Mental Toughness

On the day that I had lost it, after I had calmed down, I started walking my bike through the ankle-deep sand road reflecting on the idea of “mental toughness”. It is something that had been mentioned frequently in descriptions of the Tour and it would pop up in an off-hand way in conversations among the riders after some of our harder days. I began by wondering where was the line between mental toughness and being sensible. Did every decision to stop before the envisioned end signify a failure, an absence of that attribute of fortitude? Or were such decisions tactical ones, a retreat to better leap forward the next day? I didn’t know. Then I realized that I had no idea what mental toughness meant. I had images of the frontier bluntness of John Wayne and, different in character yet equally rock solid in mental attribute, the moral rectitude of Gregory Peck, each striding forward undeviating from the straight, true line of an inner compass. If it, as it seemed to me, “mental toughness” referenced a temperament immune to the vicissitudes of fortune then I certainly lacked even a semblance of it. Not only on this trip, but over the course of my life. I am in constant prey to fears and anxieties that swarm me like a cloud of flies. Imagined disasters dog my every move, from the simplest of decisions—how often on this trip did I fret that I had taken a wrong turn even when there was no possibility of having done so because there was only the one route and no turns on it—to complex ones about one’s life, which, however, did not prevent me from rushing into foolhardy ventures of one sort or another, partially in a blind attempt to force my way through and past the cloud of flies, always unsuccessfully. There is no obstacle or misfortune which I meet with a calm, inner equanimity; each such only confirms that which Chicken Little so vocally affirmed: the sky is falling. I thought of my life as an attempt to cross a raging river by jumping from one slippery stepping stone to another with no rest or pause for each landing was precarious, the stones suddenly insubstantial as if they had changed shape by the very act of my leap while the far shore, Tantalus-like, ever receded. Could one argue that “mental toughness” was the ability to persevere despite the full spate of fears? That seemed to me too simple, too pat an answer closing the door on further investigation. Perhaps, I thought, “mental toughness” is one of those phrases that appear to contain an adamantine truth about human character, which on closer observation dissolves into a curious quantum world in which nothing behaves as it should and meanings are turned inside out and upside down. So I mused until the van came and lifted me out of the sand. The next day I would have to face the road again.