I have begun telling my posing clients that an oak tree does not grow from the leaves down but instead digs its roots into the ground, develops a trunk, and then branches out. Most competitors begin their front mandatory pose by setting their arms, spreading them far and wide with elbows crooked and fingers gnarled. The tension spreads throughout their bodies and knees become locked, hips rigid, and shoulders elevated. What should look confident, relaxed, and powerful instead displays fear, doubt, and aloofness.

I am scared. I admit it. I. Am. Scared. Contest preps are never easy, and nor should they be. Emotions run amuck, the mind plays tricks, and the body acts like an unruly child with no care for the rules. I always preach backwards planning, which in terms of contest prep means to pick a show, know the date, and plan backwards from there. But now that I think of it, that is a lot like a competitor spreading arms first to get the lats to flare and a tree sprouting leaves from its branches before the trunk has any precious rings in its midst. Yet what other way is there for contest prep?

Some people believe in dieting until the body seems ready for a show and then picking a show that is in the vicinity of that time frame. I honestly have never done it that way. I pick a show. I count backwards by 12 weeks (or more sometimes) and then march forwards along the path of dropping fat and maintaining (or even gaining) muscle. And somewhere along the way, I freak out because my body is not following the time schedule that my mind put forth. Over fifteen years of competing, with over 40 shows under my belt (or bling bling suit), and I still do this. I am doing it now. Freaking out.

So many in this industry will never admit it. They will post to the public, “Everything is sunshine and confetti and unicorn farts and cupcake sprinkles.” But I guarantee you they are shedding a tear or two or murmuring curse words and self-deprecating remarks in the privacy of their bathroom as they look in the mirror and see themselves in some dysmorphic view, thinking “I’m not big enough” or “I’m not lean enough.” I kind of feel like none of us would choose the world of bodybuilding if we were actually normal, though I question what normal is and whether it exists. But most of us come into this strange beast of a hobby with low self esteem, debilitating OCD issues, a history of being bullied, a need to prove oneself to others, or any number of habits and thoughts that deter us from a healthy emotional foundation. So we choose a “healthy lifestyle” and immerse ourselves in the suds of “clean eating” and “training dirty” like one soaks a glass dish caked in dried macaroni-and-cheese casserole remains before furiously scrubbing away the sticky parts. And I wonder if this too is a case of trying to grow our leaves before we have set our roots and developed our trunk.

Let’s return to the thing you probably want to know the most: why I am scared. On the surface, what do I have to be scared about? I am 44 years old/young and this isn’t my first rodeo. I should know prep like I know the back of my hand. But I don’t know this current body. I don’t know this body that has curved and grown and shrunk in unfamiliar ways due to unfamiliar training for the last eight months. This past off season, I turned my repertoire upside down and inside out. I then twisted it and wrung it like a sopping wet rag in the shower. When I stepped off the stage in Boca at the IFBB Prestige Crystal Cup and did not earn the extra point I needed in order to sneak my way into an Olympia qualification, I knew I needed a change. Whatever I could have done in two or three weeks’ time to prepare for the IFBB San Antonio Pro would not have assuaged the judges’ consistent criteria for my physique: wider back and sharper conditioning in the lower body. It doesn’t sound like much. Just two items to fix. But I had tried for years to widen my lats and had thought that my genetics held me back (pun intended). I like to think I know everything, but I can put my ego aside for a few seconds to admit when I need help. My back needed help.

So began a journey that felt a little like walking blindfolded along a deserted highway in the Texas Panhandle. How long? How far? How many weather changes? Will I survive? Where will I end up? Do I even want to be here…or there? Can I stop now? Maybe I can push another step or two…okay, a mile or two.  Fine. I’ll go the distance. But can I stop now? No? Fine. One foot in front of the other despite wind, rain, hail, heat.

I was resetting my roots. I needed new branches, but they couldn’t grow if my roots were in upheaval. And that’s where I am now. Burying roots in the ground, feeling around, waiting for more fertilizer, and keeping my trunk sturdy and sound. The branches will spread. The leaves will sprout. My tree will flourish. Just as long as these roots I nourish.