Tag Archives: courage

Home of the Brave

If you were to have an in-depth conversation with the average person about what they might like to aspire towards in their own development as human beings, I would bet some part of their response would include being a bit more brave or courageous.  Those exact words may not be used as part of the conversation, but my hunch is those notions would be interwoven in the dialogue.  Maybe something more along the lines of “There’s so much more I wish I would do…” with the unstated piece being that they don’t do it out of some reticence or fear.

I alluded to all of this a bit on my post a few weeks back on regret, but I find that most people regret more what they didn’t do or try versus what they did.  In the end, I think we all want to be a little more brave, a little more bold and a little more committed doing more cool stuff.  I know I am.

All of this began to percolate in my head like some fresh-brewed java when I got this photo from my Dad through my uncle:

Kuzia-Grandparents

See, this handsome (albeit serious-looking) couple is my great-grandparents on my father’s father’s side.  I always knew them as Dzia Dzia and Babci, which is Polish for grandfather and grandmother, respectively.  We Kuzia’s are a very creative bunch, as you can easily see.  Always pushing those boundaries.

The reason I marvel at my Dzia Dzia and Babci so much is for something incredibly simple they did and so many others did in the early 1900’s – they hopped on a boat from Poland, traveled across the Atlantic and landed in the United States with very little in their pockets and no ability to speak English.  OK, that’s not entirely true… they had 2 phrases: one for ordering a sandwich and the other of “Which way E-J?” which meant Endicott-Johnson shoe company so they could go and get a job there.

I know these days we sort of take that early surge of immigration to the U.S. for granted as an “Oh, yeah… that happened…” kind of thing with nary a second thought… but damn it, let’s give it that second or even third thought for a moment.

Imagine yourself trying that today – leaving behind the place you grew up, the only life you have ever known and all the people you’ve ever known and traveling to a complete alien part of the world, where the native tongue is one you know nothing of.  And THAT is going to be your new life… just for a shot that your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have it better than you did.  Not a guarantee.  Not a promise.  Just for the potential and only through hard manual labor in a shoe factory.

Damn.  Suddenly feeling nervous about doing Tough Mudder looks utterly silly by comparison.

In the end, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, my friends, and they are pictured above.  Without their brave act, these words are never typed for you to read and the amazing experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have never occur.  It’s humbling in the best possible way.

In The Grind

I’ve known a few different people in my life who have been stuck in health situations you wouldn’t wish upon anyone. Situations that would make even the most stouthearted people you’ve known droop their heads in despair.  There is nothing pretty, glamorous or glitzy to be found for someone pushing through those kinds of life moments – not surprising, of course.  They don’t do jazzy MTV reality shows about people battling leukemia.

But when I’ve looked at the way they’ve braved their way through those situations, I’ve always come away with a mixed bag of feelings that take me some time to sort out.  There is the inevitable sadness and questioning of why something so awful could possibly happen to someone so good.  There is the fleeting feelings of “Will they get better? Will they pull through?”  I feel really thankful that any of these notions (at least for me) were, in fact, fleeting and quickly replaced with a determined answer of “Damn straight they’ll get better.”

The most profound feeling I tend to have is a blended sense of pride in the dignity with which they carried themselves, admiration for their bravery and a very dedicated notion that I have absolutely nothing to complain about in my own life.  I mean, how could I?  Even the worst moments of my day are so thin and pale compared to even some of the best parts of their day.  The worst day you could possibly have in the office will simply melt in the face of the best day of someone with chemo.  It makes you get your mind right… and quickly.

Now here is what I find amazing about those in that fight: the people outside of the fight will see their courage, bravery and utter determination to fight through someone awful.  There is incredible heroism in it all.  But you know what?  Anyone going through that fight never sees it that way until maybe much, much later, when they have pulled through and the dust has settled… and probably not even then.

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When they are in the grind, there is nothing heroic to feel in that moment.  Just a push to get better.  A push to not feel like everything is crashing down.  A push for the next moment to feel better than the last one.  How heroic would you feel if you were stuck in a moment like that?  Not very.

It is only to those who stand outside and watch with terror and awe that it can be that way.

