Sometimes you fail (by Dana McMahan)

chain squat 85

A few weeks ago I’d never given any thought to my ability — or lack thereof — to do a pull-up. But once I learned how hard it was, it became my challenge. I wanted to do it sooner than Ben predicted, and have been flying along in my progress. I was thrilled to be told I was tough last week — “someone not as tough as you couldn’t progress as fast as you,” Ben said. I’d never thought of myself as tough, and this thrilled me to no end.

At my workout Tuesday I asked, only partly joking, when I could try an unassisted pull-up. I’d done really well with the thinnest help band, so Ben let me give it a shot. I didn’t make it, but that was ok. Ben thought I was close and would be ready for it Saturday. He gave me strict instructions not to do anything else during the week, just my pushups on one day. He said I needed to not overwork myself so that I could be full-strength Saturday.

I went in this morning as nervous as if it were my first day of a new school. I really, really wanted to do this. I just doubted that I were strong enough. Pull-ups are hard, people. My palms were sweaty and I felt trembly. All this over a pull-up? Yep. A pull-up will be the first fitness goal I reach, the first accomplishment that will make me take myself seriously in this endeavor. It will be something I earned through nothing but my own hard work (and of course Ben’s coaching).

I warmed up with some band assisted pull-ups. Then it was time. I knew as soon as I began to pull that it wasn’t in me. Ben and another guy both had phone cameras going to capture it on video — both of them and yet another guy were yelling “pull!” but I could only hang, partway up, feeling a million miles from the bar. Wanting doesn’t equal ability or strength and I couldn’t will the muscles in my arms and back to do any more. Humiliated, I had to drop. I couldn’t stop the workout though — the pull-ups continued, just with the band I’m coming to hate. If I could have gone to the ladies’ to cry and wallow in self-pity and emerged with even a shred of dignity I’d have done it.

But wounded ego and all, I had to move on. Push-ups were next — maximum reps. I managed several, determined to do them until I dropped, before Ben told me to stop. He showed me an exercise to do. “Why?” I asked. “Because you can’t hold your middle tight,” he explained. So, further mortified, I did my remedial work.

Usually this far into a workout I’m feeling exhilarated. Maybe shaking, maybe exhausted, maybe in pain, but still feeling great at what I’m accomplishing. Not today. I couldn’t shake the feeling of failure and the doubt that I’ll ever be able to accomplish my goal. Even my first round of squats with only the bar, no weight, which by now is a breeze, seemed difficult. But I wanted to at least accomplish one goal today — to squat with the giant, bad-ass chains at 85 pounds. So I pushed the failure to a corner of my mind (as far as I could) and focused on what I was doing. Ben showed me how to fill my diaphragm with air to help me not cave under the weight, and I bounced back enough to work up to the chains. For the first time since dropping in disgrace from the pull-up bar I managed a smile. This was hard, but I was going to do it. I’m hooked on that feeling now.

Even though it was only five more pounds than the heaviest I’d previously done I could tell this was different as soon as I went under the bar and lifted. The chains swayed alarmingly, and focusing on not losing my balance thankfully took my mind off the cursed pull-up. With Ben behind me reminding me to drive my knees out, I completed five, and after a rest, another five. I was still morose about the earlier failure, but I’ve been waiting since day one to do the chains, so I felt great about what I’d just done.

Failing sucks. There’s no way around it. I disappointed myself and I disappointed my coach, even though he ventured some theories about why I failed (like that the large tattoo I got this week put my central nervous system into such overdrive that I didn’t have everything I needed today). But even worse, I was surprised at my poor-sport reaction. It’s been fun so far because, starting from nearly nothing, I’ve progressed quickly. This is the first wall I’ve hit, and I reacted with no grace whatsoever. So, in addition to working on getting stronger so that I can get my pull-up, I need to work on adapting better to failure. If we got everything we ever wanted, what would be the point of working toward anything? Ben reminded me today when I was sulking that it’s also about the journey and he’s right.

But damn, it will still be good to get to my goal.

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