Preparing For Pain

In my article "Why Do You Race?" I asked and answered the question as an exploration in motivation; as a coach it's not just my job to tell a rider what intervals to do or when to rest, but also to help them find the inspiration to climb on the bike day in and day out amidst the pressures of work, family, and the inevitable failures that come during a season of racing. It helps that as an active racer I struggle with the same issues as my clients, and spend a great deal of time trying to solve these problems for myself as well.

In the course of this constant search, many years ago a friend passed on a book called "Sun and Steel" by Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. In it, Mishima details his struggle with the material world and his attempt to make sense of it through the process of rigorous weight training and swordplay. His experiences and observations are well suited to the sport of cycling and the world of suffering we subject ourselves to when we train and race.

One of Mishima's primary questions is the nature of courage, and how it's intertwined with physical suffering and the simple sensation of being alive. He argues that suffering as a rite of passage and proof of courage has always been part of traditional cultures but has been all but forgotten by modern society. Lost with that is the battle between the body and mind that exists in courageous acts, as the clear, conscious mind tries to overrule the physical body that "beats a steady retreat into its function of self-defense" when faced with pain.

Bike racing, in its essence, is a competition to see who can suffer the most and survive. During the week in training and recovery, and in a weekend of racing, attacking, and counterattacking, we know it's not always the most talented or most prepared that wins. Often the one who manages to combine the perfect mix of timing, tactics, and the ability to suffer and persevere when the opportunity presents itself is the one that wins the race. It's the essence of suffering in bike racing that I find the most compelling as a fan and participant, and what can move me to tears when the winning attack is made in Paris-Roubaix, or I manage to slip away for a win in the smallest of local races.

There is a dream state to suffering on the bike that we're all familiar with. You're aware of the race, that it's crunch time, perhaps, and that the break is about to go. We often find ourselves in the clouds at that point, struggling to make tactical choices while we're at or above threshold for long periods, distracted by the pain, convinced that it would be impossible to increase it voluntarily. We repeatedly put our heads on the block and pull it away, faced with crisis points of pain that are difficult to act against in order to put in the winning attack or follow the decisive move, even when we see it plainly in front of us.

The suffering we feel has physiological basis, of course. Anecdotally, it seems to me to be related to our innate law of self-preservation. Your body wants to protect itself against damage of any kind, and we know the more intense your work on the bike becomes, the more damage you do to yourself on the cellular level. The higher the intensity, the more the damage, and the more your body creates a sensation of pain to encourage you to stop. Cramping muscles are still one of the great mysteries of physiology, with no conclusive explanations. Experientially, it's a clear message from your body that because you didn't voluntary remove the stress you placed on yourself by riding at high intensities for long periods, your body's going to take things into its own hands to make sure the stress is removed. Anyone who's raced or trained to the point of cramping knows that it's nearly impossible to continue to pedal through deep muscle cramps.

To suffer, then, requires courage. To override your body's instinct for self-preservation, according to Mishima, is the core of that courage. As an athlete, there's a time to pay attention to pain, give it respect, and back off to prevent serious injury. At the same time, competition is the place we're able to battle pain, and create tests and opportunities for acts of courage. Are then race results a measurement of courage? On one level, perhaps, as it shows who was able to play the game on every level to perfection, including the surrender to suffering. But isn't it always the winner who seems to suffer the least? The one who is a level above everyone else in the race, and is within his or her limits? Perhaps it is the less prepared who are the most courageous, as they suffer the most. It's the riders who race every weekend with no hope of ever winning that amaze and puzzle me, and earn my deepest respect. They suffer the most with pain itself as their only clear reward for their effort. To line up every weekend knowing that that's what faces you; that's courage.

I enjoy training as much as I do racing. I enjoy being systematic and scientific in the approach I take to my preparation, I like the meditative aspect of interval work, and I like the feeling of being fit. But it's the game we play on the bike, the races we do on the weekend, that helps us play out the dynamics of the world at large on a small, personal scale with no real repercussions. It lets us get closer to pain, and closer to death, normally without experiencing any lasting consequences. I am aware of the glaring exceptions to this rule and that people do die while training and racing, but they themselves are the reminders that we are, in fact, alive, and need to make the most of the authentic life we have. Without the games, without the suffering, it would be simple to forget. That's the reward we get from striving and suffering, far above and beyond any trophies or prize money we might or might not win. It's a reminder that we are alive in what might be an otherwise uninspired life. And that's what keeps us coming back every weekend.

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