Darkness and Light
Back in 2016, right before the Rio Olympics, an Under Armour ad took the world like a virus. (I guess we can say that now.)
The tag line was “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in light.” Basically it has the footage of one of the greatest athletes of all-time, Michael Phelps working behind the scenes before he rummaged through the Olympics in Rio winning more gold than Bappi Lehiri could wear on his chest.
Back then I was also a frequent Facebook user and had 4000 people on there. The triathlon craze was coming to India and I had done some triathlons too. I guess people found my mediocrity entertaining and so they added me. For me, it was great. Adidas wanted me to build a social media presence even though they struggled to give me a decent pair of shoes. Anyways, back to this Under Armour advert.
My feed was choc-a-bloc with this advertisement. Literally, even second post on my feed was the workout stats of one of the people in my “friend” list with this caption. The best one was someone who posted a picture of their swimming pool after a 1k afternoon swim session. I guess they should have modified the caption to “It’s what you do in the light that puts you in the light.” I jest. The meaning to this caption is deep.
Michael Phelps was always talented. And according to NBC reports, also a physical anomaly who was always destined to be a fish. I once saw an exhibit where the size of Michael Phelps swim trousers was the same as Hicham El-Guerrouj, a man who is 17 cms shorter than him. Yes, MP has a large torso, large wingspan, plate sized hands and all that jazz. But he also worked hard AF. According to the reports, he was swimming around 120k a week which is more than most serious runners average in a week. And air is 8 times denser than water. For the triathletes on my FB feed, some of them didn’t even bike 120k a week. Phelps also spent the rest of his waking hours either in the gym working on more strength and mobility or consuming 6000–8000 calories, which in itself is a full-time job. Talent only takes you so far, Phelps knew it and he hammered home with everything he had. Plus his mindset was in a more positive headspace (after reconciling with his father) while retaining that killer mindset. Who remembers the look to Chad le Clos?
Anyways, this is not a Michael Phelps appreciation blog. Yes, I love him and he is incredible but here’s the thing. People in my feed who were posting about the advertisement were hardly doing things in the light, let alone in the dark.
We get smitten easily by ideas. David Goggins breaking his feet on the way to his first ever 100 miler sounds badass and we begin to compare us running 2k with shin-splints to that. Lance Armstrong (read the link if you have time) destroyed Iban Mayo on Luz Ardiden in 2003. He didn’t like him and he didn’t want to lose to him. And his anger was used as a source of pure energy to annihilate his opposition.
We all like to seem as badass. Back in 2016, I had some guys in Bengaluru who used to trash-talk about me a lot. Almost as much as Lance taunting Mayo on the climbs, asking him to “go harder” and calling him a “little punk”.
There were 2 difference between those guys and Lance Armstrong:
1. He knew how to back up his words with actions.
2. He has 1 more testicle than them.
We all can talk a big game on social media (ref: my testicle joke above). We can do one big workout. We can have one “good” race. With Phelps or Armstrong, the difference was that they consistently did better. Phelps came out of retirement in 2012, which by his high standards was a terrible Olympics. And he won more gold medals, in more dominant fashion in 2016. Armstrong got better with each victory. And then he retired. We all know what happened he came back. But since then, he has grown as a person and has changed. That is true victory and doesn’t need EPO.
The fact is, we are not all professional athletes. Armstrong, Phelps and Kipchoge can live and breathe their sport because it is their job. My job on the other hand can be a pain in the ass sometimes. As an example, I can get so frustrated with small requests, sometimes I start email drafts like this:
For me running is my safe space. It is my creative space, it is to me what coffee is to some people. I am able to deal with almost any kind of emotion from happiness to sorrow by just getting a few miles in. Ok, there is not just running in my life. I can cook, I love to play music, take pictures, write and read but in terms of a Thermodynamics equation, my carnot cycle has the highest efficiency of converting my turmoil/joy into neutrality when I run.
I have been trying to come back from my injury but turns out, Botox wasn’t the answer. Much like Kim Kardashian’s lips, the Botox in my ass wasn’t able to sustain. The solution was temporary and 2 weeks back I felt some pain again which became progressively sharper. I went to the Doctor and he suspects a hip-impingement. Frankly, I am calmer as a person now but this really bummed me out. (literally). But 5 seconds later, I snapped back and realized that it is not the end of days. I wrote down a 1500 word essay outlining various options including: Second opinions from other doctors, improving my posture and alignment via alternative therapy, stopping to run for a week and doing non-impact sports. I also have an MRI planned on 23rd of June. (There goes 600 bucks. But i am worth it.)
Anyways, why Phelps popped in my head was because I started swimming again. It is 30+ degrees in Lausanne, which is kind of bad. Honestly, we will all die in the next 10 years if this continues. Looking at New Delhi at 45+ in June, areas in Valais in Switzerland at nearly 40, our inability to decrease our consumption, be a little bit considerate towards the environment and making it their problem instead of ours, I am certain we all deserve to die when the Earth boils over. Major digression. It’s hot and kind of nice to swim in the lake or in an open pool. But my relationship with swimming is very complicated.
