Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Crossroads: The End???

This post has been a long time in the making. I’ve been jotting down ideas for about a year. Yet for several months I’ve struggled with the organization of this post and what exactly I want to say. I’ve had writer’s block, sat dumbfounded in front of a bunch of words, and rearranged and rearranged and then rearranged again. In some respects, I feel I’ve been skirting the real issue(s) in my previous Crossroads posts. I guess this is the one where “this shit gets real.”

As long as I remain a competitive person, which is likely to be forever, given that competitiveness is an enduring personality trait, I will always be at a Crossroads- always wanting to be perfect while simultaneously wishing to be a bit more Type B. Hence, this blog series could go on and on but for now I’m going to write the last in this series and next year will probably write something to the effect of Checking Back In or A Year Later.

Have I mentioned I'm always trying to attain perfectionism with everything in my life including decorating my house?
It took a few tries but I found the "perfect" yellow to paint my kitchen:)

Over my 18 year tenure in the world of endurance racing, I’ve seen many people quit. Especially in my early days, whenever someone quit I knew it was because they were weak in their mind. I vowed to not be that weak and have stuck in there for the long haul. But as I’ve stuck with it for the long haul I’ve inevitably had my own mental weaknesses throughout my racing career.

Because let’s face it, racing is HARD.

As I’ve struggled with my own mental limitations throughout the years, I’ve noticed most days I have the fight in me but some days I just don’t. This fight is what I’ve previously referred to as my “mojo.” I’ve noticed that the more I race, the less mojo I can produce for each individual race. It’s like I have a finite amount of mojo that has to get me through. This is why I’ve been trying to race less.

While crafting this series over the past couple years there have been a couple quotes that have really jumped out at me that get at the mental toll of racing.

The first quote is from Tina Muir, a professional runner.

“We are always going to have the what ifs.
We are always going to have parts we could have done better.
We are always going to be hard on ourselves.
But the reality is, you ran the best you could at that point in time, and you are never going to have the perfect race.”

This made me think that maybe I should stop separating my physical stamina from my mental stamina. I’m so much harder on myself if I think I didn’t give it my all than when pain or simply being unable (like in the case of pull-ups) to push any harder get in my way. Instead I need to change this to “my mental game just wasn’t there today. Maybe I’ve been pushing it too hard lately. Maybe it needed a rest. How can I make my mental game sharper? Maybe I need to feel more confident with my training or it’s been too long since my last race or I haven’t spaced out my races enough.”

The need for mental toughness is why a good number of professional athletes have a sports psychologist.

At this point, I’m just not that interested in getting a sports psychologist. I think the best thing for me is to race less given my finite amount of mojo. I’m a “less is more” person. The less I race, the more I can focus on specific races and tap into that mojo.

This is hard for me. It can make me feel weak. But I’m giving myself permission to race less. Giving myself permission to be a bit weak sometimes so I can be stronger overall.

And while, as I’ve previously noted in a number of the Crossroads posts, there are many other factors that make me think about continuing my life as a cross country ski racer, I think ultimately it is because I don’t want to be mentally weak that I keep racing.

Is it possible to craft the perfect dessert? This Baked Alaska we made for Erik's birthday a few years ago certainly came close!

That and because it’s so hard to quit. Recently I was doing an orienteering race that was beyond my ability. I was running out of time and after having gotten miserably lost (so much so that I realized I might have to go into survival mode!), I debated just calling it quits and going back to the finish. But I was so close to a couple of controls and still had some time left so I couldn’t quit. At least not yet. I nabbed a couple more controls and then really didn’t have any more time left than it would take me to get to the finish so I did have to take the DNF.

If I view my mental toughness as something to work on as much as making my muscles strong and efficient, then I think I can be less hard on myself and maybe even enjoy racing more.

It's not too hard to enjoy racing when wearing this race suit. Even if my results weren't perfect, my race suit certainly was. Photo: Bruce Adelsman

The second quote is from Knute Johnsgaard, Canadian National Skier who retired at age 25:

“The world of sport is cruel in that I was always left wanting more. When you believe anything is possible, then everything less than perfect is not good enough. I always found myself striving for the next step that I could only hope would bring satisfaction. Instead, it brought only desire for greater success, which only got exponentially harder to achieve as I climbed the ladder. The final step was hard for me, and near the end of my career I began to struggle with anxiety and depression. It took so much energy that I didn’t have anything left over for ski races anymore, and I wasn’t happy.”