But this is why it’s so important to understand this feeling of pushing through those dark moments: When we have our own difficult journeys or life challenges, most of us will never feel as if there is some noble purpose to it all.  We are hyper-fixated on the fact that the moments sucks, we hate it and we just want to be through with it as fast as possible.  However, if we can have just a flash of inspiration in those dark times, a point of self-realization that our moment is actually an opportunity for us to show our mettle… then we have something good and real, even when stuck in the muck.

It reminds me of something I read recently where we shouldn’t pray for help, but should pray for challenges with which to prove ourselves.  Clearly no one is going to pray for a grave disease or the loss of a job or something like that.  Let’s not turn this into some kind of insane gauntlet of masochistic self-discovery.  But the perseverance of those who have gone through REAL hardships and have come through with grace and class have shown me that as bad as I may feel in the grind, there is always, always, always potential meaning to it for me.

The part that requires strength is accepting that fact, even when I am on my knees, broken and wishing it would all end.  That’s why the inspiration of those I’ve seen push through it before drive me.  And fight on, I will.

From Whence Shall Come Hope?

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Alexander Pope from An Essay on Man

Hope. It’s what keeps us going through the roughest of times and allows us to find a little something extra to pull out when we feel we are closing to giving in. In fact, I would argue that without hope, little progress would have ever occurred in human history. Why toil and struggle in some seemingly noble effort if there was not even the slightest shred of hope?

Sure, there are stories of heroic last stands in the face of insurmountable odds (The Spartans against the Persian Empire or the Alamo), but by and large, we don’t tend to want to put our hearts and souls into anything that feels pointless or predetermined.

Hope has been on my mind on a lot of late, truth be told. I tend to be an optimistic and hopeful person, but the last few weeks have been a struggle for me. If there is one thing that challenges my belief in the general goodness of life, it’s good or innocent people suffering.  I can’t help but think long and hard about the people of Japan, Haiti, Yemen, Libya and Egypt (and I know I likely missed at least one country that has been in the news of late).  But on a much more personal level, the events of a few people very close to me have also weighed heavily on my mind.  The woman that’s meant more to me than words can capture who is still fighting to recover from the after-effects of leukemia treatments and who, while just seeking a few moments of peace within which to recover, finds out the beloved dog who was there for every step of the fight of her illness has bone cancer.  Or one of my absolute best friends relapsing again with leukemia and contracting a bad (and incredibly scary) case of viral pneumonia to the point where he needed to be intubated to breathe.

It could be incredibly easy to lapse into a very gray funk… because, truth be told, hope seems to be missing temporarily or perhaps hiding in some dark corner where it’s waiting to reemerge.  Those two people so close to me… how would I tell them that “This too shall pass” or to keep believing when it seems like every step forward is soon followed by a rude shove forcing them to relent their hard-fought gains?  How do you stem the tears of someone who is trying to find a little solid footing, but now is heartbroken over the very likely need to say goodbye all-too-soon to the furry friend who was an absolute angel the last 8 years?  Anything said can easily come across hollow and insincere to even the most forgiving of viewpoints.

As I’ve often said in this blog, I don’t pretend to have all the answers and write more to share my own experiences as honestly as I can.  I do this in the hope that maybe just one other person will find a bit of insight or an ounce of comfort in what I have to say – that would be a tremendous win in my mind and heart.

So what to do?  Well, for me, the hope can often come from the very fight itself.  The situations that have been on my mind can all reach happy (or at least happier endings) and, hence, are worth fighting for.  My role becomes the shoulder to cry on and the friend to lean on.  Hmm… not sure if “role” even captures it properly.  Duty – I think that’s how I feel about it.  I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate that I do not have these horrible things happening to me and so I take it upon myself as my personal duty to bear as much as I can for those I care about.  If their hope wavers, mine will not and maybe… just maybe… they will fight a little harder or believe a little more because of that.

Life has so much out of our control.  That’s been the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the last 10 to 15 years.  My reaction to that is to gut it out and give my best to those precious areas I can control.  Sometimes I do it well and others times… ehh… maybe not so much, but I keep trying.  The fight itself is worth it… but more importantly… those that mean so much to me are worth even more.

Plus, life always will throw a moment like this one at you:

That's one fired up nephew
Christmas hope courtesy of my nephew

I defy anyone not to find hope in something like that.  I do every time I see it.

