By Tamara Adelman
About a half an hour in, my heart rate hit 173—known as the red zone. This fitness franchise, Orange Theory, was all about the orange and red zones, known to doctors as tachycardia, but to the members as the point of the exercise. They gave you “Splat Points” for trying extra hard. I liked that part because I always tried too hard. We spent very little time in the green zone, the place where I’d spent all my time during the years I did Ironman triathlons. Pushing hard can make you more fit, but it can also burn you out in a triathlon and end your race.
Triathlon had been an organizing principle of my life. Swim, bike, run, rinse, repeat. I ate, slept, traveled, and did laundry around triathlons. They were my companion. I was always training for something, and I always knew where the next race would be. There was something that drove me toward distance, something that kept me disciplined, to train. But the training didn’t mean you always had a payoff. High winds at Ironman Utah made me get out of the water before I completed the race. I cared about racing, but not that much. It could be so isolating.
That was my last Ironman attempt.
You don’t get the race you want, you get the race you had, a fellow triathlete told me. Having too many of those races turned me off of the sport. I could no longer understand the point of triathlon and what it was that pulled me out the door to run for six hours or ride my bike for nine hours.
I tried to stay in shape: did yoga, played tennis, and got a younger dog that needed my attention. I also got a boyfriend. Most of my needs were met, but there was something missing, and it wasn’t the competition: It was the endorphins. Endorphins were the “afterglow” of a hard workout when my mind relaxed and my body felt good. Endorphins were what you reaped when you sowed.
What had driven me to train and travel to South Africa, the Canary Islands, and France was gone. I got rid of the suitcase I used to put my bike in for airplane travel. It took incredible effort and determination to complete the hard bike courses. In the Tour de France, leg-cracking accelerations left riders behind. It was called “the hurt” and it’s what teams strategized about when one rider went out in front. The hurt was something you put on someone else. It was a behavioral version of cramping. I didn’t put the hurt on other people; I put the hurt on myself. Suffering had become a way of life for me. If I wasn’t suffering, I wasn’t living.
I started with half Ironman races that ended before the suffering kicked in, but an Ironman—it was a feat of suffering. I’d watched Tour de France riders with their jerseys unzipped, heart rate monitors showing, looking behind them before accelerating for the 1.6 miles to go on the climb of Alpe d’Huez. Their routes changed every year, but they understood about suffering while they matched accelerations to reduce the gap between the front of the peloton and the rest of the pack. Riders on the Tour sometimes cover over 100 miles every day for three weeks, while I would just ride 112 miles on race day and then get off the bike and run a marathon, another 26.2 miles.
Triathletes are weird, my brother said. He lacked an understanding of or even appreciation for the suffering I had done, and what I’d accomplished through doing it. The only family member who ever came to one of my races was my mother. I wouldn’t say I raced for her but because of her: She had been a difficult parent. The act of racing had become an act of validation for me.
For a triathlete, suffering is something that sneaks up on you. You build into it, and somehow expect it, but it’s hard to say when it might happen. For some young racers it happens because of pacing, that is, going out too hard early in a race. For some it is in the form of injury; pain is something more acute. The hurt is a combination of the two: pain and suffering. I put the hurt on myself by selecting hilly races where I would have to climb mountains on my bike section, the heart of triathlon that comes after the swim portion, which I generally viewed as a warm-up and a place to calm my nerves, and the run was the last part of the race—guaranteed suffering because of the long day. I’d train for these races and then I would perform. Usually there would be some other variable like wind or extreme heat. I lived for these moments when I felt like I would die: Sweat made salt stains on my clothes, and sunblock ran into my eyes.
I put the hurt on myself, and there was a purity to that. I felt more myself in these moments. After the event, I would relax and bask in the endorphins. If I was really tired, they would take a while to show up; there was a delayed reaction because I had to recover. Then the endorphins would fill me up. It was as if the process affirmed my identity. I knew who I was, but I felt deeper into my who.
But then something happened. I had some races that didn’t go well because of circumstances on the courses, and I lost the desire to go out and ride my bike all over Malibu. It was as if the part inside me that loved to suffer wanted to suffer in a different way. It wanted to derive the suffering from the inside and not from an outside circumstance such as a race.
I turned to sweat culture. It had become so popular in LA. I drove past this little house next to a liquor store. It said Shape House, an urban sweat lodge. Why would people in Santa Monica go to a place and get naked and sweat together? I checked it online when I got home, but there wasn’t much information, so the next time I went by, I stopped in. The sign on the door said, “Shhh, use your inside voice.”
There was a wooden desk with just an iPad and computer monitor, some plastic flowers on the wall, spray bottles arranged in rainbow colors, and a patch of indoor-outdoor carpeting. Their main color was orange, and it was working for them. The woman behind the desk explained that what they do at the Shape House is sweat but that they lend you clothes (or you can bring your own) to sweat in while you get in what looks like a sleeping bag (which is heated of course) on a massage table in a semi-private curtained-off area with a rolled towel under your neck and watch Netflix (or Hulu or Amazon) for fifty minutes. I had to try it. By now my mother had died and my boyfriend had broken up with me, so I had lots of healing to do.
