Part 2: The Art of Mental Resilience
There is something surreal about cycling alone on a mountain at 3:00 A.M. The trees loom in the darkness, lit only in passing by the lights on your helmet and handlebars. It’s an eerie feeling, like Blair Witch Project meets Into the Wild. And it can mess with your head if you’re not ready for it.
Last week, I wrote about the 24 hour mountain bike race I completed last summer. I highlighted the learning process that helped me prepare for the race in under three months and offered ideas on optimal learning. But one major topic was left out: mental resilience.
Mental resilience matters in life. The future is uncertain and everyone experiences challenges, heartbreak, and pain at some point. As investors, mental resilience is important in order to be grounded during peaks of emotional frenzy and when the stakes are high. If we put energy into practicing and improving our mental resilience, we can draw on this skill when the chips are down.
The 24 hour race was an opportunity for me to train and improve upon this skill. Ultra-endurance events challenge athletes’ mental limits to the extreme and I wanted to test my limits. In the process, I learned a series of lessons that can be applied to any of life’s challenges and a reminder that mental resilience is something we must practice.
Flexibility is essential
One week before my race, my friends and I went on an easy training ride in Bragg Creek. My body was in peak condition after months of training and I rode with ease. But as we shot down a trail with a series of switchbacks covered in sand, my back wheel slid underneath me. My bike and body slammed into the ground, my left arm flew out to brace for the impact…and then there was nothing but pain.
When the doctor told me I had broken my elbow, the news was more agonizing than the fall itself. Even if I raced—she did not give me a cast—how was I supposed to haul my bike up and down the course for 24 hours with a weak elbow? After months of training, this was a devastating blow.
After evaluating my options, it seemed I could still ride if I rested my arm for the remaining five days before the race. I resolved to ride and used Rocktape to stabilize my arm. Was it ideal? No. But I intended to make the best of the situation once the decision was made. When race day came, I was ready to go.
When our expectations are tested and things don’t go according to plan, it is an opportunity to practice building our mental resilience. Flexibility can help us improve upon our mental and emotional strength. If we prepare for a multitude of scenarios, rather than focusing on the one scenario we “need” to happen, we can be more resilient when the ideal situation does not occur.
Observe your thoughts and be ready to re-direct them
The sheer enormity of an ultra-endurance challenge can turn your mind into your greatest enemy or ally. One of the most important tools that can help improve mental resilience is the ability to observe thoughts and re-direct them in a productive manner.
Managing and controlling thoughts can be broken down into two skills: observing and intervening. Before it is even possible to manage thoughts and moods, it is necessary to learn to observe them. Only when we observe thoughts in the moment can we intervene and direct them away from irrational or unproductive thinking. This is a skill we can train through both journaling and meditation.
Three years ago, my family went through a difficult emotional period when we lost my father. During this time, I discovered the worksheet below and used it frequently to observe and redirect my thoughts. If I was feeling particularly anxious about something, I would observe what I was thinking, record evidence for and against the idea, and build a more balanced thought. In this way I started to train clearer thinking. Since filling out the worksheet required me to identify my assumptions and seek evidence for them, it is an excellent method for stepping back and gaining perspective.
The above chart represents what it could have looked like to complete the worksheet for my race. In reality, since I had practiced this skill so many times, I did the above in my head.
In addition to journaling, meditation can be a highly effective foundation for mental resilience. There is a reason why many high performing individuals—from hedge fund managers like Ray Dalio to CEOs like Russell Simmons—meditate. Among many benefits, a consistent meditation practice trains one’s mind, as it requires the practitioner to observe their thoughts and disassociate themselves from them; thereby laying the foundation of self-awareness required for mental resilience.
Think about a point in your life when you overcame physical or emotional hardship. In that moment, you probably faced down negative thoughts with stronger thinking. Somehow, you pushed through physical or emotional pain despite the odds, the fatigue or the naysayers. I would be willing to bet that—in that moment—you succeeded because of your thinking. As the Stoics argued thousands of years ago, the physical and emotional discomfort we can tolerate depends on what we allow ourselves to think. And there are few more effective means to train our mind than meditation.
Lessons for the darkest times
The real challenge in a 24 hour race begins when night falls. Darkness brings out strange emotions and fears when you are really fatigued. Your body wants to follow its Circadian rhythm and shut down. At this point, maintaining mental resilience takes more than redirecting negative thoughts.
I learned this the hard way when, around 2:00 A.M., I rolled into the pit area for a refuel. Since I was well ahead of my target time, I made the decision to get off the bike and go inside to warm up; thereby breaking the cardinal rule of soloists to never, ever, get off your bike. It was a giant mistake. Once the warm air hit, my body instantly wanted to snuggle into bed and I became delirious. It took my crew over half an hour to get me fed and onto the bike again. And that’s when the real trouble started.
Cycling for fifteen hours straight is hard enough on the body. Cycling for fifteen hours and then stopping to warm up—only to be shoved into the cold darkness again—is murder. The lap that followed was my hardest by far. By then I was so physically and emotionally depleted, sick of the darkness, and frustrated by my sloppy riding, that a voice inside my head started taunting me to quit. Everything seemed to take forever. Where was the fuel station? Why was I so cold? Why was I even doing this?
Finally, I arrived at the first fuel station and was handed water by one of the volunteers, who happened to be an ultra-endurance runner and had recently completed a 70-mile run. He must have seen the look of despair in my eyes because he said:
There is nothing below the bottom; you can push through this. Dawn is coming. You’ll feel better.
It wasn’t much, but it was enough to keep me going through that brutal lap. There is nothing below the bottom; you can push through this. Keep making circles. Look twenty feet ahead. Feel lucky to be alive.
Slowly and gradually I made my way around the 17km of that lap. And right on cue, dawn started to break and my entire mood shifted. It is remarkable how much positive emotional energy the sun provides.
Those night laps taught me three things.
First, when the challenge feels insurmountable, concentrate on micro-goals. Need to save money for your kids’ education? Save on a monthly basis. Need to cycle around a mountain for 24 hours? Start by reaching the first fuel station.
Second, a good team beats an individual every time. I might have been riding solo but I was fortunate enough to have three friends supporting me throughout the race. Their enthusiasm made a huge difference and got me through that killer hour.
Third, in the darkest moments, we must remind ourselves that there is nothing below the bottom and we can push through. Eventually dawn comes.
In the end, I finished the race and met my original target of completing 10 laps and 170 km in 24 hours, coming in fifth among the female soloists. My elbow held up and my team celebrated by having beers, while I lay sprawled on the ground. With the exception of a bike repair on lap two and the 3:00 A.M. killer lap, the race had gone smoothly. It was a happy moment for the whole team.
Not that I was thinking very much by that point.