The upside of failure
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
For quite a few weeks I have been trying to feel as excited about this year’s year Long Way Home ride as the previous ones, but I’ve failed. I can’t point to a single standout reason for that. It certainly doesn’t have the excitement of riding from Milan to London, but then nothing could match that first experience, because it had genuine jeopardy: I had no way of knowing if I would complete it. Hamburg to Warwick was all about introducing my son Michael to multi-day adventures and us spending time together. Last year with Rachel riding back from Edinburgh on the Pennine Cycle Way, the difference was riding a lot of the route off road.
This year I will be riding with different people every day but neither the daily distances or elevation are particularly daunting. Until this week, this year’s ride has felt more like it will be a holiday, rather than a big challenge. But today for the first time, doubt has entered my mind about whether or not I will complete it.
For the second time in three weeks, I have failed to finish a long distance event, but I feel very differently about those two failures. At the Sussex Mystery Tour I managed 140km of the 247km on the day and dropped out due too physical tiredness - the 80km or so of off road sections had been very tough indeed. It didn’t help that I fell off five times as well. Today though I dropped out of the Myton Hospice 100 miles charity ride after just 45km. My legs were fine but my head was gone. Midway up the first big climb my head went like I had flicked a switch. I had felt fine up to that point, riding in a big group from Lanterne Rouge CC and doing my fair share on the front. But something changed. I went from ‘this is hard’ to ‘I don’t want to be here anymore, I want to get off’. I struggled on to the bottom of the next climb, but I had dropped off the group, was riding alone and rotating through reasons to stop in my mind. A friend dropped back and tried to coax me along, promising to stick with me at whatever pace I could ride. A second friend dropped back to ride alongside me up the next climb, trying to remind me of my own mental resilience tips. Neither worked, although I am always grateful to Ieuan and Trevor respectively for their patience and willingness to help. Half way up the climb I bailed out at a crossroads, leaving them to ride on (both finished of course).
By this time it was pouring with rain and no amount of positive self talk was working. I was cold, wet and miserable and was fixated on getting to a coffee shop. I wanted to turn around and get back on the hill but couldn’t. More of me just wanted to get off and go home. I was thinking about what a hypocrite I was for making a video about building mental resilience and then failing to demonstrate how to use any of my techniques. Where my mind went, my body followed and now my legs were empty, my back hurt and I was shivering from the cold. The weaker me was trying to convince the rest of me, that quitting didn’t matter, that I will just chalk it up to experience and move on. But a persistent voice a back of my mind was telling me that quitting can become a habit and I needed to fight it.
The problem is that quitting when things are physically hard in sport has been a lifelong issue for me. I’ve never admitted this to anyone but it started with school sports when I was 13. I was picked to run an 800m race for my school and within the first 200m I knew I was out of my depth. I started looking for ways out, knowing I couldn’t possibly match the pace of the other 7 boys. At 500m I conveniently fell, got up and jogged to the finish, hoping my PE teacher wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a dive and a genuine accident. He wasn’t fooled and never picked me for a single sporting activity for the school again. I could recount many more occasions when fear of failure (or just fear of violence in my rugby league days) made me look for excuses to drop out. This stuff is deeply ingrained in my psyche. Overcoming fear, as I did riding home from Milan in 2018 is what made that trip such an achievement in my head.
The coffee shop pick-me-up didn’t work and I messaged my old friend Brian who lives nearby, hoping to borrow a jacket or something else to keep me warm for the final kilometres home. Fatally he offered to drive me home and in an instant my mind was made up. I rode an extra 5km to his house and shamefully stuck my bike in the boot of his car. Failure on a new level. Kind words from Brian and other friends on social media during the afternoon have only made a small dent in how I feel. The fantastic organising team at Myton Hospices called Rachel early this evening to check if I was OK, because they hadn’t registered me finishing, so I can’t even claim to have got away unnoticed.
The other horrible thing about quitting is that it only takes an hour or so before regret seeps in and you are thinking ‘I could and should have gone on’. ‘Why did I give in to the negative voices?’ ‘Why couldn’t I just drown them out?’.
The thing is that just because something has worked for me in the past, doesn’t mean it will work every time or even ever again. Building and using mental resilience is a constant work in progress. It has been noticeable that over the past week multiple Olympians have talked about mental challenges and even dropped out of events because they can’t overcome the voices in their heads. I am not comparing myself in any way, shape or form to them, more pointing out that even Olympic champions, who no doubt work with sports psychologists, can find it hard. Perhaps viewing this year’s ride as a holiday instead of a challenge is a convenient way for me to pretend that riding almost 1500km in 12 days is really easy if I just manage my pace? Perhaps loading the ride with mix of interesting new people and old friends and family is the best way to distract myself along the way? At some point though, it’s highly likely that the old voice in my head is going to be telling my to cancel the ride and blame injury, or the demands of work or an unspecified family issue. But now I have said it out loud in advance, so you know that if you hear it, I am just bullshitting. And perhaps by taking away those excuses I have opened up a new way to build mental resilience.