In high school, I ran the 1600 meters, roughly one mile. Then considered mid-distance, it wasn’t an all-out suffer fest like the 800, but was enough to hurt. Four laps, gradually trying to compel your legs to move faster while wondering—hoping—you had enough left in the tank to make it to the end. While physical training was important, I think the mental aspect was equally if not more decisive; I always finished, never collapsing or throwing up like other runners, but I always had more left over.
The proverbial “leaving it all on the track” never happened.
Progress in this type of event is measured by comfort in being uncomfortable, and the ability to consistently live in a physical state of increasing rates of discomfort. I plateaued, hit a wall, at a certain pace, acclimating to a certain level of pain where it was easier to stay where I was than to push into a shaky unknown.
The difference was mental. Physically, I knew I was capable because I felt like I always had more. The mental part of overriding instinct was lacking. I spent more than a few evenings after track in the trainer’s office, legs in a knee-deep ice bucket; but unlike these instances where I overrode the water temperature’s initial shock by gradually placing my leg into the bucket, eventually having very little aversion to the process in general, on the track I just couldn’t toe and heel my way towards the next level.
Since high school, I’ve stopped running and picked up cycling. I totally fell in love with it and live in one of the best cycling countries in the world: the Netherlands. It’s been a surprisingly nice August (read: not much rain, lots of sun, and actually warm), and I’ve been taking advantage of this unexpected boon.
“I’m going to bike 1000 km [621 miles],” I told my friend, bike mechanic, and fellow cyclist.
“That’s too easy,” he said.
And he was right. It was the first Friday of the month and I was already well over 250 km (155 miles).
“So how about 1,000 miles [1610km]?” I said.
He agreed: that’s a better challenge.
I’ve never done that much in a month, and knew it would require the mental fortitude I lacked on the track when I was younger: I wanted to break to that wall. And to be clear, I’m not advocating riding until collapsing as the litmus test for stretching oneself; rather, I do think it is useful as a hard boundary—an endpoint on a spectrum.
Updates will follow as stuff happens. With pictures and stuff.