When I was 14–15–16, I was a FAR better swimmer than I am now. First of all, it was my primary sport in the summer, I didn’t run or anything, so my body was totally adapted to be a swimmer. Also, as I underlined the importance of consistency before, I was really consistent with swimming in my teens. For 6 months, every day for 3 years, I was logging between 4–10k a day with Monday being an off day. Especially at 14, my coach was a hardass and I still have scars on my body from the workouts I did back then. But it was the first time in my life I was actually working hard on something. In studies, I always underperformed because frankly, I didn’t like being forced to do it. I was smart enough to know what to do but really, how far do you think you will go in life if all you know is calculus? Very far, says Newton but it is not the 1600s and most of us are not Newton. Anyways, I was pushing myself a lot back then. Compared to that, before Tuesday of this week, I swam 3 times last year in June. And before that it was October 2020 where i had swam 14k in 1 week because I was injured.
Also, here’s the thing. I am fucking competitive. I am a good loser unlike Lance Armstrong because frankly, I am not very talented. But I don’t like to lose. And I hate if I don’t give it my best every time. Some of it has to do from the fact that I had discussed in a previous blog of enjoying the idea of being someone or something rather than actually doing it. Kind of the same point I wanted to make about the UA advert and people posting it. Comparing yourself to Michael Phelps is like putting a Porsche logo on your Peugeot 108. The fact that anyone is an Olympian in swimming means they really worked hard to get there instead of boasting about it on social media. I have never seen Kipchoge post his run stats with #determined. You know he is #determined because he runs 2:0x (x<4 usually) in almost every marathon and beats everybody.
This hit in me 2018 when I had my breakthrough marathon because for the second time in my life, I actually worked hard instead of talking about it. And it wasn’t an earth shattering time but how could it be? It was my 1st season of hard work. Over the next 2 years, this continued to improve until I got injured for the 1st time and had to spend time in the pool. I tried to keep my mindset even if I couldn’t keep my run fitness. And then I tried to permeate this mindset to other parts of my life. People get me wrong. When I do a million things during a day and I wish for more hours, I am not judging others or imploring others to do what I do. I do it because in the end I will be buried alone. And before I am buried, when I look back on my life I will not care about what others said about me. I will care about if every day, i was able to give my best and help others. I try to live my life as an example not as a mockery of people’s schedules. Everyone has their own priorities and I cannot judge the world for not running 20 miles before breakfast because for some people it sucks to run 20 seconds, let alone 20 miles.
Keeping this mindset can also be detrimental. Especially when I enter the pool. Because I know what I am capable of. I was 15 when I swam 1500 meters in around 17 minutes. (closer to 18 i guess, don’t remember that well.) And when people overtook me in the pool, I often felt undermined and overwhelmed. This is why I hated to swim when I was training for Ironman while I was in Switzerland. Every swim was like a mirror to my face, telling me that I wasn’t the same swimmer as before. And in 2017, my mindset was of that to avoid things which made me feel that way. In 2020, I was better but still competitive in the pool. I could not run, but I could swim. And so then the return of the swimming prodigy storyline would commence in my head. I think i even posted something about having regrets in swimming and that I wanted to accomplish some unfinished business. Mere words.
On Tuesday, I was contemplating before the swim, feeling that same sense of dread in my stomach as before. What if someone is faster, what if I have to swim faster. And then in the water, something hit me. You are here because you cannot run and not to replace running. You are here to recover. You are here to have fun. Just like you take your space as a faster runner, you are allowed to take space as a slower swimmer. With each lap, I mindfully tried to be non-competitive. Of course, I checked my SWOLF score(which was atrocious) and of course, i watched swim drill videos and began incorporating them because I don’t want to be terrible at anything that I do. But much like my guitar playing, I also need to learn to be ok being good. I will not beat Michael Phelps even if he has to swim with ankle weights, but I do not want to be Michael Phelps. Every swim, I remind myself this:
- You are here to recover
- It is ok to be slow
- Focus on form rather than speed
- If you feel anger at someone slower than you in the lane, just breathe and let go. Everyone is allowed their own space. They paid for the pool too.
- Relax and let yourself float.
Of course, if the MRI shows something horrible and I cannot run for 6 months, chances are I will use swimming as a competitive arena. I am not Thich Quang Duc level of zen.
Or maybe this is my opportunity. Of late, I have begun to treat everything that makes me angry or agitated as a opportunity to not react angrily. Like the cool kids say, impulse control. Can you imagine the impulse control Thich Quang Duc had? To set yourself on fire and yet continuing to meditate while you are being burnt alive. I will still want to become a better swimmer, to swim more beautifully, to have a better SWOLF score(i don’t know why this matters, but it does to me. I am too much of a geek to not care about it) but I also want to use swimming as a means to disconnect from competition from the world. To do something more as an act of meditation, to stay calm despite everything and being ok, if my SWOLF score doesn’t improve. Because the bigger picture is getting back to running without the need for injections. To be able to run free, free from pain and from external competition. In the dark are the things I need to learn to control and improve upon: my competitive drive, my impatience, my ego, my desire to do more and I am sure, working on them will put me in the light.