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When Feeling Bad May Be Good

The Expert and I were watching the Olympics last night–the 48kg women’s weightlifting event to be exact.  (Backstory: he and I are both former Olympic-style weightlifters. Neither of us made it as far as the Olympic stage… but did enjoy some “success” at the international level in the sport.)

I always love watching this particular body weight class of women lift.  These ladies are the tiny ones (weighing 105 pounds or less), throwing up more than double-body weight in the clean & jerk–the gold medal lift last night, which was MY best lift ever –and I did it weighing about 65 pounds more in bodyweight than these ladies.  SO they are uber, uber impressive to watch.

I woke up this morning thinking about weightlifting, for some reason, and then I saw this gem on my Pinterest feed:


I posted this in my coaching group, and received a few bellyaching comments from the gals.  And I get it.  No one wants to do the work when they are:  sick, tired, depressed, etc.  I totally get that.  But I remember a handful of really specific incidents where “showing up” was everything. Even when you feel terrible.

One of the pivotal moments in my weightlifting “career” for me came towards the end of it, on a day when I had a fever and the flu.

I’m sure sure why in the world I was at the gym in the first place in that state, but I was there.  I started lifting, and man, I felt terrible. Just terrible.

My coach, weightlifting great Michael Cohen, told me that day: “Today is the day. If you can lift feeling like this, you can lift anything.”

[Sidebar:  If you don’t know what a Clean & Jerk is… check this out:

(My favorite part of the video is: “There is no such thing as an easy clean & jerk.” Truth.)]

At the time, my PR in the clean and jerk was 97.5 kgs (214.5 pounds).

I had been at a mental block with 100 kgs for a LONG time—I would clean it, over and over again, and just balk at the jerk. (I always sucked at the jerk, anyway.)

I felt so bad this day, that I wasn’t really noticing the weights that were going on the bar.  I did the traditional warm-ups, then started the climb up in the weights.  70 kilos, 75, 80, 85, 90.

Then, I hoisted 95 kilos (209 lbs) like nothing. (Note: this was only 2.5 kilos [5 lbs.] below my BEST).  I didn’t even acknowledge it.

[Not actual picture of day. Picture for emphasis. And for the picture of my friend Michael eating snacks… 🙂 ]


I am not sure I knew where I was in the weights anyway. I blew my nose.  My head was pounding, I didn’t even look at the bar or think twice about the weight.  I felt awful.

My coach loaded up 100 on the bar.

I walked up to it.

     Clean. Jerk.  PR.

I sat down. Blew my nose. Coach loaded on more weight. 102.5 kilos.  I walked up to the bar.

    Clean. Jerk. PR.

105 kilos.  Walked up to the bar.

Clean. Jerk. Smashed PR.

THAT woke me up. A 7.5 kilo PR in weightlifting is a seriously good day.  And I was out of my fog. “WHAT!??!”

Coach applauded and I was thrilled. I was awake now.   Holy crap!!?  The chance for a 10 kilo PR today??!  Let’s do it.

He loaded up 107.5 kilos (236.5 lbs) on the bar.

I walked up to 107.5, my mind fully awake and engaged, and gunning for this massive PR.  My mind raced to the future… if I could do 112.5, that’s Olympic trials. If I can do 117.5 that’s a possible Olympic team. I can DO this. I can DO this…

I can do this. I CAN!!  

I grabbed the bar… my mind racing.

I can. I can.  Then something hit me. And it switched.  I CAN’T.  I CAN NOT LIFT THIS, WHO AM I, WHAT IN THE WORLD?? THIS IS SO HEAVY WHO DO I THINK I AM….  OH NO NO NOnoooooo.

I grip racked the clean, and dropped it. End of the day.  And that was also my last PR.

Less than a year later, I walked away from the sport of weightlifting entirely. Cleaned out my locker, and peaced-out.  And I never looked back.

I live with some real regrets of my tenure in that sport.  And I think some of my drive in triathlon is fueled by the past.  After years of analyzing it and playing it over and over (namely the one lift that failed to qualify me for the Worlds for the second time), I understand now that I failed to reach the top of my potential in weightlifting because of only ONE thing: my mind.  [And a sub-set of that: my attitude.]

Sure, I had a strong body.  I worked hard. I had some serious back issues and injuries, of course, we all did. But I was perfectly strong enough to go farther in the sport than I did. I would watch videos of myself lifting after a competition, and be in shock of how easy it looked.


[If it looks so easy, why does it feel so impossible?]

It wasn’t until I started doing triathlon that I realized the incredible impact that the mind has over the body.

Somehow I intuited that all along, but at the age of 17 or 18 – it takes a special athlete to cultivate that mind-body relationship, and do it well.

My weightlifting friends (and training partners), Cheryl Haworth and Cara Heads, are two amazing examples of lifters who were able to take their raw talents and translate these talents to incredible results via grit, hard work and unwavering confidence in their abilities. Those two ladies were machines. Mental giants. I was honored to watch their success and fortitude–all the way to the Olympics (Cara in 2000; for Cheryl, three-times 2000, 2004, 2008–with a bronze medal in 2000).

They had figured it out.  I hadn’t.

In making my decision to become a triathlete and take on this journey back in 2010, I made a decision to try and get out of my own way.

This process has not been fast, nor have I been fast. I have continued to struggle with the same mental monkeys that I did back in 1997.

