Alyssa Ages, SECRETS OF GIANTS: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength

Alyssa Ages, SECRETS OF GIANTS: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength

Zibby speaks to endurance athlete and journalist Alyssa Ages about SECRETS OF GIANTS, an enthusiastically researched and authentically lived exploration of the weight-lifting world, and why pushing our physical limits is so impactful. Alyssa describes how she went from considering herself non-athletic to eventually participating in marathons and triathlons and ultimately discovering the world of strongman competitions. The conversation delves into her experiences with failure, body image issues, and a miscarriage, and how strength training became a crucial part of her healing process. To end the interview, Alyssa shares her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alyssa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength. I feel like I need to lift weights just to even have this conversation with you.

Alyssa Ages: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Tell listeners all about your book. Start from the beginning.

Alyssa: I was this not particularly athletic kid. I have this very strong memory of playing little league baseball when I was about ten. I remembered that I never hit the ball. I never made contact with the ball. For the next ten years of my life, I told myself this story that I was not an athlete. I didn’t try anything. Fast-forward, I’m working one of my first jobs, and I had to play an actual softball game with grown-ups. I went up to bat, and I hit the ball. I got on base. I ran off to the side of the field, and I called my mom. I was like, “Mom, I have to tell you something. I finally hit the ball. After all those swings and misses, I finally hit the ball.” She’s like, “That’s great, but it’s not that you never hit the ball when you were playing little league. You never swung the bat.” It set me off on this, oh, my gosh, I’ve told myself this story for my whole life that I was not an athlete. I was not good at sports. It turned out that I just never actually tried at all because I was so scared of failing. I went from there and decided to basically swing at everything I could. I started doing marathons even though I couldn’t run more than a mile. I started doing triathlons even though I couldn’t swim more than a lap of the pool. Then I found my way into the strength world and CrossFit and then into strongman. The impetus for this book was — I had been training in strongman for about two years.

Zibby: Explain what strongman is.

Alyssa: Most people, if you know about strongman, you might know it from late-night ESPN reruns of World’s Strongest Man where it’s just huge dudes lifting rocks and logs and pulling trucks and airplanes and busses sometimes. There is this thriving world of amateur competitors. We are literally competing in suburban strip mall parking lots just to see who can do the most stuff with their body and their strength. It’s ridiculous, but it’s a lot of fun. I had been training for a competition. I was with my coach in the gym. I remember I was picking up an atlas stone, which is that quintessential piece of equipment for strongman. It’s a big, round, concrete boulder. I remember feeling really tired. It was this level of exhaustion that wasn’t, this workout is hard, but there’s something else going on. I went home that day. I took a pregnancy test. I found out I was pregnant. Then three weeks later, I found out that I was miscarrying.

I very quickly went from being the strongest I’d ever been in my life to suddenly feeling the weakest and the most vulnerable. Here I’d been for these last however many years feeling like if I told my body to do something, if I told it to run a marathon or do a triathlon or lift a weight, it would do it. I told it to stay pregnant, and it wouldn’t do that. I lost a lot of trust in my body. One of the things I did as I was going through the recovery from that and going through fertility clinic visits was that I would go back to the gym. I would work out with my trainer. I couldn’t explain it at the time, but I felt like that was bringing me back to life, in a way. I would walk a little taller. I would have my head held high when I walked out of there. It got me thinking, maybe I’ve had this thing all wrong for all these years. Maybe it’s not about how much weight we can lift, but maybe strength is actually about how we take the things that we learn from those experiences in the gym and bring them into how we handle all the struggles that we go through outside of the gym. That is my long-winded answer.

Zibby: What a story. Going back to the beginning, if I figured out that I could play baseball and I didn’t think I could, I’m not sure that would set me off on the course of then running a marathon. In terms of who you are as a person and where this all comes from, what was the context for the rest of your life at that time? What other things had you tried to master? What was your life like in school? Are you a perfectionist? How did this all happen?

Alyssa: I would consider myself to be wildly stubborn and driven. If I set my mind to something, I’m going to figure that out. I’m going to do it. The marathon story was a little ridiculous. I was living with a roommate at the time who decided — it was the year that P. Diddy ran the marathon. She was like, “Let’s go watch P. Diddy run the marathon.” We did. She turned to me, and she was like, “I think we should do this next year. Let’s do a marathon.” I was like, “Jenna, you’re a pack-a-day smoker. I don’t run. I don’t think we’re going to do this.” I got that bug in my head. My dad is a marathon runner. I said, “I’m going to run the New York City Marathon.” He just went, “Okay, I’m going to do it with you.” We did. We started training together. We ran the marathon together. We’ve run four marathons together.

