Authenticity in exhaustion

ross-edgley-strongman-swimming

When do you feel like your most genuine self?

During moments of praise or celebration? After achieving a victory, beating a fierce opponent? In the wake of reaching a long-standing goal? While experiencing an insight or stumbling upon a link between seemingly unconnected events?

Or, do you feel most authentic when you have reached your limits — when you have nothing else to give?

The man pictured above may be uniquely qualified to provide an answer, one that could reveal a fundamental (yet often ignored) truth about the human experience. And his answer might change the way you think about the relationship between the intelligence of your mind, and the wisdom of your body.

More than three weeks ago I listened to podcast host Rich Roll’s interview with former water polo player Ross Edgley (above), a 33-year-old British phenom known for extra-ordinary athletic feats. For example, he has…

  • run a marathon while towing a Mini Cooper
  • rope-climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest in 24 hours
  • swum 100 kilometers in the Caribbean while dragging a 100-pound tree stump

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Google his name, and you’ll find more photographic evidence. The man’s accomplishments are incredible. And as you can see, he looks like a cross between a Navy SEAL and a magazine cover model.

But you would never assume Edgley’s unfathomable physical determination and athletic prowess by listening to his cheerful banter, which features a disarming English accent. His laugh-punctuated delivery and self-deprecating humor make him sound like a twenty-something sociology major living on his own for the first time in a London flat.

During Edgley’s conversation with Rich Roll, the Brit recounts his experience swimming around mainland England — a distance of over 3,200 kilometers (more than 1,700 miles) — in 157 days. During the nearly six-month journey, he never once stepped foot onto land. The closest he got to terra firma was the boat he slept on for six hours at a stretch before he got back out into the Atlantic’s frigid waters. This incomparable event was known as the Great British Swim.

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Rich Roll’s full podcast interview is available at “Ross Edgley is the Real Aquaman — Lessons in Fortitude From (Arguably) the Fittest Man Alive.” Even if you are not into swimming or endurance sports, what Edgley accomplished — and the struggles he faced while doing so — will blow your mind. He voluntarily subjected himself to unbelievable hardships, and he shares the insights he gleaned from those obstacles in his conversation.

Perhaps the most powerful remark from the cheerfully-boyish Englishman is the one that Rich Roll, who is himself an ultra-endurance triathlete and former Stanford swimmer, featured in the podcast’s promotional image:

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This is the line that — more than three weeks after listening to the full two-hour conversation — continues to reverberate in my head.

“You find the most honest version of yourself in complete exhaustion.” 

Every time I consider these words I acknowledge the wisdom that they contain. As more and more of us are spending our days seated at the office, riding elevators instead of taking the stairs, and stopping the car at the mailbox rather than walking to the curb, true physical exhaustion is almost never encountered.

Yes, many of us do work ourselves into stupors while leaning toward computer monitors for hours on end. And many of us do run ourselves ragged chauffeuring the kids to six different after-school activities every week. And many of us do frantically tackle every imaginable task in order to climb one rung higher on the corporate or organizational ladder. In these efforts, however, we become weary out of wear.

What about exhaustion caused by physical exertion for the sake of exercise? Or transportation (e.g. walking or bicycling)? Or gardening? Or the sheer joy of movement found in climbing a tree, navigating a playground, or scrambling up a steep hillside to catch a sunset? 

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Far too few of us experience the pleasurable fatigue of a body testing its limits, however modest those current limits might be.  

I don’t believe that a person needs to resemble Ross Edgley to benefit from the clarity of mind, sharpness of focus, and renewal of the spirit that complete exhaustion can yield. As a recreational runner — and a very slow one, at that — I regularly shuffle through one-hour workouts and feel physically depleted. But I also feel remarkably calm, centered, and capable. My senses of sight, touch, and smell become acutely sharp, and I am aware of subtle shifts in wind speed, humidity, and temperature.

Somewhere along my normal route, which features a long stretch of rail-to-trail hard-pack, my mind releases the worries that were churning when I laced up my running shoes. I’ll likely return to those stresses later, but during the slow cool-down walk to my apartment door I revel in the steady insistence of my breath and the reassuring prominence of my heartbeat. My limbs are tired, but also fluid and responsive.

The moments when I feel the most authentic — the most me — occur when I am physically spent. And maybe that is where we all can find our truest selves.

You don’t need to be Ross Edgley to do this, however.

  • Rather than tow a Mini Cooper through a marathon, what if you briskly towed your kids in a wagon for 26.2 minutes?
  • Rather than rope-climb the equivalent of Mount Everest, what if you climbed the stairs to your office every day next week?
  • Rather than swim 100 kilometers while dragging a tree stump, what if you swam several lengths of the local pool while pulling your doubts through the water?

In these efforts that exhaust the body, you just might find who you really are.

Instead of working yourself under, what if you worked your body out?

swimming

For more about Rich Roll (pictured below), please see these blog posts:

rich roll

Note — The image of the map of the Great British Swim and the photographs of Ross Edgley were obtained from redbull.com. The only exception is the one of Edgley towing the Mini Cooper, which was located on the website of Littlegate Publishing. The publicity image for Edgley’s appearance on the Rich Roll Podcast (RRP) and the photo of Rich Roll were obtained from richroll.com. The photograph of the sunset was taken in Longmont, Colorado by the author of this blog post.

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