The top seemed so far away. Each pedal stroke reluctantly turned the wheel from legs barely able to push. My body felt like sand. Like molasses. I had never felt so bad on my bike.
Four years ago I entered the Transylvania Epic (TSE), a seven-day mountain bike stage race that covers over 200 miles of rocky trails and fire roads in central Pennsylvania. For six months leading up to it, I trained. I did most of what you were supposed to do. But my mind and spirit just weren’t ready to do it. The psychological and emotional fortitude of dealing with the stress of that much hard racing quickly overwhelmed me. My body was in great shape—lean and agile and powerful. But the navigation system couldn’t take it when things didn’t go exactly as I wanted them to. Flats. Cramps. Dehydration in 95 degree heat.
Sadly, I became a petulant kid and didn’t take care of myself and then on day three I fell apart. Climbing up to Penn View from Poe Paddy I crumbled. Two days later I went back to race in R.B. Winter State Park and quadruple flatted. I felt like of all the days I would excel at it would be that one. But nope. The fourth flat came on a rock that bent my rim. I started running out of the forest to Boiling Springs Trail. While I ran, trying to stay somewhat positive I freaked out. I threw my bike into the laurel. Then I finished off the wheel against a few trees.
It was pathetic.
It was a great lesson.
It crushed my ego. That course and my reaction put me into my place. The whole experience stripped me of illusions. And it really really sucked to blow up like that. See, for the months I’d blogged about preparing and all the trails I rode. That part was so fun and went so well. So when I blew up I felt ashamed because I felt like I did it in front of a crowd I’d asked to watch me. What a personal colossal failure.
But failure is a great teacher when you listen.
This year I decided, after barely riding my bike for the last few years, that I would ride the TSE again. I had my single speed. My friend Paul was interested in doing it and we could do it as a team. He and I have both done hundred mile races. He got me into riding and racing 15 years ago. Two summers ago he rode across the country. Last summer he did the INSANE Tour Divide (a race on the continental divide from Canada to New Mexico). He’s also over fifty.
Experience. Patience. Simply knowing I had a friend who I admire to prepare with and think things through and train was all I needed. Jorah Mormont tells Daenerys Targeryen in Game of Thrones, “No one makes it alone in this world khaleesi.” And I didn’t want to do it alone. So we trained together. Eventually we decided to enter our categories—50+ for him and single speed for me. The lesson of failure, of asking for help, of being patient with myself, and of just keeping on worked for me. How did I do it? I’d say there were probably four things.
First, I simply love riding bikes. It’s fun and riding in beautiful places feeling the breathing earth breathe with me is enough: trails, mountains, clear cold water mountain gap streams, a rattlesnake (I did see one), the calls of birds, and the people full of energy. When I’m open to the world, it fills my heart.
Second, I rode a lot and enough to make it. Paul and I put in an early couple of centuries, I did some long solo rides, and I rode most of the way to D.C. by myself in one day and then joined others to raise awareness on climate change and the need for urgent action. Yes. The bike is not just a vehicle for transport, it’s a metaphor for our best ways of being healthy and a metaphor for the needed transformation of our economy and society. You can read about that more in later posts. Merging my passions for the bike and a better world made this work.
Third, I kept in mind my friend Patrick’s and my mantra from the previous year of trail running and wicked workouts. “There is honor in failure.” We trained for an all-trail half-marathon with miles of rocks and thousands of feet of climbing. The race was punishing but the card and weight workouts we did were harder sometimes. Burpees and star jumps and sprints and all that kind of brutal stuff brought on failure pretty often. Our friend Vince would make us do things with weights that cyclists don’t do. Since we were at a boy’s boarding school, high school boys joined us. By the end, we were better than them.
We just kept going. Eighteen minutes into our card workout on our 108th pushup after all the other stuff we had done, we would glare at the wall. Viscous drool poured out of our mouths. Patrick would swear at me. I would laugh from some combination of endorphin-based pleasure, pain, and the imminence of failure. There would be honor there if it was reached honestly. And when it happened, that meant I’d faced a limit. What then? If you can keep going, keep going. If not. There’s the limit and it’s fine. The little failures make for that much more success.
Fourth, I set up my approach in a way that accounted for my last entry. I was positive and I took stock of my weaknesses. I could focus on my strengths in ways that would compensate for shortcomings. That short fuse and petulance could be circumvented with my love of woods. My possible annoyance at having no high end and getting shelled on a climb would be prevented by the climb’s beauty, being in my body in the moment and the power of perseverance. I have a lot of willpower and I’m able to be distracted. It became about focus on what made me go. Being in relationship to the course instead of the race.
I didn’t get to this totally on my own. I’d done a lot of reflecting over the previous years. There was a fair amount of it. I’d moved to another place, got divorced, fell in love again, finished my Ph.D., and started writing poetry (a book called Heartwood is forthcoming). A strategy took my own reflection and sharpened it into a strategy. I used Gabrielle Oettingen’s WOOP strategy (Wish Outcome Obstacle Plan). I hate positive psychology because most of it is utter garbage. Oettingen sifts through the garbage and gives a scientifically based and intuitive plan.
So that was it. I planned. I learned how to fail. I rode a lot with the help of a friend. And I did it because I love it.
Last week I started and finished the TSE on my Independent Fabrication single speed, Achilles. I rode the whole race beginning to end and had a great time. Well…day six started with a lot of fatigue and it was honestly a really hard day. A combination of fatigue and the beginning of a cold/flu was setting in. Day seven I was coughing and pretty congested but I just kept on. That’s all I could do and it’s what I did. Day three I took second place. But I cramped on day two and got flats and irritating tire burps on day four. So did other people.
I don’t know if there’s a grand human lesson in this. There is one for me. When I get out of my own way and focus on love and strength, I do well and am happy. Accepting failure and moving through it garners success. It makes me a better person.
Now for the next ride.