The snow fell, blanketing the city in a calm white silence. Yet peace was an elusive quality available only to those not driven by inner demons. Beneath the snowy streets, in the suffocating basement of a gymnasium, I led a group of athletes huffing and puffing, with sweat dripping into pools on the floor, through two hours of cardiovascular suffering. For three years I had coached winter training courses for competitive cyclists on stationary trainers. Different than a spin class, our program relied on power output measurement and lactate threshold as a long-term preparatory program for race season. This was not your typical gym session with pumping bass and a yelling instructor. Burning calories is a given, not a goal. We competitive racers are in it for something else entirely: a personal challenge, a distant peak that must be conquered, a testing of one’s will and strength. To race is not always about winning, it is about finding oneself at the limits of ability.
The luminescent screen at the front of the room displayed the target power output intervals for the day. On occasion, upon seeing the impending suffering, someone would mutter, “Not today, I’m too tired for that,” just before climbing on their bike. Frequently during the intervals, when the lactic acid burned and our hearts felt like they were beating in our ears, an athlete would shout out “I can’t do it!” in an exasperated howl of defeat. Cyclists bent over their bars like praying mantises, heads drooping in exhaustion, routinely decorated our evening sessions. Yet, those who said they can’t still tried. No one ever quit the day despite saying they would repeatedly.
It was while coaching these winter camps for three years that I coined the term “positive self-delusion” for a common phenomenon I noted in the athletes and myself. It is an ability to forget the suffering or defeat of minutes before, and to start right back up again. To be a good bike racer one must be indomitable in the face of failure. In the sport of cycling, losses far outnumber wins for even the top athletes who compete in the highest ranks. No one is exempt. In the thirteen years I have spent as a competitive racer, I have won four state championships and over sixty races. However, I have lost nearly four hundred of the competitions I have entered. It’s a tough sport.
Positive self-delusion occurs when athletes go to great mental lengths to convince themselves they can continue long after they are beaten. If one cannot complete a five-minute interval half way through the two-hour workout, then completing the final hour of intervals will be near impossible. Yet, time and again, I watched these athletes gather motivation and try, only to quit pedaling, then try again. Given the option to reduce their power output and finish the workout, most prefer to stick to the goal and fail repeatedly.
This type of positive self-delusion comes with pros and cons. It keeps one striving in the face of loss; one gets stronger, smarter, and faster by continued effort, even if many failures are in the mix. At the same time, unrealistic beliefs can lead to monumental disappointment. Depression and anomie can accompany an athlete during times of prolonged inability to meet their own expectations and goals. I contemplated quitting the sport often during the high points of my racing life. Success meant that I raised my expectations and goals to new levels, and exposed myself to far more defeats and losses along the way.
With rheumatoid arthritis, positive self-delusion continues to be my companion. I feel defeated and crushed often. I went to sleep last night with swelling in my hip, my hand, and both my feet. “It will be gone in the morning,” I thought. When the alarm clock rang, the swelling remained. Stepping onto the floor, I felt the familiar twinge of pain. Yet, I had set the goal of riding my bike early every morning this week. Light aerobic exercise helps significantly. “I’ll feel better once I start pedaling,” I thought as I suited up. After forty minutes of riding, it became clear that would not be the case. I was happy, however, that I deluded myself long enough to give it a shot. I’ll do the same tomorrow.
In my near two decades of competing in various sports I have had the privilege of training with professional acrobats, Olympic gymnasts, and some of the best cyclists in the nation. From what I have observed, personality characteristics, attitudes, and philosophies on life vary greatly. Some very successful athletes are grouches, pessimists, nihilists, and misanthropists. Others are optimistic, view life as inherently meaningful, and are deeply compassionate towards others. Some are shy, others outgoing. The range is vast. Nonetheless, a commitment to continuing in the face of failure, of getting up when knocked down, and refusing to quit even when one has been defeated repeatedly, is a commonality shared by everyone I know who has achieved athletic success.
With RA, the obstacles loom large. The chronically ill are extraordinarily resilient. Be proud of yourself for all the times you have tried, even if you failed to accomplish what you set out to. You are not alone in defeat. For many of us, the losses far out number the successes. What I have learned in athletics applies just as much to living with RA: keep going, stick to your goals, and be indomitable in the face of failure.