All of the lights

I used to like Kanye West’s All of the Lights. Now it will remind me of the red light after red light after red light I saw yesterday at my first national USAPL meet. When people say they learned a lot from trying something that’s usually a sure bet that it was a painful experience. The brutal day I had yesterday can either be a major learning and stepping stone to getting better or a reason to throw in the towel and say I’m not cut out for this. But if I were going to do that, it would have been at the heart-crushing moment when what should have been an easy lift, my 176 pound opening squat, was red-lighted 2 out of 3 for depth. The carefully constructed dream in my head of how the day would unfold crashed and burned under the glare of those red lights.

But quitting because you don’t get what you want is the easy way out, and I didn’t get into this because it was easy. And if I learned one thing from Ben yesterday, it was what he said during warm-up, before every lift, and throughout the day: “It’s always going to be heavy.” To continue that in my mind, it’s always going to be hard. And it wasn’t hard just for me. I saw women stronger than me and not struggle and hear “No lift” and have to pull it together before going out again. And I was as impressed with their ability to do that as I was with their strength. Which means I need to give myself just a little break – something I’m not terribly good at. I was crushed after that first “no lift.” Crushed as in crawl under the covers in my hotel and cry and not come out till this thing is over crushed. Furious to have missed something so easy for me in the gym, disappointed for my coach who drove a day to get here for this, mortified that my husband and friends and family watching the video stream saw me fail, embarrassed in front of the more experienced lifters, and haunted by the thought that missing your opener dooms you to failure all day. But what could I do? I could pull myself together, listen to my coach, and go back out there – the scariest prospect in the world at that moment – and do it right this time. And I did.

By then, it was over for me mentally. All the confidence I normally have with squat – I never miss, I always know I’ll stand up – was gone. For the first time in a long time, I was scared of the weight. 193 pounds, what should have been a new personal record, 3 pounds more than I easily did in the gym barely a week ago, could have been 250 for the way I feared sinking low with it. I brushed parallel, felt like I dipped just below, and rose. But no. No lift. Squat, my lift, my favorite, my gateway drug to this powerlifting passion, was not magic today.

I had about an hour to turn my head around before bench. I don’t have a great bench – squat is the only lift I felt even a little competitive in at this level, but I wanted to show I was capable. Ben did a great job of keeping me from dwelling on the thrashing I’d just gotten on squat, and turned my focus onto bench. “I want you where I can hear you,” I said before it was time to go back out. I’ve never lifted without him right there, either spotting or watching nearby, and I couldn’t face the judges again without knowing he was there. I set up for bench, determined to make this first, low attempt of 88 pounds, and get each of the three commands: start, press, and rack. And I got it. 93 next felt a little heavy, but got it up and was astonished to be red lighted. My arms wavered coming up, and rules say it needs to be a steady upward motion. I knew what I had to do for my next try at the same weight, dream of bodyweight bench in competition now smashed, and was as thrilled with three lights as if I’d hit a PR.

I felt a little less wounded after bench, making at least two out of my three attempts, and seeing others struggle with the judging too. And now I looked more forward to deadlift than I have ever done. Newly confident in my setup, and with one final chance to get a PR today, I had to make it happen. Ben loaded the bar for me while warming up as he wanted, not telling me how much was on. I comfortably pulled each time, finally asking how much I was lifting. “That was more than your opener,” he said. Not a conventional warm-up approach, but exactly what I needed in this situation: confidence that I would do it when I got out there. And I did. And I pulled my second attempt, at 187 a PR by 7 pounds for me, and 17 pounds more than my last meet. I looked to Ben for my third attempt number: 92.5 kilos, he said. I didn’t do the math, I just submitted my number. And when my turn came quickly up, I set up, pulled, and got it near my knees, where it just stopped. It was too heavy. Which was actually the least disappointing thing of the day. This was failing due to strength. I’d found my max on deadlift. I didn’t have the chance to do the same on the other lifts.

That was it. I was done. As bitterly disappointed as I was in myself, I was happy to see that Ben was not. He seemed as proud as if I had actually accomplished some big numbers, and was beginning to already talk about how we would start training Monday. It’s a new sport we’re training for now, with new numbers. I no longer have a 190 pound squat or 100 pound bench. I have the numbers I got here. And I’ll train based on those, and based on the rules at the USAPL, especially squat, burying every single one before I increase weight.

I got to spend the rest of the day watching other groups compete, and hanging out with Susan between her lifts. I was glad to see her learn from my mistakes, and although she was disappointed with her first two lifts too, she nailed the deadlift and got a PR there too. Naturally, for hours after we were done we analyzed every single lift of the day and the experience as a whole. We agreed that if someone had told us we’d come away with a 6 and 7 pound PR and do less on our squat and bench that we do for reps at home, we’d have been furious. But seeing this whole new sport we were thrilled with the victories that we did achieve. After all the talk we’d heard of how strict USAPL is, we now know for ourselves. Some things you can’t learn from anyone telling you – you have to experience them yourselves.

The other great things about this experience included watching some of the best lifters in the world and even having an opportunity to learn from them. I’ve watched plenty of videos but nothing will even beat seeing in real life“Sioux-z” at 114 pounds squat 145 kg and deadlift 142.5 kg, then having her spend a few minutes critiquing my squat setup. And one of the coolest things was feeling like real athlete. Though I didn’t do as well as I hoped or wanted, I still competed, I had amazing coaching all day from someone who’s seen me and led me from absolutely zero a year ago to even having the ability to attempt a double bodyweight+ deadlift. Ben has taken me seriously from day one, before I even knew what I might be able to do, and that’s the reason I could even attempt something like this.

And as painful as this lesson was, it was so valuable, and gives us so much to work with while we train toward next year, where it had better be all of the white lights.

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