Thursday, November 30, 2017

Talent: The Right Side of HSE

Any discussion about the skill-acquiring process must begin by addressing a curious phenomenon that I came to know as the Holy Shit Effect. This refers to the heady mix of disbelief, admiration, and envy (not necessarily in that order) we feel when talent suddenly appears out of nowhere. The HSE is not the feeling of hearing Pavarotti sing or watching Willie Mays swing – they’re one in a billion; we can easily accept the fact that they are different from us. The HSE is the feeling of seeing talent bloom in people who we thought were just like us. It’s the tingle of surprise you get when the goofy neighbor kind down the street is suddenly the lead guitarist for a successful rock band, or when your own child shows an inexplicable knack for differential calculus. It’s the feeling of, where did that come from? – Daniel Coyle, “The Talent Code”

In my last post, I discussed my long-held theory regarding talent and cycling-related happiness. However, as I wrote it, I started to question my definition of the “talent” in the context of that theory. Over Thanksgiving break, I decided get some additional perspective on the concept of talent, by re-reading “The Talent Code”. I had read the book before in 2010, and I was excited to find that it was actually among the relatively few books that weren’t culled prior to moving to Pennsylvania. This is even more impressive considering that at least half of my small remaining collection of physical books consists of the complete series of Sookie Stackhouse novels. What I found was that “The Talent Code” stood up to the test of time much better than the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and also that my 2010 self did not properly appreciate its wisdom the first time around.

Yo, girl, we need to talk about your wheel size, your hip hinge, and the fact that you're paying some dude $150 a month to make you faster while you're still holding on to a deep-seated sense of learned helplessness.

I will likely be referencing this book in the next few posts, so I won’t go into too much detail on the non-HSE parts for the time being, but it might be useful for me to preface the rest of this post with a brief summary. The book seeks to uncover the secrets of various “talent hotbeds", and it is divided into three sections: Deep Practice, which discusses the myelin that insulates neural pathways for the skills that a person practices most and best; Ignition, which discusses the subtle and not-so-subtle cues that people take from the world that motivate them into deep practice (and will make the R. Kelly song play in your head the for the entire middle third of the book); and Master Coaching, which talks about what the best teachers do to increase both ignition and deep practice in their students. A better summary can be found here, if you’re interested.

For today though, I’d like to focus on how the book made me realize that the thing that I’d been calling “talent” in my theory was actually HSE. For some reason, the concept of “HSE” reminds me of the saying, “History is written by the winners,” and then turns around in my mind to, “HSE is written by the losers.” I think that is because to the person displaying the “sudden” success, it might not seem like a surprise at all. Only an outside observer (who is often on the losing end of this situation) will perceive the success as natural ability that came out of nowhere. The whole point of the book is that the success has likely been longer in the making than one might think.

So I began to roll this narrative around in my mind. I once again thought of Syd Shulz’ post on challenging the stories that we tell ourselves and acknowledging our tailwinds along with the headwinds. As much I see myself as the scrappy underdog who has put up with a whole lot of defeat in service of a few minor victories sprinkled across a decade, I’ve come to realize that I am the only one who has been watching this clich├ęd sports movie in my head from the beginning. Was it possible that at some point I’d been the subject of someone else’s HSE?

While this recent string of posts sprung from my disappointment in the successes that I didn’t have this season, I can’t discount the successes that I did have. It’s dumb to imagine that the women of the West Virginia Enduro Series eventually Googled me and read all 300-and-something blog posts describing everything that happened in my cycling career prior to the moment that name appeared at the top of the Big Bear Women’s Sport results. To everyone else, I was just some woman who showed up and won the sport category at nearly every race this year, in some cases beating women with more enduro racing experience under their belts. While I was beating myself up because I was so far behind the expert women, other people, if they were paying attention at all, were probably thinking I must be very talented. LOL.

However, my greatest example of being on the winning side of HSE was my 2011 cyclocross season, when I surprised myself more than anyone. From a traditional sense of cycling training, that season should not have been a success. I didn’t even begin riding until March that year because I was recovering from surgery. I’m not sure that I did a ride over two hours long the whole year, and frankly I didn’t spend that many hours on the bike at all. At the time I couldn’t explain why I did well that season, which is why I sometimes joke that cyclocross is a combination of science and magic, just like Lil’ Bub.

After re-reading “The Talent Code”, I realize that what transpired that season wasn’t magic; it was just a different kind of science than what most cycling training is based on. I guess I was wasn’t ready to absorb science that didn’t talk about watts the first time I read the book.

