So how do you feel about getting in way over your head? You know, getting out of your comfort zone?
I tend to feel pretty comfortable with getting way uncomfortable.
Professionally, I do it all the time. Without getting into job details, I do the kind of legal practice that requires a lot of fairly quick judgments. Not exactly snap judgments, but a broad range of decisions in a wide range of legal topics, some of which I know very well, many which I have mere working knowledge of. This is completely opposite from the priestly attention most attorneys lavish on their narrow professional niches, in which they are truly expert and move at a thoughtful, deliberative and cautious pace. I find being out of my professional comfort zone roughly 50% of the time to be really rewarding, and well suited to my personal tendencies. I don't tell you this to try to impress you; believe me, being an attorney in D.C. is about as impressive as a frog's ass hitting the ground when it jumps, it's pretty common, I'm told. But the salient point is that if you try to keep pushing your limits a bit, that you can get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable and it can be very rewarding. I think of this little comfortable bubble outside my comfort zone as the (un)Comfort Zone.
The (un)Comfort Zone exists in a variety of spheres of life. For instance, I didn't get out for a ride yesterday, family visit and house demands sort of quashed that idea, which was fine. My legs *still* hurt from the Tacchino. I put in some storm windows and doors, tidied up and so on. Late in the day - family guests still not having arrived - Sainted Wife asks if I'm willing to do something about the back door. We have these French doors in the den, that's two doors that open outwards, with 15 little panes of glass in each. One pane has been loose and drafty since we've lived here - nigh on 5 years - thanks to the past owners of the house and their Akita's violent efforts to stage a jail break. So I caulk that loose pane of glass into the frame until it's tighter than a rusted, cross-threaded bottom bracket. That was a Comfort Zone job.
Sainted Wife then notes that the draft is better, but the threshold - the metal thing on the floor that butts up against the bottom of the doors - is still letting in a wicked draft. Not just that, but we've had water seepage through there in the past. So at 5:30, I decided I'll fix the threshold. Cue Rod Serling... "You are about to enter the (un)Comfort Zone... I've never done this repair before, and in spite of being able to make reasonably decent furniture, do basic plumbing, tile, painting and mechanical work, doors and windows kind of scare me... But what the hell. It's the (un)Comfort Zone, and I'm pretty comfortable there.
Fifteen minutes later I have the thing torn out of the floor. It consisted of a metal piece about 7 feet long, 4 inches wide, curved upwards in the middle, sort of crescent-shaped with the apex fitting directly underneath the middle of the doors. The underlayment, the platform on which it rested, was two pieces of 3/8th inch plywood, thoroughly rotted and bug infested on the side where they rested against the concrete pad floor. Guess I know where the bugs were coming from in the Man Cave.
Just then, the family members call. They're 10 minutes out. Thanks for the heads up! So I shoot into the laundry room/workshop, dig out a couple strips of 3/8th plywood that were lying around, cut them to size on the table saw, grab the caulk gun, screw gun, utility knife and some screws, and head back to the Man Cave. The guests arrive, I break out beers. They come downstairs, I spend about 5 minutes laying caulk and fitting the plywood down, then another 5 caulking the bottom of the metal threshold, emplacing it, screwing down the wood underlayment, and then weighting the top of it so that the caulk (a 30 year silicone adhesive / caulk, in truth) could cure and fasten it relatively firmly (but with some flex) to the concrete pad). It was a fairly simple fix and I felt happy about it. This moved door threshold work from pretty deep in the (un)Comfort Zone, into a pretty comfortable place. I may consider doing a similar bit of work on the upstairs door, which has a comparable problem with drafts.
So how does it translate to riding? You should really know this, if you've spent any serious amount of time stretching your own limits on the bike.
Most of my biking life has been outside the comfort zone, bordering on or smack in the middle of the (un)Comfort Zone. When I got back on the bike a few years ago at (embarassing weight to admit in public + 20 more pounds) it was uncomfortable at first, physically and psychologically. Worst was the dread feeling, what if my heart blows up on this hill? What if I get stuck out here ten miles from home?
The first lycra I stretched onto my fat ass (not Phat, mind you, just fat) after 15 years of being mercifully free from contour-hugging clothes was a little ways into the (un)Comfort Zone. It was only a little ways because I'm generally so obtuse that at times it doesn't occur to me to be self-conscious. (There were, and still are, a couple too many contours for that poor lycra to hug).
