Friday, August 21, 2015

The Discomfort Zone

"As we were filming it I thought, if we don’t pull this off it’s going to be really embarrassing. It scared me a little bit, which is a good place to be.”
Noah Baumbach, filmmaker

I haven’t been entirely honest in this blog. One of the comments I make about myself in the “About Me” section is that I am comfortable outside my comfort zone. This is not true.

Actually I have a rather narrow comfort zone and I’m rarely comfortable outside it. Especially as I grow older, I find that I prefer to reduce the chance of surprises in my life. I dress in layers. I signal all my turns and lane changes. When I go somewhere on the subway, I always take three tokens, in case I lose one. I panic if I have to deal with a bank teller.

It is for this reason, though, that I look for ways to push myself into places that will stretch me; that will throw me off balance; that will help me grow.

In terms of scope, my early life was a series of ellipses … thoughts and deeds begun but unfinished; plenty of dreams but few actualities. I was settled comfortably into a physical and mental trough, with no intention of climbing out.

Thirty years ago the notion dawned on me that to venture into the discomfort zones of my life might not be a bad thing. I got the idea from watching a videotape of Terry Fox hop-skipping down the highway on his Marathon of Hope. As every Canadian knows, despite having lost a leg to osteosarcoma, Terry was running across Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Running. With one useful leg. How comfortable must he have been?

So in 1985 I sketched out a new life design: to start something even if I had no idea of what lies ahead, and to commit to finishing it; to do this regardless of my reluctance to get uncomfortable. To steal a phrase from JFK, I chose to set goals of swimming and cycling and running long distances not because they are easy, but because they are hard … because I want those goals to measure the best of me.

Ouch, ouch, ouch,,,
I push myself physically not because I love pain and suffering but because I want to know that there is more to life beyond the discomfort; beyond my immediate scope. Unlike Dorothy, I do not believe that all my heart’s desire lies inside my own backyard. I want to look farther, even if the horizon is out of sight.

After having completed seven Ironmans and countless marathons (and bombed painfully out of others), I can say unequivocally that I am not made of iron; I am made of the same feeble stuff as everyone else on the planet. At the end of a marathon, my legs hurt, my feet hurt; everything hurts, in fact. 

I don’t love being exhausted, or sore, or hot or cold or wet. Yet I simply do not believe it is “crazy” (a term some of my friends can’t stop using) to want to find out what is possible if I reach out a little farther.

Of course, there is an athletic equivalent of carrying three subway tokens. I can reduce my exposure to discomfort by planning intelligently, training well, and paying attention to my hydration and nutrition during a race.

The forecast said sunny and mild.
But as much as we train, plan, and desire, chance will always occupy a large area of the discomfort zone. Just ask Simon Whitfield, who crashed and broke his collarbone at the start of the bike in the London Olympics. Ask Perdita Felicien, who tripped over the first hurdle and fell onto the track during the 100 metre final in Athens in 2004. Ask triathlon legend Lisa Bentley, who made it a good distance into the marathon at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii before being pulled out of the race. With a burst appendix. How comfortable must they have been?

We are capable of so much more than we do. It’s only necessary to venture a little farther beyond what is normal, predictable, comfortable.

Now if I could only find a way to face that bank teller.