Mind over Misery—when was the last time you allowed yourself to “suffer”?

As you may recall, I had emergency surgery for appendicitis while in Canada in early July. I am happy to report that I recovered fairly quickly. I only taught two classes off the bike and then went back to riding in my classes within a week. I didn’t want to lose too much fitness! I stayed off my road bike for two weeks, though.

On Saturday, July 16th (2 weeks later), I did an easy road ride around my neighborhood, and then Sunday (July 17th) my husband and I decided to go for a ride. Without thinking, I said, “Let’s do Bachelor Gulch,” as if I hadn’t skipped a beat in my training the previous two weeks! It occurred to me later that it was not a very wise choice on my part. I mean, it is one of the hardest climbs around here, a 5-mile steep climb up to Bachelor Gulch, part of the ski area attached to Beaver Creek. The average grade is 7.3% and there are sustained segments of 9%. I guess I conveniently forgot that I had surgery two weeks prior!

We got a late start because of course, I had to watch the Tour de France that morning. After a 5-mile warm-up, we turned our wheels uphill. As it turned out, it was probably the hottest day of the year so far, just over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32c). For us here in the Rocky Mountains that is very hot, and quite unusual. The very first part of the ascent is the steepest at a steady 9%. It’s also exposed with no trees; the blacktop was reflecting the searing heat right in my face. After only a few hundred yards, I thought, “What the hell am I doing? This is crazy! I don’t know if I can make it!”

Jeff was ahead of me as thoughts of quitting began floating in my head. Now, I’m no stranger to challenge or suffering. Heck, anyone who rides bikes uphill knows that it always entails a bit of suffering. They are lying if they tell you anything different. Cyclists often talk about the suffering, and it usually entails going uphill. Bob Roll (announcer for the Tour de France) refers to the “Cathedral of Pain” when he talks about the big climbs of the Alpes and Pyrenees. This kind of suffering is one that many cyclists welcome. It is one of the reasons we ride – to overcome adversity, to reach inside ourselves and become the victor, to celebrate the joy as we rise above the obstacles in our way. Climbing is the Zen of Cycling. It makes us human. It defines who we are.

But, it’s not easy….ever.

But this? Misery is one thing, but this was the first time I actually began talking about quitting, especially this soon after getting started. I thought to myself, “OK, one mile. I’ll give myself one mile and then re-assess.” That was one of the hardest miles I can ever remember because those thoughts of not-doing-this-anymore at the end of this mile were even louder than I remember experiencing. At the one-mile point, which is at the elegant Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch, I stopped for a break and dumped water on my head. Jeff rode back to me and I told him I wasn’t sure I would make it. He said, “Me either” and kept riding!

So, I started back up, one pedal stroke at a time. Fortunately, the water I dumped on my head did a good job of keeping me cooler which was part of the battle. But those thoughts of turning around were as vocal as ever, in fact, it was rather foreign to me to have to deal with these thoughts. It’s not that I never am faced with doubt, but usually, these thoughts are fleeting as I replace them with positive images and words. But dang, this was persistent!

I made a decision then and there. I decided that I needed to put myself into the place of many of my students and clients, whether they are my bike tour clients or personal training or coaching clients who have doubts about their ability to do certain things (usually involving climbing big hills). I needed to remind myself what they were feeling when they were fearful of failure or worried about the discomfort. I figured this would allow me to better empathize with them.

I made the decision not to turn around, to go through the suffering, to see if I could use the tools that I am always preaching to others to help me through this. These tools, both mental and physical, usually come pretty naturally to me when I am faced with a challenge. But today they were most definitely NOT natural. I had to dig deep inside myself to find them. I had to recite them out loud. I had to repeat them over and over. And all the while I was doing this, I imagined being someone new to this challenge. Sure, deep inside I knew I had it in me to climb this mountain, since I’d done it about 10 times before. I suffered every single one of those times…but never like this.

What were the tools I used? These are ones I use in my indoor cycling classes, especially in hill climbing or interval profiles. But truly, can anything in a one-hour class really be that difficult? You always have the resistance knob in front of you, no one will know if you turn it to the left. And it’s so easy to fake it indoors….but Mother Nature doesn’t have a resistance knob. When you run out of gears on a steep climb, the only option is to keep going or turn around. And there is no air conditioner if it’s a hot day!

