The Mindfuck That Is Dragon’s Back – An Open Letter To Those Who Failed, and Those Who Almost Did [Guest Post]
For those of you have faced Dragon’s Back – be it at OCRWC, or the Toughest, you know this is not just another obstacle. I found myself manning this obstacle on a Saturday this year before my own wave in the afternoon, and I was perplexed to see racer after racer climb up onto the platform, and… freeze.
And then, Peter Dobos posted an open letter to all those racers. When I read it, I knew I wanted to share it with you. The fact that Peter refers to me in the letter as the “OCR’s resident statuesque Siberian psychiatrist”, a statement which is only partially reflects reality, had nothing to do with my decision. 😉
For those who have not yet encountered Peter in their obstacle racing endeavours, allow me to make the introductions. Peter combines extensive academic background in kinesiology and biomechanics with many years of experience in cross-country skiing, adventure racing and other endurance sports. He currently serves as a Community Manager for ObstacleCourse.Training and writes about the sport of obstacle racing. Check out a recent interview with Peter on the Overcome And Run Podcast as well!
So, you failed dragon’s back.
Or, perhaps, you succeeded eventually, but this one obstacle threw a wrench into your entire race, as you found yourself standing at the top for ten minutes, twenty, thirty, and knowing with gut wrenching certainty, that you would break your spine, if you were to take that leap.
I normally hate inspirational quotes, but the following one is a cut above the rest. Even so, it probably won’t make you feel any better.
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
Feeling better? No?
I thought so.
But, you are not alone.
In 2015, as Dragon’s Back made its debut at OCRWC, you would have been one of 63 racers, who could not complete this obstacle. Could not. Would not. Did not.
This is a Mental Obstacle
Dragon’s Back is in a small class of obstacles that is almost entirely mental. The biggest (literally) example I can think of off-hand is the 35’ cliff jump at World’s Toughest Mudder. These obstacles are not technically demanding. They don’t require great strength or endurance or agility. They just fuck with your head.
It is the OCR equivalent of a kid trying to go off the high diving board for the first time. It might give you flashbacks of that otherwise perfect summer at the cottage where everyone jumped off that cool cliff except you. It’s 95% mental, and I think that’s why it hits you so hard when you suddenly found yourself stuck there.
Normally, you like to think that the mental game is right in your wheelhouse. That’s one of your big strengths as a World Championship caliber OCR athlete. You are known for your unshakable determination and ability to keep pushing yourself. You friends, family, colleagues may call you nuts, but really they are just in awe of your fearless amazingness. All of this makes you a special and highly successful competitor.
You could always force your body to find that extra gear, run a little faster, work a little harder, hurt a little more than the racers around you. That is a great asset to have, and it can get you through many challenges that might have appeared insurmountable. You can turn yourself inside out, make yourself go into deeper and darker pain caves than most other athletes.
This was THE race of the year for you. You were fit. You were strong. You had prepared. You had done your homework, and had the skills to have real solid go at this race.
The problem is that Dragon’s Back gives you nothing to grab onto and beat into submission. It’s not about pushing harder, going faster, suffering more, or anything remotely tangible like the challenges you have faced down repeatedly during your racing career.
It isn’t about your body not being up to the task. That happens all the time, to every level of competitor. The likes of Ryan and Amelia and Lindsay talk about their bodies betraying them if they’ve had a race where they wanted to push but their body had hit its limit. That’s tough, but it’s not personal.
The failure at Dragon’s Back feels personal.
You cannot lay that on your body and its physical limitations. Failure parks its ugly ass right on you – the racer, you – the athlete, you – the person.
Every reason, every explanation… points right back at you.
It’s similar to mental illness.
Bear with me.
A Strong Mind can Cut Both Ways
If you have a physical ailment, like diabetes, your capabilities and performance may be limited. However, no one would accuse you of being weak, or lacking drive.
Mental illness is different, because it is “all in your head”. It’s invisible. And while your capabilities and performance may just as well be limited, others may indeed accuse you of weakness. Hell… YOU may accuse you of weakness.
You should be able to just will your way out of it or past it or through it if you only had enough courage or motivation or mental strength.
Repeat after me, please:
Here is another very common scenario: phobias. If you have any phobias, or if you have seen or dealt with people who do, then you know it is a very real thing that can mess up people’s lives despite their best efforts.
