Saturday, February 17, 2018

My Favorite Failure


A year or two ago I came across an article in an airline magazine or some such (probably a regular column) titled “My Favorite Failure” or “My Favorite Mistake.” I can’t find it now (Googling “Favorite Mistake” turns up a hundred variations on some Sheryl Crow song). The article concerned some famous pianist playing his first competition and having such a battle of nerves that he botched the opening notes and actually started over, which ruined his chances of scoring well. The judges, however, were impressed that he started over (something to do with the sanctity of the piece or something) and said so. He learned some valuable lesson and now he’s famous, so it’s a heartwarming story, etc.

Do I have a favorite mistake? For me, the chief problem with this exercise is choosing one among the many, but I’ve settled on a favorite (for now). If I were famous, you’d be reading this in some magazine.

My favorite failure

I’ve had some great failures, like when I tried to ride through a giant mud puddle during the warmup lap of a mountain bike race and ended up entirely submerged in mud in front of at least 50 people. Another time, I was at a party and barfed in front of dozens of onlookers, without alcohol being involved (or at least without it being prominent). Another candidate: as a dumb teenager unaware of the need to prepare his speeches in advance, I was laughed at by an entire roomful of people at a city council meeting in Boulder. These were all funny and humiliating failures, but I didn’t really learn anything beyond the fact of my being an idiot, which I’d known already.

The mistake I’ll focus on here: at age 14, I traveled 75 miles for a bike race and forgot my cycling shoes. Now, I know that’s not really remarkable—probably every bike racer has done this, or something like it. But that’s just a mistake. The real failure was how I reacted.

Did I melt down, and throw a tantrum, maybe break my hand punching the side of the car? No, actually, I was pretty stoic. In fact, maybe too stoic.

The facts of the case

This was the Buckeye Road Race, the first race of the 1984 season. I was inwardly miserable because I never trained much over the winter in those days and thus always sucked in those early races. I did better as the season progressed (though to be honest, I sucked to some degree all season long, compared to my pals who all improved way faster).

But poor winter training wasn’t my only problem. All races gave me a bad case of nerves; I was pretty much a basket case psychologically at every start line. Just seeing all the parked cars with the bikes on them gave me butterflies. I wasted so much energy being nervous, I never rode as well in the races as I did in training. At least, the fitness gap between my friends and me was more pronounced on race day. My mood would improve afterward when I could finally relax, even though I probably should have been more disappointed in my (generally poor) results.

You might be wondering: why did I even keep racing? Well, as slow as I was in my fourth year of racing, I was at least (gradually) improving. More than that, I just liked the culture of bike racing. I liked the people, I liked bikes, I liked the speed, and I liked the idea of racing. It got me out of the house and gave me a reason—almost an excuse, you might say—to train.

So: back to the Buckeye Road Race. I got there and was going through my stuff when I discovered my cycling shoes were not in my bag. They were Detto Pietro Art 74s, like these:

Back then, there was only one configuration for such shoes—there weren’t 4 or 5 different cleat types making compatibility difficult. The cleat was just a hunk of plastic with a slot in it, which fit over the cage of any pedal. We all had toe clips and in theory I could have raced in sneakers. My shoes were big clunky things, though, and I wasn’t going to do that.

Some adult on my team went running around trying to find somebody who could loan me his shoes (my race being before theirs). I was embarrassed, of course, and didn’t like the idea of anybody taking the trouble. I was well prepared to face the consequences of my neglect.

Too prepared, actually. When it became clear nobody could find shoes my size, I immediately felt a warm flush of relief wash over me. I wouldn’t have to race after all! This was a lot like the warm, cozy sensation of wetting your pants—in that carefree moment before you realize what you’ve done. No sooner did I recognize my emotion—relief—than I became deeply ashamed of it. What the hell was I? A bike racer or a poser? A driven athlete, or a fraud who wasted space in his teammate’s car? What was wrong with me that the pressure of the start line was so great I’d graciously accept being turned away from it through my own disorganization? Why was the embarrassment of a bonehead move like forgetting my shoes less painful than normal pre-race butterflies? Could there have—gasp!—been anything bordering on intentional about my utter lack of meticulousness when packing my bag?

My enlightenment

I can’t really say this shame represented an epiphany of any kind; I didn’t suddenly make any resolution that changed the trajectory of my life, or even my sporting life. But the recognition I’d had was the start of something: I now knew there was a problem somewhere in myself. I no longer just bumped blithely along, buoyed by my friends and my team and the comfortable delusion that I was an actual bike racer (who just didn’t happen to be very good). Up to this point I had bobbed merrily in the baby pool of poser-dom, but now the plug had been pulled. The cycling season gradually drained away and at the end of it, I seriously considered quitting the sport.

Rather than a bolt out of the blue that clarified everything, my failure—that is, the realization that I wasn’t truly committed—festered in my gut like a slow-growing infection. It was just this unpleasant awareness that I hadn’t had  before, that didn’t spur me to any specific action but also wouldn’t go away.

I put a rear rack on my mountain bike and attached cute little caddy to it haul stuff around. I asked myself: is it enough to be a guy who gets around town on a bike? A carefree bike path regular? Could I just bike around for the pleasure of it, without worrying about speed and strength and performance?

Sometime over the winter the answer materialized: no. It wasn’t enough to be a neat guy who likes bikes. I wanted to be a racer, a real one, who doesn’t make excuses and races every chance he gets and pays enough attention not to forget his damn shoes.

This new emotional, psychological commitment—the increase in will—must have changed my behavior in a hundred subtle ways. I trained more; I got more organized; I stopped finding excuses not to ride; I thought a lot less about the rote activities involved and just carried them out; training went from being something I could do to something that had to be done; I tinkered less with my bike. I raced more; my fitness soared; I started getting results. It was the real start of competence in the sport for me.

I was chatting with a pal recently, a fellow assistant mountain bike coach, and we were trying to figure out how many races we’d done. I guessed I’d done over 150, but just now I did a rough tally and it’s actually over 250. And not once, since the 1984 Buckeye Road Race, have I forgotten my shoes. That’s a pretty good track record … and I think it all stems from that one privately humiliating failure: not merely the failure to be organized, but a fundamental failure to commit.

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