kettlebell sport

The Girevik and the Kettlebell Sport Ultramarathon to Destination Unknown

The journey of a girevik is at times fraught with peril as I can attest to tasting the bitterness of failure on more than one occasion. But, it is in those dark moments of suffering that we find something within ourselves and break through the barriers of our perceived mental and physical capacities—something transformative about going the distance.

 


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I’ve noticed a shift in the kettlebell sport world that is worth acknowledgment, and it appears to be paralleling the art of running vast distances. Just like human beings are pushing the limits of their physical abilities in ultramarathon events such as the Western States 100, Hardrock 100, Leadville 100, and the Moab 240, kettlebell sport athletes are doing the same and lifting kettlebells for longer periods of time and pushing the limits of human potential. Ultramarathon runner Courtney Dauwalter, finished the Moab 240 (yes, there is a 238 mile or 383 km race) in 2 days, 9 hours, and 59 minutes. She completed the race faster than all of her male competitors and she beat the second-place finisher by more than 10 hours! As women lead the charge in ultramarathon races, there appears to be a similar theme building in kettlebell sport. Being the proud father of two young girls, this makes me exceedingly thankful for their example. In September 2019, I attended the IKFF Northwest Championships in Seattle, Washington, and I marveled at the number of individuals that embraced the challenge of kettlebell sport marathon lifts; most of them were women. Kettlebell sport athlete Katie Pollock completed a 12 kg two arm long cycle lift for 30 minutes and achieved over 260 perfect repetitions and then turned around and did a 30-minute snatch set. The most notable, the sets were completed with ease, calmness, and grace. Witnessing this feat of strength, grit and tenacity left me in awe of the courage, mental fortitude, and perseverance that is required in the hearts of these athletes.

Changing our narrative and exploring the Finnish construct of strength

Words define our worlds. As a kettlebell sport coach, I have struggled to find English words that capture the depths of strength necessary to describe and motivate kettlebell sport athletes. The terms grit, determination, and perseverance fall short of grasping the energy reserves and mental fortitude required to step on the platform and lift competition kettlebells for 5, 10, 30, 60, 120 or even 180 minutes. Thus began my search for a construct that attempts to eloquently narrate this spirit of strength, and I was pleased to find that I did not have to look far. Astoria, Oregon is a unique place where the mighty Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean merge, and it is known for its beautiful landscapes, big sky, and dynamic history. Astoria was founded in 1811, and it is the oldest American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Astoria is home to a rich Finnish culture that has left a fingerprint on the architecture of this old city. Signs dot the town with labels like Suomi Hall Finnish Brotherhood, Finnish Sauna, and Lahti Lane, and people drive around with SISU stickers on the backs of their cars. These stickers have a representation and meaning much deeper than the stickers that cling to cars in two and four-year political cycles. This word represents a significant time in Finland’s history. The idea of SISU came to be embraced by Finnish intellectuals as a particularly Finnish quality during the period when the nation was being built. Finland became independent from Russia in 1917 and SISU became the social glue that defined the nation. SISU was further embraced and defined after the Winter War in 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded Finland and the Finnish people, being wildly outnumbered, took a stoically determined stance against the invasion. Finland knew it had no chance of repulsing the Soviet invasion, but hoped to put up such a fight and hold out for such a long time, that they would convince the Western world to come to its aid or that Stalin would ultimately give up the idea of occupying the country. In January of 1940, Winston Churchill credited Finland saying, “Only Finland, superb, nay sublime—in the jaws of peril show what free men can do.”

SISU-A reserve of power which enables extraordinary action. It is the “second wind” of mental toughness after an individual has reached the limits of their observed mental and physical capacities. It is the internal place where perseverance and grit end and the individual finds a way to keep going despite all odds.

Emelia Lahti, a Finnish researcher, public speaker, ultramarathon runner, social activist, and domestic violence survivor has challenged and inspired many to focus on reprogramming their brains through the intentional choice of changing one’s individual narrative. The words we use “to give story” to our lives can feed a positive outlook and mindset despite our circumstances. Similarly, negative self-talk can spiral our lives into a clogged and hopeless mindset, driving the proverbial train of our life right off the tracks. Lahti has used SISU to empower a whole generation of survivors to find the silver lining in their circumstances and has ignited a movement of individuals that refuse to quit. Lahti states, “Our biologically programmed tendency to preserve energy can lead to a bias for stability at the expense of exploring opportunities to develop ourselves and expand our action repertoire. SISU gives rise to what I call an action mindset; a courageous attitude that contributes to how we approach challenges. SISU is a way of life to actively transform the challenges that come our way into opportunities, and build a bridge toward our best possible future self. Everything we have ever seen, heard, thought, or felt is encoded in the gray membranes of our neocortex. What we focus our attention on becomes part of our consciousness and our reality; what becomes our reality, becomes our life. I would describe having an action mindset is akin to signing up for a marathon or an ironman before you have any certainty of whether you have what it takes. We simply don’t know how strong we are before we try.”

