“If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights with flame and fire.” – Charles Bukowski

I awoke the morning of the competition, my eyes opening one at a time, slightly stuck together… I rubbed them some, swiping away the moisture and sleep grit.  I laid there, thinking for a moment in silence –  before my dog somehow knew I’d stirred awake and came over and assaulted my face with her tongue – this is it.  We are here.  Here is the day.  Not especially nervous yet, I had become accustomed through the years of competition moments, as well as waking up on days I knew had a chance to be eventful (war).  I rolled over, kissed my girlfriend, and got up to let my dog out.

Standing on the porch I was thinking about the day, what to eat, how much did I weigh (need to check the scale), and just reminded myself to stay calm and breath.  Enjoy the morning, the competition will come… enjoy this moment of calm before the storm.  I knew not to eat anything different than what I usually eat.  Don’t try any magic tricks or new muscle gaining miracle breakfasts.  Just stick to the basics – protein, fat, and carbs.  My girlfriend awoke, and found me outside standing by myself on the back stoop.  She sat next to me and we just talked.  Not really about the competition, just enjoying the peace.  There’d be time for all of that later.

After breakfast we got into the car to head to Mint Hill, NC – The Battle of Mint Hill’s Strongest.  During the ride down I could feel my level of anxiousness increase.  Friends and family were calling, I was getting closer to the competition, it was all set in motion and could not be stopped.  Turning back was not an option.  I was asked what I wanted to listen to… and I simply did not know.  It was a very intense feeling building inside of me, calm yet violent, intense yet mellow, silent but loud….  I put on Rage Against The Machine, but truth be told I didn’t really even hear it.  I was now going inside my head, thinking about my opening lifts, my weights, how I wanted to warm up, what it might be like….

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When we got there it was the Sunday before memorial day… that Saturday the grounds we were at had hosted a bigger CrossFit competition and a fair.  It was much lazier, with the fair grounds at maybe 10 percent of yesterday’s volume.  I got my bearings and saw the competition arena – a tennis court, outside, with a few rows of chairs and a make-shift lifting platform.  My friends and I sat at the hill top, staring down.  They joked, commented, and we talked for a bit.  I was there, but distant.  Just listening and thankful for the distraction. Then the time drew near – I stood up and walked to the changing area (a port-a-john) nearby in order to suit up.  The whole time I felt a feeling rising in my heart.  An hour out.  Here we go.  We’ve been here before.  Calm yourself.  Focus. 

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When I came out, my friends tried to heckle me in my Singlet… I couldn’t really hear them.  I just nodded and walked down to the tent where some lifters were stretching.  All the while the intensity of the moment growing inside of me.  An indescribable feeling that takes place in your gut, and rises out… spreading to your limbs, and eventually into your head… and mind.  Any competitive athlete will know that feeling very well.  It’s an energy… an energy so intense, so powerful, it can make or break you… and your performance.

I began to warm-up.  The competition was moments out, and I was merely focused on my weights, timing my warm-ups, and listening for my name.  I didn’t want to lift so much I started to fatigue, but I didn’t want to lift so far out from my 1st lift that I’d basically be doing it cold – which was nearly impossible that day as the event was outside, at 1pm, on a tennis court, with no shade, in May in North Carolina.  I didn’t want to put on sunscreen as it might leak into my eyes and grease my hands.  At this point I was thankful of the level of elemental resilience that the Marine Corps had bestowed upon me.  I hit my lifts, then waited, and watched the other lifters as my time came.

Then, I heard it, “Benjamin Riddle on deck.”  Alright Riddle.  Knuckle up. Focus, you have your plan.  Do the thing.

I waited anxiously behind the lifting platform, watching lifters, trying to smile and lighten the mood.  It was a futile attempt.  The building intensity was beginning to peak.  I couldn’t smile really, only fall into my own head, try and communicate with myself, and I was losing the ability to do that.  My whole being was going into a fight or flight mode.  I knew the feeling because I had felt it in firefight engagements in the Marine Corps.  I remember thinking just that: I haven’t felt anything this intense since a gun fight. 

