In May 2014 I did my second mountain bike race. It was an endurance style event: maximum mileage in six hours. I finished six 10-mile laps with 4500’ of climbing in 5hrs 30min and 26sec. I missed the cut-off for being “allowed” a seventh lap by those 26 seconds. I placed 1st in the 50+ category after lapping the field, and 3rd overall. My MTB mentor and I both agreed that, given the choice between another short race (13 miles) and this one, I should dig in and learn something.
I learned that I haven’t unlearned what I spent years figuring out. Despite only sporadic visits to that duration and speed in the last four years the experience remains—no matter the task. Genuinely useful knowledge is always universal, and lasting.
The most important lesson of the day was that I can pedal but I can’t drive. I realized again that what isn’t automatic costs more and more when attention is required by other aspects of racing the machine. The more tired I got the more I had to focus on driving through the tight corners between the trees. And that was energy I couldn’t spend on managing output or fuel intake or using only the minimum resources necessary to handle the immediate task. It’s the 10,000 hours rule again: at the time I had 100,000 hours of fitness experience, and about 72 hours of practice driving a mountain bike. It should be pretty obvious what fell apart first. And clear what I should work to improve, which compelled me to write about the subject of weakness.
May 2014, Detroit, Michigan
Michael, Burkey and I have been talking. Maybe too much. We talk about searching. And the paths we talk about walking are as different as the destinations. We talk about progress and progression, about what holds people back. We talk about identifying weakness, about how we must ask questions and examine our behavior carefully in order for progress to occur.
Burkey wrote a tentative thesis on these ideas here. I don’t use tentative to mean inconclusive but to indicate that the conversation is exploration, and ongoing. As it will and should be.
One simplistic concept surfaces over and over: work on your weaknesses. We all know this is a truth. But I think few people do so to the extent that the work produces a meaningful outcome. If it did we would see it and we don’t.
If it was a habit to work on weaknesses, to bring them up to an acceptable level, and then do what’s needed to maintain that level while focusing more energy on fixing different weaknesses then we would have a whole bunch of generally fit and capable people running around who are constantly improving different variables to boost overall performance and ultimately — maybe — health. But that doesn’t happen. Instead folks dip their toes into the water of their weakness, never wading in, never swimming, simply content to dog paddle.
So I say, “Why don't you try to get good at something?” Pick one thing and do it to the exclusion of other things. Develop it. Progress. Rise. By doing so you will reach a height from which you may observe what you have left behind, what you sacrificed in order to achieve. Being good at the one thing clearly exposes the difference between what you can do well and what you can’t. Weaknesses become obvious. The focus of future work is clear. But only IF fixing those deficiencies will take you closer to your goal.
Maybe it's because I do have a specific goal so I am biased but I think working on weakness for the sake of it is silly.
I also believe I improve by doing what I like. Doing what I am good at, and doing it hard and deep is a tool like any other. A tool works as well as the user wields it — whether repairing weakness or reinforcing and refining an already well-built structure.
We get stuck swinging our tools at weakness because it seems like the hard thing to do, it sounds like the right thing to do, and it offers such immediate and positive feedback: we improve rapidly whenever we work on something we previously neglected. It may be an ideal but it’s also a trap. I see the “seeker” flitting from one new task to the next and being thrilled by how quickly semi-competence is achieved but never committing enough time or energy to become truly competent.
I could work on my biggest weakness, which is weakness. I’m not strong. I can’t lift anything heavy. But fixing that won’t take me closer to my goal and might actually steer me away or injure me. Instead I’ll use what I already have: a foundation of fitness and pedaling efficiency to allow me to work on the technical aspect of driving the bike. Fitness will allow me to work on the skill at at the right intensity, and to do enough of it to produce overall economy, which is decisive in the racing I want to do.
Even though it sounds simple enough, I don’t see many folks working diligently, intelligently on the abilities that are already well-refined but I do see them go through the motions. At a certain level concentrated effort produces minimal improvement and the feedback is neutral at best, maybe negative. Near one’s maximum potential the rewards for work are slim, and progress painfully slow so hard effort doesn’t feel worth it. It is far easier to phone it in or shift focus, either to a weakness or an entirely new task where improvement could occur with satisfying speed whether it brings the goal closer or not.
And a dog chases its tail. We ask. We answer. We change. Maybe. We repeat. Certainly.
Sometimes I get sick of all the examination and hypothesizing. I tire of the suspicion and critical analysis, of the after-the-fact second-guessing and attempts at understanding.
If you didn’t know in the moment of its happening then the thing probably wasn’t powerful enough to teach you anything.
Further inquiry or assessment won’t make it any more powerful. Recover and move on. Next time try something more difficult or just try harder. Get out of your bubble. Get out of your way. Put yourself into true difficulty. Use effort and pressure to quiet the internal dialogue. Difficulty and risk slash away the need for questions.
Confront something that breaks down your shields. Remove the safety net—if only the theoretical padding that protects your ego. Toe the line. Compete. Perform. Your anxiety, the competition, and the environment of overcoming will produce a brilliant clarity that throws theoretical understanding into the shade. And finally you will know. Deep in your muscles, in your bones, in the very heart of you, you will understand.
Banner photo: ©Greg May 2016
MFT in color and post-race wasted photo: ©Michael Blevins 2014