16 January, 2006

It's All in My Head

As you know if you're a regular reader, I'm new to cycling and I've been challenged to a 25-mile ride. Now, 25 miles sounds simple, except for the fact that one is lucky to find a mere two or three miles of mostly-flat road anywhere near this town. So, 25 miles means a lot of miles uphill.

So far in my rides I've stuck to circular tracks and places with very small and slight inclines. But yesterday I finally tackled some real hills. It wasn't quite as hard as I expected, but neither was it much fun. However, I learned some important things about myself and how the mind and body work together.

The route I chose included the first section of the likely course for the 25-mile ride, which is basically nothing but uphill for the first four miles. In the opening miles I hit some spots where I thought I wasn't going to make it. I wasn't dizzy or over-exerted. It was just so hard that I couldn't imagine going the full 4 uphill miles I had planned. And when I thought of the day I would do 21 more miles of up and down after that, I grew so discouraged that I wanted to stop. But I'm nothing if not stubborn, and so I kept going, sometimes at speeds slower than any I'd ever experienced. I set goals for myself: get just to that next cross-street, now the curve in the road, don't downshift until it gets steeper, etc.

As I agonizingly kept my legs pumping, I began to notice a pattern. Everytime I felt discouraged and thought of how I'd never be able to do 25 miles and how surely my riding partner would run circles around me, my legs burned worse and the bike got slower. And if I got irritated with myself for thinking that way and either thought "happy thoughts" or reminded myself of how much I'd improved and that I wasn't going to quit, suddenly my legs felt better and I literally had a small surge of strength.

I also noticed that if I let my mind wander too much, I would start to lose technique and either let the pedals go even slower or start doing things like sitting up too high in the seat. These and related things made it even harder, of course.

It all reminded me of the tremendous power of the mind: it really is mind over matter. I've already known from personal experience that when you're feeling down you have to sometimes consciously avoid certain thought patterns because they will push you "over the cliff" into even more depressive feelings. And as my experiences at the VA reminded me, a disciplined mind can often (though not always) choose when to allow and respond to overwhelming emotion, and when not to.

I've pushed through physical distress before--I mean, what was the week of the flu and dizziness leading up to the Christmas Program if not mind over matter? But I've never seen it so clearly illustrated as I did when I discovered how much more energy and effectiveness I had when I carefully directed my thoughts on that hill.

All of this came together in my consciousness in the middle of the ride. So, for the last half I worked on maintaining focus, and refused to allow negative thoughts any quarter. Although I grew increasingly tired, I surprised myself with my ability to keep griding my way up that hill. I wanted to go further after that, just to see how far I could push myself, but there was a steep downhill section in front of me, so I was afraid that I would get myself too far out there and then not have the strength to get back (this being my first ride in hills like that, I doubted my ability to judge my ultimate endurance). But I'm very excited to see how having the right focus and attitude from the beginning can help me next time.

Yeah, nothing original here, nothing most of my readers don't already know firsthand. But I'm feeling pretty good about stretching myself like this. And the great thing is that it builds over-all confidence that translates into other areas of my life. And then there's that wonderful physical high when it's all over and done with...

Yup, I'm definitely hooked on this. Damn you, Lex and Michael! ;)