What Did You Learn?

No matter how much experience I gain, there is always something new to learn. That is part of the appeal of endurance sport – it never gets boring.

After a race or an especially challenging training session, my Coach Steve Pye’s first question was: “What did you learn?” This question is the best one we can ask ourselves each day if we want to make our path forward on this journey meaningful.

This season has rubbed me pretty raw emotionally, physically, and tactically. All of that rubbing has exposed some valuable lessons, which I’m finding especially useful as I make the final, race week preparations for one of my key races this season: Ironman Lake Placid.

I wanted to share the most important lessons I’ve learned (or re-learned). Perhaps they will speak to you. Maybe you’ll share some of your lessons in the comments :-).

Keep working on weaknesses – don’t shy from them.

Cycling is my primary limiter in triathlon. In the past, I thought I was not strong enough on the bike, that I needed more power. But, after a season of pushing more and more watts, I realize that the issues with my bike performance are not physical.

My thinking about and execution of the bike is my primary area for opportunity. For most of my triathlon career, I buried my fear of the bike. This year, I faced it head on – repeatedly.

First, I acknowledged my anxiety by giving it expression, and then redirected the way I think about the issue. If we want to improve, we have to acknowledge that something requires improvement. Then, we need to take the specific actions to enact that improvement. We can’t just talk about it – we have to act.

Finishing at Quassy this year.

Second, I attended a coaching clinic which forced me to confront my poor handling skills. I learned how to turn a bike the real way!

Third, I forced myself to ride outside more than I normally would, and I did a series of bike handling sessions each week. This was literally where the rubber hit the road in the practical application of my learning.

But, this is an ongoing process. For example, I raced Quassy 70.3 back in June, and I was climbing those hills better than I ever have.

But descending?

Yeah, that was another matter. I was timid, and failed to execute my best bike – not because of my body, but because of my lack of confidence in my handling. I couldn’t trust myself to just let the bike go. 

But, that race was a good teacher. In the weeks that followed, I have forced myself to ride more aggressively, to trust my handling.

By working on my weaknesses, I know I’m starting Lake Placid on Sunday as a more confident cyclist. I still have work to do (and always will!), but I know that I can do that work–whether in cycling, or anything else.

What’s your takeaway? Keep working whatever your limiters are. The only way to make them your strengths is to work on them directly!

Don’t let fear stop you.

Working on your weaknesses pushes you out of your comfort zone – and that can be scary. But, getting out of the comfort zone can also be exhilarating. Okay, maybe not taking that first step outside of the comfort zone, but once you are out there – pushing yourself, it feels good. 

I’m scared of cars when I’m on my bike. And, when I say scared: I mean SCARED. Cars are the primary reason I think that bikes are poopy – not the bike itself. I’d love to say this is an irrational fear, but I know too many people (including myself) who have been hit, harmed, maimed and sadly, killed by cars while cycling.

After Steve was killed by a car in June, I contemplated not riding outside anymore–or not riding at all. But, I knew that would not make me happy. I don’t quit. I just don’t.

I also know that I would not honor Steve’s memory if I quit after we had worked so hard on my cycling skills for months. I AM a better cyclist. My fears just need to get out of my way.

Karl and I at the start of the French Creek Iron Tour Century Ride. Thanks for your support, dude!!

I didn’t quit. Instead, I figured out a way to keep going. Isn’t that what we should always do in life – figure out a way to keep going?

At first, the path forward involved getting help from my friends. I’m grateful to my friend Karl who rode with me for 100 very long – very long – miles in the immediate days after Steve passed.

I was scared. I was sad. Karl knew it. He stuck by my side and helped me finish that ride that day. Since then, each day I ride outside, I feel better. I get stronger. I’m killing my fear.

As Herman Wouk wrote in the Caine Mutiny: “Do the thing you fear and death of fear is certain.”

Indeed.

Take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.

Don’t assume there will be another chance to do that thing you want to do.

A few months ago, Steve tried to talk me into going to South Carolina for a USA Cycling Clinic. He wanted to use me as a “prop” for the demonstrations, and to work with me a bit on some of the handling details we’d been trying to tackle. We joked about exactly what the “prop” would have to do.

While I wanted to go, I found reasons not to go, instead of looking at the reasons why I should have gone. I thought I would see Steve this August when we go to Colorado for Leadville. We had discussed other plans for me to join him at a clinic that was a little closer to home for me. I’ll never get those chances now.

I had learned this lesson many years ago, when I missed an opportunity drive cross country with my father. He passed later that year. Some lessons need to be re-learned and re-emphasized.

So, yeah, you totally should sign up for that race, go on that vacation, make that move. Do it. Right now.

I am a work in progress.
First time I ever cleaned my own cassette. I was irrationally proud of doing something I should have been doing for the past 10 years. I also felt super bikey.

Since last September, I’ve learned A LOT about how a bike works. For years, I was complacent to just get on it and ride. I was a very typical triathlete in this way. I never cleaned it. I didn’t even really know what all of the parts were called.

Now, I clean my bike regularly. I kinda like it shiny. I know what the parts are called, and can have intelligent conversations with my bike mechanic. (Hey, Marko!!)

But, it’s not just the practical or physical stuff that requires our attention. The most important lesson for me always comes back to mental strength and fitness.

Mental training must be done consistently–more so even than the physical training. You don’t reach an endpoint in your mental strength. Just because you had it last year or last month, doesn’t mean it will remain.

You have to keep working the corners of the mind, as your experience grows. Despite all that I’ve learned this year, I know there is still more work to be done. I look forward to that work.

We are all works in progress. I find that to be a huge relief. I never want to reach the point where I don’t want, or don’t have the ability, to continue to grow, to learn, to thrive.

These are the moments – when strung together each-to-each – that let us know we are living our lives, not idly letting the days, the opportunities, our growth pass us by.

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experience!