Zibby: That is so sweet, oh, my gosh. It sounds like you have such a nice relationship with your parents. That’s really great.

Alyssa: That’s true.

Zibby: Are you the oldest? What is your family?

Alyssa: I’m the only child. Then I have stepsiblings.

Zibby: I was going to say oldest or only. I went with oldest.

Alyssa: Either one of those would’ve been fitting.

Zibby: What are the main takeaways? I understand you go from strength to feeling out of control, which any woman — I don’t mean to — well, I have to say woman. Any woman who has gone through this whole pregnancy thing, and the men who are there as part of it, or the partners or whatever, you make plans, God laughs kind of thing, right? It seems out of your control. I say this to my kids all the time. My fourth kid, last night, he’s like, “Maybe you wish you hadn’t had me because then you’d already be asleep right now. You wouldn’t have to put me to bed.” I was like, “No, not at all, but you definitely took your sweet time showing up.” We can’t control these things that are so fundamental to our lives. It’s crazy. We should be able to control it the most, and we can control it the least. I never linked that to my physical fitness in any way. Tell me a little bit more about that relationship and how you feel about that now.

Alyssa: One of my biggest takeaways was about learning to not just accept failure, but except it and ultimately, kind of learn to love it. When I would go out for a run when I was training for marathons, I knew that — let’s say I went out for an eight-mile run. I knew that barring some catastrophe, I was going to complete that run. Maybe it would be slower that day. Maybe I’d have to take more breaks, but I’d probably get back home. Strength training isn’t like that. When I go into the gym, no matter how much I want to lift a weight that day, it might just not be what my body is willing to do. As you push more and more towards your limits — again, that doesn’t have to be what I’m doing in strongman. That can be picking up a slightly heavier dumbbell in your group fitness class. Maybe the instructor in that class tells you to do ten reps, and you can only do seven. You get that glimmer of, okay, this is more possible than I thought it was. I’m so close to it. Maybe if I just do this a little bit differently next time or do this a little bit differently, I’ll get there. You start to understand that failure doesn’t make you a failure. It’s not this end point. It’s a point to jump off from.

That became something that I took into the rest of my life, so even writing this book, working on the narrative arc for it and literally putting up post-its on the wall and then looking at them and going, oh, my god, that doesn’t work. Your instinct is to tear it down and say, I’m terrible at this. I’m not going to be able to do it. I would sometimes go and work out and then get that physical reminder that failure is okay and come back and look at it and go, okay, how can I rearrange this to make this work the way that I want it to? That was a huge one for me. The other one and the one that I hope really resonates with, in particular, women who read the book is about body image. I think when we start strength training, we typically get told one of two things. Either, don’t lift weights because you’re going to get bulky, or if you’re talking to people who are into lifting, they might say, it’s okay, you won’t get bulky from lifting. Either way, we suggest that bulkiness is this negative thing. When I started writing about it, I thought, what is the actual definition of bulky? I looked it up.

The definition of bulky is taking up much space, typically, inconveniently. It was that little inconvenient part. I went, oh, I get it now. Taking up space as a woman, it’s inconvenient because it’s assumed we’re taking up that space from a man. Challenging gender norms with the way that our bodies look if they’re more muscular, that’s inconvenient for people. What the women that I spoke to when I did the interviews for this book — what I learned is that taking up space is awesome, physically, emotionally, mentally, not just in the gym, but in your home, at school, at work, in social settings. That’s what we should be doing. That’s what I want my kids to get from my journey and from, hopefully, when they’re old enough and read this book. One of the nicest things that I’ve heard is from a lot of male readers who have said, I’m buying this for the young women in my life because that’s a message that they need to hear. That’s pretty cool.

Zibby: I love that. Did you worry a lot about injuries? Isn’t that a whole — I’m just projecting my own worries onto you. Did you worry? What if your back goes out? What if you’re competing? What if this? What if that?

