Australian powerlifting great Liz Craven posted something on Instagram recently that hit me, as the young folks these days say, “in the feels.”
She recalled breaking some IPF All-time World Records back in 2017, just before a forced six-year hiatus from World competition due to powerlifting politics and Covid (during which time she also overcame some incredibly challenging health problems).
Liz is finally heading back to IPF Worlds this year, and at 48 will be competing against lifters half her age. She writes:
…there is a whole new generation up there.
Very few of the old guard (my friends) will be there, I will be around the middle these days and sometimes it is hard to find the drive to work that hard to be in the middle.
Everything hurts more, everything is harder. Will I even get to weight?
I have been trying to change my perspective though.
It is a privilege to still be able to get there, one other people would love.
So I’ll keep working hard and we will see what I can do after all this time.
Working hard to be in the middle
Working hard to be in the middle is what I do literally every time I train. That’s why this caption resonated so much.
I’ve trained 1,210 times since I started lifting weights. I train for about two hours at a time, on average, so that’s a bit more than 2,400 hours.
The equivalent of one hundred full 24-hour days in the gym.
I’ve done every minute of that work in the knowledge that I am now, and will remain, in the middle.
For 2022, I ranked 29th out of 79 (all tested raw lifters across all federations, 67.5kg women aged 55-59) on Open Powerlifting.
I’ve never come anywhere near breaking an ATWR and I never will, unless I magically outlast all of my competition and am the only woman left standing at age 90.
I’m not being a negative Nellie. I’m just being real and telling the truth.
So, Liz has uncovered a set of profound questions.
Those of us who compete presumably care at least a little bit about being the best.
But while I happen to know that a few of the people reading this actually are literally the strongest women in the world at their age and weight, statistically most of us are not and never will be in that category.
How do we face that truth without curling up into the fetal position and howling?
How do we keep going when “success” may not be possible?
In fact, let’s go deeper. What even IS “success”?
What are we striving for? What’s pushing us? Why are we bothering?
I’m doing hard things and testing myself and being the best me that I can be.
I feel more confident and at home in my body than I’ve ever felt in my life.
I may not be winning on the platform or on Open Powerlifting, but I’m still enjoying the thrill of hitting my own personal bests, and winning in the grand competitions of life and aging.
Those are all true, and more than enough reason to keep plugging away.
But that’s not actually where the real juice is for me.
Perfection, in itself and for itself
I find myself looking even deeper, to that place where the physical meets the spiritual, that boundary where training takes you beyond your body and into your mind and your heart.
Why do Buddhist monks spend weeks creating a mandala, only to destroy it when it’s complete?
Why does a Michelin-starred chef toil for hours or even days to prepare a perfect meal that will exist in its finished form for only a few moments before being consumed? (On that note, if you’ve never watched the film Babette’s Feast, I can’t recommend it highly enough, and it’s relevant here. So is Pixar’s Ratatouille.)
Because there is beauty in the pursuit of perfection, in itself and for itself.
The space between
In the sport of powerlifting, the only metric that matters is how much weight you can lift.
In powerlifting as a practice, though—in the space between the numbers— lies the domain of technique, of form, of the mind/muscle connection.
In the space between, we experience the strangeness of time slowing down when we’re trying to push past our sticking point coming out of the hole.
In that space, we find the deep satisfaction of holding that pause just a beat longer, or slowing that tempo down even more.
We feel the rightness in our body when we finally execute one picture-perfect rep of something we’ve been working to master for months or years.
And then two reps.
And then discovering that this movement that once seemed so impossible has become as natural as breathing, before we move on to tackle the next bit of broken technique that needs fixing.
My bench press training right now is relatively light because I’m in an off-season, and nearly all of my focus has been on finding true thoracic extension. And I’ve found it, in just the past couple of weeks. This breakthrough was five years in the making.
Last year, I experienced the same kind of physical epiphany in a couple of key aspects of my deadlift.
There’s such beauty and joy in feeling my body finally find a physical truth it’s been seeking for so long but never quite locating. It’s like a homecoming of sorts.
Life happens in the middle
Are all of these things in service of “winning” in the competitive sense?
Yes. I absolutely am striving to get to the pinnacle of whatever performance my body and mind are capable of achieving. Yes, that competitive desire pushes me through many a hard training session, and is my answer when I question why on earth I’m doing this to myself.
But as I strive, it’s in the knowledge that the striving will only take me so far, and no farther.
And that’s okay, because what really would be the point of all of this work if we did it for no reason other than to achieve an end goal, especially one that will almost certainly elude us despite our best efforts?
Hell, even goals like living longer and being healthier, while worthwhile, are not guaranteed. We can be struck down by disease or a lightning strike or an errant bus at any time.
“Middle” means something entirely different here. It’s not about where we started or the end point where we think we’re going.
Life is lived in each minute. Life is what happens in the middle.
I will probably stay smack dab in the middle of the pack as far as competitions are concerned.
But as long as I can remain awake and aware enough to experience the joy (and yes, also the suffering and self-doubt) of the work itself—then as far as I’m concerned, in the existential sense that really matters—I’ve won.