Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Timberline Enduro: Extreme Meditation

A couple of weeks ago, I visited my friend and former teammate. Two years ago she suffered a really bad concussion that took several months from which to recover and eventually led to her taking an indefinite break from bike racing. She used this as an opportunity to try new things, including jiu-jitsu, but as we were catching up the other day she told me how she had gotten another concussion from a jiu-jitsu accident a few weeks prior. She said that was taking a break from activities where she could get hurt and that, “Now I’m just into extreme yoga and extreme mediation.” It is true that, like myself, when she goes in on something she goes in hard, so “extreme meditation” became the running joke of the evening.

Incidentally, I began a fairly consistent meditation practice of my own right at the beginning of the year, but in my case, it has been far from extreme, and that is a good thing. I use the Headspace app  for 10-20 minutes a day, most days, although my best unbroken streak has only 20 days or so. I took this on as another attempt to self-treat my anxiety and depression, because I’ve had very little luck finding a good therapist in State College and I’m pretty resistant to taking prescription drugs. The thing is that I went into the meditation practice with no expectation of immediate results, because that’s not really how it’s supposed to work. Like training for a sport, training the brain requires consistent effort over a long period of time, so I finally committed to really giving that a shot. There isn’t much downside to it, except for paying $13 a month for the app and committing a small amount of uninterrupted time to it each day. The question is if I’ve seen enough improvement after four months for it seem worthwhile. For outside observers who read past this point, it will probably seem like I haven’t improved at all. I may not be able to prevent all anxiety attacks, nor quickly pull myself out of tailspin on command, but yes, I definitely feel that I have a little more “head space” than I did a few months ago.

First practice run of the season.
Photo: Sue Haywood
Going into the first race of the season, I thought I was in a pretty good place mentally. I was racking up PRs in training and was at least on track to regain the fitness that I had lost over the winter. I knew I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I hoped that I might pleasantly surprise myself by finishing closer to the rest of the pro/expert field than I expected. I was okay with last place; it was just a question of by how much. Then on Thursday evening before the race, my old demons started creeping back. The first to appear was a picture of a feature on the course that I probably would be too scared to ride in competition, which reintroduced all my guilt and embarrassment about not being better at drops by now. Later that evening, Frank casually mentioned another of my demons just as we were turning the lights off to sleep, so you can probably imagine how much sleep I got that night. It all spun up from excitement about the race to dread very quickly.

My outlook had quickly gone from “I’m not as good as I want to be yet, but I’ll get there eventually” to “this race is going to prove to everyone how bad I suck, and how I will always suck no matter what I do and why do I always have to be so terrible at everything I want to be good at when it’s so easy for everyone but me”. These recurring thought patterns should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading for a while, and I guess that my winning the sport category last year only goes to prove that imposter syndrome is not limited to academia.
So this where my meditation practice comes in. As I said before, I was not able to fully pull myself out of the tailspin once I was in it, but at least I was able to formulate enough moments of objectivity where I could recognize all of the unhelpful crap that my brain was doing for what it was, even if I couldn’t really shut it down. I was simultaneously trying to shame myself into being better and trying to protect myself from disappointment in my performance, but I know from experience that neither of these strategies actually work. This is especially true in enduro, where “trying really hard”  can actually backfire pretty quickly.

This was when I realized how much enduro was like meditation due to the careful balance between discipline and effortlessness. I don’t try to be “good” at meditation because that’s not how it works. I simply show up, often when I don’t necessarily feel like it, and I do my best to stay aware and watch what happens. I have the vague long-term goal of reduced anxiety, but I don’t know what exactly that will look like or when I will have achieved it. I just know that it will be better than it is now, so I keep showing up. I could probably benefit from treating my enduro practice and racing the same way. Rather than thinking about where I want to be and when and how I can get there, I would be better served just showing up and doing my best to fully engage with the sensations in my brain and body. It’s almost as if enduro could be called extreme meditation or something.

And thus my mantra for the opening weekend of the West Virginia Enduro Series was born. Despite the fact that I came into the weekend stressed and exhausted and continued to be thrown off by every little thing that didn’t go according to plan, throughout the weekend I would repeat to myself the phrase “extreme meditation”. I had forgotten how exhausting practice days are and how defensive I get when riding unfamiliar trails in mud, and all the demons that were let loose on Thursday refused to get back in their box, so I ended up repeating the phrase a lot. I’d love to say that it held some sort of magical power that turned things around and that I ended up having a good race, but that didn’t happen. I did finish last as expected, but it was the margin between me and the next woman that was embarrassing.

I will, however, keep reminding myself that this is just extreme meditation until the message finally kicks in. This means going into every ride and race with the intention of riding as well as I can in the circumstances presented without thinking about any past or future results. I’m not pretending that this will be an easy thing to do, because neither is regular meditation, but the point is to set your intention and keep coming back.

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