Tonight I signed up for an actual indoor cycling race league. Riding with the big kids, as it were. Those in the upper levels of this league are competing for thousands of dollars, those of us in the lower levels are competing for socks and jerseys. But really I joined to compete with myself.
A bit over an hour ago I started my first race: about 30 km – an hour’s worth of giving everything I had. The first few minutes went well. I felt strong (I was full of rice and homemade Thai curry – of course I was strong!) But as time went on, my endurance flagged. By 30 minutes in I was at about 85% of what I had started at and had been left behind by the pack I was riding with. By 40 minutes I was at 80% and struggling.
I looked at the standings. I was now about 3 minutes behind the ones I was riding with originally. The remaining 4-5 riders were about 5 minutes behind me and weren’t riding that fast. I could kick back and relax. What was the point after all? I would finish last in my category (and fourth from last overall) no matter what I did short of going to watch television.
And then I asked myself how I wanted to finish. Did I want to give up when it got difficult, or did I want to work on something I desperately need to work on: Pushing harder when it gets difficult.
I feel like there needs to be a metric for this – let’s call it a “Persistance Ratio”. You calculate it this way:
(Level of Effort) / (Level of Discouragement)
The more effort you put out despite being discouraged, the higher the number and the better off you are. But this needs training and this kind of training is exceedingly hard.
Take tonight, for instance. For the last 20 minutes of the race I was riding completely alone – nobody in sight in front or behind me. Not even non-racers. Nobody to see if I just coasted down a hill or went uphill in a light and easy gear. But instead, I checked in with myself every few minutes. I’d look in the upper left hand corner at my power output and think “Is this the best I can do right now?” keeping in mind I’m not saving this energy for anything. Once I get off the bike it’s in to the shower, a bit more water, and then off to bed. I was close enough to the end that I didn’t even have to save for later in the race. Every effort could be 100%. And so I pushed. At the end, in the last 30 seconds or so I put out literally 200% of what I’d been putting out the entire time. I wasn’t going to finish first but I was going to finish strong.
I did finish strong, and it felt great – as great as the first and second place wins I got in my class in the past few races I did. I didn’t finish ahead of many other humans, but I kicked my inner critic’s butt which was a far bigger win.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this on a lot of fronts. Hindi study most recently comes to mind. On some days I feel pretty great. I can speak (a bit) and read pretty well even if I can’t always understand the words. On other days, it feels like tonight’s race – I’m 4th from last, and I’m not sure how I’m ever going to catch up. The same happens from time to time with running (I’ve not run in about 6 months), and even writing here sometimes.
But as I crossed the finish line tonight I had a moment of perspective: Am I in these things for standings? Am I really racing to win bicycle races in which people 25 years younger and 50 lbs lighter than me are competing? Am I trying to become so fluent people think I was born in Delhi? These things are not going to happen. I’m doing them because I want to improve myself over time. And one doesn’t improve by checking out of the race when you get discouraged. You improve by building up your Persistence Ratio – learning to be able to give your best even when you worry you might be the worst.