I haven’t (nor will I likely ever) enjoy even the small level of success that I did in weightlifting in racing triathlon. From a starting point, I have exceedingly far more talent lifting heavy shit off the ground, than moving my own body forward in a fast way.  But really, that’s neither here nor there.

The day that I had that massive PR in the gym with the flu? As I look back, I see that my success on that day was the ability to detach my mind from my body.  To detach my body from the doubts.  I was so sick that I didn’t have time or energy to think about the action that my body was doing. I just did.  The second that I was engaged and thinking about that PR, was when I let the doubt creep in.

NIKE was really onto something with this whole act of “just doing” “it”.  Allowing your strong, capable body to just do what it knows how to do.

We train. We work hard. We spend hours and hours turning and turning in the pool, spinning on the bike, pounding the pavement on the run. We do all these things.  Then sometimes when we stand at the pinnacle and opportunity for our potential, we totally choke. We say “this hurts” and we walk off the course.  Or, we give up before we start. We fail to have the faith in our abilities. All because of what’s between our ears.

In continuing with triathlon, despite injuries and burn out, I have received a lot of support–but also a lot of heat.

“Just quit if you don’t love it!”  (….more on that here)

But anyone who has competed at a high level (in any sport or career) understands that fun and quitting—well, it’s not that simple.  Continuing on is about overcoming past regrets.  Moving forward is about showing up. Second (and third and fourth) chances. It’s about figuring out and piecing together the puzzle of ability, pain and mental toughness.

Piecing it together in a way that says to me:  Oh, yep. THAT.  Yes, NOW, I know what I am made of.


Who knows what would have happened in weightlifting if I had engaged my mind in the way that I have been able to tap into with triathlon. It doesn’t matter, but it’s a real comparison for me, something I think about often.

By all accounts, I probably should not be a four-time Ironman finisher. My natural abilities are far less than stellar, though I have had a decent work ethic. I can recount each event, and I know that on all four of those events, I wasn’t allowing anything to pull me off the course. I was going and going until I was done. My mind was so much stronger than my body on each of those races–and it’s what carried me. I know that.  (I can reference my 2013 Ironman 70.3 Augusta event as the converse… where I had a crap attitude and weak mind.)

So when my body fails me or seems to be letting me down, I try and Nike it… I try and just DO. Not think. Just DO.  Forward, robotic motion.

Like lifting a really heavy bar with a fever and a flu.

In a way, triathlon has been a redemption for some of my past weightlifting mind-sticks. When I replay the “what ifs” in weightlifting, I can use triathlon to move past them, and think about the “what’s coming”–the things I will do, the things I want.  I use triathlon to prove to myself what I can do–in spite of obstacles, and seemingly impossible odds.

When I stand at the start line of a race, I think about how strong I am going to be in my mind.  How it will hurt. And how that’s okay.  I also focus on how I won’t stop until I am done. PR or ER or whatever comes.  And I also keep in mind at all times, that at the end of the day, I am my only competition.

What everyone else is doing?

Well, I like to think:  that’s really none of my business.




  • Stephanie

    August 7, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    “PR or ER”…love it! Totally deserves a tshirt! I call my mental demon “Darky”, and she’s a sneaky bitch. My post on Darky was inspired by the Michael Phelps commercial you posted

  • Elizabeth Cousino

    August 8, 2016 at 7:13 am

    There is an online group of women I have known for years and our motto is- Don’t think, just run. That’s always the answer if you are grumbly about going out. If you are mentally out of the game. It rarely fails to produce decent results. Occasionally it produces a stellar experience. Always worth it.

  • Kate

    August 8, 2016 at 9:50 am

    This is perfect timing to read this today, as I am tapering and heading into my A race. I realize now all the training is done, I just have to get my mind right. Your PR while sick reminds of a movie clip I saw recently – where a football coach blindfolds a player and has him bear crawl the length of the field. Without being able to see his finish line, he goes WAY farther than he ever has before, because he didn’t know when he was done… so he just kept going until he physically could not anymore. Great post!

  • HokieKate

    August 8, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    Morning sickness has destroyed my training (past two weeks: one 3 mile bike, one 400m swim). I need to just get out and do something. Thanks for this post.

  • Amanda F.

    August 8, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    This post hits very close to home. I know my mind gets in the way of my abilities most of the time. I have never been able to separate what I think I can do from what I really can do.

  • cheryl

    August 8, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    Winning and qualifying are overrated. I qualify for Nationals yearly and for Worlds for Xterra in Maui. WHO can actually GO to these things? Not I on a teacher’s salary!

  • Amanda

    August 10, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    Girl – I loved spending time with you and watching u lift. you were an amazing lifter, but you could see the head games back then -oh and this is coming from another head gamer. I enjoyed this blog so much – very nostalgic. The Olympics were within reach for both of us had we just gotten the head game straight. I mean – what is 10 kilos over the course of 2 years of training. Argh. LOL I am in Crossfit now, and its interesting to see how much mentally stronger I am now in my thirties. keep on keeping on. No regrets. But thanks again for this

  • Heather

    August 13, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Timely post for me. My mental game is my downfall every time these days. I have set and smashed many seemingly impossible goals. What I struggle with is finding that drive. I let my older, less in shape body dictate to my mind far too often these days. I definitely need to strengthen my mental muscle. Thank you for this,post.


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