Lessons Learned: My First Strongman Competition

When I first began lifting weights, probably during my freshman year of college, it was really about aesthetics.  Unless I completely miss my guess, I think I was getting out of high school at around 145 lb. or so at my robust 5 feet 7 inches of dominating height.  The rather small weight area at Fairfield U. was not glamorous, but it seemed liked it would get the job done for my purposes.  I never had a plan or a clue back then and I’m wholly surprised I never did anything to damage myself permanently.

In the ensuing years, I became a little more knowledgeable, put on a few respectable pounds (currently up over 50 lbs. from my high school weight), read up on the subject more and began to create a semblance of a philosophy when it came to my own physical strength and conditioning.  In fact, I truly believe… wait, scratch that… know that my best days are ahead of me in my lifting career.

The most interesting development of all is less about my physical state and more about my mental state for training.  I tend to think of my physical training a lot more as it relates to my mind and spirit (and vice versa) than I ever have before.  Lifting is not simply a physical act for me – it’s testing myself against my own preconceived ideas of what is possible… it’s seeing if something I once thought as out of reach (a weight, a kind of lift, a time sprinting up a hill) is really something continuously on the horizon or right at my feet, ready to be conquered.

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Don’t get me wrong – I don’t stroll down the stairs into my home gym, put on Yanni and lift as if I were some kind of mild-mannered poet.  Hardly.  The philosophy is more for the time outside of the gym and is used to then drive the motivation inside of it.  So when I walk in, I’m looking to bring intensity to each lift and attack whatever the exercise is with abandon.

Where am I going with all of this?  Well, as the title of this post suggests, I did my first strongman competition a few weeks back.  For those not familiar with strongman events, they are similar to those Met-RX World’s Strongest Man competitions you see on ESPN… except that’s the elite level of the sport with weights and events far beyond what I was experiencing December 5th up in Paxton, MA.

The event was Paxton Strongman 6 and was comprised of 5 different events:

  • log press (as many reps as possible in 1 minute)
  • tire deadlift (as many reps as possible in 1 minute)
  • front hold (holding a weight out at arm’s length for as long as possible)
  • farmer’s walks (walking 40 feet with some serious weight on long handles, turning, and walking back 40 feet)
  • barrel and sandbag medley (carrying a barrel/keg a distance, running back, carrying a sandbag the same distance, running back and carrying the final sandbag to the finish)

I compete in the lightweight novice class which was for guys who have either never done a strongman competition or have only one done maybe one before.  The funniest part is that for novices, they want to include as many people as possible so the weights used are lighter than “open” competitors and the size of the weight class is much broader… 230 lb. and under.  I have no idea where else in the world 229 lb. is lightweight, but hey, there ya have it.

I finished in 9th place out of 12 competitors, which I guess is OK for my first ever competition… but in the end?  It’s not as much about placing as what I learned from it all and how it’s generally applicable to a lot of every day situations.  So here are my lessons learned from my first strongman competition:

You will be humbled. Embrace it.

The picture above was from the first event of the day – the log press.  The weight is 170 lb. and must be cleaned up off 2 tires and then pressed overhead to a lockout position as many times as possible in 1 minute.  I got 4 or 5 and the winner got around 11.  When I was prepping for this event, I was closer to around 8 or so reps on this lift… but a funny thing happened on the way to this event for me.  I was the last possible person lifting for this event out of everyone competing.  See, they run all the weight classes side-by-side on these events so that 4 or 5 people go for the same minute within their class… but my class was last and I was the clean-up person in my class.

Technically, that’s an advantage because I know exactly how much reps I need to come in first place… but there is a wee bit of a snag for me because I had to wait longer than anyone else and I had never done this kind of thing before.  To say I got anxious would be akin to saying a marathon is a brisk little jog to shake out the morning cobwebs.  I was convinced I was going to puke when I was setting up to start this event.  That’s not going to help anyone be focused on performance.

So what happened?  I performed poorly and it made catching up later in the competition harder than it should have been.  I saw guys who I am fairly certain I am better on this lift (and others) do better than me… and kudos to them for stepping up and performing well.