The first few group rides with the LBS guys hurt me bad, put me way beyond the comfort zone. So did the first few rides with Potomac Peddlers - but damned if I was going to ride "C" given what I perceived to be their too-easy pace. None of these rides approached the suffering I've learned to tolerate in really hard training or in a hard race, but we tend to forget how deep into the (un)Comfort Zone a lot of riding is for recreational riders, especially when they are trying to claw their way back into shape. My hat is off to a lot of the Peddlers... it probably is harder for them to do the first long hard spring rides, than it is for me to do 30 second all out efforts on 2:00 minutes, a routine that inevitably makes me puke. That's in my comfort zone, whereas the first 55 miler of the year for a "C" rider is outside his or hers...
My first commute on the bike, I crashed. Hell, the first three months commuting was all in the (un)Comfort Zone, and at times it remains there for me. It's hard to commute well, in comfort, appropriately dressed, properly lit, at a pace that isn't destructive of other training efforts. Commuting well is a skill, and often enough it's beyond my reach.
My first ride with the Coppis, the damned easy Muffin Ride, I thought I'd die on the initial rollers and the final hill. The Sunday Ride, the middle third of it anyhow, is almost always in my (un)Comfort Zone. My first few roadraces, same thing - they may have gone beyond the Zone to tell the truth. Likewise, my first cross races, and my first race in the B masters last weekend. Way into my (un)Comfort Zone.
Yet still I live and feel pretty happy in spite of, or because of it. The process of stretching and reaching a bit seems to have it's own rewards. One of them is that you maintain a sense of the possible. Yep, you get kicked in the teeth and you have to learn how to deal with that. It's the toughest part about always trying to reach and stretch. But more often than not you'll surprise yourself by how far you can go before failing, or by actually succeeding.
There seems to be a trick to this stretching of comfort zones of course, and the trick is risk management. First off, the consideration of embarassment should go out the window. So too the crowing you can make after you pull off something good. Those are externalities, they don't matter, and thinking about them just clouds your brain.
What does matter is trying to get an idea of what the risk is and what you can do to cope with it. For instance, getting dropped on a long, hard road ride is no big deal. Most roadies have to face it. So you carry a tail pack with a tube and flat kit, bring some extra money and maybe a cell phone, and train yourself to think about getting dropped as an opportunity for extra zone 2 miles. Group rides that are a little over your head are in the (un)Comfort Zone, so is navigating back to civilization after getting dropped by a group you probably had no business sticking with for that long.
Then there's crashing in cross races and mountain biking. You will never learn how to handle better until you start to understand where the bike loses its grip on the earth. You can't figure that out, in turn, until you push into your (un)Comfort Zone - the place where you might recover from the two wheeled drift six out of ten times, but the other four times you are dabbing or going down. The risk isn't terribly severe, you just have to approach it a bit prudently. I recommend trying to get it right on a 10 MPH corner first, before you try the 30 mph dirt sweeper.
There is one other stretch into the (un)Comfort Zone that I see pretty often in good riders, it is they way they will extend themselves to share tips or help out people who may well beat them, today or next year. A lot of people have shared tips with me, knowing if I ever get my shit together and my dinner plate put away early, I'm coming for them. They sometimes share tire tips with rivals, comments on the course conditions, all sorts of stuff harder edged and less generous people wouldn't share. In races, I've seen guys extend the courtesy of a draft to a rival, knowing damn well the rival has a better sprint. It's a generosity of spirit, and it must take a bit of effort to extend one's self that way. It can't come natural to give up competitive advantages like that, but reaching out that way, putting others in front of one's self, is a real admirable stretch. That stretch into the (un)Comfort Zone is the one I think most admirable of all stretches. It's easy to ride a little bit harder, go further, or install door parts. It's a lot harder to expose yourself and offer a gift to others. If you try to do it on a regular basis, I think it gets a bit easier though, just like a lot of things that happen in the (un)Comfort Zone.
The bottom line of the (un)Comfort Zone is that if you continually extend yourself and reach, the (un)Comfort Zone becomes your new normal. It turns into a habit by which you can keep improving, and I'm not necessarily restricting this to an evaluation of riding and fitness. It carries over into a lot of areas in your life. And ultimately, that's what it's all about.
Twenty years from now you probably won't remember what your Functional Threshold Power was on June 1, 2007. But you will definitely remember it if you put in an effort that was beyond what you ever thought you could do; and those who ride with you may remember it too.
What does this have to do with anything?
Well, I hear there may be an MTB night ride at one of the local areas tonight. I'm waiting on a call and if it comes early enough will go out and demolish my non-technical self in this most technical riding area, probably crash a couple times and scare the bejeezus out of myself. At best, it will be a bit of a reach for me. I'm ready to go and give it a shot, even though it's a couple miles inside the (un)Comfort Zone. This possibility got me thinking about how far outside my comfort zone this ride would be, and if the chance comes I'm taking down the MTB and heading out for a trip into the (un)Comfort Zone.
See you there.