"What I Learned from Falling on my Head"
I decided to do a small local Olympic triathlon as a C priority race, well maybe a D priority race (if there is such a thing), one week after an Ironman 70.3 as a social event with friends from the newly minted Cookeville Triathlon Club. I figured it would make a good workout, and if I got lucky, maybe I could hit the overall podium on tired legs.
I started in the last wave, and by the swim exit, things were going well as I had swum through the women’s wave ahead of me, into the men’s wave. Less than a mile into the bike, I was in my aerobars going 20-30mph passing a guy, who suddenly swerved into my path. I was able to get one hand out of the bars onto my rear brake, and managed to guide my fishtailing bike off the road, figuring it would make a softer landing, since it was clearly going down. It was a good plan, until a ditch stopped the front wheel cold and I flew over the bike onto my head. I never put out a hand. I found myself lying face down, with my neck in an unnatural position, wondering if I’d broken my neck.
After I found out that body parts still worked (but not fully aware of the damage until that evening), I got up, and picked up the gear spread over a swath of territory. I put it all back together, wondering, “what now?” I didn’t see reason to stop, so I got back on the bike, and resumed the race.
There was a moment in which I thought that my idea of the overall podium was gone, but then I forgot about that outcome goal, and focused on the process of racing instead – dealing with the fact that I’d lost half my nutrition, my helmet wasn’t on my head quite right, the visor was sideways, and watching my effort and my body for signs of trouble. At one point, I found myself being pissed at the guy who took me down (and didn’t stop), but then I told myself that “I’m so strong, it’s appropriate that I be given a time handicap. Let’s see what I can do!” That served to refocus me from the unfortunate past to a confident present.
In the end, after 3 minutes lost to the wreck, I won the race overall. I’m proud of that result. Not because of the outcome, because that reflected the strength of the field more than my own strength. And not because I physically got up and raced, because I’ve proven in the past that I’ll keep racing even when I shouldn’t. I’m proud of the way I managed it mentally.
In the past, when things went badly in training or racing, I’ve had a tendency to have a part of me fear failure, give up, and go to a black mental hole. I’ve been in that hole for most of an Ironman bike and the whole marathon. That’s a long time, and it is not a pretty place. I’ve procrastinated the hardest workouts for fear of failing. So how did I get from there to here?
I practiced failing. You’d think that failing in training would bring on the black hole and a sense of, “Why try, I’m going to fail anyway”, and it can, if you focus on the failed performance goal. I’ve been chasing some power numbers on the bike in intervals that are a little out of my reach. At first it was pretty discouraging. Then I realized that the whole purpose of reaching those numbers was not so much to achieve them, but to engage the process of going as hard as I could. In the dark space of those intervals I’d ask myself, “Can you go harder?” I checked for ragged breathing, burning legs, and involuntary grunting. If they weren't there, I pushed harder. If I finished the interval breathing hard, with quivering legs, sweat and snot and spit everywhere, well, then I put out an effort that stimulated the physiologic changes I’m seeking, no matter what the numbers say. That’s the real goal. And if I reach for that process goal, the numbers will come, and I see them coming. One day I will achieve that performance goal. And the performance goals will lead to my outcome goals.
So, when I fell on my head, it didn’t matter how it all came out. It only mattered that I got up and tried, and didn’t allow my mind to distract me from that one thing. That was mental fitness that I had learned and practiced in training.
There are probably easier ways to learn this lesson, but some of us need a good smack on the head from time to time…..