The Power of Complexity

I have this habit of choosing to do something because it’s difficult.  Then, I find a way to make it more difficult.  Then I blissfully jump in to tackle the big, scary, very difficult thing.  This is great for awhile; sometimes, only for a very short while.  Then problems begin to arise.  Usually, they come one at a time and for the first several that crop up, I will doggedly attempt to find a solution and be quite proud of myself when I succeed.

Eventually, however, the number of problems that have arisen reaches some unforeseen tipping point at which the problems suddenly feel overwhelming.  It doesn’t matter that I have solved several of them and that only one or two problems are present currently, the process of trying to achieve my goal only to be continually thwarted by complication after complication becomes simply exhausting.  At this point, I throw up my hands and declare the complexity of the problem is just too great for me to manage.  And sometimes, I will drop the project completely.  Or at least for several months or even years before returning to look at it again with fresh eyes.

Sometimes, however – rarely, really – I realize that it is exactly because something is complex and difficult that it appeals to me.  If it didn’t have several layers of problems to solve, I would get bored and probably drop the project quickly.  When I realize this, there is a happy explosion in my brain and I am able to dive right back in and continue knocking down problems.

The most recent case of this comes from the fact that I recently signed up to cycle 200 miles in 2 days with The Ride Without Limits event to benefit Easter Seals – United Cerebral Palsy.  I have been on the email list for this ride every year since its inception, yet I never felt up to taking on the challenge either of fundraising or trying to get back up to that level of cycling skill. This year, however, I developed a pretty bad case of plantar fasciitis that limited my ability to walk far or fast and completely knocked me out of any chance of competing in triathlons this summer.  I have been afraid of cycling in North Carolina since I arrived eight years ago, but had started doing a thirteen mile route last summer to prepare for the two sprint triathlons I finished. Without really thinking through how much preparation a ride comprised of back-to-back centuries might require, I impulsively signed up with only seven weeks to train and raise the $250 donation minimum.  My first day back on the bike was a 52-mile group training ride of which I was able to complete 41 miles.  I was pretty impressed with myself and decided I was definitely in.

The challenges started coming almost immediately: what routes to cycle? how to manage water and bathroom stops when riding unsupported? how to get my stomach to accommodate Gatorade when the temperature was over 100 degrees without making me sick? how to get rid of the foot numbness and pain I experienced around the 30-mile mark?  how to manage the lower back pain I also experienced around the 30-mile mark? how to manage the frequent and numerous saddle sores that made consecutive days of riding especially painful (oddly, a relatively new problem for me)? how to find the time in my week to get in twelve to seventeen hours of training? how to manage my asthma?

I have not been satisfied with any of the routes I’ve tried.  My favorite option, though definitely the most boring, is to ride the same 13 mile loop I used for training last year four, five, or six times in a row until I’ve put in the miles I need.  This route, even though it has no shoulders and uses one road with regular, high-speed traffic, ensures I’m never far from my car and a cooler of water or a soccer field with porta-potties.  I’ve tried the American Tobacco Trail a couple times, but this can be challenging and slow (and actually quite dangerous!) due to the number of walkers, runners, and families who fill its narrow lanes on the weekends.  Plus, driving an hour to the trail and another hour home turns a six-hour ride into an eight-hour day, and I’d probably get more benefit staying closer to home and cycling those extra two hours instead of commuting.  I also learned about and was able to find a “50-mile” route that went right past my house, but the route turned out to be 60 miles and includes stretches of roads that I don’t feel safe riding, so I haven’t repeated it beyond my first attempt.

I got new shoes – two sizes larger than the ones I used to cross the country 12 years ago! – which seems to have solved the foot pain and numbness, and I raised the handlebars in an effort to relieve the lower back pain that made me get off the bike every five miles to stretch after mile 35 but the back pain persisted.  On a long ride on my fourth weekend of training, I realized that one of my basic assumptions – that I could cycle 100 miles simply by staying on the bike 8 to 10 hours – was flawed because there was a very real chance that my core was not strong enough to allow me to sit on the bike that long!  If I had to get off to stretch every 5 miles for two-thirds of the day, I would not have enough time in which to complete the 100 miles, let alone be able to manage the constant pain.  So I immediately found and began practicing core exercises recommended by and, after only a week, I saw an increase in my strength, a decrease in my pain, and the happy ability to stay on the bike for twelve or thirteen miles at a time during this past weekend’s sixty-mile ride.

The moment I fell apart, though, and nearly threw in the towel came last Tuesday at about 5:45 a.m.  Just the day before I had seen a pulmonologist/lung specialist who said my lungs sounded perfectly clear and questioned my continued need for the daily dose of Advair that has completely changed my life since the prolonged asthma attacks I suffered on The Big Ride.  On Tuesday morning at 5:40 I climbed on a spin bike for an early class and realized I was having an asthma attack!  I nearly cried right there on the bike because I realized how many systems you have to manage in long-distance cycling–feet, ankles, knees, body/seat contact points, back, neck, leg muscles, stomach, lungs–along with the variables associated with heat, hydration, nutrition, and recovery.  It was just too much.  My lungs, apparently, were always going to be a wild card and an asthma attack could knock me out of any event at any point.

As it turns out, I didn’t cry, I just got really, really angry.  I finished the class, spinning at a constant tempo when my lungs prevented me from doing speedwork or climbs, showered, went to my car, called my husband – and cried.  I was so ready to be done.

But somewhere along my 75-minute commute to work, it occurred to me that I had chosen long distance cycling–just as I had triathlon–because it was a complex problem and one I had little assurance of mastering.  If it were easy, I wouldn’t bother with it. By the time I arrived at work, I was nearly giddy for having figured this out and completely dedicated to seeing the challenge through.  That evening in the 6:00 spin class, I had another asthma attack but instead of getting angry and frustrated, I remembered that I could up my dose of Advair from once daily to twice, dose with my albuterol inhaler every four hours, and try nasal lavage to decrease my chances of future attacks.  Realizing I had a plan I could follow–or the resources to find one–when a problem arose was comforting and has given me more confidence in the last week of training.  With ten days left to prepare for the ride, I am extremely proud of what I’ve accomplished with my training to date, but I know that on some level my ability to finish 100 miles two days in a row will be out of my control.  I’m going to show up, make a valiant effort, and be as surprised as anybody at how it all turns out.  I need a good surprise right about now!

As I have considered my penchant for taking on complex challenges, it occurred to me that maybe it’s time for me to create my own complex challenge with which to wrestle instead of accepting challenges defined by someone else.  I don’t regret for a moment having agreed to cycle on behalf of those with physical disabilities, but I do wonder if I don’t bounce from event to event in part to distract myself from the reality that I am not pushing myself hard enough in other areas of my life that matter most.  Is the challenge I really want to take on too complex?  Am I really not ready for it? Or am I refusing it simply because I am so emotionally invested in its “outcome” that I can’t bear to fail at it?  (Or maybe I can’t bear to succeed?)

What about you? What level of complexity do you find appealing? Do you experiment with different levels or find that there’s a fairly consistent level of difficulty in the challenges you set for yourself?  And, like me, is there a challenge sitting in front of you that you have yet to accept because it is one of your own definition and it somehow scares you more than others?  If so, I’d love to hear about it!