On the first day of training my freshman fall at Middlebury, our coach gave us a reading assignment. We were to spend ten minutes reading the myth of Sisyphus and consider how it applied to our skiing. To be honest, I spent most of that ten minutes thinking about the kids on my freshman hall and wondering why we had homework at ski practice, which led me to contribute little to the team discussion: “Yeah, training is hard, like pushing a boulder up a hill, yada yada yada.”
A few years and ski seasons later, I’m starting to understand the point of the assignment.
A few months ago, I sat in a cafe with another one of my previous coaches talking about ski racing and racing professionally. We agreed that the hardest and most surprising part of skiing full time was making it through “the grind.” When your passion becomes your job, you encounter days or entire periods of time where meaning drains and you feel out of place, sluggish or unhappy. Everyone will experience it at some point, no matter if you’re a skier, lawyer, doctor or parent. What matters is making it through the grind. Even enjoying it.
For those unfamiliar with the myth, I’ll catch you up on Sisyphus. According to Greek mythology (and Wikipedia), Sisyphus was one of those super smart, super evil mega villains nobody likes but also secretly wants to be friends with. A brutally powerful king, he supported navigation and commerce, was considered the craftiest mind in the world and, as a result, had a specific skill set in seduction. He used those skills for evil, though, using deceit and murder to maintain power, treating comrades and lovers as pawns in his plays for influence.
Apparently that was all OK by the gods (that was Greece, folks) but what really caused his downfall was being a gossip. He traded some of Zeus’ secrets in exchange for some fresh water in the Cornithian (worth it?), which caused Zeus, the Regina George of the gods, to make him suffer. Like I said, Sisyphus was a pretty smart dude, so when Zeus sent Thanatos (the Grim Reaper) and Hades (the guy from the Disney movie) to chain him up in the underworld, they were the ones who ended up in chains (think Tom Sawyer tricking Ben Rogers into whitewashing the fence, but in togas).
The gods were not pleased.
After a few messy details, they finally get Sisyphus to give up and die. He later returns from the dead to nag at his wife. Escaping death three times, the dude was persistent. Noting such a trait, Zeus decides that his punishment will be an eternity spent pushing a boulder up a steep hill, only to watch it roll back down again. The boulder was enchanted so that it would never quite reach the top or stay put, damning Sisyphus to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration.
Thus, I introduce you to: the grind.
When you look at it, athletics (or life, but let’s not go that far) is a series of boulder pushing. In racing, no matter how well one push goes, the rock is going to roll back down to the bottom. You can’t ski forever, no victory lasts longer than the instant you cross a finish line and, consequently, no defeat longer than the push to the top. The series seems endless, workout to workout, race to race, and, if you let it, it can be frustrating.
Aside from the whole vindictive murderer thing, Nordic skiers are a lot like Sisyphus. We’re a persistent breed (and have been known to have tendencies towards gossip). We desire perfection, want nothing more than to see the boulder at the top of the hill, and are willing to subject ourselves to constant output to get there, even when the task starts to seem mundane and meaningless.
But what if we didn’t see it that way?
Albert Camus, a French absurdist, wrote that one must envision Sisyphus happy as he toils up the mountainside because “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” If you buy into the struggle, believe in it, is it still a torture? Psychologists refer to the Sisyphusian Condition when discussing the nature of motivation. People work harder when their work feels more meaningful. Motivation is directly proportional to perceived meaning. That motivation doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get the boulder to stay at the top of the mountain, but you’ll certainly be happier on the way up.
Yesterday, I raced my final race in my last U23 World Championships, a 10K individual start in Almaty, Kazakhstan. All things being equal, it did not go well. I finished 36th, far, far away from my goals, and minutes from the top. These races were my hilltop, my main goal for the entire season. All things equal, it should have been brutal. Here’s the thing, all things weren’t equal.
Results aside, it was one of the best races of my year. Here’s why: From the start, I completely sent it, getting high splits in the first few kilometers and fearlessly pushing harder. The struggle began at 3K, where my speedy start started to seem like a bad idea. As my arms and legs grew heavy, getting harder and denser through every climb, I had a great opportunity to feel sorry for myself. For whatever reason, I chose not to, and instead, to revel in the struggle. I was totally tanking, but incredibly happy. I crossed the line and laid in the snow for a while, toasted (burnt toast), thinking about what I had just done. I couldn’t reconcile my feelings with my result. I was surprised and happy, despite the disappointing result. I wanted more, I was motivated. I wanted to get back at that boulder.
There’s something poetic about the grind. About watching your successes and failures restart like they never happened, about toiling for hours to watch your work tumble down the hillside. In the end, you have to find a way to legitimately enjoy strife as much as success. You have to be your own absurd hero.
I don’t know how I did it or to what end, but yesterday I loved that struggle. And, for what it’s worth, the next time I go to push that boulder, I’ll get a running start.