Picture is from January 2017 - My Off Season.
I feel like my headphone wires. Tightly woven. Tangled. A hodgepodge of entrapment. The only thing that alleviates this mental madness of peak week is...actually peaking. Stepping on stage. That is where the unraveling begins. Bit by bit, step by step, pose by pose. It all flows.
How did I get here? Don't you ask that when you reach into your gym bag or purse and grab your headphones? Don't you ask: "I put you in there untangled, wrapped neatly. How did you manage to get yourself into this mess?" I ask myself the very same thing. I put myself into the gym in college in this nice, neat little package called, "trying it on for size." I guess I didn't realize just how literal that statement would become as each year I altered, trimmed, expanded, sculpted my birthday suit...the one suit that only I alone can sew.
Bodybuilding is a specific, detail-oriented, selfish "sport." It requires a person to put everything into nice, neat little boxes in order to chip away each day. Bodybuilders are walking, talking, breathing "slash-and-burn" bodies. We rage pain, anguish, fire unto our muscle fibers and our souls. One section at a time. Burning and resting. Smoldering and holding steady before walking away to lay waste on another section of our smoking bodies.
There is a sense of futility in this. When growing crops--fertilizing and tilling the land--the job is never done. Eventually that section of earth will recover and be ready for seeds to plant and growth to flourish. And so we, just like the farmers, repeatedly come back to destroy the area again. The ultimate Phoenix Rising. It begs the question: "How do you know when you are done?"
I do. Know. I don't.
How does a painter know he is done? How does a writer know she is done? There just comes a point when the artist must stop, breathe, step away, clasp hands together, and say with finality: "This is it. It's all I've got. It just must be."
Hence the futility. Hence the tangled wires. Hence the need to unravel, pack up, and do it all over again.
I hope I unravel well. I've taken my time, my little fingers working nimbly to pull a wire through this hole and thread the other wire through that hole until all the knots are...not. And I. I...am.
I truly am.
I vividly remember a morning commute to work from earlier this year. As I sped down the Dallas North Tollway, I noticed something in the distance doing somersaults and barreling down the left lane towards me. It looked like a brown paper bag. With paws. Wait. Those actually were paws. Attached to a bunny. An actual bunny. On the Tollway. A place where cars careen at 80 mph. That bunny pitter-pattered down the lane, racing and tracing the yellow line of the inside shoulder and steadily facing my car. Its paws pushed its cardboard brown body along the cement surface, maintaining a feverish pace.
I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland. What was this bunny doing on a three-lane highway that had zero shoulder space? How did it get onto the highway? Never mind that. How did it get across all three lanes of traffic to reach the most inside lane without being splattered by revolving rubber tires?
But here’s the question that lurked in my mind like a monster beneath a child’s bed at midnight: How would the bunny get off the highway? That thought haunted me for days.
I’ve been competing for almost 18 years. For a few of you reading this, you were in diapers and babbling with a toe in your mouth when I first applied a coat of Dream Tan to my body and then sprayed myself with Pam Cooking Spray to get that golden glisten that would help me bake to perfection if I stood in a skillet. I get asked by my parents, “How much longer will you do this?” To which I respond, “Until I’m done.” The honest truth (as opposed to the alternative truth) is that I just don’t know when I’ll get off the competition highway. At this point, I don’t think I know how. I’m like that bunny in the left lane, sprinting into oncoming traffic, knowing at any moment I could be run into the ground, and still fighting to get to my destination…wherever that may be.
I’ve fought hard this current contest prep to figure out my root motivation. I preach to others: “Find your motivation. Write it down. Return to it when you hit a wall of doubt.” Luckily, a healthy lifestyle is easy for me. I eat six meals a day all year long. I train in the gym all year long. I check my biceps bulge all year long. I am bodybuilding. Bodybuilding is me. I’ll never be free. But I still can’t determine that deep-seeded motivation factor to boil my blood and stir my heart in 2017.
When I was an amateur and fighting for the seemingly elusive IFBB Pro Card, my obstinance toward my goal to earn that pro status and stand on a pro stage drove me day in and day out. The year after I earned it, bringing my best to the pro stage and showing that I deserved that pro status drove me further. But this year, I seem to be in neutral. Don’t get me wrong. I’m putting in the time, effort, and sacrifice necessary to bring a quality physique to the stage. But I can’t yet figure out the “why” of what I am doing this year.
