Rethink Tough

100_1295Says the blogger’s daughter, “Pedal. Faster.”

A friend posted an essay to my wall on the nature of toughness. Vacek said, “You and all the Abes were all I could think about when I read this article.” In it, Khaled Allen made his case for “simple, plain old ruggedness.”

When it comes to grit, Vacek has credentials. He’s a teacher, personal trainer, bike racer, Iron Man and Army vet. And when he thinks of toughness, he thinks of … me? (If we haven’t met, picture a lanky English major. A desk jockey. The human embodiment of furry, lovable old Grover.)

BWJLxo_IYAEVx-sSelf-portrait in blue

If Vacek is calling me tough, then you know one of two things must be true. Either he’s straight up wrong, or our common notion of toughness needs reexamining. I’m here to say it might just be the latter.

Allen said our idea of toughness oversells physical strength and undersells doggedness. Tons of would-be tough guys are bulky, but one-dimensional. “They are immensely strong within their particular domain,” Allen said, “but have very strict limits on their comfort zone. As soon as they are forced out of it, their performance drops drastically.”

You can think of toughness then as the ability to translate strength in hard situations. It’s your capacity to untangle your effort from your circumstance. And that capacity is only partly dependent on strength and conditioning.

You don’t need freakish strength to be dogged (although I don’t imagine it hurts). You don’t have to be the stereotypical tough guy to be a … tough guy.

Who’s tougher? If you think you can tell by looking, maybe you’re looking at the wrong things.

You meet some tough rascals riding gravel. Keep riding, and you learn that much of their toughness stems from some not-so-tough qualities.

Toughness is funny, not grim.

We think of tough guys as stony, quiet types. But we forget that humor feeds resilience. If you can laugh when you’re hurting, you’re not cooked. You’re still in it.

Last weekend, I went on my first long ride with a friend from the Y, Brad Z. Dude is not small, but he’s tough as rocks, and we cranked out 65 miles into a stiff wind. We touched the Kansas border and rolled 65 more back home. It was quickly clear to me that Brad’s toughness is rooted in his humor.

On the way home, he told me, “I just keep thinking about my couch. I want to sit down with a big jug of water. And I want to put my feet up and watch a bunch of those Bob Ross videos. ‘Joy of Painting.’ Bob Ross can just carry me off. I want to drift away on a happy little cloud with one of those chubby baby cherubs on it.”

I had to quit laughing to keep up.

Thing is, his humor wasn’t about quitting. It was about finishing. He was saying, “When this is through, it’s going to feel real nice.” And it did.

Toughness isn’t certain all the time. It’s just OK with being uncertain.

People confuse uncertainty with stupidity. But wise people are unsure about unclear things. And the unfolding of an endurance race is an uncertain thing.

When we frame uncertainty as weakness, we set ourselves up to panic when our false certainties crack. And panic isn’t tough.

A while back, Marty and I targeted a 15-mile segment we thought we had a chance to KOM. (Mostly for my mom, I’ll explain KOM = king of the mountain. To post the fastest-ever time over a given section is to KOM or QOM.) But when we reached the segment, the trail was wet and soft and slow. There was no way to beat the record.

So Marty shifted gears. If the KOM wasn’t in reach, why not go for top 10?

Marty took off and I followed. Or I tried to follow. Soon, I popped off his wheel and felt his slipstream slip. It’s a helpless feeling, watching that wheel pull away from you. It’s a lifeboat you can’t quite swim to. And it’s tantalizingly easy to think the un-tough thought that you are dead in the water.

Had I gone into that ride blindly certain I could absolutely hang with Dr. Marty, that moment of pop would have popped open my hysteria. I’d have panicked or cried.

I’ll return to Khaled Allen’s essay: “World-class endurance athletes respond to the stress of a race with a reduction in brain-wave activity that’s similar to meditation. The average person responds to race stress with an increase in brain-wave activity that borders on panic.”

And at that moment, any energy you spend on anything other than pedaling, be it panic or tears, is flat wasted.

john-lee-hookerTake it from John Lee Hooker: Crying won’t help you none.

Toughness has a sunny disposition.


If a cynic could have heard my inner monologue after Marty dropped me, she’d have shoved a bicycle pump through my spokes. The stuff I say to myself when I’m suffering and need to suffer more is too syrupy for waffles.

The gap begins; you want it at 10 inches and there it is, eight feet. So you bark to attention. No! Don’t you let him go! Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Dontdoitdontdoit! Nononono.

But, funny thing. You exert zero control over the speed another person races. Your heart beats no at a clip north of 180 nos per minute. It can’t say no any faster.

He’s 60 feet in front of you, 100 feet. Screaming no doesn’t seem to do the trick. So you cast it aside. And not. And all its contractions. Can’t, don’t, won’t. All dead to you. Marty’s 125 yards out now. He’s getting tiny. This stops! you say. But even stop is too negative. You drop it.

You put your head down and you push. It hurts. It hurts a long time. And you look up. He hasn’t pulled any farther ahead. You are good at this! you say. You are good at hurting! Stay down. Hurt in a tucked, aero position. Yes! Like that! Look at your legs go! Hurt like that for 10 more seconds and I’ll give you a treat. I’ll blow my nose so you can breathe. Would you like that? And I’ll come out of the saddle for a four count so you can have blood where you need blood. Then back after it. Would you look at that? He’s only 200 yards out. You’ve limited him to 200 yards, you bad, bad man.

And on and on. For 14 miles.


Meet your new cycling coach.

If I’m advocating for positive self-talk, it would be helpful to point now to results. It would be great to tell you how I clawed my way back to Marty, or even passed him by. But that didn’t happen. Marty’s faster than me.

But in 14 miles, I limited the damage to about 1:15. That’s a big gap, but it could have been so much bigger. Even in muddy conditions, Marty took the fifth fastest time out of 121 for that segment. And me? I scrapped my way to a respectable seventh. It took some serious sunniness to pull that effort out of myself.

That’s pride. That’s losing. That’s tough.

17190863_908474204905_7091287662539987772_nWhen you run through a brick wall and lose, follow Grover’s lead and hand it to the guy who beat you. (The Monster at the End of this Book, Children’s Television Workshop, 1971)


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