I have a phobia that could have got me killed two years ago. I cannot stand needles. I cannot give blood, I cannot get injections, I can’t even watch videos or films of that. I had to watch “Trainspotting” with my hand over my eyes. A couple of years ago I was bitten by a dog while out for a run in Costa Rica. When I got home everyone was telling me that I had to get post exposure rabies shots. That’s twelve injections. Twelve needles.
Fuck that shit. I’ll wait to see if I actually have rabies, then get injections.
Nope. Not how this works, grasshopper.
Rabies is 100% fatal. Once I start showing symptoms, all they can do is dope me up and try to make the last days less horrible. Knowing that, I still could not let them inject me. I had to take so many sedatives (they gave me a couple, but I had a few in my pocket they didn’t know about – yeah, I risked OD-ing) that I blacked out for 36 hours. I don’t mean I was passed out, I mean that there are 36 hours of which I have no memory at all.
The point of that little story is to try to show you how real and how powerful the mind is. You’ve only really experienced it in a positive way in your racing, but it is a double-edged sword sometimes. When you came to Dragon’s Back you felt just how strong you were mentally, except this time your mind didn’t want to allow you to do what you wanted.
Normally, failures in OCR are cases of “the mind was willing, but the body was unable”. Not this time. This time “the body was able but, the mind was unwilling”. Even though you the racer wanted it, you the mind said “hells to the NO!”.
Now we could start getting into deep philosophical discussion about who “you” actually are. Is it your brain? Is it your mind? Is it a case of your conscious mind battling your subconscious mind? Which one, if any, is actually the person you think of as “insert name here”? The best answer right now seems to be along the lines of “buggered if I know”. Perhaps, SOLO, OCR’s resident statuesque Siberian psychiatrist could expand intelligently on that…
It may seem to you and to those around you that you got scared, froze, chickened out, or whatever, and that this reflects poorly on your character as an athlete and a person. That is simply and factually not the case. It is bullshit. Things that people pooh-pooh away by saying “it’s just in your head” are very real, and very powerful, and you cannot simply think them away or push through them through sheer willpower and determination. More importantly, not being able to instantly and easily overcome these types of challenges does not make you any less of a competitor or person.
Being Risk-Averse is both Useful as Hell and Individual
“But I don’t have any fear of heights type of phobia.”
That’s cool, but it still leaves you with your survival instinct. This is a system of largely hardwired circuits and responses in you that assesses risks and makes you act accordingly. It’s a hugely useful thing to have, as there are literally millions of ways for you to get hurt or killed. Just Google “Darwin Awards” or “Epic Fails” if you want proof.
The thing with this whole survival system is that it is different for everyone.
In grossly oversimplified terms, the verdict of “yea” or “nay”” is determined by three processes.
The first is your individual assessment of the risk.
The second is your individual assessment of your relevant abilities.
The result of this comparison is then filtered through your personal “acceptable level of risk” filter (the third process) to come to the final decision.
Someone with great physical abilities but a low risk threshold may balk at Dragon’s Back, while many “lesser” athletes have no issues giving it a go. That is simply how y’all are wired.
Most of you knew coming in that you would be facing new and different and tougher obstacles. You knew that each and every one would carry the extra pressure of mandatory completion. This was all uncharted waters for many you, against the strongest field of racers that you’d ever faced. Just toeing the line took guts, because you knew that suddenly there was a real chance of failure.
And guess what: you failed.
Just like Michael Jordan did thousands of times. All this means is that you’ve discovered one of your limits. It’s almost a cliche in this sport, about finding your limits. Most people don’t understand that unless you fail you have, by definition, not reached your limit. So congratulations: you’ve just ferreted out something that you are not already amazing at, and it gives you something to work on that you can improve. If you want to.
You have two basic pathways forward from here:
First, you can tackle this Dragon’s Back obstacle and try to make it your bitch. The only really effective way to do this is to find one and practise on it. You’ll likely find it’s very much a “breakthrough moment” type of challenge. Just like going off the high diving board, it becomes almost easy once you do it for the first time.
Second, you can decide that this isn’t something that you want to do, that you are perfectly happy doing the 90% of OCRs that don’t feature Dragon’s Back or similar obstacles.
Both choices are perfectly 100% fine if YOU are fine with it. Period.
I hope you can grab this thing and turn it into something that makes you better, stronger, more adaptable, and complete as both a racer and a person.