A Random Definition of Rest - Athlete Journal from Clara Hughes

The day I started to feel uncomfortable in my own skin was the day I knew it was time to begin training again. It’s not difficult to take time off from the daily toil of training after a long, hard season of intensity; what’s challenging is to let the mind rest enough in order to make the most out of this rest period. Every year I seem to make better use of this time, and it pays off most when recovery between the end of the season and the beginning of training is passed without guilt. You see it’s not easy for an athlete to be inactive. It takes creativity and discipline to be sedentary.

The past month has been especially important, and I was determined to make the most of it. After the last race of the year, I returned to my home in the mountains of The Eastern Townships of Quebec, home to our chalet just north of the Vermont border, to a place I hadn’t been since September of 2004.

Initially, it was easy to occupy my time cleaning, shoveling, reading and sitting in front of the fire with a fresh cup of coffee from the espresso machine. This lasted a few days until I was jumping out of my skin, aching for some kind of structure in my days, yearning for the monotony of having to do something…anything but nothing! Only nothing was exactly what I needed to do.

In the past, this is the point where I would begin a project on the house. Something that seemed easy, but ultimately ending with frustration and yet another unfinished project on the house- one of the things that drives my husband Peter nuts, because he is usually the one who ends up finishing these things.

This year, in a rare moment of rationality and understanding rather than the usual spontaneity, I decided to put my energies into finishing every project I began over the four years we have owned this place.

Day after day, I paced myself through the monotony of details, frustrating details. There is little satisfaction in finishing something, save for the moment of reflection when it is finally done (and nobody notices but you, and in my case, Peter). It’s much more fun to start something…but still, I held myself back from the instant gratification of a new beginning, or in this case a new project.

This lasted about a week, when, again, I felt like I was jumping out of my skin. I knew I was recovering well in these moments of intense urges to do…something…anything!

Though the urge to begin training became stronger and stronger, I reminded myself of the many months ahead of intense beyond belief training this recovery was in preparation for. Instead of hopping on my bike for a 100km ride in the mountains, in place of what I really wanted to do, I decided to go to the yoga class in the town where we bank, grocery shop and run errands. A small mountain town, 20kms away, called Sutton.

The class was a ‘come as you are’ kinds of deal, drop-ins welcome, run by various instructors who make up the Sutton Yoga Centre. My 60-year old neighbor, Jocelyne, who has the energy and spunk of a 20-year old, invited me to join her weekly ritual of sitting, stretching and, as I was to soon discover, chanting, with the small group of women who attend each Friday morning. Lee, our instructor, was in her mid-sixties, and the rest of the class was closer to Jocelyne’s age than mine.

It was hard to sit. Hard to breath. Difficult to relax. The first part of the 90 minute class felt like years. But after awhile, it began to work. I was soon able to sit, breath, stretch, and not think about the million or so things I wanted to do that day. Just when I was really getting into the relaxation part of yoga, our instructor, Lee, announced the chant for the day. Soon there was a new-age version of a Hindu beat pumping out of the speakers, starry-eyed singers chanting the line we were supposed to rock back and forth to in our pathetic versions of the lotus position. I have to admit, they lost me a bit here. All I could do was sit and stretch my neck, intrigued by the women around me moving in their trances, chanting words from another language, singing loud and strong. It was pretty funny. But, at the same time, I felt happy for them, this was their outlet, their chance to go deep inside themselves and let their innermost being speak out. I didn’t really feel the need to do this, for most of the year I have this sort of outlet, I have sport.

So, I gave up the yoga, and went to chopping wood. Somehow managing not to take a chunk out of my shins, I began to enjoy and find peace in the monotony of chopping stump after stump, focusing on hitting the perfect place where the wood has naturally began to crack. Whenever I began to feel the itch of ‘needing’ to do something, I would go out and chop and rediscover this feeling of calm and focus.

Which brings me to this week, and the time when I knew my rest was over. Part of this was the deadline Coach Xiuli had set, the April 11, 2005 target for the beginning of training for the 2006 Winter Olympic games. That I went into this day feeling eager and fresh, and a little bit out of shape (except for my right arm- which is really strong from all the wood chopping), tells me my rest was perfect.

On my first ride of the year, yesterday, through the valley I love so much, on the bumpy roads of this special part of Quebec, on my favorite road bike in the late day sun, I felt again the joy of pedaling through the landscape, enveloped by the sights and sounds of nature all around. I was reminded of why I love this so much, how much of a gift it is to exercise, to exert oneself, to thrive in the outlet of physical activity.

After a fruitful period of rest, it doesn’t even feel like training.

And I’ll enjoy this while it lasts!