If you like cycling at all and don’t yet read Red Kite Prayer, run (don’t walk) to your RSS feed manager and add it right now. I love their down-to-Earth reviews, but especially their posts about the psychology of cycling. Today’s, titled “He Is Him,” really hit home to me, helping me to clarify some of the dark thoughts I deal with.
From “He is Him:”
In the first hour, I try to be him, matching his speed if not his massive, crushing cadence. By the end of that first hour, I ought to have learned the lesson of our otherness, but I am stubborn, nigh on pig-headed, and so I go on pretending I am him and he is me.
We are flying. This is a thing he can do, and I can pretend to do, but apparently not for more than an hour-and-a-half. This became clear as he disappeared up a hill in front of me, still turning a huge gear despite the incline. He drops me without noticing, nonchalant, oblivious. I am an apple core flung to the roadside. Maybe an animal will happen by and carry me off.
I think we can all relate to that. Even though I’m not much of an experienced cyclist, I’ve done enough group rides to end up riding from time to time with people who are way out of my league. The words “a thing he can do, and I can pretend to do” resonate with me. Even when I do keep up with those folks, I know that I’m only “pretending.” They can do this day in and day out, while I’m gonna pay a price for doing it even just this once.
But that same feeling is the one that I get when I see people rush by me to goals I’ve set — or wish I could set. The people I’m talking about are the ones who got interested in cycling after me, but are faster than me. The ones who started triathlon at the same time I did, but have done half and full Ironman distances while I still reach for my first olympic. The ones who’re heading to their first marathon.
Of course, what I’m doing is, as RKP rightly points out, “pretending I am him and he is me.” Those people aren’t me. They have their own goals, and I have mine. Neither of our goals are better than the other’s, because personal goals aren’t milk or gasoline or rice. They’re not a commodity. Comparing their goals to mine is like comparing apples to battleships. There’s nothing on which to base the comparison because goals only have meaning to the person who owns them.
Forgetting this comes with a cost, too, which takes the form of bitterness — an unwillingness to support others in their goals, and to receive support in kind. It’s seeing another’s accomplishment as a measure of one’s own failing rather than what it is: a happy moment of achievement for a friend, acquaintance, or even just one of the people you’re lucky enough to be riding/running/swimming with instead of chugging along alone. Unchecked, this bitterness can dig in and blacken the heart, directly destroying one’s own ability to set and achieve goals and to enjoy the process along the way. Worse, it separates one from community — a source of strength and joy when we forget how to find it ourselves.
As RKP posts, “…training will not make me him. Persistence will not make me him. Cleverness will not make me him. He could be anybody who is constitutionally stronger than I am. It doesn’t matter.” In fact, nothing at all will ever make us them, because they are them and we are us, as it should be.
This is a lot more profound than it sounds initially. Adopting their goals won’t help me. Even if I achieved them, the joy wouldn’t be mine. Stealing their joy doesn’t help, either. My joy, when I find it, has always come from the process, from day-to-day achievements as much as from the big ones. Maybe more, in hindsight, since no matter how special the feelings are when I reach a big goal, they’re dwarfed by the additive power of hundreds — maybe even thousands — of days of feeling great because I finished my workout, completed a hard interval, or didn’t get dropped from that fast ride quite as fast as the time before.
Looking back, I don’t remember as much the getting dropped part as I do the bit where I ran into the ride leader in a shop later the day of the ride and he commented that I was riding stronger. Or the time when a guy who could chew me up and spit me out explained the rotating pace line to me while I was doing it rather than being pissed that I joined a ride too fast for me. His quick, “Hey, gotta learn sometime” in response to my huffed-out apology for botching my first pull was more of a compliment than you might think if you’ve never ridden with these guys.
Today’s achievement — which feels pretty good — is surviving my first masters swim. My coach recommended it and was kind enough to shepherd me through it. I’ve been scared to death to attend one of these, in a lot of the same ways I used to be scared to swim in lap lanes at the pool at all. It might’ve been an uphill battle over the last three years to get fit enough to handle the exercise, but it’s been an even steeper battle to overcome my own in-built belief that I have no right to participate in group sporting of any kind. Maybe it was all the years of taunting when I was a kid, or maybe it’s just my own self-destructive nature. But getting to the pool was, for me, an even bigger challenge than walking into a bike shop. Though I wasn’t afraid of the water, it took my friend Mitch walking me through the process to get me into the lap pool at the gym, and I owe him big for it — especially for suffering through my first long and drawn-out attempts to swim any distance at all. The first time we swam together last fall, I had a hell of a time making one 25-yard length without stopping. Slowly that became 50, then 100, and around the holidays I managed my first 1,000, though it took an hour.
Today I swam somewhere around 3,300 yards — the longest I’ve ever swam in a single session. I don’t know exactly how far because I was too busy relaxing, doing what the masters coach told me to do, and enjoying the joy of getting to swim hard without counting beyond 3 or 4. It was great, despite what the demon inside of me told me about making a fool out of myself in a place where I don’t belong. While I’m sure I cleared the lane out a bit with my slow swimming, I didn’t seem to stop the show, and I got a great workout. I’ll be back.
Maybe those other people swim faster — and know how to do the backstroke and breaststroke, which I don’t, though I apparently did a not utterly dissimilar imitation when the coach told me to do them anyway during an individual medley set. But that doesn’t matter, because they’re them. I’m me. Believe it or not, overcoming my fears and learning about myself is as much my goal as finishing any particular distance or event at any speed.