Finish Strong, Even So.

It was late February, I had been training hard for months.

I was heading down to Oklahoma City to compete in the Powerlifting Nationals, hosted by the good folks at NASA (Natural Athlete Strength Association). My preparation was solid. Intelligent programming yielded less pain and better technique throughout the training cycle. I was ready.

The Journey

The flight to Dallas was only a few minutes behind. Standard for air travel. But we took an extra 45 minutes in the air, not standard, and landed significantly behind schedule. We then taxied around for about 30 minutes and I ultimately missed – just missed, after running across the airport – my connecting flight.

Bummer. I would no longer make the Awards Banquet, which was scheduled for that evening. But I was deep into the journey and had arrived safely, so I kept in good spirits. The next flight was nearly four hours away, so I decided to rent a car from Dallas to Oklahoma City for the final leg of the journey.

Dallas Ft. Worth Airport Operators, I hope you are reading this… congratulations, you have the longest shuttle from airport to rental car lot in the world. I mean it. After a significant wait, we shuttled slowly out of the airport, onto the highway (cars whizzing past) and eventually arrived at the lot. The woman at the Enterprise desk was fantastic. She was kind, efficient, and very helpful. Until the system shut down.

My reservation in Oklahoma City, a $53 tab, would incur a $90 ‘drop fee’ since I would be leaving it in a different spot than where I picked it up. Fair enough. I was willing to accept that. The computer was not. Regardless of who entered the information – me, the helpful attendant, her coworker, or her manager – the adjustment in reservation kept bumping the total bill up to $325. That was more than the plane ticket. Had I know how expensive it would be from the start, my decision making would have been easy – since I was directed to “hang tight” while we worked it out, I spent 45 minutes at the Enterprise counter. There was nothing they could do.

So, I thanked them for trying, went back out to the lot, sat for a while, took the long slow shuttle back to the airport, then an inter-airport tram to my gate, and I waited to see if I could get on standby. And wouldn’t you know, I did! I got a standby spot on a slightly earlier flight – my first stroke of good travel fortune of the day. I would still miss the Awards Banquet by a few hours, but I thought I just might make in to the hotel in time for a good night’s rest.

Then the standby flight was delayed.

We had to wait on a crew who had landed on the other side of the airport but had not yet arrived at the gate. They soon did, carrying sacks of food (which explained their delay), and by then I was too tired to be upset.

The final stretch of the flight took us 30 minutes in the air, but 20 on the ground at each end. All good. When I arrived at Will Rogers Airport, I seemed to be on the final stretch. I had my bags and was making my way toward the rental car lot when I, along with a host of oft-delayed and newly deplaned passengers, noticed that the exits were blocked off with yellow “Do Not Exit” signs. A small cloud of people tried to find someone to direct us. There was no one at the information desk.

My concern at that point shifted to the operating hours of the rental car lot – it was nearly midnight; I was stuck in the airport at my final destination. When an airport employee unlocked the door and let us out, I set my bags down on the curb where the rental car shuttle was supposed to be and waited. And waited. There were taxis in a line beside me, but the airport fee demanded that any ride cost a minimum of $40 and it was only a seven-minute drive to my hotel. I kept waiting. When the shuttle arrived I boarded, and waited another 5 minutes to see if anyone else would board – I did not bother to tell him that we were the final flight of the day, there was no one else…

As I finally, wearily, carried my bags up to the Enterprise counter, I almost didn’t notice that there was no attendant on duty. Hertz had an attendant, so did Budget, but nothing from Enterprise. When another very kind attendant returned, she alerted me that their system was down. Nonfunctioning. We would have to begin the process by hand. Paper and pen. Let’s do this.

I finally got to sleep that night around 1:00am, physically weary from travel, and mentally exhausted. My bags were not light, and I couldn’t help but think that all of the walking (and running across Dallas Ft. Worth Airport) with these bags had probably taken a physical toll on me. I did my best not to think about it, and finally get some rest.

Morning Came Fast

Before showering I shuffled down the hall to grab a quick breakfast at the Wyndham Garden buffet, downed a cup of coffee, and started getting my mind right for competition.

Leading up to the weekend, my training had been strong. By midweek, I had de-loaded my training volume and was feeling healthy, ready to compete. That morning, however, I could not shake the feeling that my legs were a little heavy. I was worried. After months of training, did my day of travel, which included running with two packed bags across the Dallas airport wear me out? I was about to find out.

After a quick warmup, the squat flight began. I hit my numbers and was confidently in the meet. There was a slight setup delay before bench press, but I again got a quick warmup and my opening lift was fairly easy. My second lift stuck about a quarter of the way up. My third attempt went a little further and stopped… had I just run out of gas? I nailed all three squats and my first bench, but something had just changed. I was concerned.

But I came back into myself. There was nothing I could do about the day before, and whatever juice was left in my body couldn’t be helped – I would have to perform with what I had, there really wasn’t another option. So I took a look at my process. Tyson Meyers, one of the elite 242lb powerlifters on the planet, helped me with my form as I warmed up. Dan Black, of Team Black Mentorship, supported my throughout the warmup and was coaching and supporting on each attempt. The power of support that day was fantastic. With their support, and the support of many others, the deadlift went better than expected. I nailed all three attempts and was granted a fourth, to go for an affiliation record. A national record (no pressure) as the final lifter of the day.

I went for it. I got it. I finished strong.

NASA Nationals 500 SQ

As I recount this story, I am sitting in a coffee shop in Bend, Oregon. One week removed from my meet, and it occurs to me that every powerlifting meet I have participated in came with some story like this. Not travel concerns, necessarily, but some hurdle that made the day of competition less than ideal.

