Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Mental Toughness during the TDR is way overrated

Start at Banff

Everything else being equal the 4 key aspects, in order of importance for TDR racing are:

1) Physical condition

2) Bike/gear choices

3) Route knowledge/multi-day technique

4) Mental discipline 

At the start I was in my own place, not paying much attention to the festivities...

My earlier post talked about how key the drivetrain choice is for optimizing one’s pace and speed across varied terrain.  But many talk about the ‘mental’ aspect of the TDR.  So I thought I would opine a bit about that.

It’s a long race.  Many ‘fast’ racers seem to unable to achieve their full potential, was it because they weren’t mentally ‘tough’ enough?  And then there are always some of these ‘fast’ racers that started off slowly but somewhere along the way get their personal TDR going and going and move up and up thru the pack. Oh and many mid-pack racers, and their family and friends, comment about how mentally tough the race was. 

I might not explain this very well but in terms of mental characteristics ‘toughness’ is way down the list in terms of importance. Basically displaying mental toughness is what a racer does when thing go wrong.  Sure it’s ‘hard’, duhh, that’s because something went wrong.  
Ya, I got tough, had no choice, but it sucked
And some talk about positive thoughts and other fluff.  Fluff because if things are going well positive thoughts come naturally, But if things are going wrong positive thoughts are basically irrelevant, ie: just a semi self-lie that might ease the anguish but does nothing to solve issues.  Staying on track and getting back on track takes physical actions not mental outlook.  So if not toughness or positive outlook then what mental characteristic best drives consistent physical actions?

What is the absolute most important mental characteristic when things are going right or wrong??

Ha simple as free pie with a Salsa top cap, it’s all about mental “discipline”.  
Its discipline that keeps you on track when your race is progressing as planned and its consistent discipline that gets you back into it when things go bad.  The race clock does not respond to your mental outlook, positive, negative or indifferent or how tough you are but will respond to your consistent physical actions.  So instead of being tough or artificially positive, when things are going bad the most effective response is to re-gain or better yet maintain your personal race discipline.  

TDR race/mental discipline is very simple.  It’s all about being disciplined or consistent in 4 basic areas:

1.       Don’t over or under sleep

2.       Don’t stop more than absolutely necessary

3.       When stopped don’t waste time

4.       When riding maintain appropriate pace

All else being equal, the self-discipline to consistently hit 4 of 4 will achieve the best finish time every time for every individual racer.


Beth Dunne, Josh Daugherty and Marshal Bird at the top of Marshal Pass. 
This pic also stolen from:
I was schooled big time by Beth Dunne and Josh Daugherty in both efficiently re-supplying and maintaining pace.  Josh was a driven man, fast at the stops and fast with his pacing.  But Beth was absolutely textbook at all 4 elements of maintaining TDR discipline.
In my particular case, with some notable exceptions, I came close to hitting #1 each night; I did not over sleep (ha, not by much) , I did however under sleep one night and paid the price. 

And I did so-so with #3.  I could have been better at efficiently re-supplying but overall didn’t waste too much time during re-supply.  I did however spend lots of extra time and stops icing my knees and Achilles.  It had to be done but it destroyed my will to maintain my best pace. 
Ice cold water in the basin, took to much time and that ate at me

But for me it was #4, where many days I completely lost the ability to maintain a consistent pace.  Despite my poor drivetrain/gearing choice really it was more a lack of discipline at maintaining my best (appropriate for my personal circumstances) that ruined my chances at a true best personal time.

So why did I fail mentally, why was I not as disciplined as I wanted to be? 
This is the look of lost motivation in the middle of nowhere Wyoming.  Ya, I played the usual mental games to keep going but they are a poor substitute for the real thing, real driving motivation 


Well this brings us to the second most important mental characteristic for a good TDR race, any guesses?  No not toughness or positive outlook but again very basic and simple—motivation.

More to come on motivation

Note –for many positive thoughts equal motivation, for me also, but motivation can come in many forms: fear, anger, fame, glory, money, the need to dominate etc.  My focus will be not on where it originates but rather the effect it has.   



  1. Hmmm, Marshal. Thought provoking stuff. But you could be splitting hairs there. As you have alluded to, "mental toughness" means different thing to different people.
    Yes, there is self discipline but you need to be tough on yourself to maintain it.
    Yes, there is motivation but again mental toughness drives the motivation.
    Mental toughness is not about being macho, "pushing through the pain" and damn the consequences, it is being smart about how you work around problems to get a good (positive) outcome.
    I like your 4 race strategy cornerstones. If you didn't "waste" all of that time on your knee and ankle you probably wouldn't have finished, so, just the cost of doing business at the (impressive) pace you rode.
    Of the 4 points of importance though, the first 3 can/need to be taken care of before you arrive on the start line. It is the mental toughness/self discipline/motivation, call it what you will, that will, when you are tired or things aren't going to plan separate the finishers from the scratchings. I rode with several riders who battled the mental side of the ride this year. I talked one into realising his potential (I will take some credit for it anyway) and one strong rider that I couldn't make realise his and he scratched in southern Colorado. Both were equal riders physically. One had the desire to push through, the other didn't.
    Great post though. This is what really matters when contemplating racing the divide and should be read by all potential racers.

  2. Dave,

    Just where on the ‘circle’ of interlinked mental processes does one start? So yes, I am sort of splitting hairs while trying to make a point.

    In the military one is taught that there are two types of discipline, internal or self-discipline and external or forced discipline. The TDR is all about internal or self-discipline, and to me at least it’s much easier to consistently achieve self-discipline when highly motivated.

    I see discipline as the key mental characteristic and high motivation (however, wherever one gets it) is how a TDR racer best rides the crest of the wave. Whereas toughness while a ‘driver’ is not the best or most important ‘discipline driver’. It’s more of a reactionary state of mind that one reverts to when things go south & motivation lags. IE: get tough when, for whatever reason, one is plowing along in the trough of the wave. In my mind mental toughness is a weak substitute for real motivation. Being mentally tough may get you to the finish line but not as fast as sustained motivation can.

    So just where does motivation come from? Anyway that’s what I am going to explore in my next post.

    Great race btw--look forward to reading your blog and TDR write ups!!


    1. Yeah, I agree with you but I guess I just call it something else. I didn't mean to sound like I was having a go at you.Gear and planning can all be sorted from the comfort of home. I honestly think this is the best post I have read on what really matters out there on the divide in terms of getting you through.
      Thanks, but I can see where I could improve a lot...if I did it again..... ;)

  3. Marshal, thanks once again for your in sites and information. You do provide awesome information and thought provoking posts, thanks!

    Can you tell me why you seem to be so disappointed with your TDR when you achieved each and everyone of you publicly stated goals? I, too, am often disappointed with my own performances, even if I seem to have done well in others eyes. We all have our own perception of what we can achieve personally, what is a good result and what isn't.

    I totally agree with you about the whole "toughness" thing, IMHO it has nothing to do with toughness and everything to do with motivation so I am really looking forward to your next post.

    Thanks again for sharing. Looking forward to your gear reviews also.

    Cheers from New Zealand, Scott

  4. Jo and Scott
    Thanks for following along--keep reading and hopefully you will see I am not so much disappointed but rather feel like I studied up 1.5 yrs for the A on the test but only pulled a B grade--perfectly acceptable but might (should) have been better.....

  5. Kinda wish I had set a harder goal for myself ... I just wanted to make sure that I finished and I wasted big chunks of days ( not just hours ). May have to revisit this beast next year. But you did great, what with crashing your bike and recovering from that and still getting under 19 days ... pretty darn good Marshall !