My RAW 2017 attempt saw success in many ways, and failure in at least as many. For better or worse, we humans seem to learn best from our failures. I hope to demonstrate the rule rather than the exception in 2018. Of all the things that went badly in 2017, the one thing that brought me a DNF next to my name took the shape of mental toughness. And specifically, the distinction between mental toughness and tenacity.
As I climbed in triple digit heat from near sea-level to 7000 feet across 30+ miles, I finally hit the bottom of my mental strength. I had soldiered on for some time, but ultimately I wanted only 2 things: to quit, and to not quit. When investigating the state of my body (knee pain, wrist pain, back pain, foot pain and numbness, saddle sore, heat, exhaustion, sleep-deprivation, the fact that my music was stuck on melancholy-driving songs, an inability to break the race down to anything less than arriving in Durango), everything was terrible, but nothing suggesting throwing in the towel. I simply stopped wanting to fight anymore. I could not find the positive reasons to outweigh the negative reasons. I had 1/3rd of the race still to go – another 330 miles. It proved too much for my mind.
A significant part of my learning from 2017 made clear to me that my process goals needed tweaking, and I needed better control over my controllables. I had tenacity: all those years of IM training allowed me to spend a significant portion of any long event “in the zone” of appropriate focus – the controllables (see last week’s post) – to the conscious exclusion of almost everything else. For all intensive purposes, this served well as mental toughness in that I could make the most of what I had on the day – even if that day brought a poor result.
However in RAW, a race spanning several days, the ability to keep the mental focus becomes severely challenge (by all those things above snowballing into a veritable avalanche of things just going wrong). In the end, my outcome goal proved too much for my process goals. When the going got really hard, I had an exhaustive list of things that should have been in my control (music, race break-down, taping up wrists, taking more breaks, etc), but weren’t, and I ran out of reasons to really want to keep the fight up. Only in retrospect could I look back and say that, while content with my effort last year, I did not find satisfaction in not making the finish line.
Life often presents us with similar challenges – things we wish we could change, things we wish were different. But as the card player knows, you play the hand your dealt. Finding the path back to controlling your controllables – to the exclusion of uncontrollable distractions – becomes the hardest part. Experience helps us determine how broad our focus to overcoming distractions may be – I had not expected music to be an issue, and I had no backup. (Pro Tip: depressing music does not help in RAW). I had planned on getting cue cards on my bike for each time station – for any number of reasons (including my own failure to write them all out prior to the race) this did not happen, and I couldn’t break down the race anymore. This year I have several ways to break it down. And most importantly I have the reflection that just going forward is success. Going as far as I can: ride, break, ride, break, all the way to the time cut-off – and possibly beyond – all to get to Durango.
MS certainly challenges us this way. 1 year ago, I could feel what my toes were doing all the time. Now I cannot. 3 years ago, I could focus my eyes while keeping my head really low on the TT bike – now I cannot. 5 years ago, I could get through a day without a nap – now my wife clearly knows when the day wouldn’t grant me a nap. So my controllables have shifted – plan your breaks, do not plan on going a full day without paying significantly the following day. 6 years ago, I could sit in the sun on a warm day and enjoy it. Now it feels like I’m sitting in the same sun with a serious sunburn from the previous day. 7 years ago, I gained the ability to tell you when the thermometer moved from 72 degrees to 73 degrees, because my hands and feet would start tingling. 8 years ago, I enjoyed holding my wife’s hand. Well, I still enjoy that, unless I’m hot and it’s above 73 degrees – and then it feels like my hand is being rubbed with sandpaper.
If you’re thinking that RAW sounds like a terrible idea for someone with MS (or anyone, for that matter), I wouldn’t disagree with you. Easily, succeeding at RAW will be the hardest single event I have ever accomplished. And that very thing makes it a good step towards learning how to remain mentally tough for the unpredictable future that MS will likely bring.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned next week for some VERY exciting news!