When I heard myself called to be on deck, my entire being except my brain stem I think shut down.  I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t see anything.  There was an entire crowd there of my family and friends, an announcer, random spectators, other athletes, the sun and sky… and I could hear or see nothing.  My body was on complete auto-pilot.  It wasn’t in fight mode… I had sunk into flight mode.  I had no coach there, no one experienced in the realm of Weightlifting to help me.  I had fallen completely into myself, and was losing myself somewhere in my own void.

I reached down for the bar…. There’s this moment, when you grab the bar and ready yourself, before you snap into your starting position, where you’re bent over, getting ready…. and it feels like your body is made of concrete.  I was absolutely terrified.  You have to basically WILL yourself into your starting position.  I picked a weight I could Power Snatch, and that was my plan.  Pick a light weight you know you can smoke, and have smoked a 100 times.  I picked a weight I can complex with for fuck’s sake.

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Then I snapped into my starting position and began the lift.  It felt like a feather.  I had so much adrenaline – untamed – moving through me it felt like a 95lbs toy.  I went into extension, felt the hip contact the bar, pulled under and BAM!  My elbows buckled, my knees caved, the bar went forward, I tried to chase it, then over compensated and dropped it behind me.  Instantly I felt my soul collapse.  How can this be?  I’ve worked so hard for this.  This is an easy weight. What happened?  I look like a fool.  You’re a failure.  The bar crashed to the ground, I shook my head, ignoring or even looking at the judges for a verdict.

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I knew what it was.  It was shit. Pure shit.  I overheard the announcer say, “Well, that certainly wasn’t a strength issue.”  And he was right.  I was so nervous that I just ripped the bar as hard as I could, forgot all technique, sent it way out in front of me, and lost it trying to catch it.  I didn’t know that at the time though, and wouldn’t until I grew the balls days later to watch my failures on tape and dissect them.  Since I didn’t hit the lift, I told them to stay at the same weight, so I turned right around in two minutes and walked out to attempt it again.  This time I hit the lift, didn’t really change anything, but just willed that mother fucker over my head.  It was impossible to think, and I had no coach there with me.  I was drowning, and knew I had to hit this fucking lift at least once or I was going to bomb out.  My third Snatch came up, 5kg heavier, and I missed it out front.  When I eventually watched the tape, I realized I was just nervous, and making mistakes I knew not to make… just wasn’t focusing and hitting my positions correctly… specifically my Power Position.

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Then the session was over.  I was furious at myself, disappointed, baffled, and also thankful (that I hadn’t bombed out).  Some of my friends came over and talked to me in the down time before the Clean and Jerk session.  One of my best friends, and a former teammate of mine who I fought next to as a Muay Thai fighter, came over to me.  He saw what was happening, and knew me as an athlete.  Everyone was telling me to quit dicking around and just yoke the bar, or cracking jokes to make light of the hard session I just went through… but he knew better.  He knew that I was in the void, drowning myself in my own head.  He came over, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s different now isn’t it?” He meant that competition Weightlifting is a totally different experience than just lifting in the gym.  I nodded, still barely able to focus, adrenaline rushing through my veins and thoughts clouding my mind.  He told me to drink some water, eat something.  I wasn’t hungry but knew I needed the energy.  We talked, he was telling me to relax and find my center, basically, and concentrate on my lifts.  Instead of water (someone had taken mine) I only had a Red Bull.  And I certainly did not need it.  I drank it anyway.  Basically stoking an already out of control fire.  Dehydrating myself further in the blazing heat at this point.

Eventually I moved to my warm-ups on the Clean and Jerks.  So much energy.  I was missing my warm-ups, and falling further and further into despair… knowing that I wasn’t performing to my potential… or even what I was capable of doing in training.  I missed a light Clean and Jerk on the warm-up platform… took a knee and started shaking my head.  My buddy came over and said, “Ben… get the fuck out of your head.  You got this.”  I heard my name and that I was on deck.

