Facing Fear at the Barbell and in the Thunderdome

I noticed the blood when I reached into my chalk bag before the big deadlift work set.  I was already intimidated by the weight I had put on the bar, 150 pounds, something I’d never done before. Seeing blood seeping from my pinkie nail bed and smeared on the finger turned anxiety into terror. It didn’t hurt, you see. I licked the blood, like a berserker tastes blood to run fearless into battle. It didn’t make me fearless. 

I gripped the bar and pulled. It went up. I made the lift. It went down. The released breath I’d held in the Vaslava maneuver came out as a whispered “Jesus Christ”. For all my recent Mars worship, I still revert to ancestral forms of blasphemy in times of stress. I thought about taking the weight down back down to what I’d pulled comfortably last week. My finger was bleeding and I didn’t feel it. What other important pain was adrenaline hiding from me? 

I almost didn’t finish that set at 150. Between almost didn’t and almost did there is no space at all in the bleeding moment, but afterwards, there is a chasm. 

It was not easier the second time I pulled. When the weight went down I felt a little light headed. There was a tension like tears at the back of my throat. The third time was not easier, either. While I’d done the lift twice already, I also knew I’d be getting exhausted with each repetition. It only got easier on the last rep, because I wanted to check 150 off in the logbook, to say to myself and to others, I did it. 

I didn’t laugh at the end of the set like I normally do when I set a new personal record. I racked my weights. I put the bar away. I stripped. I rushed to the shower. I did these things because these are the things one does. I felt no pain. 

The water ran over me. I haven’t felt this beat up since I got the shit kicked out of me in the Thunderdome in 2007, I thought. Even my hands shook in the same exhausted way.

* * *

“Does it hurt?” he asked.

“I feel no pain,” I said to the gloved medic examining my bloody nose after my five minutes in the Thunderdome. In as far as these things can be calculated, I had lost. It was only once I was on the ground, off the bungee cables, that I realized the crowd was deafening. It had been, a friend later told me, incredibly loud the whole time. They really like to see women fight. They really liked it when the other woman grabbed my braids.

“I feel no pain all. Nothing hurts,” I added. He sent me to the medical tent.

I nearly cried on my walk there, not because I was in pain, and not even really because I had found out that in the heat of battle I have hangups about playing dirty against someone else who plays dirty, but because I felt lonely. I am not the person I imagined myself to be before I entered the Thunderome. I am not a fighter. I am not vicious. I wanted so much to be vicious. I wanted to prove that in battle, even sort of a fake battle, a secret self, a fighter, would emerge from my quiet, cheerful self. I wanted someone else to tell me: you are badass.

* * *

The barbell lets me practice fear. I train my muscles and I train my mind. It has not yet gotten easier. Any time it gets easier, I add more weight.

The barbell gives me something the Thunderdome could not: an objective measure. Either I pick up the weight, or I don’t pick up the weight. The weight moves or the weight does not move. That’s it. 

It doesn’t matter how I feel about it. There is a checkmark in my logbook. Next time I face the weights, I will have that knowledge to arm me. I won’t fear them any less, but I will have the capacity to hold more fear and pull anyway.