Alyssa: The movements that I can control, like a deadlift, where I know how to move my body and brace, I don’t so much. Putting things over my head has always been terrifying for me. I’ve always just assumed that if I get it wrong, it’s going to fall on my head. That was this real fear-based thing and something I explored in the book too. I actually spoke to someone who’s an expert on understanding what fear does to us. He really helped me understand that the only way around that is to go headfirst into it and really keep exposing yourself to it until it’s not scary anymore. I worked with a performance coach also who helped explain to me, hey, your fear of failure isn’t what you think it is. What’s happening to you is that you’re relying on this idea that you have a fear of failure, and so when you go to lift something, you’re thinking about, it’s scary. Can I tell myself it’s light? What happens is that because you’re not actually doing that with the full level of your ability, if you fail, you can say, well, I was just scared. Go into it with these specific queues because then if you fail, you have to accept in that moment that it’s not something that you can do yet. Maybe it’ll be something you can do down the line, but at least you’ve given it everything that you had.

Zibby: Was that your approach to writing the book as well?

Alyssa: Yeah, as much as I could. The original idea for this book was a history of the sport of strongman. A lot of very wonderful people in my life said to me, I know you think that’s interesting, that’s not going to have a wide audience. I got really, really pushed by someone, actually, that you have had on the podcast before, David Sax, who’s a very good friend of mine. He helped me out with the proposal. He kept pushing me. He’s like, “This has to be your story. People are going to care about a forty-something-year-old mom of two who thought, I’m going to see if I can pull a truck at forty years old. They’re going to care about the fact that you were coming back from feeling distrust in your body. They’re going to care about the fact that you’re not this natural athlete.” I think it’s important to note that every single strongman competition that I’ve entered I have come in last unless I’m the only one competing. I don’t care anymore. I just love it. I love doing it. It’s just taking that chance.

Zibby: Isn’t it crazy it’s still called strongman?

Alyssa: Yeah. I sort of think of it as Ironman is Ironman. It’s almost a corporate name.

Zibby: What is your workout now? What is your daily life like? Where are you on the strong spectrum, if you will?

Alyssa: I work out with my trainer once a week. I have built a garage gym that I work out in. One of my favorite things is actually on Saturdays, instead of waking up at six AM to work out, I wait a little bit, and I bring my daughters in with me. I let them hang out on the side while I work out. They get to try to pick up things. One of the most powerful realizations for me doing that has been seeing that until you tell a kid that something is not possible for them or something is scary, they don’t know that. My almost-four-year-old, the other day, was like, “I’m going to pick up the sandbag.” It’s a 112-pound sandbag. If it was something that was maybe in the realm of her ability level and would’ve been dangerous, I would’ve said, maybe let’s not do it, but I know she’s not going to budge it. I just said, “Yeah, go. Try it. Maybe you can.” She went, and she tried. Obviously, it didn’t move. I said to her, “Okay, so you can’t do this today, but I bet you, at one point, you’re going to be able to come back in here and do that.” I think that’s a really incredible gift to be able to give them.

Zibby: It’s so nice. Wait, so what happened after you tossed the idea and David Sax told you what to write? Were you know, okay, now I’m just going to whip out a book?

Alyssa: No. I will also say I owe a lot of thanks to Sue Shapiro, whose class I took on pitching. I had been a journalist. Then I wasn’t for a while. When I went back into it, I was like, I got to treat this like I’m a beginner. I took her class on pitching. One of the best things I learned from that was, you have to get really personal. You have to be willing to share the bits that you don’t want to share. I tried to just do that as much as I could. I’d write a passage or I’d write a section that had an athlete interview in it, and then I would go, okay, now how do I pull that back into something that relates to my life? The body image chapter was, by far, the hardest one for me to write because I wanted to be able to go from being a victim of diet culture and always wanting to be smaller to, in the end, going, nope, I don’t care. I’m just going to be bigger. I don’t care, and I didn’t. That’s not real life. I tried to share that as openly as possible, this kind of back-and-forth that I went through as I was building muscle of, sometimes my jeans aren’t going to fit the same way. It’s not easy for me to just go, but that’s okay. I still don’t like it. At least now, I’ve learned to challenge that feeling and go, why do you feel like that? What’s more important to you? Is it lifting this thing and accomplishing something, or is it how you look in your clothes? Sometimes it’s one. Sometimes it’s the other. I’m not perfect. That was really hard to write.

