100’s of leaders in 100’s of ways have intimated the same principle: Character is what you do when nobody is looking. “Oh, yeah, got it. Got it. Of course,” you may simply self-talk while nodding your head. Rarely is this tested. Hell, nobody is looking.
Alone, or in bunches, a race always exists. The question is are you the predator or the prey?
April 10th I felt the panic that comes from learning you’re the prey. 4 laps into a 6-hour singlespeed MTB race in Virgin, UT I stopped at my prepared cooler to rip a GU packet, wolf a Stroopwafel, grab 2 fresh bottles, and lube my chain. A 40 second stop in a multi-hour event, no big stress. UNTIL “SENDY” DAN NELSON SCREAMS PAST YOU, STEALING YOUR 2ND PLACE POSITION!
I met “Sendy” Dan the same way I meet most fellow competitors: online, through Strava, without them knowing. Yes. We Strava-stalk one another, comparing times, training, mileage logs, and overall vibe. I knew the flowing hair and Rapid Cycling kit just took my position. I’d been prey. I didn’t know.
Before the predator’s teeth sink in, there’s a choice.
Flip. The. Script. Dan stopped for some fuel as well and I discarded the notion of lubing my chain. I mounted my horse and pushed into Lap 5. Each lap, just under 13 miles, starts with a 20-25 minute climb, some twisty flat ridge riding, and a gradual downhill rocky plunge to the valley floor and start line. The defining moment of the race had arrived and the hardwired evolutionary desire to survive kicked in. Well, that, and the 20 oz of Beta Red, a sweet beet powdered supplement that makes your skin crawl. Thank you vasodilation.
Dan would have to tear my legs off to pass me. Unrecognized just a lap earlier, my character kicked back, let off the gas. I didn’t know. I wasn’t measuring myself. I was alone. Nobody was looking. What we do alone is too often met with good enough. Training session alone? Oh, one hour, sure. But 45 minutes is enough. Cleaning your house alone? That looks good, no need to move the couch. Out to lunch alone? I’ll have a side salad…wait, no, the fries. I’ll take the fries and only eat a little.
No guide means no accountability. But there is a race. The race between you and your better self. The race between your health and your dwindling timeline. The race pitting you against every easy creature comfort that begs you to slow down, take it easy. Don’t be fooled. I DO think that sloths are cute little fuckers, but they aren’t spirit animals. I’ve watched them. They don’t do a damn thing other than making my morning coffee at the cafe in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica a bit more unique.
Who’s going to win?
Determined, I dropped Dan on the climb. I kept the hammer down on the flats. Unhappy with the position I’d put myself in I challenged my legs, pushed my lungs, and tested my tires’ grip on the trail. The result? A negative split. Lap 5 was faster than 3 or 4. Lap 6 was just as fast. In just under 5 1/2 hours I’d finished 6 laps, 75 miles of awesome desert mountain biking.
Relishing the hard effort, and result, at the finish line I cheered Dan through the finish. Only 4 minutes behind me. He shared that he could see my pink tutu across the course all day. He knew when he was just a couple minutes back, or 10. He saw me. My character on full display. His hope brightened while drawing me in on Lap 4. And that hope extinguishing when I flipped the Prey vs Predator relationship.
Our character is always visible.
Sometimes we just blind ourselves to its reflection. We give good enough too much credit. We score ourselves on attendance and not effort. What we do when it appears nobody is looking is not just our character. It is the truest definition of us in our entirety.