This article was originally featured in Brigham Health Hub.
Converting pain into fuel
We all have inner demons. By this, I mean doubts, mistakes, or a difficult past. Instead of holding us back, they can propel us forward.
Anyone who has tried to set a record, break new ground, or do something “unreasonable” knows the importance of converting pain and uncertainty into fuel. Instead of being an obstacle, it can be converted into motivation.
Training gave me goals and enabled me to move forward. It was a pathway out of pain.
I began cycling uphill to recover from a brain injury. I had many other damaged parts and was focused on getting healthy. I had doubts about whether I could get my body and mind back to one piece. I knew my muscles and bones would heal, but I didn’t know if my executive functioning and processing speed would return. Was my professional career over? If so, how would I support myself?
Around the time of my cycling accident, I experienced a series of major losses. My father and best friend died on the same day after long illnesses. I lost control of my company, lost my income and retirement. I had a broken heart from a failed relationship. And for a while, it looked like I might have lost my brain. Please know that I’m not, and wasn’t, at the time complaining! I had a huge list of things to be grateful for. But, initially, the pain from these losses was holding me back. Training gave me goals and enabled me to move forward. It was a pathway out of pain.
Over time, I learned to channel the pain into energy. It was a kind of alchemy. I’ll never forget the words of a fellow cyclist. He knew my story and saw me powering up Great Blue Hill, a 635-foot hill in the Blue Hills Reservation in Massachusetts. He said, “Yep, empty the anger, pain and loss into the pedals and it’s amazing how much better everything gets. Plus, you get strong!”
I learned to channel the pain into energy. It was a kind of alchemy.
Unless you’re blessed with amnesia, losses never leave you. They accumulate, in fact. But the larger the pile of losses the more fuel there is for channeling. Even the physical pain of rigorous training can be channeled. This pain from training, while intense, is controllable, intentional and productive. Pain from loss is the opposite. The more I rode, the less I hurt.
Overcoming the feeling of average
As I became more competitive, I fought a battle between two voices. One voice told me I could be really fast. The other voice said I was an ordinary athlete.
To compete at a high level, I had to silence that limiting voice. To accommodate the demands of my goals, I had to believe in myself. I knew I couldn’t get there without total commitment, so I made trade-offs and sacrifices. I eventually won the fight between those two voices, but I had to live in the middle space for a while.
I became an accomplished rider, making my way to the third step of the podium of the Mt. Washington Hill Climb. I was surprised and overjoyed. I was satisfied with my effort. Then my coach, Marti Shea, introduced me to the next chapter of self-discovery.
Excellence is a choice
I was basking in the glow of placing third in my age group in the Mt. Washington Hill Climb. Marti said she was pleased and proud of me. Then came the “but.”
“But, you have what it takes to reach the top of the podium,” Marti said. “It’s your choice. If you want it, you will have to work harder.”
It had hurt to reach third place. A lot. Marti believed in me, but I didn’t know if I was ready to do what it would take to get even faster. I didn’t know if I believed in myself enough to make that commitment.
Empty the anger, pain and loss into the pedals, and it’s amazing how much better everything gets.
A friend of mine, an Olympic athlete, asked me, “Your coach believes you have that kind of talent and you aren’t going to develop it?”
I thought about these words for weeks, and then made a choice to chase first place. I undertook the next level of training and overcame my self-limiting beliefs. And I started winning races.
Self-doubt is powerful. I had to get over the doubt, then focus, sort out my priorities, and arrange my life around a demanding training schedule.
As I reached new goals, new frontiers revealed themselves, not just in sport but in life. It became a mode of being to explore the edges of my capabilities. Whenever I encountered what seemed like an overwhelming challenge, I knew I could get there.
Embracing the idea that my RAAM team could set a record for 60-year-old women certainly fits the bill of a seemingly overwhelming challenge. With less than four weeks from the start of the race I’m terrified and intensely curious about this unexplored territory and nearly overwhelming challenge.