Then obviously, writing about the miscarriage and everything was really difficult. I think one of the most powerful things that I learned doing research for this and talking to people — I spoke to a couple of people who practice trauma-informed weightlifting. Basically, they work with people who have gone through trauma and help them use weightlifting to heal from that. I didn’t understand when I went back to the gym after my miscarriage — I didn’t really understand how it was helping me. What I was learned was that — in order to do, let’s say, a heavy deadlift, I’m wearing a weight belt. I have to brace my core muscles to protect my back. When I do that, I’m feeling my stomach press against this belt, so I’m getting that kind of tactical feedback. If I’m going to lift that heavy barbell and I’m going to brace my core that way, in that moment, I have to believe that that part of my body that was this site of pain and weakness and distrust could also be a place of strength. Otherwise, the bar wasn’t going to move, or it wasn’t going to move safely. Learning that that was part of the healing was pretty incredible.

Zibby: Wow, it’s so amazing. What challenge is next for you?

Alyssa: I’m continuing to freelance and try to put out as much as I can around this book. You know this from writing your own books and having your own publishing company and even the core of the book that you just wrote; this part is really challenging. I don’t think enough people talk about how hard it is after you write the book and put it out into the world. It doesn’t go like this. You don’t get on the morning shows the day that your book is out. For me, a lot of my focus since the book came out, and still, is just, how do I get the word out there? There’s times where I feel like I’m hand-selling every copy. The feedback that I get when people take the time to send emails makes this all really worth it, hearing from people, hey, I don’t actually lift, I don’t do strength sports, but the story of this book was really impactful. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want people to look at this and go, oh, this is a book about how to lift weights. There’s nothing prescriptive in here. I’m not telling anybody how to get six-pack abs or bigger biceps. I don’t get those by the end of the book either. It’s just about, what does it feel like to push your limits in any part of your life, whatever it is that you’re doing? What does it feel like to go the limits here? What if I tried to go past that? What if I challenged my capabilities? I guess the next challenge is just continuing to put this out into the world as much as possible.

Zibby: There’s also, I feel like, this misperception that it has to be done in the first week or two. It’s a slow burn. I am still doing events for the memoir that I had come out a year and a half ago. Yeah, sure, I’ll do this. I’ll do that. It doesn’t end. The book is always out there. There’s too much pressure because so many books are breathing down your neck coming down the pike, but books are here to stay. Sometimes it takes longer to find your audience, but it’s never over. There’s never an expiration date on a book.

Alyssa: That’s helpful for me to hear. I appreciate that.

Zibby: That’s my two cents. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Alyssa: Honestly, it goes back to the failure thing. It’s really scary to go, I’m going to write a book. If you’re a writer, that’s a secret dream for probably all of us for most of our lives. If you don’t try it, you’re never going to know whether or not that’s something that you could do. Fail. It’s okay. Fail. Rip it up. Start again. Keep working at it. I also think whatever outlet there is for you outside of writing, find that. Do that. Take those breaks. Yeah, I lift a lot, but the biggest thing for me, actually, was often going on a run, just letting my brain kind of clear. That would often help me bring in those new ideas. When I went back into freelancing, actually, the very first article that I placed somewhere, the idea for that came on a run.

Zibby: There you go. Awesome. Alyssa, thank you so much. By the way, thank you for coming to meet me on a 120-degree day in the summer driving an hour, whatever you did. I don’t even know how that all happened, but it was awesome. I’m delighted that you did that. It speaks to determination. Why not? That’s what you have to do. I love it. I’m glad our paths crossed. You’re such an articulate, strong woman. You’re a great role model to have on here, so there you go.

Alyssa: I have to say I feel the same about you. That is why I wanted to meet you that day in Bridgehampton. Thank you for the ice cream.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Anytime. I can undermine someone’s commitment to fitness. In a minute of knowing me, I can suck out all the strength.

Alyssa: Hey, I love ice cream. Actually, one of my great things with all of the competitions or races that I do is — I have one superstition. That superstition is, there has to be a chocolate chip cookie in my bag because while I’m doing that event, I can always, in my brain, go, just get to the cookie. Just get to the cookie. There you go.

Zibby: Amazing. There I go. We share that love, then. Congratulations. Secrets of Giants. Way to go, strong woman.

Alyssa: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Bye.

Alyssa: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

SECRETS OF GIANTS: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength by Alyssa Ages

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