You might not know it from the posts I generally write here, but if you follow me on Facebook and Instagram, you know that I am a pretty avid cyclist. My love for the bike has gone through many phases over the years, from riding old dusty beaters on country roads in France when I was 10 to riding my super awesome black and gold BMX off every wall I could find when I was thirteen. For a decade and a half now, it’s been road bikes. Call it a side effect of triathlon: I started off with running and swimming as my strongest disciplines, but I fell in love with the speed and allure of the bike. Long story short, I love to ride now much more than I love to run, and as much as it surprises me to say it, even more than swimming.
I am not what you might call a competitive cyclist. Not in the sense that the competitive cyclists I know are really serious about their performance. And they kind of have to: they typically race with teams on the weekends. Crits, road races, time-trials, even cyclocross in the winter. These guys are hammers. They race Pro 1,2. They look like greyhounds out there, hunched over their slick $10K leg-propelled rockets, There’s a universe of performance between me and them. But it isn’t to say that I am not competitive as a cyclist. On a good day, I’m an A- rider. On a typical day, I’m a B+. I am decent enough to put the hurt on a peloton if I have to, but unless I play my cards right and get lucky, I’m not the kind of rider who finishes on the podium.
Experience being a good teacher, it’s rare that I really, really, really screw up on a ride. I’ve done centuries. I’ve done Gran Fondos. I’ve crossed the finish line of an Ironman. I know what it takes to train for ultradistance events, how to dress for temperature fluctuations, how to fuel, how to hydrate… the whole works. And though I’m not exactly a billy goat, I can climb decently well. One of the reasons I still live in Greenville, South Carolina is that it is one of the best places in the US to ride year-round. We have every kind of terrain here, from nice flat roads to quad-busting mountain climbs, and the temps rarely dip below freezing. And yet, old pros like me still make rookie mistakes. It rarely happens, but when it does… wow. That’s how epic rides become epic failures, and yes, there’s a lesson here that applies to far more than just cycling.
Oct 25 was the Hincapie Gran Fondo. If you don’t live in the South East, you may have caught wind of it because of Lance Armstrong, who was banned from participation at the very last minute by cycling authorities. (There was quite a bit of brouhaha about a chunk of the old US Postal team gang getting back together for the event, which sort of brought a lot of bad memories – keyword: doping scandal – back to the surface.) Bad PR decisions aside, the event is solid. Put on by Hincapie Sports and a slew of sponsors, the Hincapie Gran Fondo basically boils down to a celebration of cycling, where hundreds of riders of all levels come together to enjoy some of the best riding the East coast has to offer. There’s the Gran Fondo (80 miles), the Medio (50 miles) and the Piccolo (15 miles), followed by a giant party on the grounds of the very cool cycling-centric Hotel Domestique (which doubles as one of the area’s coolest wedding party venues). I was familiar with the climbs and comfortable with the distance, so I figured it would be a great event to be a part of. A suffer-fest for my quads, sure, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
Well, on a normal day, maybe. Turns out that it was a lot more than my legs could handle after all. Long story short: As fit and trained as I am, i screwed up my hydration the week leading into the event. It was a combination of failures. I didn’t pay attention. I didn’t plan properly. I also had a bit of a digestive bug a couple of days before the event, but I didn’t take it into account as I should have. I didn’t even measure my fluid intake throughout the week. I played it as business-as-usual, and it came back to bite me in the ass something brutal. The short version: my legs, which can normally take anything I throw at them, started cramping on the first of three major climbs. Every time I stood in the pedals, my quads would ball up. Every time I sat back down, my hamstrings would ball up. When I finally found myself having to walk a portion of the second climb (18% grade FTW), my legs cramped too, and I had to not only walk but limp up that hill. I have never struggled and suffered so much on a bike ride. Ever. A bike ride which, by all accounts, should have been challenging in some parts (those climbs are no joke) but pretty much a non-issue for me on most days, turned into an epic disaster. By the time I finally started getting my cramp/hydration issues resolved, I had lost too much time and missed the time cut-off for the final major climb. (Riders have to reach a certain checkpoint point by a certain time. If they miss the time cut-off, they get re-routed and finish the ride minus the mountain.) Result: Although I managed to get back to the finish without assistance (SAG vehicle, ambulance, good samaritan, or “mom, come get me,”), I fell short of my goals: complete the 80 mile course I had signed up for. I ended up with something like 70 total miles for the day. No finisher’s medal for me.
Boohoo? Not really. Actually, quite the opposite. I had A LOT of time to think and reflect on the fiasco I was enduring in real time, and a few thing occurred to me that I think I ought to share with you, in no particular order.