This Crossroads series for me boils down to this simple statement: I want to enjoy life more. I didn't come up with this phrase on my own and I forget where I read it or heard it but over the past couple years this has been resonating with me. Clearly Knute found that he wasn’t enjoying life very much as a cross country ski racer.

So over the past couple years I’ve been thinking about this more.

If I want to enjoy life more, then this entails doing more things that I enjoy and less things I don’t enjoy.

In my last Crossroads post, I noted that “Overall the benefits of being competitive seem to slightly outweigh those versus if I was merely a recreational athlete, but not by a large margin, hence cutting back on the competitive elements some seems to make sense.”

There are aspects of racing I like, but there are also lots of things I don’t like.

I don’t want to dread things, I want to be excited! Too often I dread races or even hard workouts. I started getting really nervous before some of my last interval sessions leading up to my sub 6 minute mile attempt and on the day of the attempt. At the same time, I enjoy goal setting and chasing goals.

So that’s where I’m at with racing but Knute’s quote gets at more for me and that’s exactly why a few months ago I was crying on the side of a mountain. For me, my racing/athletic/competitive life is so intertwined with everything that I do like looking at maps and planning routes for adventures. I go on these crazy self propelled adventures that just keep getting crazier and more intense until I run into a cliff. This goes back to that Type A overachieving personality. As I’m planning our upcoming vacations, I have these route choices that include to summit a mountain or not. I find myself trying to get out of planning the mountain top route because, similar to racing, if I don’t achieve the success I will be so disappointed and my preoccupation with my attempt will detract from the overall vacation and I won’t enjoy the vacation as much because I’ll be fixated on this goal.

Wow, that’s crazy. This is really making me rethink everything. It’s very similar to my racing goals.

At what point will I just be OK with where I am? Will I stop striving for something I can’t achieve?

When my vacations become so stressful because I’m trying to achieve something so difficult, that’s when I know I need to re-evaluate things.

Over the past couple years I’ve done this more with my racing. I’m not as concerned about perfect training. I only do the races I really want to do. Now I need to put my vacations into perspective. Because vacations aren’t something to retire from, but rather to retire to. As much as I dread and fret about pushing myself hard, I also love pushing myself hard. This all becomes a balancing act. Last winter in a Crossroads post I noted that Erik and I have never failed at summiting a mountain we’ve attempted. We’re bound to fail at some point, and I think the trick in this is not to see it as a failure. To realize that all this is a process. That success isn’t the opposite of failure. Success is improvement, it’s enjoyment, it’s finding that limit, and it’s being satisfied. It’s enjoying life more. It’s a process, not a defining moment. Sometimes failure is success, because you don’t know if you don’t try.

Erik and I, circa 2008, with New York's Mt. Marcy, our first state high point, in the background. Photo: Blake Hillerson

I thought this post was complete but then I finally watched Free Solo. For months I had been avoiding this literal cliff hanging movie. Instead of finding the movie repulsive, I had quite the opposite reaction. I wasn’t on edge until the final scenes (this obviously wasn’t the first climbing movie I’ve seen). More surprisingly, while this may be the general public's first introduction to Alex Honnold and they deemed him completely crazy after seeing Free Solo, I’d heard of him before and as the movie progressed it was a bit shocking how much I could identify with him. Does this make me truly crazy?

He lays out goal setting, perfectionism, and this drive to accomplish something because it is there so well. When he fails to free solo El Cap in the first season his obsession and sense of failure are so palpable. I’ve previously told Erik I can’t go to Seattle until we first summit Rainier because I don’t want that giant massif taunting over me.

Which brings me to two last quotes for this post from Alex: “It’s nice to be perfect, at least for the moment” until the next challenge presents itself and “You face your fear because the goal demands it.” Yeah, that’s why I repeatedly dive face forward over my rollerskis, hoping my arms will catch me every time. Yeah, that’s why I went up that super sketchy rope on Granite and made a couple crux bouldering moves free solo.

“You face your fear because the goal demands it.” Photo: Erik

For now, it’s over and out. I’m going to contemplate this idea of success and enjoying life more and roll it around in my head and at some point, hopefully I’ll have a revelation and I’ll write a follow up post.