As I reflect on my own personal journey in kettlebell sport, I find myself drawn to new challenges. Kettlebell sport is structured in a way that there can be a shiny new goal at the inception of each training cycle. Goals may consist of earning a rank, reaching certain numbers, graduating to different weights (colors), breaking records, or simply going the distance. Kettlebell sport marathon lifting has grown in appeal to me because of the unique obstacles that it presents to an athlete. This sport truly mirrors marathon/ultramarathon running in many ways including the supportive community of people that have embraced the sport and become comfortable living in the pain cave. At its foundation, the battle is won and lost between the ears. Kettlebell sport is a relatively small community and the individuals that have chosen the discipline of marathon lifting specifically have a lot of interesting and similar characteristics. These athletes usually have an unbelievable work ethic and are on another level in their description of mental toughness.

I had the pleasure of spending some time with a few of these unique athletes. The following interviews were conducted to gather their introspective thoughts on their background, training, and life. In my opinion, these individuals truly represent the SISU construct of strength.

 

Tammy Goozee (Master of Sport)-Astoria Kettlebell Club/CrossFit 1811

“For me, kettlebell sport is about the battle of the mind. Extended time under the bells challenges me to forge a mindset that ultimately empowers my daily life. I have raised four boys which require mental toughness, and kettlebell sport is a training routine for the body and the mind. My faith and kettlebell sport training have strengthened my confidence and perseverance. I’ve learned that if I can step on the platform and overcome a long cycle set, then other challenges seem less daunting. In years past, I have struggled with anxiety. Time under the bells has taught me to breathe and focus. Sometimes in training, it is about focusing on one breath at a time and this, in turn, has helped me in how I navigate my daily life. Kettlebell sport marathon presents a unique challenge which is why I like it. I completed a 30-minute TALC set under 12 kg bells in July of this year and during that set, my hands went numb, but I was still able to finish the time. In training for future sets, I will make sure I have spent enough time under the bells with lots of core work and mid-back work to ensure I stay healthy. In the future, I am thinking about completing an OALC marathon set (1 hour) with the 20 kg bell.”

 

Katherine Gail Dye (Master of Sport)-Crazy Monkey USA

“My physical training for a marathon is probably close to what one would expect. I train lots of longer sets with time working at my targeted pace of six to eight reps per minute. I train for kettlebell sport three times per week and two of my training sessions will often involve three sets of ten minutes each. My lifts will vary set to set (example: snatch, clean only, jerk, TALC with extra breaths in the rack, under-squat, lockout, etc.) and the kettlebell weight will vary too. This allows me to work on different aspects of my lifting while improving endurance and avoiding too much repetition. My third set each week is often a longer TALC set at the competition pace. This training cycle is much more heart-rate focused. My goal will be to keep my heart rate in a certain range for the whole training session regardless of the lift or bell weight. In between sets, I focus more on active recovery and will spend time rowing or riding the stationary bike. I keep my rest periods short so that my heart rate does not drop too much. I am also supplementing with a little extra cardio (moderate pace), boxing (great for cardio and mental strength), and yoga and stretching (especially after longer sets). I chose to train for a 60 minute two arm long cycle set because I delivered my first baby boy in June of this year and took 8 weeks off of lifting.

While I lifted throughout pregnancy, I noticed a lot of changes in my body after having my baby. My first training cycle after the baby was for a five minute 16 kg two arm long cycle set. While my set went well (49 reps, CMS rank), I learned that my core and back were probably not recovered enough to train with the 16 kg bells. After my last competition, I went back to the drawing board to choose what to train for next. I trained to snatch for my whole pregnancy (because it worked the best with my belly), so I wanted a break from that. I don’t enjoy OALC training much as it tends to tweak my low back, so I settled on 12 kg TALC. I tried 30 minutes 12 kg TALC a year ago without any training and I really loved it. I wanted this training cycle to help me re-build mental and physical endurance, and I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone without risking injury to my back. Sixty-minute TALC was a very clear choice for me. It feels very safe for my body, yet will be extremely challenging all at the same time and that is exactly what I wanted.”

