Friday, March 28, 2014

Toughness and Other Stupid Stuff

Ok, I hope I am ready. I think I am, I know I am, but I suppose I need to keep proving it to myself. With short track over and the race season in full swing, I can’t help but wonder if I am really there, really READY to do my best this season. With two excellent finishes under my belt so far, it seems logical that I would be feeling confident, and I am, most of the time… I think that somewhere in every racer’s heart is a tiny seed of self-doubt, of nervousness about the season ahead. Have we put in enough time, have we pushed enough, logged enough hours, done enough strength training and even had enough rest to equal some improvements this season? This is when we need to remember to trust the training. For me it is all there in TrainingPeaks, in notes to coach Laura and in the strength of my legs. This is the beginning of the new season, and we are all excited to line up and reap the benefits of our hard work. But what to do when a bit of nervousness or doubt creeps in?

At times, training is an exercise in enduring miserable crap in order to achieve a larger goal. Freezing cold base miles over and over again. Wet slogs over muddy trails. Mindless monotony on the trainer. Sweaty sessions in the TotalCyclist Paincave. If we are lucky, the winter will (finally) recede into the distance. We’ve taken our medicine, built our tolerance. The results will come – at least this is what I tell myself.

Training builds our ability to tolerate the inevitable pain of racing. We know we can do it because we have done it before. I was reflecting on this the other day while riding alone in the woods, and remembered a poem that I learned in high school.(Bear with me because I am about to supergeek out.) The title is ‘Terence, This is Stupid Stuff’ by A.E. Housman, and does not refer to either Terence on the TC MTB team. I will spare you analysis of the entire poem (look it up, though, it’s good), and cut to the analogy that Terence the poet (not a cyclist) spills at its conclusion:

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.


The king in the poem is pretty sure that his buddies are going to try to poison him. Instead of living in fear, he decides to try and control his fate by building immunity to said poisons. He does so slowly, methodically, until he is, to his comrades surprise, blissfully unaffected by the arsenic and strychnine intended to take him down. The punch line refers to old Mithriadates dying old, and I think it means that he died happy, knowing that his preparation cleverly saved his life. I suppose that’s what I want to feel in the middle of a really hard race. I want to know that I have the mental and physical toughness to be immune to fatigue, negative thoughts, steep climbs or grueling conditions. I know it is there, but I believe we all struggle with wondering if the toughness – the immunity – will be there when we need it most. Was Mithiradates nervous too? Even if he was, the audience would never have known it….

So this spring, I will try to trust the training and let my legs do the rest. Here’s to ‘dying old’ on the bike this season, and to doing a little bit of stupid stuff along the way. We probably are indeed tougher than we think.

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