1. Attitude will make you or break you. Look… shit happens. Some days, you own the world, and some days, the world owns you. And then some days, the world decides it’s going to kick you in the balls just because it wants to. When it happens, you can feel sorry for yourself or you can make a point to push away negative thoughts. You’ll want to quit. You’ll want to hang it up and go home. You’ll want the pain or the embarrassment or the fear to stop. Keep an eye on your attitude. Imagine a gauge with a needle on it if you have to. If the needle starts to dip towards the negative, put on the gas and get it back to where it needs to be. If the pie starts to seem too big and scary, slice the pie into bite-sized pieces you can handle. Break it all down into manageable bits. Score small wins for yourself until you get your confidence back. And remind yourself as much as you need to that you wanted a challenge, that you worked your ass off for it, and that whatever is going wrong is just part of the appeal anyway. You’ll overcome because it’s what you do, and because it’s part of what you signed up for anyway. Now suck it up and let’s see a smile.
2. Don’t feed the troll inside your head. When things go wrong, there’s a monologue going on inside your head that steers itself entirely towards negativity. Answer back. Drown that shit out with your own conscious voice. Drown it out with facts, not fear. Here’s a fact for you: you’re stronger, smarter and infinitely more capable than that insidious little voice inside your head would have you believe. Here’s another: don’t quit until you have nothing left in you. Don’t break until you actually break. Don’t let some troll inside your head convince you to quit just as things were about to get better. Assess, own your own mindset, adapt, move on.
Besides, sometimes there’s wine:
3. It pays to be flexible and agile in your thinking. Battle plans change. Adjust your tactics. Adjust your strategy. Adjust your expectations, even. Things not turning out like you expected or hoped? Adapt. We’re humans: we’re really really really good at this. If you run into a hurdle, find a way around, over or under it. Just find a way. Assess, adapt, execute, move on.
4. You think you have it bad? Some people have it a lot worse. Put things in perspective. In the first mile of the ride, a young girl went down about a half mile ahead of me. Hard. So hard that the usual ugly dull scraping-skidding sound of bike crashes that many of us are used to actually sounded like someone smashing a baseball bat against the hood of a car. When we rode by her, she was on the ground, conscious and upright, but obviously hurt. She was holding her shoulder in a way every cyclist has learned to fear. She was well attended so there was no need to stop (too much congestion on the road would have done more harm than good). Anyway, I thought about her a lot during the ride. On the long hard climbs, when my legs hurt so badly that I couldn’t move them, I thought about how much worse it was for her. And on the long stretches of red and golden road where the cool October air whipped at my face and the warm low sun warmed my back, I thought about how much she would have given to be right where I was instead of ending her day in the ER. There’s always someone who would give everything to be where you are, even on your worst day. Change your perspective. Enjoy the bad days too. They might actually be worth a lot more than the good ones. Assess, reframe, adapt, move on.
5. Wounded pride heals faster than wounded confidence. Remind yourself that on any other day, you would be kicking ass. This wouldn’t be a challenge. Bad days happen. Your pride is going to take a hit. That’s all okay as long as you remember that one failure doesn’t mean you suck. You’re just having a bad day. It happens to everyone. If you’re good at what you do the other 99% of the time, no one will confuse your one-time mistake with a sign of incompetence or lack of talent. Assess, learn, adapt, move on.
Sometimes, the short term stuff (swag) looks cooler than the long term stuff. Like, for instance, this musette:
6. Own your mistakes and learn from them. I screwed up my hydration. I had no idea that I was at the time, but while I was struggling with my legs acting as if they had never seen a hill before, I looked back on possible causes for the problem until I saw them all clearly. Understanding the why and how of my mistake helped me with three things: 1) I’ll never make that mistake again, 2) It’s not me, it’s the mistake I made, and 3) I know how to fix it in both the short term and the long term. I guess I could have blamed the weather (too cold at the start, too warm on the climbs), or my bike (you wouldn’t believe how many riders were blaming their bikes for their shit performance all along the course), or a million other things, but there’s zero benefit to that. All I knew is that I needed to know how to fix the problem and then make sure I never put myself in that situation again. The rest is just bullshit and ego. Honesty will get you out of the ditch you put yourself in a hell of a lot faster than blame. In business, it might be any number of things: you hired the wrong person. You bought the wrong software. You cut corners on creative or planning or research. It happens to everyone. Assess, learn, adapt, move on.
