I was standing quite alone on an empty dirt road. I'd just biked up three of the hardest hills of my life, and was about halfway through the 30-mile route of Brattleboro, Vermont's 2018 Tour de Heifer.
Frantically cross-referencing my paper map and the GPS app on my phone, I heard another rider rolling up behind me. He quickly confirmed my suspicion: I had missed a turn miles ago, and was well into the 60-mile route.
The Tour, in its sixth edition this year, is part of Brattleboro's annual Strolling of the Heifers festival. I'd been training for weeks, doing much more climbing than usual, and looking forward to a route hand-picked by locals for its stunning scenery. Now, I'd have to go off-route in order to get back to the start without keeling over. In my disappointment, I turned on myself: “After so many years, you'd think I'd know how to stay on course at a cycling event!”
Haven't we all had that moment when our big day goes south? A mechanical failure high on a mountain, a missed move in a race, or just plain poor peformance, can seem like disaster at the time. Wouldn't it be helpful if we could turn it around, with the least damage done?
That wasn't happening on that dirt road. For a few absurd minutes, I went into classic denial, unable to believe this was happening. Alas, reality prevailed, and I saw my goals slowly slipping from my grasp.
I took a few minutes to breathe and have a bite to eat. As denial gave way to grudging acceptance, an odd thing happened. My inner image of my situation began to lift overhead, higher and higher. From up there, I inwardly saw a lone guy on a bike on an isolated road... in the middle of a network of isolated roads... in the middle of rural Vermont.
In that moment, it was crystal-clear that the universe couldn't care less that I was that guy.
Ironically, that brought profound relief. My hard feelings began to dissolve, and I was free to make a clear-headed decision, follow through, and let all the self-pity and regret go. I found a road that doubled back toward the starting line, and only added moderate mileage and climbing to my expected total. I finished in a good mood, and in plenty of time for the fun at the after-party.
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Moments of despair and self-recrimination are nothing new to outdoor athletes. We love to challenge ourselves, which is great—except when it brings out the worst in us. If we're harsh on ourselves in the best of times, seeing our fondest dreams disappear turns that habit up to eleven.
The answer? You can't control all the variables, but you can cut yourself some slack. And it usually brings surprising results.
Now, this goes against advice you may have gotten for years from parents, coaches, and society at large. We lionize toughness, hardness. But even the baddest martial artists cultivate fluidity—the yin to aggression's yang. It allows them to (literally!) roll with the punches, so they can come back even harder.
How can you put this into play?
1) When something goes wrong, you can take a quick break for food or just breathing. Take a conscious step back, and realize the incident, and your difficult reaction to it, is a universal, human experience. The most elite athletes in the world have really bad days, and so does everyone else.
2) You can just be present, as a skilled parent might for thier child having a tantrum. Tell yourself, “You're having a hard time right now,” or "this is a tough moment." A clear, objective observation is quite calming. Self-condemnation, or an inner command to “grow up” or “buckle down," can seem like a quicker way to get ourselves back on track, but, in fact, it just creates more tension and muddier thinking.
3) Your new calm leaves you with resources. It lets you make the best of the situation. When you're present to what's really happening, not only do you feel better, but your response is more effective. At the Tour de Heifer, I was calm enough to find a good route back to the start, and to improve my own attitude. Self-compassion can help you convert a setback into a positive experience.
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The next time you think you've blown it at that big race or ride, take a break and a step back, without beating yourself up. You'll feel better—and do better.