I hear people say this all the time, about any manner of things, and it always strikes me as odd. Why predict your own failure? A number of friends told me that “they could never do that” when I told them of my ride on the Virginia Mountain Bike Trail, and I believe them. What else can I do? It is often a futile effort to explain the natural progression that takes place over years and years of pushing oneself further and harder, the natural maturation and confidence that accompanies not only the successes, but more importantly, the failures. For it is only in failure that there can be a true, meaningful introspection about what happened, about why that particular endeavor was a failure, and to develop a better plan in the future. Do I spend an hour telling my own particular journey from a fat wimp into a total BAMF*? That if you had told me ten years ago that I would willingly subject myself to the mental anxiety and physical discomfort of a trip like the VMBT, and actually enjoy it, I would have called you insane? That I often used to think to myself, “I could never do that”? No, instead I just smile and nod, while I die a little on the inside.
People are generally capable of a lot more than they imagine. To see this in action, one need only look to the numerous incredible true stories of human survival and perseverance. Take for example, the greatest survival story I’ve ever heard, that of Ernest Shackleton and his crew on the Endurance. If you’ve not read this book, or heard the story, I can’t recommend it enough. It is the most profound, inspiring, and courageous story of human bravery, perseverance and survival I’ve ever encountered. The story is so insane that it is almost impossible to believe.
The cliff notes version: an attempt at an overland crossing of Antarctica in 1914 was met with disaster, leading the crew to become stranded on the ice pack for over a year, through a winter spent in complete darkness. The crew diaries from the trip recount their Christmas celebration, where spirits were high. After spending months in the dark, stuck in ice in Antarctica, the crew was happy. From there, the story gets more absurd, as they somehow manage to launch their life boats, make a perilous ocean crossing in open boats to reach Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton leaves all of his crew except five men, telling them he will return. Those men then proceed to cross one of the most dangerous oceans in the world, in an open boat, to reach South Georgia Island, to then complete the first overland crossing of the island (a feat that wasn’t repeated for over 40 years), only to rescue his remaining crew. In the near two year ordeal, not a single member of the crew perished. They survived by eating penguin meat and fat for months on end, and by essentially all being card carrying members of the ISMBAMF…WYGI. Seriously, read the book.
So, what allowed these men to survive, where they should surely have died? Were men just more menly back then? Were they physically stronger, more naturally predisposed to the cold and discomfort of such an ordeal? Was Shackleton really that great of a leader? Or were they just better prepared mentally to deal with the stress, anxiety, and fear that came with the ordeal? I would argue that it was almost entirely the combined mental strength of the crew, along with leadership that allowed morale to stay reasonably high during the ordeal. To me, this shows the strength of the human mind, and the impact it has on success or failure. If those men had said “We can never survive now, this is impossible”, they would not have made it home. Instead, they refused to believe that they were doomed, instead believing in the impossible, thus making it possible. If you look, these stories of human survival abound, whether it’s the ordeal of Louis Zamperini, surviving nearly two months on a lifeboat, only to be captured and tortured as a POW, to the story of Aaron Ralston making the decision to cut off his own arm in order to survive, they showcase the true power of the mind.
But it isn’t only stories of survival that inspire and show the power of human endurance. Tommy Godwin is perhaps the greatest distance cyclist ever. In 1939, he set the mark for most miles covered in a year, at over 75,000 miles (over 200! miles a day), riding through black outs and bombings, on a bike weighing well over 30 pounds. After a year, he figured, eh, what the heck, why not keep going? He continued to 100,000 miles and still holds the record for the fastest to 100,000 miles (500 days). His year long record stood until 2015. 2015! That is bonkers. After his historic ride, he spent weeks learning how to walk again, and his hands were basically deformed claws from holding his handlebars for so long. I can’t even fathom the mental toughness it takes to complete an epic ride like that. It completely boggles my mind.
Mental toughness and strength is a skill, it is something that can, and should be developed. For every tough race, ride, event, or even day at work, we emerge stronger and better for it. The effect of attitude on the success or failure of a venture cannot be overstated. If you are determined to have a bad time, guess what, you will! If, however, you can train yourself to deal with difficult situations with a positive mental attitude, the outcome will be vastly different. This is true in both life and sport.
I find this to be fascinating, especially when I look back on my own progression as an outdoorsman and adventurer, from a naive, out of shape complainer, to someone that dreams of tackling the biggest, hardest, uncharted rides out there. Over the next few weeks, I will be exploring this topic more, as well as sharing some of my own experiences. Strap in, it should be fun.
Thanks for reading.