Some of the mind-body techniques I utilized include focusing on my breathing, concentrating on the rhythm and timing of my pedal stroke, and staying relaxed and in tune with the movements of my bike. My favorite mantra in challenging climbs is “I can, I will, I am, I did!” (Say each one with one full pedal stroke, over and over.) I found myself repeating this over many pedal strokes. Counting pedal strokes is another mental tool that helps pass the time while becoming a mantra of its own. You focus on the minutiae while keeping an eye on the big picture. Another great technique is setting mini goals along the way while having a conversation with yourself as you climb. This dialogue would include benchmarks such as “I’ll pedal seated until I reach that tree” or “I’ll stand up until that lamp post”. Switchbacks become benchmarks for success—you look forward to the next one, then look back at the one you just accomplished and give yourself a mental pat on the back. All these things helped me turn my doubts into confidence as the yards ticked away underneath my wheels.

I made it. Thank goodness my computer timer didn’t work because I am glad I didn’t know exactly how slow I was going, but it was somewhere around an hour. However, I can honestly say the feeling of arriving at the crest of that climb was one of the best feelings I’ve felt in a long time. And the descent was better than ever!

I should emphasize that even though I describe this ride as “painful” and not necessarily the best choice for my first major effort post surgery….I also know I wasn’t in danger (just in case any of you were thinking that I was being stupid)! Yes, it would have been stupidity to have tried it the week before but truly, physically I was fine….it was just that my fitness had declined. I also want to mention that had I decided to turn around, it would not have been a failure either—I do realize that. But my point is that by pushing onward, I now feel like I can empathize a little more with students and clients. And I know a little better how to help them seek inside themselves to find what it is they need to continue. For me, it truly was mind over misery. Sometimes that means minimizing the misery part of it and replacing it with positive words, thoughts, and images. The struggle will still be there, but it’s how we deal with it, how we move past it, that can make the difference between completing a challenging goal and not completing it.

My question to you is this: when was the last time you put yourself in a place where you were that challenged to succeed, where you felt like quitting but managed to empower yourself to continue? When was the last time you had to overcome suffering in order to accomplish a goal? When was the last time when you even set a goal that was just outside your comfort zone? We do not know our own boundaries until we exceed them, and it is in exceeding them that we continually improve ourselves.

An indoor cycling instructor who teaches from experience and with empathy is the type of coach who will be better at empowering students to go beyond self-perceived limitations. Our students are filled with these thoughts of failure and limitations all the time. It is up to you to help them surpass them. They look up to you; many of them dream of being as fit or as strong as you are. But you need to let them know that you have been where they are, that you too have suffered and you know what they are feeling.

My challenge to you is to challenge yourself! Go do something hard…or even very hard! If you have never climbed a steep hill on a bike, borrow one and make it a goal to do that this summer. If you are already a cyclist, try something you’ve never done before. Of course, a cycling challenge is the most specific to what we are doing in our indoor cycling classes, but you certainly can draw from the “mind over misery” that you experience in a running race, triathlon, or any other personal physical challenge. But make sure it stretches you beyond what you thought you could accomplish.

Here are a couple of quotes that come to mind with this kind of challenge. Use these to motivate yourself and your students:

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t….you’re right! ~Henry Ford

Pain is only a feeling, you can’t touch it, you can’t see it. Don’t be defeated by something that doesn’t exist beyond your mind.

The voice telling you that you cannot do something is always lying.

The good Lord gave you a body that can stand anything. It is your mind you have to convince. ~Vince Lombardi

If you know how to suffer, the rest is easy! ~Carlos Sastre, pro cyclist

Pain is only temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit however, it lasts forever. ~Lance Armstrong


Photo credit: I send people on self-guided bicycle tours to France and Italy (my “other” job!) and this was a photo that a client sent me that he took of a cyclist he and his cycling buddy passed on the climb up Alpe d’Huez. They were enjoying themselves and taking their time on the climb and actually encountered him several times, every time he looked to be in some serious pain and questioning whether he could go on. The good news is that they saw him at the top, so he did manage to overcome whatever doubts and fears were plaguing him. After my ride up Bachelor’s Gulch, I know what he felt like!

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