science has for a long time distanced itself from the twentieth-century view of the ‘the body as machine’, understanding that more nuanced and often intangible factors affect athletic performance rather than just sheer measurable cardiovascular output.

Long distance races, subsequently, are more than just “plumbing contests, measuring whose heart can deliver the most oxygen to their muscles” – and yet why do we apply this old-school, limited looking-glass when discussing pacing for maximal performance? Why do we forget the very real role that abstracts like motivation, pain tolerance and sheer willingness have in such sporting achievements?

The criticism of traditional pacing, put simply, is if one decides how quickly one is going to run each mile split, then one negates the possibility of a faster finishing time – “you’ve put a ceiling on your potential achievement… if you execute the perfect race pace, that means you have effectively decided, within the first few strides, how fast you could complete the full distance.”

Certainly, over the course of a career, one might have better average finish times by sticking to careful pacing plans, but could it not be argued that the capacity for having one of those ‘run of your life’-type days is self-denied?

There is no opportunity to surprise yourself with an unexpectedly good day; you’ve put a ceiling on your potential for achievement, from the moment the starting gun fires. As a result, this approach may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers – jaw-droppingly fast (or slow) times.”

I should perhaps have prefaced this article by stating that I’m not entirely sure myself what to do with this idea, rather than simply trying to rewire how we think about our own limits. Pretty stock-standard Misogi writing, undeniably.

What I found perhaps most useful in Hutchinson’s investigation, and the application of his findings to his own relatively successful running career, was his speculation that perhaps he never really reached his own physiological limits, as he had sometimes believed to be the case. After a perfectly executed pacing strategy at the 2003 Cherry Blossom 10 Mile, which saw him run impeccably-disciplined splits and surge past struggling athletes in the late stages to finish eighth place, he was comfortable in the belief that, even on his best possible day, he simply lacked the sheer speed and cardiovascular engine to ever beat the seven athletes in front of him – and he was fine with that. It was simply biological, and as much as anything is, out of his hands.

Later, following decades of research and publishing in the fields of human physiology, he questioned the accuracy of his conclusion concerning his biological limitations. What might have happened if he had thrown caution to the wind and ran to win, despite the pacing plans? Sure, if he applied this brazen attitude at every event, his career would be littered with disappointing results – but is it possible that among the blow-outs, there may have been some truly extraordinary outcomes?

And what about ourselves? How often do we impose these unnecessarily low bars on ourselves? If we never swung for the fence, we might go our entire lives (safe from embarrassingly unimpressive results, but) never realising our true capacities.

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Speaking only anecdotally, I do find it interesting how improved my testing results generally are compared to my training results – for instance, when pushed to do as many strict pull-ups as I possibly can in one maximal effort test, I find myself almost comfortably doubling what feels like almost my maximum when in training. I’m not one to ignore hard work whilst training, but the difference is undeniable. Somewhere along the way, I’ve conditioned myself to feel like twelve repetitions is nearly the most I can complete for a set of pull-up exercises, as part of a training session. Although the metaphorical bar here feels appropriate, my testing results would suggesting otherwise – I’m selling myself short, and I don’t even realise it.

I suppose this is just something to think about, next time we are setting goals for ourselves – both in the big picture, and the small. Is that really as fast, or as heavy, or as as long as we are capable?

I’m now three weeks away from my first training attempt at the full, thirty-five kilometre distance for the Channel-length swim – a dress rehearsal, of sorts – so the time to put my money where my mouth is draws ever closer.