The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Power of Vulnerability

The quality of strength lined with tenderness is unbeatable.

Maya Angelou famously said that: “The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination.” This is true in both sport and life. The other day I stumbled upon a video clip of “Fearsome Four” Football legend Rosey Grier singing “It’s Alright to Cry” from the 1970s series Free to Be…You and Me which was aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes. Watching the video clip gave me instant flashbacks to my childhood and how, like so many young boys, I struggled with masking my sensitivity and strived to be more masculine. It was OK for girls to cry, but not for boys. Seeing an athlete as tough as Rosey Grier advocating tenderness turned stereotypes on their head for me as a kid. I highly recommend watching this video and sharing it:

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As an Ironman triathlete and ultraendurance runner, I always know I’m having a good race if I start to cry. Tears of joy are a sign to me that I am racing wholeheartedly and completely connected to the moment and the experience. If I don’t get welled up with emotions when I’m racing, I know it’s going to be a bad day. Emotional connectedness is key to being an endurance champion. 

In order to push your body and mind to the outer reaches of what is humanly possible you need to be fearless about tapping your deepest emotional reservoirs and using every emotion in that well as fuel. I channeled the pain of being gay into rocket fuel to make me go farther and faster as an athlete. It was a coping mechanism, which is one reason that the things I’ve done athletically don’t seem ‘heroic’ in any way to me. 

I was able to keep going and going because the physical pain of sport became an outlet and way for me to purge all the emotional pain that was buried so deep from growing up gay.  If I hadn’t discovered running, all that bottled up pain would have destroyed me. I visualize emotional pain and hurt as barnacles that cling to your spine and clench your mind. Running scrubs these barnacles away and makes me feel like I have a clean slate again. It gives me a fresh start everyday.

As a young gay teen I became emotionally shutdown. I felt hollow and dead inside. I took refuge in an empty abyss that was disconnected from all my feelings as a way to cope with all the pain. Becoming numb was the only way to survive until I discovered running when I was 17. The combination of running and listening to music on my “Walkman” allowed me to create a safe place where I could begin to feel something again. It also fortified my resilience. Running makes you tender and tough at the same time—which is a beautiful thing.

Ultra-endurance sports were always about human yearning and the quest. In sport, I found a way to tap human passion and feel more alive. The deeper I pushed into my own biology, the more something opened up that connected me to the outside world, to other human beings, and to my cellular nature. I could push myself harder than my competitors, because the deeper I went the more emotions I felt and the more alive I felt.

The ‘special place’ you go in your head when you run becomes a sanctuary. You literally leave the work-a-day world and crossover to another plane of consciousness that feels like a destination. It is a universal experience. I visualize this ‘special place’ we go when we run as being surrounded by Kevlar-coated one-way glass. You can see out, and feel all the emotions inside—but nothing can touch you or hurt you when you are inside this place, unless you decide to let it in. Otherwise, it is deflected, and no one or no thing can penetrate this fortress. 

I could never have sustained the level of passion and joy I got from sport if I were a robot about it. Through sport I was able to go through a ‘pinhole’ and connect to an infinite source of energy that was in the people, nature, and world around me. If I did not have all my senses fully engaged and in the present tense, my access to this magical place was denied. So, I learned how to become a conduit for this energy. But in order to race wholeheartedly I had to master being completely raw and vulnerable but tough as nails simultaneously. Brene Brown talks a lot about the power of vulnerability and openheartedness. If you have a few minutes I highly recommend watching this video:

My mom was very involved in the Women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and I see a lot of parallels to her political activism and what I have fought for through ACT-UP in the 80s and for the repeal of DOMA today. The fight for marriage equality is much more about civil rights and sending a message to a young generation of LGBT people that they are free to love whomever they want to love. Young people need to practice forming tender, loving relationships during adolescence and not be emotionally shutdown.

Being in the closet is the polar opposite of living with openheartedness. As long as you compartmentalize and push down certain parts of you, you will never be using all your power. Your power comes from every aspect of who you are--including both your struggles and your strengths. Being authentic and genuine is the best fuel to help you excel in life. The more people who are willing to expose their vulnerability and be honest about who they are, the easier it will be for the next generation to feel ‘free to be… you and me’ and live simultaneously with strength and tenderness.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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