While I wasn’t putting in tons of miles in 2011, what I did do was lift heavy weights often and with great consistency, and the time I spent of the bike was mostly short, intense efforts. When cyclocross season began, my threshold power was meh, even by my relatively low standards, but I could accelerate better than I ever had before or since. When I exploded off the line and lead for half a lap of the first race of the year before crashing into a hole and fighting my way back through the field to my first-ever podium, that was the ignition to my “sudden explosion of talent”. After that I raced nearly every weekend for three months, usually on both Saturday and Sunday.

The fact that I kept getting better through that season doesn’t make sense in terms of fitness, since I wasn’t really “training” between races, but when I think about it terms of firing neural circuits, making mistakes, and re-firing those circuits better and more efficiently, it totally does. There is really no substitute for the deep practice that I get from actually racing cyclocross, and part of my struggle to recreate that success since moving to State College has been the inconvenience of living 2-3 hours from real races with the starting line, course tape, and timing cues that I need to ignite me into that state. And there is a reason that "cyclocross practice" is among the top phrases that make me cringe, along with "lean protein" and "requirements gathering". Unless I have the cues present to get me into that deep practice state, it's just riding bikes on grass, and I hate riding bikes on grass.

What I have gained by reflecting on my own moments on the right side of HSE was that talent might not have been the right word to use in my cycling happiness equation. Maybe it’s more about pleasantly surprising yourself when you exceed the results that you believe you’ve earned. That’s actually kind of perfect, because even prior to this conclusion, I had planned for my next post to tackle the problem of entitlement when the forks get too high. What I’m learning in this is that the currency of competitive cycling is so much more vast and complicated than most of us understand, but hopefully some further examination of what’s usually written off as genetics, or even magic, will provide some guidance as to how to negotiate it.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Talent Over Forks

My last post was incredibly helpful in allowing me to bookend the last couple of months’ stress and anxiety, and transition into the official off-season feeling much more calm and motivated for next year. However, I worried that the post went a little too far down the crazy/anxious/dark end of the spectrum by admitting how much I let my insecurity bleed into pettiness and jealousy sometimes. And maybe it did, but it also prompted an interesting response from an enduro friend that I met over the summer.

He mentioned that I’d implied that guys seem to care less about results than women, which is definitely not something that I ever thought or meant to imply. Without doing any scientific research on the matter, I would guess that the level of caring about results is probably pretty evenly distributed between the genders, but how it is expressed and experienced is just different. I think competition among women can feel more personal, because there are fewer of us, and we feel less embarrassed to admit it when it gets us down. At the same time, I can imagine that there are plenty guys who get frustrated when they don’t progress at the rate that they feel that they should or feel a twinge of jealousy when that progression comes seemingly easily to someone else. Of course, most of what I observe in my day-to-day life is a neurotic woman (me) and a pretty chill man (Frank), so maybe it does skew my view of society as a whole.

The conversation reminded of me of a theory that I developed a couple of years ago, but I guess I never got around to posting about it. It must hold water, though, because Frank still regularly references it when explaining his relationship to competitive cycling, which is:  “My talent exceeds my [forks] given, so I’m pretty happy.”

I submit for your approval: Talent/Forks Given = Bike-Related Happiness

(I will be using the word “forks” from here on out, just in case my mom reads this, and because I’ve been watching too much of the “The Good Place”.)

I first started developing this theory around the time that I joined Team Laser Cats, when I found myself surrounded by blissfully unaware baby racers who didn’t really seem to know what they were doing when it came to racing, but somehow they were already better at it than me. All my years, miles, and knowledge of racing and training couldn’t stand up to their natural-born engines and their uninhibited stoke, but they were such a great group of women that I was okay with it.

The idea also came from watching Frank, who has always been proportionally faster than me, despite training less. It’s not like he was ever missing his calling as Pro Tour rider simply due to his lack of saddle time, but the fact that he could occasionally get on the PACX singlespeed podium with Cat 1&2 dudes just by tagging along with whatever training I was doing (unless it involved the trainer or rollers, coz eww) indicates a certain amount of talent. If he got a coach and invested a couple of years of dedicated training that didn’t involve my slow ass, I’m sure he could become a podium-worthy regional elite masters ‘cross competitor. I’m also sure he would be considerably less happy if he were to do that.

Most of the time he manages to ride a beautiful line where he gets just enough success without trying super hard in the day-to-day. The other interesting thing is that, in the heat of competition, I think he tends to focus harder and suffer longer than I do, because he hasn’t wasted as much mental energy obsessing beforehand.

The theory of talent over forks given reaches the entire breadth of the cycling spectrum, from that annoying person who wins the first bike race they ever enter, to a very sad Sanne Cant in second place on the World Championship podium a couple of years ago. While both of these examples exceed me in the talent portion, I can actually much better identify with the latter. Sanne Cant has an incredible amount of talent, but she had stacked up a pile of forks so high for so long that nothing short of World Championship would allow her to break even. I remember reading once that she made her parents take her to the Netherlands (I think) to race when she was a kid, because she was too young to compete in Belgium. At least her 15ish years of forks finally paid off last winter.

