What Endurance Sports Taught Me About Navigating Grief
At the end of my mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, I realized I needed to handle my sorrow the same way I approached athletic training
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My mother was holding a stuffed monkey on her lap. She was nuzzling her nose against its nose, clucking and cooing at it as if it were a small child.
“Hi,” I said from the edge of the room, my breathing suddenly ragged and shallow.
My mother didn’t stop clucking and cooing. I clenched my jaw. I gritted my teeth. I braced myself as I enter the room.
“Hi, Sheila,” I said, as I walked toward her. She didn’t look up.
This was the first visit with my mom in over eighteen months. The last time I saw her, pre-COVID, she was still skiing. I knew her Alzheimer’s disease had progressed rapidly since international border closures had kept us apart, but I wasn’t prepared to meet the woman I found in this place—my mother (or what was left of her) in her new care home.
I’m not entirely sure what happened between the moment I sat down beside her and when we were outside for a walk, but I do remember the walk. I remember extending my arm to offer her support, and I remember watching her shoulder hike up and her elbow lock as she reached out, her hand landing on my forearm in a tight grip. My mom held on to me like that for the whole walk, her knuckles the color of bone.
When we got back to her room, I positioned her in front of her chair and watched as she collapsed into it. It was almost as if she’d just crossed the finish line of a 400-meter sprint. She exhaled with a moan. She slumped. Her arms went slack and were flung to either side of the chair. I stood and watched. I held my breath. And then I walked back to the car like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz—rusted, rendered nearly immobile by shock and by grief. I could barely move.
The only time I could recall feeling that tightly wound was decades earlier during my four-year stint as a rugby player for the University of Victoria. I played right winger, a position whose success relies on your ability to sprint, as well as a focus so narrow that all you can see is the goal line and the player in front of you, a hyper vigilance in regards to the ball, and a near constant steeling of self in preparation for explosive, high-speed hits.
Why did this feel like that? I wondered as I drove away. I didn’t like feeling as though I had to brace myself in front of my mother, as if a visit with her contained within it some kind of physical blow.
I was in Vancouver for the week, but I couldn’t bear the idea of going back to see her the next day, or the day after that. I’d been heavily engaged in the early stages of my mother’s disease progression—I’d even written a book about us finding a new rhythm with a handful of National Parks as our guide—but this was different, this was harder, and there were would be no more visits to National Parks.
I didn’t think I had it in me to summon all that bracing, to feel my body clamping down like vise grip on either side of my heart. That kind of fear, that constant tightening, was one of the reasons I stopped playing rugby. I didn’t want my sporting life, or any of my life, to be a rehearsal of, nor preparation for, blow after blow—literal or metaphorical, physical or emotional.
I spent the next two days taking long walks through the city’s University Endowment Lands, over 3,000 acres of woods not far from the house I grew up in. I felt myself relax a bit as I moved, giving me just enough space to contemplate how I was going to shift the experience of seeing my mom, of being with my mom, as she moved through the late stage(s) of cognitive decline.
When I got home, I had a bit of clarity and was wanting for more so I picked up the phone. I called Wes Tate, psychiatrist and medical director of The Trauma Foundation, whose mother also had dementia and cognitive decline.
“What happened to me during that visit?” I asked Tate, after describing it to him.
“It’s what I would call ‘white-knuckling,’” he said. “That sense that you’re just trying to get through a situation that’s stirring up emotions you don’t want to look at and/or things you don’t want to feel.”
That felt accurate.
“As an approach to living, and to long-term situations like Alzheimer’s and grief, white-knuckling has some serious drawbacks,” he continued. “First off, it’s a closed-in and protective state, meaning it’s not conducive to connection. And in the world of somatic psychotherapy, which views the body and mind as one entity, connection is key when it comes to metabolizing pain—physically, mentally or emotionally. Secondly, you can only white-knuckle for so long. It’s exhausting and you need something more adaptive.”
“And what would that be?” I asked.
“In the language of positive psychology, it would be called resilience,” he said. “Think of it as a variety of coping strategies that bring you into a less contractive and more expansive kind of grit.”
I smiled. I knew resilience. I knew these strategies—how to recover, get up and keep going, how to tap mental and emotional reserves, resourcing from a deeper pool than muscle fiber alone. This was so much of what I learned after hanging up my rugby cleats.
