Physical challenges are rarely just physical. The mind powers the body. Any challenge involves both physical prowess and also the willpower and motivation to succeed.
Whilst many of us aren’t professional sportspeople, we can still face challenges that require both physical and mental stamina and determination to succeed. I’m a keen mountain biker, and certainly some of the challenge is purely physical, but much of the challenge of completing a ride is mental. Giving up is often the process of mentally accepting defeat rather than actual physical failure. It’s about whether you speed up when you see the finishing line or slow down in anticipation.
I feel i’ve experienced both ends of this spectrum. I’ve achieved things that i never thought were possible, but i’ve also failed at things that i thought i could achieve. In each case, giving up has been a process of mental defeat before physical defeat. Once i set out to walk the South Downs way in three days, 35 miles a day. It’s physically possible, i’ve certainly walked further, but not often, and i’ve done a lot of long distance walking, weeks at a time, but in this case, we took up the challenge in October, in the rain, with full gear and food on our backs and underprepared. At the end of day two, wet, tired, behind time and near to a station, we gave up. Giving up, at the time, was easy, but from it i learnt how transient discomfort and mental exhaustion were. On that occasion, there were two of us walking, and we had both done far more than this together before, but we both hit a low point and talked ourselves down. We talked ourselves into failure.
Ten minutes after giving up, we were sat in the pub, eating dinner and warming up, but ten years later, the defeat is still with me. Sure, i could do the challenge again, but at that time, i failed.
On one other occasion, cycling across Dartmoor and Exmoor in three days, i found myself on the open moor, exhausted, more tired than i think i’ve ever been. I remember talking to the friend i was riding with and saying ‘this is the hardest thing i’ve ever done’, and meaning it. I was ready to give up, but that time i didn’t, not because of any inner strength, but rather because of the support from someone else, the desire not to let them down, the desire to jointly succeed and the determination not to fail again.
With support, you can achieve more than you can by yourself. Inner strength is one thing, but supplemented by support from teammates, friends, even competitors, we can achieve even more.
Personally, the learning that i take from these physical challenges, the learning about inner strength and support, the learning about failure and success, are things that i take into all sorts of other encounters, both in and out of work.
Learning about and accepting both your strengths and weaknesses is empowering and leaves you better prepared for all sorts of challenges. The experience of failure is surely essential to balance the euphoria of success, and both teach us something. Learning where our strength ends is important to understand what we can achieve.
Understanding how we respond in these situations, the more primal, basic, physically challenging encounters allows us to understand something fundamental about ourselves. Knowing our limitations, but understanding how we can achieve more, knowing that even if we can’t see the finishing line in our immediate sight, it is there somewhere, and through perseverance we will succeed.