Finding Peace in my Pain

19 January 2013 – I’m nervously excited waiting my turn in the line, one competitor after the other.  I’m holding my weapon of choice, my pearl white time trial bicycle, deep sectioned aero wheels that apparently roll faster, once you’ve cranked them into a reasonable speed of 30km/h with your human-powered engine.  Each one of us start individually one painstakingly long minute after the other. No group to protect me from the wind and help me conserve energy, this is all me.  I consistently have to pull my drifting mind back to not be intimidated by the other competitor’s sleek, fit, strong and tanned physique.  Muscles are flexing with every move they make.  I notice that their arms show little rips of lean muscles and tendons as triceps twitch, their tanned legs looking even more defined due to the shimmering of warm-up oil. “Focus within, focus within” I repeat to myself.  “I’ve trained for this, I am ready.  Just go as hard as you can, till you fall over or cross the finish line, whichever comes first”.  My fellow rivals are also fellow friendly riders, so while I’m hesitantly making friendly banter and concentrating to not give away too much about how much I have trained or how strong I feel on the day, I’m also concentrating on maintaining a vivid focus on the ruthless job at hand.  The job is a 20km time trial over steep rolling terrain, to be ridden at my maximum capacity and then some more.  I know who I’m competing against, and I also know that to stand on the podium I’ll have to ride as hard as my pleading lungs will allow me to gasp in oxygen, as fast as my begging muscles will process the oxygen and produce the power I mercilessly demand.  Time trials are nick-named as the true test of personal strength, which is why I love them!

I often ask myself why I put myself through this pain.  Why do I put myself in this situation where my stomach ties up in a tense knot and I know what lies ahead is not just a competition and a test of physical strength, but also between 35 minutes to 4 hours of relentless pain.  Last year after wearily pulling out of UWCT World Championships, I asked myself this question repeatedly, hurting and disappointed that once again I failed myself.  I was miserable for days after the event, replaying what could have been and what I should do mentally next time and how I will get it right differently (refer to my perfectionism post).  World Champs was held on a tough as nails course; the same tough as nails course as I rode the year before, the same tough as nails course that saw me crawling crumbling and in tears over the finish line.  As if looming hill after hill after hill was not bad enough, we also had to compete with a thickly humid 40 degrees Celsius heat. There was also a gusty wind that toppled you over and it felt as though I was riding at a 45 degree angle, I think my arms endured more pain than my legs did from clenching the handlebars so tight that my knuckles turned white.  The easiest way to answer the why was by asking myself ‘what I would miss in my life if I didn’t continue?’, ‘would I still be happy?’, ‘would I still feel true to myself?’, ‘would I feel like I can still look every other person in the eye?’.  At that emotional time I couldn’t really find an answer that felt true and close to my heart, but the only satisfactory answer I could find was that these challenges strengthen me because they test my mental and physical toughness, and I couldn’t imagine myself being a better person without doing it.

My emotional journey towards finding my true self is about diverting my awareness into me and my ever illusive emotions.  It is about understanding where I feel discomfort in my body’s conversation with me, and how it ties back to my emotions.  Up to now, while competing, I have repeatedly allowed my thoughts to wander to the superior strength everyone else portrayed, how I was shattered and dropped off the previous time I rode with a certain person, how I berated myself for not having trained on the days I lazily slept in and wished I had more self-discipline on the days I devoured non-“eating plan” foods.  Some days I put myself through mental torture breaking myself down until I feel I can crumple up in a little heap of self-pity.  Often I’ve heard people say “if you aren’t happy, change it”.  Easy right?  Uhu…

I am proud to say that on my ever winding journey, in the last week or so, the answer to my why that rings true to my heart became evident and clear.  Switching my awareness within me when I just do the routine day-to-day tasks often goes forgotten, and when I do remember I constantly find my fleeting mind wandering again.  But when I race or train and I am hurting from every strand of hair, through every fibre of muscle in my body, I find I can snap to this awareness instantly, easily, pleasantly.

You may ask why?  I have realised that this self-inflicted pain is bearable when I am mindful of my body’s response to it.  My legs burn as if a veld fire is rushing through them, but then I become aware of the other parts of my body – my deep smooth breathing, my heart pounding rhythmically in my heaving chest – and they are all okay.  Or on other occasions my breathing sounds like a steam train and it feels as though I might choke up a lung, but then I become aware of my heaving diaphragm, my tightly sucked in stomach, my clear head – they are still okay.  As a matter of fact, once I truly become aware of my body’s conversation with me, all these body parts are more than okay.  They are ecstatic, filled with adrenaline, excited, working hard but at peace, and proud!

I think for me it is not the fact that I am in this tranquil space of peace that makes me thrilled to be in this space.  One day it may happen that I will be pushing and I’m really not strong enough for it on the day, and I might become aware of other more frightening emotions.  It is the mere fact that when I’m here, in this space, I am wholly aware.  Don’t get me wrong. During my 20km time trial I wasn’t able to maintain this absolute awareness for the full 36 minutes.  My undisciplined mind still wandered ignorantly.  I would look up and not be able to see my fellow competitor in front of me, and then her ability to climb stronger gnawed at my mind.  The difference is that in this space it is easier to re-divert my awareness back to within me, because I have a crystal clear focus.  Ride as hard and as fast as my prepared body will allow me for a fleeting 20km.

That second last sentence has also been my epiphany for today – maybe I should find a focus for when I’m not in physical agony and just tending to day-to-day living to enable me to better maintain awareness.  So continues my discovery Journey!

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