7. Laughing at a bad situation beats the hell out of bitching about it. Things might look pretty dark right now, but someday you’ll have a great story to tell. Look, nobody really wants to hear about the time you won a race or a prize or an award. Yeah, okay, you’re loaded and you have a yacht and your girlfriend is a Miss whatever from wherever. High five. But the best stories are the ones where you tripped and fell flat on your face, or how you put yourself in a really bad/insane/dangerous situation and somehow made it back to the world unscathed (or something near unscathed). Saying to yourself “look at you now, you stupid moron” when you;re in the depth of despair might seem like negative talk, but add a smile and a chuckle to it, and suddenly it changes the entire tone of that remark. This goes back to the attitude thing: frowning and making a suffer face actually reinforces your feelings of failure, of pain, of fear. (It also uses up more energy than smiling.) Make yourself smile, let yourself shake your head and chuckle, call yourself names outloud if you have to. Whatever works. Just be aware that laughing at a bad situation will probably change how you deal with that situation, and that difference can make all the difference in the world. Assess, flip negativity the finger, laugh at how stupid you look, pat yourself on the shoulder for being a good trooper, adapt, move on.
8. This pain is temporary. It’ll be over soon, so strap in and endure it a little longer. One of the biggest traps people fall into when things go awry is to mistake now with next. If you need to slow down, slow down. If you need to take a break, take a break. Do whatever you have to do. But if you manage your pain and dicomfort properly, if you slice the pie into smaller bits and pieces and modify your approach, the stuff that makes you want to quit will go away. Things will feel and work better again. Just hang in there. It might take 10 minutes, it might take 10 hours, it might even take 10 days… just hang in there. Things will come around if you just. keep. going. I remember this agency a few years ago that lost something like 75% of its revenue in 6 months. You could literally see the agency shrink by looking into their windows. Empty desks, then empty space… it must have been terrible in there. But they’re back on their feet now and kicking ass. They bounced back. They wouldn’t have if they had given up. Just ride through the pain knowing it will go away eventually. (It will.) Assess, remind yourself that pain is temporary, adapt, move on.
Imagine how much better we would do if we mapped out the daily bumps in the road ahead of time, like this terrain map of the course:
9. As much as today might suck, there you are, doing what you love. You realize how lucky you are, right? You’re doing what you love. You’re not actually having a bad day. You’re having a great day. You’re just dwelling on a few pain points that have taking over your attention. It’s like this ride… Most of the ride felt fine. It was fun. Hammering on flat roads, carving turns into screaming descents with the wind roaring in my ears, endless miles of changing leaves ranging from emerald to gold and all the way to ochre, dry roads, blue skies, warm sunshine, the smell of mowed grass, the sound of wild birds everywhere… it was a beautiful day and an amazing ride. It was picture-perfect, really… except for those climbs when my legs turned into tight little balls of stubborn pain. I fell short of my goals. I had a horrible day, performance-wise, maybe the worst I’ve ever had. But man, what an amazing ride it was, and an even more perfect day. Pain of no pain, disappointment or no disappointment, I was out there doing what I loved, and I can tell you with 100% certainty that if you manage not to lose sight of that, the hurdles and the kicks to the huevos won’t seem so bad in the grand scheme of things.
10. No matter how much you think you screwed up, very few people will ever even notice. This was the most surprising thing about my fiasco at the Hincapie Gran Fondo: even though I didn’t complete the full 80 mile challenge, and even though I can’t help but feel a nice plump sense of shame about it, almost everyone I know still congratulated me. As much as I tried to explain “no, you don’t understand… I failed,” they kept coming back with “but you still did it.” Whatever ‘it’ was. For some, it was finishing the ride, regardless of the shorter route I was forced to take. For others, it was riding the distance I did (shorter than planned or not), or making it up the first two major climbs… or even showing up in the first place. I’m still wrestling with that a little, but aside from being surrounded by good people who are good at cheering you up, there’s also this: your failure may sit somewhere north of someone’s lifetime goal. Completing only 3/4 of a Gran Fondo might seem out of reach for a lot of beginner cyclists just like getting to work on a campaign for Nike or Oakley or Michelin might be a dream opportunity for a lot of creatives. So what if they were only hired to put together a boring banner ad together or produce a short radio spot? They still got to work with one of their favorite brands, right? So… this is making me ponder the notion of failure, and the subjective nature of failure relative to your own expectations versus everyone else’s. Anyway, the point being this: sometimes, we can let ourselves get so caught up in achieving the grand prize that we forget to see (and enjoy) what we accomplished along the way. Every great failure is strewn with small and often beautiful victories. Don’t forget to enjoy them.
That look says it all. And if all else fails, learning to take failure gracefully (and with a pinch of humor when needed) is half the battle.
Okay, that’s it. I’m done. Now go forth and enjoy your day, and if at all possible, go build something great… And ride a bike today if you can. It’s good for you and it’s fun.
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