I’m not sure if it’s a bad thing. Think about that bunny. I just don’t think that bunny knew why he (or she) was on the highway nor where it was headed. It just knew to stay in the lane, avoid the lumbering, loud obstacles in front of it, and keep running. Once it got to where it was going, I’m sure it figured out why it was there (provided another driver behind me wasn’t texting and subsequently smashing the fuzzy bunny in the blink of an eye). I just need to stay out of traffic’s way and harm. For me, that means avoiding comparing myself to others who might be five, six, seven, or eight weeks out and shredded to the gills already. That smashes me every time. Imagine it. A head-on collision between my esteem and other competitors’ supposed social media appearances. Can you see the fur flying and the guts sprawling on the pavement? Can you feel the lurch and bump of the tires over my confidence? Even as a pro, this examination of other competitors and comparison of their progress to my own is a debilitating act that will render me unconscious, flattened, without a pulse. I’ll never find my motivation that way.
I needed to write this in order to remember this. I tell everyone else these words. I am my own coach. It’s about time I take care of more than just my nutrition and workouts and start giving myself a dose of my own pep talks.
I still wonder where that bunny is and how it is doing. I have faith it survived. I do. As I know I will too.
I have begun telling my posing clients that an oak tree does not grow from the leaves down but instead digs its roots into the ground, develops a trunk, and then branches out. Most competitors begin their front mandatory pose by setting their arms, spreading them far and wide with elbows crooked and fingers gnarled. The tension spreads throughout their bodies and knees become locked, hips rigid, and shoulders elevated. What should look confident, relaxed, and powerful instead displays fear, doubt, and aloofness.
I am scared. I admit it. I. Am. Scared. Contest preps are never easy, and nor should they be. Emotions run amuck, the mind plays tricks, and the body acts like an unruly child with no care for the rules. I always preach backwards planning, which in terms of contest prep means to pick a show, know the date, and plan backwards from there. But now that I think of it, that is a lot like a competitor spreading arms first to get the lats to flare and a tree sprouting leaves from its branches before the trunk has any precious rings in its midst. Yet what other way is there for contest prep?
Some people believe in dieting until the body seems ready for a show and then picking a show that is in the vicinity of that time frame. I honestly have never done it that way. I pick a show. I count backwards by 12 weeks (or more sometimes) and then march forwards along the path of dropping fat and maintaining (or even gaining) muscle. And somewhere along the way, I freak out because my body is not following the time schedule that my mind put forth. Over fifteen years of competing, with over 40 shows under my belt (or bling bling suit), and I still do this. I am doing it now. Freaking out.
So many in this industry will never admit it. They will post to the public, “Everything is sunshine and confetti and unicorn farts and cupcake sprinkles.” But I guarantee you they are shedding a tear or two or murmuring curse words and self-deprecating remarks in the privacy of their bathroom as they look in the mirror and see themselves in some dysmorphic view, thinking “I’m not big enough” or “I’m not lean enough.” I kind of feel like none of us would choose the world of bodybuilding if we were actually normal, though I question what normal is and whether it exists. But most of us come into this strange beast of a hobby with low self esteem, debilitating OCD issues, a history of being bullied, a need to prove oneself to others, or any number of habits and thoughts that deter us from a healthy emotional foundation. So we choose a “healthy lifestyle” and immerse ourselves in the suds of “clean eating” and “training dirty” like one soaks a glass dish caked in dried macaroni-and-cheese casserole remains before furiously scrubbing away the sticky parts. And I wonder if this too is a case of trying to grow our leaves before we have set our roots and developed our trunk.
Let’s return to the thing you probably want to know the most: why I am scared. On the surface, what do I have to be scared about? I am 44 years old/young and this isn’t my first rodeo. I should know prep like I know the back of my hand. But I don’t know this current body. I don’t know this body that has curved and grown and shrunk in unfamiliar ways due to unfamiliar training for the last eight months. This past off season, I turned my repertoire upside down and inside out. I then twisted it and wrung it like a sopping wet rag in the shower. When I stepped off the stage in Boca at the IFBB Prestige Crystal Cup and did not earn the extra point I needed in order to sneak my way into an Olympia qualification, I knew I needed a change. Whatever I could have done in two or three weeks’ time to prepare for the IFBB San Antonio Pro would not have assuaged the judges’ consistent criteria for my physique: wider back and sharper conditioning in the lower body. It doesn’t sound like much. Just two items to fix. But I had tried for years to widen my lats and had thought that my genetics held me back (pun intended). I like to think I know everything, but I can put my ego aside for a few seconds to admit when I need help. My back needed help.
So began a journey that felt a little like walking blindfolded along a deserted highway in the Texas Panhandle. How long? How far? How many weather changes? Will I survive? Where will I end up? Do I even want to be here…or there? Can I stop now? Maybe I can push another step or two…okay, a mile or two. Fine. I’ll go the distance. But can I stop now? No? Fine. One foot in front of the other despite wind, rain, hail, heat.
I was resetting my roots. I needed new branches, but they couldn’t grow if my roots were in upheaval. And that’s where I am now. Burying roots in the ground, feeling around, waiting for more fertilizer, and keeping my trunk sturdy and sound. The branches will spread. The leaves will sprout. My tree will flourish. Just as long as these roots I nourish.