When I look back at my life on the things I was naturally good at and the things I really cared about, those were never the same thing. I joked with Frank the other day that my academic career was like his cyclocross career, where I was very satisfied to complete a bachelor’s degree in marketing from state school with a 3.85 GPA with an incredibly low amount of effort. In retrospect, I sometimes wish that I’d set my sights higher or challenged myself more, but at the time, simply graduating college was a pretty big accomplishment where I was from. At the same time, I was given the rare opportunity to become a Division I athlete by joining my college cross country team, despite not having shown much real athletic promise or interest until that point in my life. So that was where I became ingrained with the mentality that being smart was easy and sports were hard, and the fact that they were hard made them so much more satisfying. Bikes were just the next step for me after my collegiate running career ended, because cycling offers a greater variety of legitimate competitive opportunities than running at the non-elite level. If master’s track meets were more prevalent, it might have been a different story.

When I decide that something will be my new thing, I go all-in, learn all about it, and invest as much time and money as I can. For me, the forks were always high, even before I made it to the starting line of my first mountain bike race. I put a lot of effort into knowing what to expect and looking like I knew what I was doing. (Old pictures will reveal that questionability of that statement, as I still looked pretty forking dorky, even for the Midwest in 2006.) However, you only learn so much from reading and imagining, and it turned out that mountain bike racing was scary and hard, and that often times, my competition took to it a lot more naturally than me, even if they were wearing yoga pants and running shoes. The thing was, that because mountain biking was scary and hard at first, I was only more determined to make it less so.

So how does one recover when their forks given greatly exceed their talent? Sometimes the answer really is as simple as needing to give fewer forks. However, as I planned to write this post I started asking questions about my theory. At its heart, it is still very true, but I think there is more nuance to be explored. What is talent, really? And what does the “happiness” in my equation really mean? Sure, the person who wins their first race ever is going to have a much more positive outlook on the sport for a while, but how happy are they really, compared to someone who took years to get that same win? I figure I have about five months before I’ll have another race report to write, so instead of boring you this winter discussing whether I made it onto the trainer the planned number of times each week, maybe I’ll start digging into these additional questions. Stay tuned…

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Home Isn't Where The Heart Is

I don't want to talk
About the things we've gone through
Though it's hurting me
Now it's history
I've played all my cards
And that's what you've done too
Nothing more to say
No more ace to play…

The winner takes it all
The loser standing small
Beside the victory
That's her destiny

Sometimes you need to play the whole song and not just a snippet of the lyrics. In this case, it all too perfectly fits my experience at two consecutive Raven Enduro races, despite very different approaches leading into them. Last year I spent a lot of time preparing, thinking that I could use my home course advantage and practice all of the stages until I was good enough to actually win. The result of that tactic was a punch in the face that left me reeling and crying in front of strangers, but ultimately set me up for greater success this season. Simply doing a run a bunch of times won’t do a lot of good unless you are finding and addressing fundamental weaknesses while you do it. My personal experience and observations of others from the past year is that I’m not sure that a home course advantage is really as much of a thing in enduro as one might initially think. While you want to generally know the tone and any major features of a segment, I think that too much practice on a single section may eventually backfire mentally.

Learning that lesson lead to quite a few sport class victories on trails than I’d never ridden until the day before the race, and a realization that there was no special advantage to be gained by making a bunch of trips out to SMCC to practice for the Raven. Also, I just didn’t want to do that. I had raced all that I wanted to race this year, but I felt some sort of guilt that I was still supposed to race my “home” race. Home is relative when it’s 20 minutes away, but not trails that you ever ride other than to practice for a specific race. What I really wanted was to just go through the motions at this year’s Raven, and not care too much.

That sounds easy enough, but as the weeks ticked off leading up to the race, my anxiety still grew. I mentioned in my post on the Gorgeous Ladies of Enduro that it was actually more stressful for me to ride my home trails than it was to race because of the spontaneous Strava competition that erupted around the time I started resurrecting old downhill segments that no women had ridden in years. What started as a fun way to motivate myself to try and get faster quickly turned into a demotivator with names I’d never heard of popped up on the leaderboards to challenge me, and were often times successful. Per the theme of the GLOE post, I felt a certain internal pressure to be the queen of my little piece of enduro territory, and I was upset to see that slipping away. Worse, the imaginary Strava competition that I had entered pronounced all of my insecurities about being an untalented rider in way actual racing never did, because I had to face it every single ride instead of just the occasional weekend.