 

Ross Gilbert (Master of Sport)-Seattle Kettlebell Club

“I am a husband, father, Royal Navy veteran and am now self-employed as a personal trainer. I’ve always been attracted to challenges that are arduous and character building. Kettlebell sport is character building and character-revealing. Each workout is a battle of mental and physical fortitude. I love the mental strength component of the sport, and that hard work and determination reaps one extra rep at a time and a slow incremental increase in weight. You need patience, persistence, discipline, and determination to make progress. These qualities are not always rewarded in all sports, and that is reflected in the camaraderie that you can feel and the equality of experience you see in fellow competitors on the platform, regardless of weight, age, or ability. It has made me reassess my approach to training, myself, and training clients and gives a great perspective on how to approach breaking through mental and physical barriers.

I chose the kettlebell marathon for the challenge, but also, in all honesty, because I think it fits my physical abilities. While my absolute strength or 1 rep max strength is decent for somebody my age and build, there are much stronger athletes out there. But my background in rowing, running, triathlon, and cycling have given me a good engine, which has been a good starting place to build strength and endurance. I’m relatively new to kettlebell sport (less than one year), but the intensity, length, and yes, pain of a marathon set is a really attractive challenge for me.

When facing a marathon set, I go through a process of self-doubt, bargaining, and then resignation before starting the movement. I recognize this is not the ideal mental approach, but it comes together once the set begins. Once I get started, I don’t want to back down. You have to recognize in kettlebell sport that not every day will be your day. Rest, recovery, training volume, nutrition, all have to be right to get the best result on any given day. Life doesn’t allow that so I have to take the wins where I can and plan carefully when I know a set will take me to the edge.”

 

Lisa Griggs (Astoria Kettlebell Club inspiration)

“It’s 4:00 am and I can’t sleep. The pain in my abdomen, muscles, and joints wakes me up throughout the night. This is the case most nights. I have Ulcerative Colitis (Pancolitis-the entire colon), an autoimmune disorder where the body sees its own cells as a foreign and wages war on them. For me, that is the colon and at times other parts of my body (skin, eye, muscles, and joints). I was diagnosed eight years ago and have been on medications much of that time. I stopped meds for two years and relied solely on natural treatments, however, the inflammation was still there. Throw in any amount of stress and my body responds by throwing me all the curve balls that make it difficult to function…until a year ago.

One year ago, in October, I joined Astoria Kettlebell Club at the urging of Chris Hoover (kindest soul I have ever met). One day, that is all it took for me to be completely hooked. I was looking to keep my body strong to continue to keep the colitis at bay. What I found was that and so much more. I began to notice the individuals that were drawn to the sport are those that are no stranger to a challenge. They were kind, compassionate, and focused. It was a kind of focus I had not noticed before. It was the kind of focus I needed to get through trying times with different medication trials that led to a couple of bad reactions and limited options for me. The kettlebell kept me in the game and continues to do so. I believe there are neuropathways that activate when we kettlebell for longer periods of time. There is something different in how my body and mind respond when I push a little past any prior self-imposed limits. It is surreal to me and I crave it.

Kettlebell sport marathon pushes me past what the body knows. It challenges the mind, it makes you focus on the moment. I need to know I can fight to the end and push past the everyday pain and nausea to make it to the other side. If I can survive a marathon or ultramarathon, I can fight through anything. Let’s face it, this is also a great accomplishment and it feels amazing and inspires others.

The challenges I face when training for a marathon set are usually fatigue, pain, and nausea from the colitis. This is sometimes peppered with some shoulder mobility issues. Fortunately, I have a great partner to train with and we tend to motivate each other to get the workouts in. I am looking to start working with the mace to help with mobility. I don’t get all my planned workouts in, but jump right back in when I can. Mentally, I always think of my friends who left this earth too soon. I hear their voices cheering me on and encouraging me to dig just that much deeper to find one more rep!”

 

Katie Pollock (Master of Sport)

“I was pretty successful as a high school athlete and learned a lot from my coach about what we are physically capable of if our mind is in the right place. I had one particular race my senior year that I ran so hard, I hit what was referred to as oxygen debt. It was one of those races where my body was physically done long before the end of the race. My mind carried me to the end, just to the point of the finish line, and then I collapsed and passed out. It was a crazy feeling, and so difficult to recover from. I literally remember telling myself to breathe or I would die that day. Recovering from that incident ended up being this major life event that would continue to positively impact my life for years and years to come. Fast forward through running in college, spending a number of years snowboarding, and hiking some beautiful, intense mountains, I found myself back in my hometown with my newborn daughter. I started school to become a nurse and was doing the best I could to raise my daughter on my own. I ended up getting a kink in my neck, probably from just daily stress of life and was referred to a chiropractor to get some relief. During my adjustment, the chiropractor changed the entire course of my life and caused a left-sided cerebellar stroke. It instantly took me back to that one race in high school – the only other time in my life that I had thought I was dying. I remembered that I had just kept telling myself to breathe, and that’s what saved me. I laid on the floor and reminded myself to breathe for over five hours because I knew I needed to live so I could be there for my daughter. She wasn’t even 2 years old and she had no one else but me!

