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.

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Have A Little Faith

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” Buddha

I wrote earlier about what we can understand about ourselves when we examine the traits of our role models, of those that inspire us, and what specifically it is about them that captures our imagination. The same is true for the friends and loved ones that we surround ourselves with.

On reflection, I’ve learned that one of my most desirable traits in both a friend and a partner is an innate sense of self-reliance; a preparedness to believe in one’s own capacities, a willingness to try and to suffer for their goals, and a quiet-confidence and humility in their ability. We often see in others that which we hope for ourselves.

I deeply believe that we are collectively capable of so much more than we ever really ask of ourselves. Similarly, I deeply believe that we unnecessarily over-complicate our training lives most of the time, and lack the intrinsic self-assurance to just take the plunge and try. We fear failure, or just simple discomfort, way too much, failing to see such instances as welcome teachable moments rather than problems to desperately avoid. We think that challenges are too grand in scale for us, achievable only for a select breed of ‘elite’, who are seemingly blessed from birth with merits greater than our own.

We lack the capacity to “jump off the cliff, and build our wings on the way down“, when such an attitude is sometimes an entirely viable option. Adopting a mindset of deep and real self-reliance moves us away from this fear and closer to reaching our goals; its price, however, is accepting this risk of failure.

The sea’s only gifts are harsh blows, and, occasionally, the chance to feel strong … I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong – to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once, in the most ancient of human conditions; facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.”
Primo Levi, Bear Meat

I want this sense of individualism to further grow within my own self, and so it is perhaps no surprise that two of those closest to me in my day to day life reflect that which I seek. For me, there is something undeniably inspiring and assuring about a person who is prepared to just try – to ‘have their own back’, and trust in the own ability to put their head down and work, with or without the guarantee of success.

I am reminded of this every time I train with Jack.

Sweat-soaked (and occasionally blood-splattered) workouts with him are just one constant and powerful lesson in the enduring capacity of the human spirit – each time, an unwavering testament to the fact that we all have huge reserves of strength and stamina, if we are only willing to push ourselves that little bit more than normal. His abnormal levels of determination, humility and resilience are all praise-worthy, but most admirable is his unrivalled ability for self-reliance. He trusts in himself, and his own capabilities, to the point that seemingly nothing will stop him from trying. He’ll go down swinging – sometimes very literally.

He doesn’t over-complicate his training, or his preparation, or let himself be intimidated by looming obstacles or seemingly immovable tasks.

Jack takes the plunge. He jumps, and builds his wings on the way down. It’s impossible to not find myself moved and inspired by such a rare team-mate. That’s why, with a little over a weeks notice, I found myself next to Jack, covered to my neck in ice in an emptied compost bin, in the heart of a frosty South Australian Winter.

The morning’s workout was especially brutal. We spent an hour in full-contact with the ice, closely monitoring each other for the early signs of hypothermia. We ran ten miles, and we fought each with shaking muscles and shivering skin for another hour. With the mid-set additions of push-ups and pull-ups, the entire ordeal ended up a bone-crunching and freezing five hours.

Purely in terms of elapsed time, this would be a physical output nearly five-times as long as anything Jack had attempted before. I was at least blessed (?) with a lifetime of endurance sports, and although the ice and the fighting were both entirely new to me, the sheer work-load was not. Despite his unconventional childhood, Jack did not have years of dedicated endurance-sport training to fall back on – and he had not prepared.

How would one prepare, really, for climbing out of ice and trying to choke your closest friend unconscious?

What Jack does have, that prepares him far better for such ridiculous feats as five and eight-hour workouts than any impressive resume of endurance races, is an unprecedented ability to put his head down and work through discomfort, and to have faith in his capacity to succeed. He walks the path.

I am similarly blessed to spend my life with a partner who, on an almost daily basis, reminds me both of the simple beauty of exploring our limits in the natural world, and the utmost importance of faith in one’s self.

I turned twenty-four last year, during the halfway point of my first attempt at running one hundred miles. Kilometres sixty through to eighty were, for the most part, something of a shit-show. I struggled on, and Julie met me, as my pacer and a valuable half of my support team, setting out with the intention of cruising through ten kilometres or so at my now-faltering pace.

The trails we covered are notoriously unpredictable and unrelenting – steep ocean cliffs, treacherous rocky outcrops, and sheer miles of soft sand – and markedly different from the one urban half-marathon that Julie had run before this, some years earlier.

Due to a sense of empathy for my carbohydrate-depleted plight, and deep motivation to push herself further than before, Julie ended up running with me the remaining fifty kilometres to the finish line – surpassing in one long, hot day her previous half-marathon record distance, passing the marathon point, and continuing on into the ultra-marathon distance realm.

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She was poorly-rested, dehydrated, fighting illness and menstrual-pain, and yet, in setting out without expectation and with quiet-confidence, she ran over twice as far as she had ever covered, on some of the most infamously technical trails in South Australia.

Even now, over six months later, Julie can still hardly believe the outcome of the day. Most interestingly, had you asked her the day before her unexpected foray in ultra-distance events how much time she would need from then to prepare for a road marathon, she would have said at least six months. She had been conditioned, as we all are, to believe that such achievements sit so far from our grasps, and that it is only with carefully structured, long-term dedicated training that we may be hope to attain them.

That’s not to discount the hugely important role that training has (I hope that this is clear, given all of my writing on the subject thus far, and the decade of my life spent carefully training my mind and body). Simply, we sometimes overstate and over-complicate it. We sell ourselves short.

Here, with far from ideal preparation and absolutely no advanced notice, Julie ran for eight-hours on demanding trails. She didn’t drop dead. The sun came up the next day.

This day, as are many with Julie, was rich in life lessons.

This capacity was always in Julie – she was always capable of this distance, and undoubtedly greater accomplishments. These ‘superhuman’ abilities just came out that day, entirely unplanned, because she was willing.

I am convinced that it is this willingness is the key for all of us – who could really say what we are capable of, if we didn’t fear obstacles, or the opinions or others, or self-imposed limitations, or failure? Julie walked that path, and reaped the rewards. Her unassuming confidence in herself increased, as one would expect, and new challenges suddenly appeared equally achievable.

I would put forward, contrary to popular belief, that neither Jack, nor Julie, nor Ross Edgley, nor myself were born with said willingness – it is absolutely something you can teach, and something we can all learn.

It can be downright painful at times, difficult at almost all times, but putting ourselves in situations that demand more of ourselves – be it more repetitions in the gym, wilder water than we are used to swimming, steeper trails or longer hours – is the way to develop this elastic skill of self-reliance. We can develop our ability to function efficiently and safely when the cavalry is not coming, and build an internal confidence that we have reserves of strength and endurance yet untapped.

Not a single person it merely born with it, and we all may learn to do it better.