There is a quote by mountaineer, Hermann Buhl that reads, “Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.”
Of course, it isn’t only mountains. It’s the whole universe that is conspiring against us – or for us, depending on your outlook. I’ll tell you why… starting with a simple biology lesson in the concept of negative (or balancing) feedback.
Negative feedback is an important type of control system found in homeostasis, that responds when conditions change from the ideal or set point and returns conditions to this set point. It includes a continuous cycle of events. Thanks BBC.
I think this chapter of high school stuck with me, because it is a process that you can see happening all the time, in different ways. I see it in the cycles not only in my own body, with hormonal changes or with stress, but outside, in nature as well.
I have detected it in my relationship with running, when my at times unrealistic confidence when running in nature is met by nature’s own corrective measures that whack me back down to earth and return my confidence to set point.
It happened, for instance, after I broke my Park Run personal record on the hilly Alphen Trail in Constantia one Saturday morning (after a few days spent resting and indulging in seven-course meals). I didn’t think I would ever see the 24’s but there the time stood: a 5 km trail run in 24:40. I had a taste of success and I was hungry for more, unwaveringly certain of my own vigour and prowess.
So, the following week, when I ran the Green Point Park Run and had my time mixed up with someone else’s, I felt a dark cloud approaching and obsessively schemed ways to correct this injustice. But there was no fighting it, nature, the big law of the universe, had other plans. I would not get my way. I would not break a new record. I had to accept it, I had to gather my toys and put them back in the cot. I had to look at myself. I had to detach, let go, refocus on what was truly important.
My confidence levels returned to normal.
The next day I ran a 14km trail race through the vineyards of Groot Constantia and surrounds and focused purely on breathing well, taking in the view and enjoying the run. I beat my previous record for a 14km. And then, even worse for my ego, I won a lucky draw prize at the race’s prize giving – two bottles of wine! Success was in the air again…
The next week’s Park Run I was sure, again, that I would beat my record. So much so that when I didn’t, I felt defeated, let down, rather than praising myself, my mind and body, on a job well done. To slap me back down to earth this time, Nature hid my heart rate monitor in her meadows at the run and I walked away doubly defeated. Again, I had no choice. I had to let go, refocus, reset.
I went into the next race the following day – a 10km at Middelvlei Wine Estate in Stellenbosch – saying to anyone who would listen, I am just going to go slow and enjoy the race. Winning doesn’t matter. I just want to savour the journey. And then I won. First woman over the 10km line. I won in the lucky draw: two tickets for elliptical riding in Sea Point. And then I received a message saying my heart rate monitor had been found.
What was happening? I refused to get too invested in these glories and accepted my awards sheepishly, just in case I looked too enthused and ended up tripping on my face on the way to the stage. Nature would always have her way. But I couldn’t help it. I was proud! I told the world. I’m a winner! I have talent!
Hours later, I was carried into the hospital emergency ward with what felt like a burst appendix. All I could think, as a nurse handed me a bedpan, as strangers poked and prodded my stomach, stuck needles in my veins and shimmied me around an X-Ray machine… was that perhaps this was just the way it was. The way it is. Perhaps this is just life. Cyclic. Up and down, up and down.
It would be awfully dull to never feel that overt, cocky excitement, to feel so alive with drive that every dream, day and night, is taken up by the next run, the next race… Sometimes I might push myself too hard and end up in hospital, but sometimes by pushing myself so hard, I might get to see, do and be things I never imagined.
Nature would always protect me along the way, bring me back down when I got too high. So, I decided, as oxygen was extracted from a vein in my wrist, I wouldn’t let it stop me climbing higher, aiming further. I would accept the cycle.
I’m aware that life isn’t always so systematic, that often our mishaps and even our successes are accidental, unrelated, like losing my heart rate monitor. But it doesn’t take away from the beauty of rolling with the punches, of acceptance.
As Hunter S Thompson once wrote, “Buy the ticket, take the ride… and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well… maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”