All of this taught me something important: when you get your ass kicked and do so in front of a whole bunch of people, accept it.  It doesn’t make you less of a person or a failure or a loser.  Being humbled like that is part of the fire that now drives me to do even better in my training because I want to do this again and really crush it.  I’m not sure I would be pushing myself quite like this if I finished with an overall solid performance – I might have felt a little too self-satisfied.

This was not failure, my friends… this was a lesson in where true motivation is born.

Nike said it best: just do it.

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When I first contemplated doing this contest, I was in touch with Matt Mills, owner/trainer of Lightning Fitness.  I decided to sign up to train over at Matt’s place in addition to the lifting I do in my beloved home gym, Fierce and Mighty (which you have hopefully found as well on Facebook at the Fierce and Mighty page).  Matt has done a few strongman competitions, winning a few along the way as welling as setting a national record for the log press (210 lbs for 15 reps in 1 minute… that’s absolutely sick).  I hemmed and I hawed about doing a competition that was less than 2 months away and kept saying I wanted to be more prepared before I placed myself into the white-hot crucible of competition.

Matt relayed to me the same advice he had gotten before his first powerlifting competition: if you are thinking about competing, sign up and compete.  It won’t be about where you place, but about what you learn when you compete (as this entire blog post is about).

And beyond that, there are few things that will focus your attention like an impending goal with a lot of public attention.  All of my friends and family knew I was doing this and quite a few of them showed up to cheer me on.  I really didn’t want to let them down and I think that, despite my own lack of satisfaction on my overall placing, it really made me push harder.

For people not interested in carrying around 170 lb. sandbags or deadlifting 370 lb. for 1 minute straight (which I hit for 19 reps, thank you very much!), you can use this same tool as well.  Going on a diet?  Book a trip to someplace warm where you want to wear a bathing suit.  This can hone the focus of many, many people.  Even beyond that, make public whatever your goal may be so your friends and family know what it is.  That alone will make it far more challenging to give up on.

But regardless of what it is, do something to get yourself moving and started.  Rare is the time in life when inaction is better than action, so take steps… however small… and get yourself going.  Small steps make momentum and progress until you find yourself pleasantly surprised to look up and find yourself in a better place than where you began.

Press on, press on, press on…

I’m not normally one to quote the Bible, but there is always one passage that’s stuck with me (partially because one of my best friends from high school picked it as his senior quote).  It’s Ecclesiastes 9:11 and it reads, in part

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race [is] not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…

There were some very strong guys and gals competing that day in Paxton.  None of them were are gloriously handsome as me, but I’m used to that… happens everywhere I go.  Umm… wait, where was I?  Oh yes… the competitors.  But you know where I think a lot of people separated themselves from their competition?  By how willing they were to push themselves just a little bit harder than everyone else.

For instance… when you are doing one of these events where you need to lift something for a minute straight, you feel like death by the end.  No one walks away from that feeling fresh as a daisy – it’s hard as hell.  But in the course of that minute, your mind begins to rebel a bit and wants to tell your body “Hey!  HEY!  Meat sack!  This is your brilliant intellect up here!  What in the name of all that’s holy are your DOING?!?!?  This HURTS!  STOP!”

The people who come out on top of these events are either able to make that inner voice quieter or push past it entirely.  See, even if you keep lifting until they call time, if you give into that voice just a little, you might lose a few reps… and that might mean the difference between 1st and 8th.

You want to win?  Step up to whatever your challenge is and never, ever, EVER lose sight of what you are looking to achieve.  Keep saying it to yourself over and over.  When you practice and prepare, say it over and over.  Make it such a habit because when it’s game time and you feel nervous and everyone is watching… it will pay off.  I wish I did more of this because I know I would have placed (and I kid you not) at least 3 or 4 spots higher than I did.

The longest of any of these events was a minute.  That’s it.  One, single, solitary minute.  Your challenge may not be a minute, but for 99.99999% of the population… your challenge will NOT last forever.  Press on.

So, those are the big 3 takeaways I had from all of this: (1) Embrace being humbled; (2) Action is always better than inaction; and (3) Every hard situation you will ever face will pass.  Be courageous until it does.

And if there is a lesson #4 in all of this, it would be that blogging is good for the soul and I probably shouldn’t wait 4 months between posts.  Press on.