An Indomitable Can’titude

She said, “Don’t worry. You’re mentally tough. You’ll make it.” And I said, “No. I’m mentally weak, but I might still make it.” And that felt much better and set me up for eventual success, which isn’t really a thing anyway, since nothing is ever finished. There is, to employ the cliché, no finish line.

I think I can go a lot farther on “maybe I can’t” than I can on “I definitely will.” One is a starting place that gives me something to work against, failure, while the other gives me too much to lose. The first one acknowledges that I’m not remarkable. I don’t have an infinite well of strength to call on. The second one is a delusion, a lie you might tell yourself and find out it’s wrong and that the disappointment leaves you in a worse place than you started.

It’s all head games.

When I broke my collarbone, it was the culmination of a long series of setbacks that included the deaths of my father and brother, a cancer diagnosis for my mother, and two months of near constant personal illness. I’d taken a lot of hits, literally and figuratively, and I needed to marshal all my resources to keep going.

None of that adversity made me mentally tough. It made me experienced in disappointment.

And all I wanted to do was run and ride my bike and hurt in a way that I could manage until I stopped hurting in ways I couldn’t manage. That’s really the charm of endurance sports, isn’t it, that you manage the hurt? And if we’re lucky, over time, it teaches us to accept real life discomfort and pain.

The work we do, every day, is to move forward, feel better, get stronger, more resilient, and more content in our lives. I suppose that endurance sports, on some level, are enjoyable in and off themselves. They are. I know they are, but I also think they are meant to train us to face life’s general and relentless adversity.

There is an idea called the Stockdale Paradox, named for Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, a long-term prisoner of war in Vietnam. The idea is that survival requires a mixture of faith in a good outcome and also a hyper-realistic assessment of the current reality. One without the other only leads to disappointment or despair, and as low as I’ve been over the last few years, my budget for despair is exhausted.

So I’m cultivating mental weakness, squaring up to the reality that I might not achieve any of my goals. A world I can’t control might intervene. I might end up in a sling again, or sick, or derailed by something not even on my radar currently. I have faith that if I do the work, run when I can run, ride when I can ride, explore every chance I get, then good things will happen.

The idea of the moment in endurance sports is to focus on the process, keep the cart behind the horse, so to speak, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think you have to recognize your own weakness, but go out every day to find out if you can be more than that.

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