I didn’t get up and work out at the crack of dawn this morning. In fact, I didn’t get up at all until about 6:24 a.m. That’s late for me. More typically I’m either out the door running, dipped into some pool or down in the cycling room chunking gears to some early morning entertainment.
But sometimes I don’t do any of that. I’m a bit thicker in the middle as a result. I get that. Consuming more calories than you burn off is the Athlete’s Lament in par with Portnoy’s Complaint. If you have not heard of the book by that title, its central character is a highly conflicted character who can’t leave his junk alone to save his life, yet feels massively guilt even as he enjoys the sensations of his erotic distractions:
Wiki version: “Portnoy is “a lust-ridden, mother addicted young Jewish bachelor”,and the narration weaves through time describing scenes from each stage of his life; every recollection in some way touches upon his central dilemma: his inability to enjoy the fruits of his sexual adventures even as his extreme libidinal urges force him to seek release in ever more creative (and, in his mind, degrading and shameful) acts of eroticism.”
A sense of guilt
The same pattern often occurs in athletes. We love our pursuits yet at the same time a sense of guilt builds up if we sense that other aspects of our lives may be suffering as a result of our endurance obsessions. That is the Athlete’s Lament.
At one point in my life I made a massive correction in that category of psychology. Following years of seemingly self-indulgent and obsessed participation in competitive running, I made a semi-clean break and stopped racing and training. I was only 29 at the time, so there were likely a few more years of good results left in my body, but my worldview was complete with what I’d already done. I felt no need to continue trying to prove myself. So I pumped my energies into being a better father and husband.
Some seem to have it all
Some people work out that balance without the need for such dichotomy. They can healthily participate in sports and not have it gut the rest of their existence or undermine their responsibilities. They enjoy the effort without letting it dominate or displace their overall self-image.
Yet I’ve seen behind the scenes even with athletes that seem to have it all together and make it look easy, and that’s just it: they make it LOOK easy but it seldom truly is. Everybody’s got their shit to deal with.
Not the retiring type
Still, it is probably true that every athlete secretly longs for unlimited training time. That seems like such a luxury, doesn’t it? I’ve know a few early retirees who got back into endurance sports in a big way because they have the means and youth to still do it. But those folks are the exception, not the rule. Most of us are not the early retiring type.
Yet allow me to share a bit of insight about having unlimited training time. I’ve been lucky or foolish enough to create that situation for myself at different phases of life. In my 20s, I lived on some savings and trained to get as good as I could get. I’m thankful for that opportunity because it permanently assuaged any questions about how good I could be. I found that out.
During that period I trained 2-3 times a day, had 3% body fat and raced 24 times in a single year, winning or placing high in every single race. While there was a certain amount of fulfillment in those pursuits, I still felt the tug of the Athlete’s Lament. “Should I be doing something else in life?”
At one point I mentioned to my mother that I’d been a bit self-indulgent during that period. She turned to me and said, “I don’t think so. I think you burned brightly.”
Of course I was, to some degree, free at that time to do whatever I wanted outside of the running. I spent whole days writing, for example. On other days, I’d paint all day. Still, the rent had to be paid and I worked in a running shop for some of that cash and did freelance design work when I could find it. The economy wasn’t all that great in the early 80s. To be honest, I was scraping by. But I’m proud of that too.
Later in life while working for myself I could train and ride all I wanted as well. But I’d built a governor into my system that keeps me from going bonkers over my own athletic pursuits. For better or worse, I’m at peace with the Athlete’s Lament and no longer guilt myself over what I have or have not done. I still feel motivated to participate, have fun and keep my weight in check, but I’m no Portnoy when it comes to persistent angst and I am certainly not complaining about what I can still do. These days, I race and train for the fun of it.
One has to be grateful for that, or nothing will feel satisfying.
Contentment can be so elusive, yet it offers such freedom to those who taste it. I can relate to much of what you say even though my path to being a 61 year-old athlete was quite different from yours. Gotta love a mom who remembers and reinforces the best in us.
Well said Denny. We’re the same age. What was your journey, can I ask?