The Ear-Plane Epiphany


Exercise isn’t always about losing weight or getting leaner or ‘toning up,’ like I’ve said in other posts.

Sometimes exercise is about surviving plane rides.  Yep, you read that right:  exercise is about surviving plane rides.

When most of us start working out, particularly if we didn’t play sports as a kid, it’s generally because we want to lose weight, get in shape, get ready for a vacation or big trip or reunion or wedding.  In other words, we work out to look better.  And there’s nothing wrong with that!

It’s just that over time, our reasons for working out can evolve.  Sometimes working out becomes about growing a stronger mind or spirit—learning to endure emotional or mental discomfort through enduring exercise discomfort.

I know personally that distance running has served as a means by which I learned to better endure my husband’s deployments, particularly those phases during a deployment when everything went to shit:  the car broke down, appliances and plumbing failed, the kids got sick, the kids were ‘losing their minds’ and there was only me to hold it together/pick up the pieces.

Those parts of longer runs where things started to hurt, and I wanted relief, I wanted to quit, to escape the discomfort—but didn’t—I learned in those miles and moments that I could hang in there.


Finishing out the Munich Half in 2014: That one was rough.

I learned I could find a place in my head where my determination was greater than my discomfort, and that I could ride it out:  the pain wouldn’t last forever.  I was tough enough to endure, with some grace even.


Those lessons have been invaluable over the years.

Lately I’ve been doing more conditioning/high intensity workouts where I’m asked to push to the brink of my capabilities and definitely past my comfort levels.  I think the longest one has been twelve minutes.  But that’s twelve minutes of constant, high-level exertion, where I am keenly aware of the passing of each minute, and I’m once again managing my own thoughts—fighting not to give up or retreat back into my comfort zone.

But even the shorter conditioning bouts, 3-4 minutes of sustained near-maximal effort, can be a real test of will, and I’ve had to learn how to maintain calm while exerting myself and enduring.  


This is the lesson that saved my bacon today.

Like I said at the beginning, sometimes exercise is about surviving plane rides.  

I’m a pretty seasoned traveller: I’ve been married to my husband, and therefore the US Army, for 13 years.  Our first duty station was in Darmstadt, Germany, so I became a world traveller while we were engaged and I still lived in Seattle.  We’ve lived in 4 different places since 2002 (we’re lucky we’ve moved so little, actually), and I’ve gotten good at flying all over the US and Europe, usually with two kids in tow.

When they were babies, I had to be really careful and conscious of the change in cabin pressure on take-off and landing, and I always made sure they had a bottle, or pacifier or gum as they got older.  It’s what us moms do!  I never had to worry about myself; the ear pressure thing was a non-issue for me.

Until today, that is!

I made a quick business trip (SO much fun to say that as a military spouse in particular) from where we live in Germany to Asheville, NC, and back again 4 days later.

This morning, the morning I was supposed to fly home, I woke up not just with a stuffy nose and a sore throat, but some serious pressure in my ears—at just a little above sea level.

This did not bode well for my trip.

Despite my best efforts at trying to clear the congestion (water, Sudafed, nose blowing), I just couldn’t get the pressure to release.  Take off wasn’t so awful, but our descent into Amsterdam???

Pure.  Extended. Hell.  

For the last 10 minutes of the flight, I stared at the flight tracker on the video console in the seat in front of me.  With every minute, the pressure grew worse and drinking water and swallowing constantly were no help.  By the last 4 minutes, I was bent over in my seat, pressing both ears closed as tightly as I could, praying my eardrums could take it without rupturing.

The urge to panic was growing as I contemplated all the horrible things that could happen to my ears and how it would mess up my health and my workouts and, and, and….

Then my experience enduring conditioning workouts, my practice in managing intense feelings and staying calm anyway kicked in.  I focused on breathing normally, continued to remind myself I could handle anything for 3 more minutes, no matter how painful, and that even if the worst happened, I would heal and be okay.

And I managed.

The pain was exquisite, the pressure unlike anything I’ve felt or experienced in my ears before, nothing helped besides practically pushing my fingers into my ears…but I managed.  Nothing ruptured, I didn’t cry (although I wanted to join in with the baby in the back of the plane!), and I stayed calm.  Exercise helped me survive the nastiest descent I’d ever experienced—calmly.

Sometimes exercising is about burning the calories or building the muscle.  Sometimes it’s about building endurance.  And sometimes it’s about learning to handle the ugly and unwanted feelings, physical and emotional, calmly….and even with a little grace.

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