On the eve of my second Ironman, I’m reflecting on the investments in my mind, body, and spirit over the past six months. Earlier this summer, I spontaneously signed up for a five day silent retreat. Yes, that means five days of no talking, technology, reading, nor scented products. As a result, my senses were on full alert and everything I did see, hear, and smell felt more profound.
The acts of Ironman training and seated meditation are at odds, similar to reading an article about how to disconnect from technology on your iPhone. I bookended the retreat with 100 mile bike loops to and from the center, and on day one, all I could process was when and how I could run during the brimming 5:30am to 9:30pm daily schedule. After considering literally tip toeing out the front gate, I opted for forward communication with the retreat managers via the note system. They approved, and after relaxing and refocusing, I began processing how such a demanding (but rewarding) hobby puts pressure on living life with ease. I’m still processing this.
On Wednesday, after morning meditation, we went to breakfast and two things happened. First, they had grapefruit. I like grapefruit and rarely seem to buy it. I excitedly gathered one on my plate. And let me tell you—IT WAS THE BEST GRAPEFRUIT EVER!! Every molecule and drop of juice tasted like Bi Rite salted caramel ice cream after an eight hour training day. Outside, the buckeye trees were in bloom and I felt like I could have cried out of happiness—in a silent room surrounded by 99 strangers.
The second thing that happened was coffee. I came to the retreat aware there was no coffee and you could bring your own, but decided not to as my body reacts poorly to coffee. Tuesday night I had intense dreams/nightmares (senses on full alert!) and when all the silent souls went to make their cup of morning joe, I was SCREAMING inside for a taste. In life, I might ask, “spare some grounds?” But no talking. In my desperation, I thought about walking up and pointing to a used filter gesturing if I could go for a second pass—also technically not allowed, and probably a little weird. The lesson from Tuesday about suffering took over my consciousness. Suffering is self-inflicted and there are five main causes in Insight Meditation, with the most common being “wanting” and “not-wanting.” Yup, this was a serious case of wanting. So I applied the tool called RAIN: recognize that I was wanting coffee, acknowledge this as the reality, investigate why this was the case (I was tired and just wanted caffeine), and non-identify (I’m not this craving and I am the one in control). I took a 5-second deep breath, brewed some english grey, and pranced off to morning yoga.
Thursday morning I went for my planned run. I’ve had an IT band issue since the Boston marathon this spring and have grown to despise running over the course of this season (it hurts, so I don’t run, I get slower, and it still hurts). Without music or any other distractions, I focused on leaning into the run, letting gravity do the work, engaging my core and glutes and trying to find my “happy place.” While there was still glimpses of pain, I visualized crossing the finish line at a race and reaching the top of a peak. When I settled my mind on the present moment and channeled positive images of the past, I was able to hit my times and feel a sense of gratitude and accomplishment. A quick breathing technique to try out, which helps focus on the present moment: as you take a deep breathe in, think “here,” and on the out think “now.”
On Friday, Rolf, one of the teachers, told a tale about a woman, a river, and jam. Across the river from a village was a bounty of delicious wild berries, however crossing the river was deadly so no except an elderly woman dared cross. The woman would collect the fruit each day, make homemade jam, and sell it to the community. A young boy with an entrepreneurial mind asked her for her secret. She described finding the place between effort and ease, pushing forward without fighting the water. Since the retreat, I’ve reflected on this and how this translates to triathlon. When I’m swimming, it’s about not fighting the water but instead pulling more water through with each stroke. On the bike, it’s finding the right cadence and bike position. When running, it’s leaning forward with quick turnover and controlling my breathing. It’s comfortably uncomfortable and finding the place where you are moving forward with sustainable conviction.
I’ve been processing these images, thoughts, and lessons in the home meditation practice I’ve started since the retreat. As any good habit, you need to install the scaffolding to support your new behaviors so you may do them with ease. I bought a beautiful lavender and buckwheat cushion that is peacefully resting on my yoga mat in the new meditation corner of my room. I installed the Insight app, which has a simple timer and a Buddhist bell ‘ding.’ I picked up two books on Insight Meditation and registered for a one day follow-up session at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center this fall. I look forward to continuing to explore how mindfulness and meditation impact me as an athlete and in life. Now time for bed, time for sweet dreams, visualizations, and RACE DAY!
Vanessa Slavich is pursuing a Master’s in Interaction Design with a focus on social impact and innovation. She is applying her research at the Kapor Center, a family of organizations making the tech ecosystem and entrepreneurship more diverse, inclusive, and impactful. Prior to the Kapor Center, Vanessa led Diversity and Inclusion at Square, the company making commerce easy for everyone. Slavich joined Square in May 2011 from Apple where she worked in recruiting. A graduate with honors from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, she went on to study International Business at the University of Cambridge. She is a board member of the San Francisco Unified School District and of Mission Bit, a non-profit that offers free programming classes to San Francisco public school students. A believer in the power of movement and community, Vanessa is an Ambassador to the SF Marathon and Tri-California and is a two-time Ironman finisher.