Friday, July 13, 2018

Blow Your Big Day? Bounce Back with Mindfulness.

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. 

Or so I thought. 
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.

Damn. Damn!

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.

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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.


  1. Wise words—I try to live by those principles. I also try to remember that I'm not a professional athlete; I ride, run, paddle, etc. for fun. If something I'm doing reaches the point of no longer being fun, I try to recalibrate: I ease off, change the route, or just call it a day. A lot of the time, "fun" doesn't mean "comfortable." But it does usually mean having a sense of control, at least to some degree, along with a willingness to roll with the punches. I've even enjoyed the times I've explored traces on the map only to find that they turned into discontinued roads that required portaging the bike on my shoulder—as long as I kept in mind that my reason for being there was just to enjoy being outside and exploring somewhere new.

    I enjoyed our ride together last fall. Want to meet up again? I'm around for the rest of the summer, except for a few days here and there. I'll be doing the D2R2 mystery ride in August, and I'll need a bit of dirt and hills to get ready for that.

    1. Brian, so great to hear from you, and to know that you're still following MSB!

      Wise words in all ways. The word "control" stuck out to me. Perhaps your talking about what I call "mastery" -- a little bit of being able to do something I couldn't before. But not too much!

      I'd love to ride; I was doing 30-to-45-mile, super-steep, D2R2 level rides through June, but then the fecal matter hit the air-stimulating device and I've dialed back to just "steep." :-) I'll be in touch -- or feel free to reach me!

  2. Assume one intends to succeed. Never assume anything.

    Of course it is possible for pachinko trails, equipment, weather, and self-sabotage to ruin good intentions.

    At the same time preparation amd confidence are on our side.

    The prospect of overcoming an accepted and acknowledged amount of risk built in to any endeavor is an essential part of the deed and the satisfaction.

    Will a given adventure turn out be a tragedy or a comedy? The only way to find out is to be foolish enough to descend into the drama.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Sorcerer. Yes, the risk is certainly part of the reward, for sure.

  3. Funny. I usually end up laughing at myself from a perspective of what others will say or how they react when I picture myself telling them about a goof. First though, there is that utterance of locker-room lingo (in my case) sometimes shouted to the atmosphere.

    I laughed at this story early in since it reminded me of my whiting-out an error on some paperwork today. I've done this before when I see something doesn't look right, take the time to fix it with great care and white-out then realize after I 'fixed it', I had it right the first time !! Go ahead, laugh

    P U N K !!

    1. You're definitely ahead of the game if you can pretty quickly think of how someone else will laugh at the way you've just screwed up! (After a bit of cursing, that is.) Thanks for reading.

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