One More Time

By Deane Barker

I don’t like squatting heavy. I’m lanky, so my proportions aren’t great for it, and my body mechanics are passable at best. Worse, I get anxiety under the bar – I feel trapped by it. I’m uncomfortable with any weight that I can’t squat for at least three reps.

Squatting is impossible to avoid at CrossFit, so, despite all my issues, I pushed through in Fall 2015 and reached my goal of squatting 315. I did it again a few months later, so it was a solid PR, and I was happy with it.

I tagged the inevitable Facebook post with “#sixplates”, and given how I felt about heavy squatting, I really had no desire to extend it. I was all good.

Then, early last fall, I severely tore a groin ligament (while doing something stupid, for the record). Given that uncertainty, I haven’t squatted over 225 since.

A few weeks ago, we had to reach our one-rep max in class. I braced for disappointment.

I could only muster 295. I dumped the bar on 305, twice.

So, there it was. I was 20 pounds off my PR. What do I do now?

Let me apologize because I’m about to tell you something horribly depressing.

One day, likely when you were a preschooler, your parents put you down on the ground, and they never picked you back up again.

I know, I know – that’s terrible, and I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. Being carried around by your parents was a thing that happened when you were little. You eventually “aged out” of it. At the moment when your parents put you down for the last time, you didn’t know it, and neither did they. You just never got picked up again.

If you’re an athlete, here’s something else that’s true: one day, you’ll hit a PR in some movement, and then you’ll never hit that PR ever again. You won’t know it at the time, of course, but every PR has the potential of being the last such PR in your entire life.

When I put up 315 for the second time, I didn’t step back from the bar and say, “Well, that’s clearly gonna be the last time I ever do that.”

But, as of this moment, it was.

The last PR is lurking somewhere on the horizon. I don’t care how young you are or how good you are, it’s out there somewhere, waiting for you. When you’re young, this is very abstract. But it gets more and more concrete as time wears on.

I started CrossFit at 41-years-old. Five years later, I’m knocking on the door of 46, and I’ve started to notice a sad trend – my PRs are getting further and further apart. I hit a snatch PR the other day, but I don’t remember the last time I PR’d in anything involving cardio.

In the first half of this year, I trained five months for Murph, and ended up three seconds worse than two years ago. A three-second decline from 43 to 45 might be considered a victory, but my 2015 Murph PR stands unbroken and will be three-years-old by Memorial Day next year. Much like parenthood, when a PR becomes a toddler, it tugs at your attention.

I don’t think all my PRs are behind me just yet, but at the same time, my Glory Days are probably gone. Instead, I’m staring down a steady holding pattern. I’m always trying to get better, of course, but what I’m usually doing is just not getting any worse.

The upside is that this has given me some perspective. I’ve learned that there’s a subtle form of narcissism that requires forward progress. It’s so subtle that we often don’t recognize it.

When I’m making progress, I’m happy and satisfied and can justify all the work. However, when that progress stops, I get angry, frustrated, and resent putting in the work. Because, if I don’t get the adrenaline rush of a PR, what’s the point?

Over time, just staying in place takes effort. As you age, your physical condition is like facing a river upstream. There’s a current that’s pushing you backward. You have to swim to counteract it, meaning you expend effort just to stay in the same place.

Usually, it’s not steady, consistent effort, but moments where you look at some number and think, “Wow. I’ve drifted in the wrong direction. I need back to where I was.”

I’m reminded of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that entropy increases over time. Entropy is disorder – things slowly break down. The universe slow slips toward chaos, as does the human body. Every once in a while, we focus effort to put bring order back – we “get in shape” – only to watch things slowly slide back into disorder.

And, sadly, it seems just a little bit harder to get it back each time. From a distance, it’s a series of peaks and valleys which disguises an inexorable slide backward. The peaks get steeper; the valleys get deeper.

This can be depressing. One of my great faults is that I’m an all-or-nothing guy. If I’m not going flat out, I tend to not want to go at all. And it gets harder to go flat out with less and less reward.

But, a couple of months ago, I found some solace in a book about math, of all things. The author is a college professor, and he says something that reminded me of myself:

One of the most painful parts of teaching mathematics is seeing students damaged by the cult of the genius. The genius cult tells students it’s not worth doing mathematics unless you’re the best at mathematics, because those special few are the only ones whose contributions matter.

Not everyone has to be a genius, I guess. Not everyone has to be a Games athlete either.

Here’s a hard lesson worth learning: it’s okay to just try to be…well, better.

Assume I never hit a PR again, and my time in the gym isn’t spent moving forward, but just trying to slide backward as slowly as possible. How do I keep my motivation under these circumstances?

The fact is, there’s a sometimes painful act of maturity in standing up and saying, “My best days at [insert whatever here] are probably behind me. But I’m just going to attempt to be better than I would be otherwise.”

There is value in the process, there is honor in the attempt, and there is beauty in accepting that you’re only competing against the best version of yourself.

That best version might not be a world champion, but it’s always going to be better than you are right now. It’s an ideal, a goal, a thing which is always out in front, pulling you forward, no matter where you are.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
– Dylan Thomas, 1947

Everything you do in the gym, on the track, in the pool, wherever, is a cry of protest against the image of what would be otherwise. It’s a sometimes painful refusal to live down to what fate and nature have planned for you. It’s a fight to (quite literally) the finish.

We all go down eventually. Just make sure you go down swinging.

I used to be in the Navy. I knew a SEAL that hated to parachute. He had his wings, but he jumped out of airplanes as little as he could get away with.

Parachuting is impossible to avoid as a Navy SEAL, and his status would regularly come up for renewal. He would only jump then, grudgingly, and in as few jumps as necessary to get his status back and reset that clock.

Much like my friend’s antipathy for jumping out of airplanes, I reluctantly put rails on the squat rack about a week ago. I’m gonna get that 315 squat back because I feel like I have to. Honestly, I don’t really want to fight this battle, but I feel an obligation to prove it can be won

What I’m learning is that the end of something is a vague concept. We tend to reflect on an achievement in terms of the last time it happened. But, so long as that thing can theoretically happen again, “the last time” wasn’t truly the last time, it was just the…most recent. It doesn’t become the last time until we accept that it’s never gonna happen again.

I refuse to accept that I’m never going to squat six plates again. My most recent won’t be my last. That will happen someday, but it’s not gonna be today.

This the aging athlete in microcosm. It’s a process of continually trying to summit the same mountain, so you’re able to defy the relentless march of time and prove your own history wrong.

When I do hit 315 again, at least I’ll be able to say:

I haven’t peaked just yet. I got here one more time. I might never return, but I’m here now, and that’s worth something.