It was a beautiful Midwestern afternoon in June: the skies were blue, the trees were green, and the sun was shining. I found myself alone, wearing spandex in a public park with “El Chucho” (the mutt), my bright green cyclocross bike. We were surrounded by empty tents and unused port-a-potties. My legs were screaming in pain, my stomach was turning itself inside out, and my mind had betrayed me hours ago.
Our day started in Duluth, 116 miles north of this park, with thousands of other riders. For them, today was the first half of a two-day, 150-mile ride that brings awareness to Multiple Sclerosis and raises funds to research its cure. I, having ridden the course in two days the previous year, had ventured to complete the entire thing in one day.
That meant that at mile 75 complete solitude started.
At mile 76 I started second-guessing myself.
At mile 80 my legs started cramping.
At mile 104 every pedal stroke added to the longest distance I had traveled on my bicycle in a single day.
At mile 109 I started dry heaving while riding down the two-lane, country highway.
At mile 116.2, in that ghost town of an aide station, I decided that I was done.
I simply didn’t want to spend the next two or three hours continuing to pedal in agony, alone and unsure of my route. So, I locked Chucho to a tree, walked to a nearby gas station, and bought a protein shake, a liter of water, Reese’s peanut butter cups, and a bag sour patch kids. After walking back to the park, I sat down on a bench, and pulled my cell phone out of my jersey pocket. With a mouthful of food I starting calling friends who lived nearby: a car would be delivering me the final 34 miles of this route.
The question that haunts me now, 6 months after the fact, is this: did I fail on that day?
I had said I was riding the entire 150 miles in one day.
I rode 116.
So, in simplest terms, I failed.
The problem with being a recreational endurance athlete is that my “events” come once every month or two at best. I don’t have a weekly opportunity to put a mark in either the W or the L column like the athletes in organized team sports have. So, when those marks do fall into a column, they fall heavily.
Luckily the third thing I’ve learned from C.T. and the dirtbags is that there are multiple definitions of failure.
I think C.T. would say that I failed. One of his frequent adages is: ISYMFS, an acronym for “It’s Still Your Mother F---ing Set.” No excuses. Do what you set out to do. Don’t show up unless you’re going to perform.
This definition’s beauty is it’s binary simplicity. You either performed in the way you said you would or you didn’t. If I had been in this mindset during my bike ride, it wouldn’t have mattered how bad my body hurt, how long it took to finish, or even how sick I got; I would have needed to finish, no matter what, at all costs.
Luckily, the dirtbags offer a very different perspective on failure. It is, on some level, inherently and intrinsically part of the sport of rock climbing. Everyone falls. Everyone experiences injuries and setbacks. For the dirtbags, and all climbers, failure is part of the process of progression. Failures line the road that, if followed to its finish, leads to success and accomplishment.
What I like most about this definition is that coming up short isn’t the end of the matter; it’s an opportunity to learn and move on. The true failure under this definition is giving up, not continuing to progress, and not learning from the times we do come up short.
I learned a lot about myself on that day in June. I learned how damaging and defeating negative self-talk is. Always. I learned what to eat and drink when trying to ride over 100 miles in a single day and what not to. I learned that I mentally impose limits on myself that otherwise wouldn’t be there. I learned that sleeping in a tent the night before a ride makes EVERYTHING harder the next day. I learned that solitude transitions from being my sanctuary and sanatorium to a state of torment, often rapidly and without much warning.
I learned that the only way I failed that day was in mileage and that the only way I can fail after the fact is by not taking the lessons from that day to heart and applying them to future endeavors.
Me Riding El Chucho Toward Success