Man I promise, I'm so self-conscious
That's why you always see me underneath some goggles
Rockshox and S Works done drove me crazy
I can't set my own rebound, but check my new full-facey!
Then I spent 400 bucks on this
Just to be like girl, you ain't up on this!
And I can't even go on a weeknight ride
Without my matchy matchy gloves and a shirt that’s bright
It seems we living that neon dream
But the people highest-vis got the lowest self esteem

Sorry, I just had to diverge into some bonus lyrics there…
The technicolor inspiration for the bonus lyrics above. Some guy said, "I like how your S Works matches your jersey, and I thought, "Yeah, too bad I can't live up to this bike's expectations."
Anyway, things didn’t really get any better for my Rothrock riding after I published my GLOE post and took a mid-season break. Although one of my Strava gnar-meses gained a whole lot of credibility when she raced the CLIF Enduro East in Killington, which looked absolutely awful from the pictures and videos that I’d seen. Basically, the quickest way to gain my respect is to jump into something way over your head and get your ass kicked really hard. However, as I tried to come back later in the summer and continue to improve on segments where I’d made huge leaps in the spring, I found myself unable to improve while another girl had seemingly swept up every downhill QOM in Rothrock, including Wildcat.

This was a huge bummer for me for all of the reasons mentioned above. Despite exceeding the non-existent expectations that I’d had for myself at the beginning of the year about my race season, I felt like every ride at home was just a reminder that I actually sucked. I was trying really hard to get faster, and it just wasn’t working while every ride I saw proof of how easy it was for someone else. I was winning races in West Virginia, but at that point, it just felt like that was just luck. All it would take would be another semi-talented new girl showing up in there to take it all away from me.

So as the Raven approached, I became more and more worried that I would have to face the human symbol of all my self-loathing in real life, and that would just be too much. Due to my late-season stagnation, I felt helpless to actually do anything that would make me race better, and I mostly just plotted ways to soften the blow. Maybe I would enter the Pro/Cat 1 class so that I’d have excuse to lose? I waited until the last hour of pre-registration to make my decision, and at that time I was the soul entrant in that category. Would I actually get my wish of just showing up and going through the motions and not have to feel bad about my results?

The answer was of course not. Sunday’s race brought three other entries into the Women’s Pro/Cat 1 category, including the one that I was most afraid of. And she talked me. And she was nice. And on Stage 4 she moved from a few people in front of me, to a few people back, and to starting right behind me. And almost making up a minute on me during that single stage. In the end, she placed second between two of the fastest women in the state, and I was DFL…by a lot. And that was the point at which I just had to hang my head and admit that she is way faster than me and that it sucked. At least there is a certain level of relief that comes when something plays out just as badly as you were afraid it might and then it’s over.

I know that I’ve referenced Syd Schulz almost of my posts the past few months, but the woman is smart. As I scrolled through my phone waiting for the results, I saw the words “It doesn't matter what other people COULD achieve, it matters what you DO achieve”. While that snippet wasn’t entirely relevant due to the fact that I was dealing with a whole lot of theory that DID just become reality in real time, it was very timely that she had just published a post on the stories we tell ourselves about our own lack of talent. The point of the post was that even when we try to spin it in a positive manner like, “I can outwork more talented people”, that it’s still coming from a sense of internal inferiority that can quickly turn to “I suck, and I’ll always suck” after a bad day.

Unlike Syd, I actually stopped believing that I could outwork talent a long time ago, because of the limits on the body and the time constraint of a grown-up with a job prevents me from doing much more work than I do. That means that on the worst days I straight up fear and resent talented people, because all they have to do decide they want to beat me, and that’s pretty much that. On a good day I least acknowledge my historical ability outsmart and outlast talent. I’ve got eleven years of competitive cycling behind me where I failed, kept going, and figured out way to get better. Where are those girls who beat me in beginner XC races in 2006 now?

For the past few years, each big disappointment has prompted me to ask myself why I keep trying with bikes. Even though I like to wallow in the “Everything is going to be harder for you than it is for other people” narrative after a loss, I realize that I have the ability to keep improving and I’ve done so many times. The reason that I don’t quit is that deep-down the voices that tell me that I’m inherently at a disadvantage and always will be are countered by a curiosity of how the story will end if those voices are wrong. So I keep going, and I find out what’s next, and somehow that has lasted eleven years with no end in sight.

And that’s where I sit now. It’s never easy to break old habits, but I need to continue to hammer away at my pattern of trying to use self-loathing to motivate me to be better. I’ve improved more in the past year of riding than I did in the whole ten years before that, so I know there’s hope for this old dog yet. I’ve also learned a lot about learning this year, too, so I’ve got plans to set myself up for even greater success next year.