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I walked to the waiting tent, sat down, and began thinking to myself (at this point I had calmed a little after talking to my buddy, and could start to think to myself again).  Ben, you have to make something happen.  This is it, you have this.  Think about what it was like to be in an engagement with those fucking assholes in Iraq… you can focus through this.  Think man, calm it down, and just lift.  Forget about everything else, and do what you can do.  Do the fucking thing.  I started cracking some jokes with the guys in there with me, as everyone was silent… and nervous.  They responded well, and we began a dialogue that seemed to lighten everyone’s spirits.  Something else I was familiar with from my days in the war… cracking jokes to lighten the mood before we went into some crazy shit (after the meet, my girlfriend told me before the C&J session that I appeared to be more myself, how I was laughing, and more relaxed, more focused).  As they announced my name to lift, still brutally nervous with the same intensity… but more focused now… I looked at the guy next to me and said with a wink, “Shit ain’t gonna lift itself.”

I stood over the bar, peered down at it, went through the motions in my mind, reached down, got into my starting position, and began the lift. It went up so easy.  Stood up from the Clean, and then Jerked it.  I fucking smoked it.  Everyone cheered, the judges gave me 3-whites, I dropped the bar, smiled to myself and thought: There it is.  Now we’re back. I smoked my second lift just as easily.  Now, the way I programmed this session was IF I hit my first two, I’d attempt a Personal Record… while in competition.

They called my name, and in my mind I knew that this was the hardest Clean and Jerk that I had attempted to date.  I stood a bit out from the bar, looking at it.  I felt everyone’s eyes on me, and the three judges staring at me, awaiting my attempt.  At this point it didn’t bother me, I was focused now on the barbell. My fight was with it, and I wanted this fucking lift.  I approached the bar thinking to myself: Be relentless.

I had the momentum behind me, I had the support, and I had the strength and technique.  I began the lift.  My starting position snapped right into place.  I created tension on the bar and began to pull.  It went right up my shins, cleanly passed my knees, I felt it plop right into my thighs from the double knee bend – a perfect power position.  I went into full extension, pulling the bar with everything I had in my body, and felt myself lift into the air and the bar suspended, like it was floating, just waiting for me to get under it.

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I yanked myself under the bar and caught it right in my front rack with my weight on my heels.  It rested on my collar bone and I felt my hips reverb from the pocket… I began my drive out of the whole.

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I drove with all the remaining power I had left from the day, channeled myself completely into it.  I was thinking that I need to reposition my hands quickly for the jerk, which meant I had to oscillate the bar – drove so hard it came off of my shoulders slightly.

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BAM!  Fucking nailed it.  My hands connected right where they needed to be, and I sat for a moment.  The crowd was waiting, and I could hear the cheers pick up.  Everyone was on my side, and they knew this was the heaviest lift I had ever attempted.  Again, as I collected myself for a couple seconds, I thought to myself: Well, shit ain’t gonna lift itself.  I began the dip and drive.  A short violent drive, and pushing with as much force as I could possibly muster.  Everything was a blur as I began my drive under the bar, and all of a sudden I felt it…. Lockout!  As son as it hit I knew I made it.  I stood up, collected myself, and waited for the 3-whites that I knew were mine.  That day they were letting us spike the bars… and I certainly did.

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This competition was a learning experience on so many levels.  It was far more challenging than I ever could have imagined, and on an unexplainable amount of levels.  This is the hardest sport I have ever attempted.  All I could keep telling myself in that comp was to be relentless.  Don’t quit.  Believe in yourself.  And that certainly had to happen.  I was on a quick downward slope to failure.  I had to fight back.  I had to literally claw my way out of my own mind, and start lifting with my heart.  Success is a product of struggle.  I realized that after the lift… that this wasn’t going to be given to me.  Just because you try hard doesn’t mean that success is rightfully yours.  You have to keep fighting, you have to be relentless in the face of your opposition.  If you keep moving, keep fighting, keep training, keep competing, and don’t run from the unknown or yourself… there are those moments in life… those moments where it all comes together, and you nail it.  You exceed your current limits, and transcend into something else.  Everything you have worked for falls into place… and in one, single moment, everything comes together. You PR your lift… or your life.  You have to ask yourself how bad you want to succeed.  How bad do you really want it?  Are you going through the motions… or are you in the fight?  Do you really want to do what it takes to claw your way out of the void… do you really want three white lights?  Later that night, after the comp I went out with those that were there, that witnessed that battle and may or may not have understood what I went through there emotionally, or spiritually.  The battle within.  It didn’t matter, they were there, and I love them for that.  So we went, and we celebrated, and I get to keep that experience with me, forever.

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