I made an appointment for the next day. I paid the $50.00, changed, and jumped into the heated bag to watch the promotional video, which featured LL Cool J on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Sweating, something I’d done a lot of on my own, had become a celebrity fad. Sophie, the woman who invented the sweating program, made an appearance in the video.
I felt like I had become part of a movement people called clean living. It was when you put the hurt on yourself and felt better after.
The women who worked at the Shape House checked on me in twenty-minute intervals and refilled my water bottle with alkaline water. With about ten minutes left, they brought a cold lavender towel. Once I got over the feeling of being suffocated, especially with the heavy bag on my chest and throat while I was wrapped in a plastic bag, I began to relax; there was an LED light behind the screen that I was watching Netflix on that put me in a good mood. After my session, they brought me tea and some orange slices in the relaxing room. Previously, I had been a tender, but now I felt tended to.
That night I didn’t know what to eat, but I remember LL Cool J said he ate clean for the rest of the day after his sweats. I headed to a sushi happy hour and had three bowls of miso soup. I needed the salt.
Memberships were on sale and so I got one. I need somewhere to go and be. I asked one of the girls who worked there what to eat after; she gave me Sophie the owner’s email and said I should reach out to her. Sophie loves to hear from people, she said. I felt as important as a celebrity when she called me. I missed her first call, but she told me to listen to my body because it might be trying to tell me things. After our talk, I decided my body was telling me to go off the pill since I had been spotting and having heavy periods twice a month. I realized later this had been menopause.
One of the girls who worked at the Shape House told me about Sweat Yoga. It was just down the street. I’d been going to core fusion for many years, which was yoga based, but I felt I was the last person in Santa Monica to try hot yoga.
Right away, my sinuses started to clear since there was peppermint in the air from spray bottles that people use to moisten their yoga mat towels so they will be grippy. I had been given one such towel for a birthday present a few years ago and was glad to finally have a chance to use it. The instructor sat at the front of the room and was illuminated by an iPad and some small colored lights in the ceiling. He started us with a warm-up, and then went into a flow. This class was different from other yoga I had done before because we were left on our own to finish these mini routines, and I was dripping with sweat. It was suffering, but I had a background in that. I felt like I was at home and slept great that night.
Sometimes I had glimpses of my old life during yoga: I remembered climbing El Mirador, the highest of the climbs at Ironman Lanzarote. Climbing required a certain stubbornness. It was one of those things you committed to and you did until the end. Sometimes I ghosted myself with these memories of who I used to be. Other athletes told me they felt the same. The yoga teacher told me after class that she used to swim. My tennis hitting partner, Bo, wondered what more he could have done with baseball. I didn’t have regrets. I had done a lot.
Since now I was acclimated to suffering at hot yoga, Bikram yoga seemed like a good idea. I tried it out in the desert. They did the same routine all the time, but I was new enough not to care. The floor surface was softer than I was used to, and I liked it. I became less tight and less dependent on getting massages or chiropractic adjustments.
The teacher said that we can heal through the hurt. It made me feel better about putting the hurt on myself. The hurt I put on myself came from the inside while being in a room that was heated to 105 degrees—no sunblock required.
Instead of being driven to see how far I could go, I wanted to see how long I could last—it was still an endurance contest for myself, but I didn’t need to enter more competitions even though Bikram Yoga had them. Whatever I had to prove that way was done.
The teacher said “change” to indicate we didn’t need to hold one of their twenty-six positions any longer, and I wondered if I had changed at all, or if I had become more the same, a deeper version of myself—a self distilled.
“That would still be change,” the yoga teacher said when I asked about it. “All change is good,” she said. After fourteen years of living in Santa Monica, I decided to move to the desert. I’d been spending more and more time there this year and was using my Orange Theory membership at the Palm Desert location.
I tried new things like trapeze yoga, where I hung upside down as the trapeze swung like a hammock, and I experienced the inverted version of myself while blood rushed to my head. I joined Club Pilates, where I moved my arms and legs in controlled circles. Everything I did felt good, and the quiet sufferer I used to be slipped away and was replaced by something I could hear but made no sound: quiet without suffering. I had heard it once before when I was driving back from the animal shelter, having selected my dog Lyon. I decided to cancel my membership at Orange Theory. I didn’t feel like being sore for days after a workout. It was as if something in my DNA had changed and I was finally able to stop putting the hurt on myself. It had been a lifetime habit, but now it felt good not to do it.
At dusk, Lyon and I sat outside on our new patio in front of a manmade pond. A duck swam straight toward us. I had Lyon tied just in case, but nothing happened—only the water rippled behind the duck’s path.