In 2002, I made the switch from pitch to pavement and started running more regularly, working to sustain longer, slower efforts. The timed sprints of rugby practice turned into hour after hour of sustainable efforts. Over the next few years, I put in countless miles, listening to the sound of my feet hit pavement. I ran in multiple half-marathons and marathons. I swapped steeliness for steadiness, and learned how to tap the well-spring of energy found inside a runner’s highs. I felt vibrant and alive, able to connect to the world from that place.
Wanting more of that feeling, I moved to triathlons next. I came to understand the early morning devotion of sliding into cold water to swim a quarter mile, a half mile, one, two or three, the kick-turns like prayers, the meditative nature of counting three-strokes per breath in a pool. I knew how to calm myself, how to slow my breathing in choppy, open water. I knew pacing. I had stored within me much muscle memory that allowed me to tell the difference between stabbing pain and a slow burn, as well as the type of grit I might need to tap for both. The contraction required for the first, the expansion required for the latter. Solid and fluid somatic states.
In 2011, I took things a step further and broke a record for the most vertical feet skied in a year. Just shy of 4.2 million in all. And I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it wasn’t the contractive kind of grit that got me there. It was my willingness to expand, to move from rigid to supple. It was my ability to find a place of relative comfort inside of discomfort, to still myself until I found a steady rhythm that could carry me through.
I’d transferred all of this knowledge into my career as a writer. Writing books is an endurance sport, in a way: being able sit for weeks or months with the mediocrity that is first, second, and third draft material; the dedication required to bring your whole self into the room for long enough to have a breakthrough, to find a flow state where once sputtering words begin to flow, and pour out onto the page. It’s the same feeling I get when my legs start spinning—calmly, effortlessly—by mile eight on the bike, by my third lap on the ski-hill.
When I got off the phone with Tate, I saw, rather clearly, where I’d gone wrong—I’d been treating the endurance event that is Alzheimer’s, as well as the landscape of grief within it, as an all-out sprint, wanting to get through visits with my mother quickly and with minimal impact. I’d been bearing down and disconnecting from myself and the world around me so as to not feel any mental or emotional pain. I also knew what I needed to do. Short-term tolerance of pain had to become longer-term resilience, ongoing recovery, and continued metabolization of pain. I needed to do with my grief, what I had done with my life as an athlete.
The next morning, I stretched and drank lots of water. I moved slowly and ate a nourishing meal. I did a guided meditation and a visualization of sorts.
During the drive to my mother’s care home, I paid deep attention to my energy, slowing the pace of what I could feel moving quickly inside me. I breathed with intention.
“You’ve got this,” I whispered to myself as I walked, deliberately, toward my mother’s room. I paused just outside, making sure I was present, making sure all of me was there. Physical body. Mental body. Emotional body. I took another deep breath and shook my shoulders and arms, my legs and my hands. I softened the hard edges of my fear. I lowered the defenses I’d erected to protect me from current and impending loss, from the blows that might hit me within each. And then I walked slowly into the room.
My mother was holding the same stuffed money on her lap. She was nuzzling her nose against its nose. She was clucking and cooing at the monkey as if it were a small child.
“Hi,” I said from the threshold of the room, my breathing deep and sustained.
My mother lifted her head, tilting it to one side as she took me in. She was curious about who was standing before her. She was eager and open.
“Oh, hi,” she said, reaching her hand for mine.
I cupped her palm in mine. Our hands were both warm.
We went for another walk together that day. My body was soft, my energy supple. As was hers, the whole time. Like a doe and her fawn— safe and relaxed, just out for a graze. I wrapped my arm around my mother’s waist and she did the same around mine. It was spring. We saw a few tulips, crocus sprouting up here and there.
“Look at the ducks,” she said while pointing at a bright yellow daffodil. “Quack. Quack!”
Halfway through our walk, she paused and leaned in for a hug. She nuzzled into my neck and kissed me the way mothers kiss their babies, one thousand and one little pecks, quick smooches all over my face and my neck and my shoulder.
We giggled again. And then, still inside of our hug, she pulled her head back and looked at me. Like really looked at me, searching, it seemed, for something she knew but could not name. I stilled myself. I tapped my reserves. I held her gaze, and then I held it longer. I endured. I let the crystal blue water of her eyes pour into mine. She looked closer in. She searched me entirely. And then it happened.
Her face broke into a smile.
“Ohhhh,” she said. “Oh oh ohhhhh. I love you.”
Connection, by knowing not naming. And because I’d tapped the pool of resilience, I was there to feel it all.
My mother and I walked back to her room. We held onto one another, loosely so, hand in hand, our free arms swinging gently at our sides. This is how we will keep going. Everything I learned as an endurance athlete tucked inside the spartan that is Alzheimer’s.