My first meet was my first meet, accompanied by all of the nerves and lack of familiarity with procedures that might be expected. I didn’t have a coach, I lifted hard as a college football player so I gave competition a whirl.

My second meet came on the heels of a breakup (from someone I had been dating for 5 years), a long drive, a cigarette-smoke-laden hotel room and a questionable breakfast at the local smoke-laden diner.

I have previously written about my third meet, in the section titled The Power of Support, for which I shed 35lbs of bodyweight, competed semi-exhausted, and missed my first two squats of the day and almost bombed out.

My fourth meet was on the national stage. My body was partially wrecked after a skateboarding injury, and if it were not for ibuprofen and Tiger Balm, I would not have made the flight down (tossing and turning in my seat), much less competed well.

Then this one, of course, where a string of circumstances forced me to compete in a less-than-perfect state.

And as I sit here in Bend, about to drive over Mt. Hood into Portland, it occurs to me that the idea of perfect is a silly one, that “ideal” is a term reserved for idealists, and that Powerlifting has another valuable lesson to teach us: in addition to all that we have laid out regarding the value of a well-considered process, it does not always go to plan, and we are often called upon to perform, even so.

Even So and Silver Lining

We are often called on to perform, even so.

I first considered this idea during Dean Jim Ryan’s commencement address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2016. He read from a poem by Raymond Carver called Late Fragment, which opens with the line,

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

It is a haunting poem, and messages from his speech have stuck with me for years. And in ways that are perhaps not as deep as the initial intention, I bring this sentiment to all aspects of my life. Were you able to perform, even though you were not at full capacity? Did you show up for work, even though a barking dog kept you up late into the night? Are you able to care for those you coach, even though coaching can be frustrating, stressful, and at times thankless? Are you able to appreciate every day, even though it may be foggy or cold or dark? If so, you are on a good path, I remind myself. Keep walking.

The great news is that if you are able to keep your wits about you, even so, you begin to notice some of the most amazing moments in life. And you will often have the opportunity to take a closer and more accurate look at yourself.

For example, why was the airport shuttle so slow? I not see it was because my mind was working double-time, fueled by impatience. The shuttle was going the same speed as it always does. My anxious brain was going fast; the shuttle was slow only in relationship to my state.

I mentioned that my first stroke of good travel fortune was that I caught a standby flight. I was wrong. The first stroke of travel fortune was that a machine picked me up in Chicago, hurled me 10,000 miles into the air, across 1,000 miles of the country, and landed me safely in Dallas. Perspective.

When I returned from the shuttle to the airport and made my way to the standby gate, I took a cross-airport tram with a group of athletes. I struck up a conversation with their coach, we have stayed in contact, and the Good Athlete Project will soon be traveling to Oklahoma City to work with a group of national-caliber rowers under the direction of elite rowing coach, who I’ll call “Coach Rianne”.

The slow shuttle timed out perfectly for that interaction to occur. Was it necessary? Unlikely. Was it fate? Depends on how you believe. But no matter how you see it, it would not have happened had the shuttle timing not been what it was. Perhaps more importantly, had I been flustered, anxious, and angry at my circumstance in that moment, I would not have had the wherewithal to confidently approach Coach Rianne, the sense to speak intelligently about our aligned interests, or bring anything nearing charm or kindness to the conversation.

So much was outside of my control. In those moments, it is essential to have the humility to recognize that loss of environmental control, and focus on controlling the things you can. Like your mind, your words, and your thoughtful next steps.

In fact, there were a few other accompanying graces that came along with my travel dilemma, but could not have been seen until afterwards. For example, Enterprise, whose system was down and had to file my rental by hand, neglected to make the initial filing – when I dropped the car off before returning to Chicago, a kind woman at the desk let me know that the cost of this rental would be covered by them, and they were sorry for any inconvenience.

Failing two bench attempts fueled my motivation to go for a fourth deadlift attempt – without that failure, appropriate response, and support, the national record would belong to someone else.

Things don’t always work out as expected, but they work out.

Once you begin an experience, you can be sure that it will eventually end. Whether it is a powerlifting meet, a football game, or a job, it will not last forever. The way you engage with that experience on a daily basis will determine your enjoyment of the process.

A solid process will yield a solid outcome. And the way you engage with the outcome will determine its value.

The user, the filter through which all external stimuli is interpreted, is the primary determining factor in any experience.

Hooded+Athlete+Breathing

Breathe.

In many scenarios, frustrating or otherwise, breathing brings me back into the moment. After years of training, one breath is the only thing I need to allow space for deliberation. A slow deep breath brings a hint of calm.

I took one before dealing with everyone I met on my long day of travel. It didn’t get me to my destination any faster, but it improved the journey. One particularly unpleasant man was on the same route as I was and I watched him yell at a woman at the ticketing desk in Dallas, then another unsuspecting baggage-handler in Oklahoma. That’s not my style, and didn’t seem to be working for him either.

I took a series of breaths before each of my lifts. I take one before making important phone calls, in the middle of meetings, and occasionally when I seem to have thrown one too many balls into the air and I’m feeling slightly overwhelmed.

At this point, having 500 pounds on my back isn’t as overwhelming as an overwhelming schedule has the potential to be. It’s okay to acknowledge that.

And that’s the final part of the message. The first part of the message is to identify a process and stick to it (train well). When that process doesn’t go to plan, make adjustments and be ready to perform. And every so often, when things are getting really hairy, take a breath.

Be intentional. Be adaptable. Breathe.

That simple strategy takes patience, practice, and a healthy dose of preparation. But once the track is set, you can barrel down it full speed, and finish strong.

Things won’t always turn out the way you imagined, but if you follow this strategy, you’ll have a greater chance of enjoying the ride, even so.