Winning over failure

Photo by Camille Mcmillan

Photo by Camille Mcmillan

‘What are you most afraid of?’ the journalist asked me at the starting line of the 2015 Transcontinental Race, the dictaphone in his right hand hovering uncomfortably near my mouth. This was an interesting question, one that I have often asked myself before embarking on any particularly grueling or potentially dangerous challenge. Well, it isn’t danger I fear, that’s for certain. I rather relish the possibility that something will go wrong that will make the whole experience an adventure. At least you come home with a story. Things rarely go smoothly for me anyway and I like to think my ability to roll with the punches and think on my feet, or pedals rather, is an advantage in any unsupported ride or race.

‘Failure.’ It took me half a second to answer. ‘I know my mind will never fail me, but I don’t know what I would do, how I would react, if my body failed.’ During these ultra-endurance rides I function largely on the principle of mind over matter. So many times, when the body should have collapsed on me, I kept pushing it on through sheer will-power. The body is a machine and the mind is the control panel. I can make the machine do whatever I want it to. What would happen if or when something prevented me from doing that?

Over these last couple years my primary interests have hovered around questions like how far I can push the paradigms of what I consider possible? How much of my reality do I create through intention? How powerful is my mind and how does it shape the outcome of any given situation? I test my theories by setting myself new challenges whether they be conscious or subconscious. By stating that my greatest fear was failure and wondering what I would do if I was unable to perform physically, I effectively threw down the gauntlet for my next challenge.

1,000 kilometers into the race, somewhere near the first checkpoint, my knees collapsed. I have always struggled with knee problems, but there was never a time I could not press on through the pain. This time they would not even push down on the pedals and I could barely even walk without them buckling. There it was. My greatest fear had been realised. My body had failed me and I was forced to scratch from the race.

By the reactions I got from friends and followers online, you would think someone had died. People tread carefully when writing messages of sympathy and support as though I must be devastated and in an emotionally fragile state. I honestly could not bear the pity and so removed myself from it by going offline for a couple weeks. I thought I would have a mental breakdown, fall to pieces or go into a dark depression. I mean, this was my lingering fear, the worst thing I could imagine happening to me, and I was…fine. Sure there was frustration and disbelief the first day, a bit like sitting down to a gourmet meal and being unable to eat it., but after a good long sleep I awoke the next morning to a certain degree of clarity which grew over the following days.

What I do is not who I am. I enjoy ultra-endurance cycling, but I am not “A Cyclist”. If I were to stop cycling tomorrow it would not take away some part of my identity. Whether I had finished the race and even won it, or, as it happened, been forced to scratch, did not change anything. ‘You have nothing to prove,’ my mum said to me, my close friends have often said to me, and I agree completely. Because if that were my motivation, then dropping from this race would have destroyed my ego and self-esteem. I ride because I love to ride and if one day I could no longer ride, I would find something else I love and go after that.

It occured to me then that this year’s challenge had never been about winning the race, it had been about facing that particular fear. By consciously verbalising it, I had unconsciously created my next test or experience I needed to pass through. And I had passed it. Far from feelings of failure, I kicked that fear right out of the ball park, shifted another personal paradym, and learned something new about myself. For me at least, that was winning.