The Opposite of Strong

My childhood mind popped a serious knuckle the day our science class learned that cold wasn’t really a thing. There was only heat, Mrs. Eberspacher told us, and the relative absence of heat.

The vanilla ice cream that gave us headaches when we ate it too fast, she said, was merely “less hot” than the scorching Spaghettios that burned the skin off the roofs of our little pink mouths. The next time we forgot to close the backdoor and our mothers scolded us for “letting in the cold,” Mrs. E gave us permission to snap back: “WRONG! We’re not letting the cold IN. We’re letting the heat OUT!”

I’ll dust off this little physics lesson every so often on winter rides. “You’re not actually cold right now,” I’ll tell my toes as they deaden inside their icy shoes. “You’re just less warm than usual.” (These tricks can work … for a little while, anyway.)

Cold may not technically exist. But hypothermia sure does. (Photo, cyclingweekly.com)

It’s tempting to think of all opposites like this. That the opposite of a thing is just the absence of that thing. And pretty often, this works just fine. Simplicity is simply the absence of complexity. And dry is what you get when wet goes away.

But these tidy opposites are exceptions to a messier rule. Because the opposite of Spaghettios must be something more than just the absence of Spaghettios.

Stanley Tucci (right) searches for the opposite of Spaghettios with Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti. (CNN’s “Searching for Italy”)

For all the cyclists preparing for Unbound Gravel in a few short weeks, training has its own pile-up of opposites. There are the overs and unders of interval sessions; the anaerobic hell days and the placid recovery days; the getting leaner even as you eat eat eat.

Then there’s strength and its opposite. The work of adding fitness drags with it the equal and opposite act of subtracting weakness. And this zero-sum relationship might just convince you that strength itself equals the absence of weakness.

But I hope you won’t go there.

For one, it’s a toxic mindset. If graves could raise hands, you’d find cemeteries full of folks who toughed out their chest pain or powered through the signs of weakening health. We do dumb stuff like this all the time because we value toughness. And being strong, by (this) definition, means we can’t be weak. So we deny our weakness with every color of macho bullshit.

Jesse Ventura (left) was so busy being tough in the 1980s, the poor guy didn’t even have time to bleed. (“Predator,” 1987)

None of that fits what we’re sure to experience as endurance athletes.

You can attack whatever weakness you see in your cycling self. (I’m a “bad” climber/sprinter/bike handler/whatever.) And you can get far better at those skills through training. But if you think in absolute terms about eliminating your weaknesses, you’ll eventually meet the hill that teaches you otherwise.

You’re going to feel weak out there. That’s a given. And nothing stings quite like the return of a weakness you thought you’d already kicked. (You again?!) It’s like a shitty movie with an endless string of shitty sequels.

Once that scary feeling of weakness returns on the course, everything rides on how you respond to it. And if you believed your weaknesses were dead, you’ll react like you’ve seen a ghost.

I see dead people. (“The Sixth Sense,” 1999)

Better to respond more like a bored receptionist. Oh. It’s you. Go ahead and have a seat. I’ll let the rider know you’re here.

A disinterested familiarity with your own discomfort can go a long way in helping you manage it. Let your weakness stew there for a while. Waste its time. And if your weakness is nutritional, maybe you can eat it gone.

I’m sorry. Eric’s away at lunch. You’re free to wait here if you’d like. Or maybe you’d rather make an appointment? His schedule is wide open tomorrow.

I’ll totally make sure he gets your message.

If it stays, enter into weaselly negotiations. Agree to have your people talk to its people. Your weakness wants full surrender. It wants you napping in a ditch. But it’ll take what it can get. Give it a pickle juice. Offer to shave a couple watts off the pace. Skip a pull. Pretend to listen to its counteroffer. Then think about it. For many minutes.

Remind it (and yourself) that you’ve been this uncomfortable before. Many times. And add the words “right now” to everything your weakness tells you. When it says, This sucks, hear, This sucks right now. Then point out your changing circumstances.

Would you look at that? We’re turning out of the headwind. That’s much better, huh?

Congratulate yourself when the dark places lighten. Enjoy the right nows that have enjoyment in them. And sturdy yourself for the next round. Because there’ll be another round. And another round. And around and around.

I’m convinced this is what strength is. It’s not the absence of weakness so much as the readiness to manage it. And the strongest riders in your circles might not be much stronger than you or me. Maybe they’re just particularly good at being weak.


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