On a physiologic level, endurance sports work our body in a way that brings oxygen and blood flow consistently to our tissues, including our heart and brain. More oxygenated blood circulating through those areas = more tissue growth and recovery. So the fact that most endurance work is done at a lower steady heart rate without becoming anaerobic is something that is shown in studies to help us regenerate tissues and neural pathways. These are essential in recovering from trauma and injuries to these vital tissues. It’s difficult to explain to people the way you can feel after a long session under a heavy set of kettlebells. It is some of the best therapy I’ve experienced so far in recovering from the brain injury I survived. Your mind feels clear and calm, and learning this valuable skill can help us achieve great things in all aspects of our lives. Abuse, addiction, TBIs… all of these things lead to injuries to our tissues. Physical movement, in my opinion, is something that should be getting more attention in helping us figure out how to heal from these things. Something that goes hand in hand with this physical recovery, is the mental aspect of endurance sports. Putting your body at a physical deficit for an extended period of time is only achievable with a strong mind. Now, if your mind is cluttered with past unresolved trauma or negative thoughts, this whole process will go awry very quickly. We must figure out how to clear our minds so that we can take care of the daunting physical task at hand. It is during this time under this physically demanding task, that we are forced to face those demons that we’ve previously just tried to shut out or ignore. This ever so important step is uncomfortable and raw at best and can be quite painful and emotional. The reward, in the end, can be well worth the work. You are able to work through and let go of at least a little bit of some of that past trauma with every session.

The single most important piece of all of this and the piece that ties it all together is the simple act of breathing. It’s something we don’t always think about, but our breath is our life. It is everything. This essential tool is utilized in all of my training workouts and competitions. I listen to my body and my breath and allow a very rhythmic pattern to carry me through these long endurance sets. I clear my mind of literally everything else so that I can focus solely on my breathing. It allows me to calm myself, relieve any tension I am holding onto and become almost meditative as I lift. It feeds every aspect of the mind, body, and soul. We are resilient beings.”

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

SISU-Astoria Kettlebell Sport Ultramarathon

On 2/15/20, Astoria Kettlebell Club will be hosting its first kettlebell sport competition, however, this event will be unique for several reasons. The registry will be for marathon lifts only and will showcase kettlebell sport athletes lifting in events ranging from 30 minutes to 3 hours in length. The event will also serve as a fundraiser for a local nonprofit that provides coaching and CrossFit to individuals in recovery from substance use disorders. The event has been affectionately named the SISU-Astoria Kettlebell Sport Ultramarathon and is sure to draw some unique personalities that have embraced the challenge of kettlebell sport marathon lifting. Lifters will be given the opportunity to have their story told while they are on the platform and we will be introducing the concept of pacers for ultramarathon lifters. Pacers are one of the most important roles of a crew in an ultramarathon race. A pacer is another runner (not registered for the race itself) who accompanies the racer for portions of the event. Our event will allow lifters to have a pacer-lifter to accompany them when they are on the platform to help encourage them when they are deep within a set. This event and these concepts are intended to strengthen the ties that bind our friendships within the sport and promote a perspective that is more focused on encouragement and finishing the race, than about the tenets of winning and losing.

Having engaged in the practice of kettlebell lifting (hardstyle and kettlebell sport) for the last 12 years, I have come to realize that a kettlebell is a tool for building mindful resiliency. Empirical evidence suggests that humans function as the best versions of themselves when they engage in a regular practice of a specific activity that keeps one present at the moment (ex. yoga, ultramarathon running, weightlifting, fly-fishing, surfing, etc.). When our minds fixate on the unknown saga of the future, our brains revert to primal distress. Kettlebell sport is unique in that it is a marriage of endurance training, weight training, deep breathing, and mobility. These characteristics make this sport unique, and I would posit that kettlebell sport has a significant positive impact on brain function in addition to being a great workout routine.

The journey of a girevik is at times fraught with peril as I can attest to tasting the bitterness of failure on more than one occasion. But, it is in those dark moments of suffering that we find something within ourselves and break through the barriers of our perceived mental and physical capacities—something transformative about going the distance.

 

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