To help me along on my journey toward Zen (with a capital Z), I’ve been reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. If you don’t know anything about Brené, here is an excerpt from her web site bio: Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Brené is a self-described shame researcher. Her books illuminate some of the struggles of the human condition and suggest pathways toward living more bravely and authentically. Because I’m 45 and still muddling my way through midlife crisis, I know I could use some of that knowledge. I want to be more at peace on the second half of my journey through this life, so Brené’s become my guru.
Last week the federal government deemed my husband nonessential. He has been home with me since then, and my time for leisurely reading has been greatly curtailed. Tonight when I finally picked up my book again, I felt like I was starting over. I took a good, long look at the cover and noticed that there appeared to be stains on the cover. I didn’t recall those from before, so I scratched at them a bit to see if they might come off. They did not. I inspected them from several angles in different light and decided they looked too perfectly splattered to be accidental. I even sniffed the book. Nothing out of the ordinary. Same old book smell. And so I decided, “How clever of the book designer to create an imperfect cover for a book about imperfection.” I mean, seriously…that’s just genius. Good for them for thinking of it. Still…in the deep recesses of my brain, something kept bugging me because I didn’t remember those stains. I ran off to my laptop to verify this ingeniously designed cover and to put my perfectly pesky mind at ease.
Of course, I discovered that the cover was not designed to have stains on it at all. Apparently I put those stains there. I’m not entirely sure if they are residue from one of my daily soy lattés or from some of the neutral paint we’ve been slathering on the walls of our main floor while hubby has been temporarily unemployed. Either way, what’s interesting to me here is that I was so certain I could not have spilled anything onto my book that I thought it was an intentional publishing gimmick. It was easier for me to believe that the stains were a purposeful design feature rather than the result of my own, personal sloppiness because I don’t do things like damage books with foreign substances. I take better care of my things than that.
Oh. Dear. God. I need this book a lot more than I thought.
A few weeks ago I watched an internet video made by a young man who spent 10 years traveling around the world on a shoestring budget. In the video, Benny Lewis discusses 10 lessons he’s learned while circumnavigating the globe. While all of the lessons he discussed were relevant to my life, one especially called out to me. In lesson #2, Benny invited me to “be an imperfectionist” because the possibility of failure too often keeps us from trying new things. But, dang it, life is too short to forgo new experiences. The older I get the more I realize how many precious opportunities I’ve squandered by playing it safe and the more I recognize that I’m too old to play it safe any longer.
So in keeping Benny’s words in my head this weekend, my hubby and I set out to do something I openly admit I was not entirely sure I could do. Last month I registered us (in a moment of supreme overconfidence) for the COCO Century ride. (For you non-cyclists, that term implies exactly what it suggests: you complete a 100-mile bicycle ride in one day.) I’d been optimistic originally about our chances to complete this particular ride because it was touted as a “flat” century without the climbs you might expect from a ride in a state with over 50 mountain peaks towering above 14k feet. At least there wouldn’t be any mountain passes on the course. This should be easy peasy. Or at least not brutal, right? After I registered, someone reminded me that no hills means constant pedaling and no opportunities for coasting. Funny how that little detail had slipped my mind.
On the drive down to the hotel we were staying at the night before the ride, hubby and I discussed our lack of preparedness and our intentions for the event. We opened ourselves up to imperfection. We were going to do whatever we could. If we couldn’t finish it, no big deal. At least we would get in a nice ride somewhere new. We were going to embrace the day for whatever it would bring. And we determined to forgive ourselves if we could not complete the full 100 miles. Our best was going to be good enough because our best was all we could offer.
When the starting gun went off at 6, we were off. We were in small-town country filled with friendly, helpful people and a relaxed attitude. We weren’t four miles into the ride before I first suspected we’d missed a sign and made a wrong turn. We were following a few local riders, though, and they seemed to know where they were going so we pedaled on. Sure enough, we eventually crossed paths with the rest of the riders who’d taken the correct route. Oops. We shook it off, fell in line, and joined the herd. Around mile 22, we realized we’d missed the first of eight rest stops with our little detour. At mile 45, we were feeling good and completely skipped the fourth rest stop in favor of keeping up our good pace. Around mile 50, I pointed out to Steve that we hadn’t seen any other riders recently, and at about mile 55 I at last decided to consult the ride map on my iPhone. Lo and behold, we were on the right course. We were, however, going in the wrong direction. We’d missed another turn and where the others had headed east, we’d continued south and consequently missed the fifth rest stop. Oops yet again. We discussed it briefly and decided that backtracking 10 miles was not a reasonable option. We’d just ride the course in reverse. A ride official found us a few minutes later, verified our error, gave us her cell phone number, and supplied us with water for our continued against-the-grain trek.
We made the best of our two person century ride, cruising another 20 miles through Rocky Ford and Swink before finally landing in La Junta where we decided we would turn around and head down the course the right way back to Ordway with the other riders. At mile 86, though, we noticed we’d missed the final rest stop of the ride. We were 4 for 8 on the sponsor-provided rest stops. Still doggedly determined we stopped at a local farmers market, bought some fresh fruit and some bottled water, and continued on. At about 10 miles before the finish line, we calculated we had 13 miles to go. Oops times three. Our course snafu had wreaked havoc. It was nearing 3 p.m. and the last section of the course was a long and steady, albeit not Colorado difficult, uphill climb. It was about 95 degrees. We’d pedaled for over 7 hours. Although I’d been eating every 10-15 miles, I hadn’t consumed nearly enough calories to cover the 4000-plus calories I had burned, and I was fading fast. At mile 96, I resigned and told Steve I simply could not finish the full 100, as ridiculous as it sounded. I was weak, nauseous, and about to hit full on heat exhaustion. I was disappointed, but I am smart enough to know when to stop pushing myself. And so I rolled across the century finish line with my bike computer at just over 97 miles, 15,840 feet short of the goal.
As a recovering perfectionist, it’s taken me a couple days to process this shortfall. Three miles short is not technically a full century, and there are plenty of people (including an earlier version of myself) who would tell me it doesn’t count. But we did what we set out to do, which was our best. We overcame obstacles and kept on rolling despite setbacks. If we had stayed on course and been able to take advantage of more of the ride-sponsored rest stops for nutrition, we would have completed the last three miles without struggle. It simply did not work out that way. With some time behind me now, I understand that this is exactly the lesson in imperfection that I needed. Do you know how difficult it is to have spent most of your life as a perfectionist and then come within 3% of completion of a goal only to walk away? But I did it and, miraculously, I feel great about my accomplishment. We enjoyed our ride and would do it again, but I don’t even feel the need to repeat it simply to prove I’ve finished. If I do this century again, it will be for fun and not accomplishment. And trust me. That’s progress toward a future filled with more rewarding episodes of imperfection.