This is the fifth installment in a series of stories tracking our writer Matt Crossman’s progress on improving his scores in the SAT for Sports … if he makes any (and that’s a 40-yard tall IF).
We were way out in the middle of nowhere Missouri on a long and lonely stretch of the Katy Trail, a bike path that runs east to west across the center of the state. It was dark and cold and I was miserable after 12 hours and counting of pedaling, pedaling, always pedaling.
We had maybe an hour left in our three-day, 267-mile trip when my friend John shouted, “Hold on! Stop!” from behind me. I wanted nothing more than for this ride to be over. Stopping would only delay that. We were so close to the end, whatever John wanted could wait. I acted like I didn’t hear him and kept pedaling.
He shouted again, louder this time, calling my name. You better be bleeding, I thought as I pulled on my brakes, skidded to a stop and climbed off of my orange Salsa Journeyman. “WHAT?” I said in a way that conveyed “AND WHY THE HELL ARE YOU STOPPING ME?”
“Congratulations,” he said, his eyes wide, his smile genuine and unaffected by my bite-his-head-off tone. He was holding his odometer as if presenting it to me as a trophy. “You’ve just joined the century club.”
That’s a biking term. We had crossed the 100-mile mark for the day, a first for me, and he wanted to celebrate. He was happy for me, and I responded by being pissy.
He was reveling in the joy of The Grind. He had embraced the suck, as the saying goes, while I wilted under the weight of it.
As my irritation faded, I knew as I climbed back on my bike for those less-horrific-than-they-would-have-been final six miles that I had learned something valuable about The Grind. Or re-learned. I already knew that the hard part of any task is what makes it worthwhile. But sometimes I forget. Sometimes when the hard part comes I’d rather be sitting on my couch, eating crackers and hummus and watching Psych.
Somewhere on that bike ride, I forgot that the difficulty was the entire reason we were doing it. And now, nearing the end of my training to become an average high school athlete at 48, I need to be reminded again about the value of The Grind, because I feel like I did before John stopped me on the bike ride. I’m having a pity party and everyone is invited, so long as they let me wallow.
My quest to become an average high school athlete 30 years after graduating was inspired by Mike Weinstein, owner of Zybek Sports. He created the SAT for Sports—the 40-yard dash, standing broad jump, standing high jump and two agility drills—to measure athleticism, most often of high schoolers hoping to impress college coaches. Using Zybek’s data from testing 20,800 people last year, we created the statistical profile of an average high school athlete and I set about trying to match those scores.
Weinstein has countless stories of the lengths to which high school students have gone to improve their results. Could I match their determination in my quarantine time? At first the answer was an easy yes. But the answer in the last week has too often been either “no” or “I don’t want to” or both.
Staffers at the St. Louis franchise of D1 Training, a nationwide network of gyms, crafted my workout regimen and have administered SAT for Sports tests to gauge my improvement in advance of the final exam.
I call one of D1’s workouts Ab Day. In the last six weeks, I have spent nearly two hours holding plank positions in 45-second increments. Especially in side planks, I often yell in pain for the last five seconds. I could have watched a couple episodes of Psych instead and saved myself the misery.
The planks are bad enough. I’m grinding against things I can’t control, too. Rain has kiboshed more than half of my Run Day workouts and test days. I recruited friends to join me in the training and dubbed us Athletes for the SAT for Sports (ASS). I hoped to gather our ASSes once a week to take the SAT for Sports to gauge our progress, but that has only happened once in six weeks.
The scores I have managed to record have been uneven; I’ve gotten markedly better in the jumps, not so much in the agility drills. I blame my corona hair—uncut for two months, longest of my life, an unruly mop immune to attempts to control it—for weighing me down because there is so much of it and slowing me down for its lack of aerodynamics.
The final test is a week away, and I can’t decide if I should be relieved that it’s almost over or stressed that I’m not as prepared as I’d hoped to be. Either way, I’m sick of aching ankles, knees, hamstrings, hips, back and shoulders. I’ve had enough of planking and dead bugging and stop watches and tape measures and gauging improvement in fractions of inches and tenths of seconds and …
Just in time, John crashed my pity party.
A charter member of ASS, he knows the value of doing hard things. I emailed him, reminded him of how he pissed me off on the bike ride and told him I was writing about The Grind.
His reply: “A few months ago I ordered my squat rack from a company named Grind. It came with a banner that says ‘Built by GRIND.’ That phrase hit me on another level, and I hung it up right in front of the rack so I see it each morning when I am doing hard exercises that I don’t much care for, like squats and deadlifts. To me, it is a strong reminder that I only move from amateur to professional when I embrace the grind. There are no shortcuts or hacks, I have to put in the work day after day, I have to learn the hard lessons and put in the effort consistently to get to where I want to be. It’s a lesson I am still learning to live out, but it’s an important lesson I hope to master and pass onto my girls and others.”
I was ready to run through a wall after getting that.
But it was raining again, so I couldn’t.
I’ve wrestled with The Grind for much of my life. I too often cave out of frustration or rush a project to completion to go around challenges instead of enduring them. When I became a solopreneur seven years ago, I quickly identified my lack of perseverance as a weakness I had to fix or I wouldn’t make it on my own.
I sought to improve it by doing things I enjoy until I wanted to quit and figuring out how to keep going—long bike rides, long hikes, long books, etc. Two years ago I sold a story in which I vowed to golf all summer until I got my first hole in one, thinking that I would get sick of golf (which became true) and be forced to keep going (same).
Until I learned how to embrace the suck, I thought it was the dumbest aphorism I had ever heard. What kinds of nutjobs make themselves miserable on purpose? As it turns out, a whole bunch of my friends are exactly that kind of nutjobs. It took me a few years, but I am that kind of nutjob now, too.
Much to my surprise, I found being miserable led to great joy. I also discovered that embracing one kind of suck helps me embrace another kind of suck, even if the sucks aren’t related.
When the coronavirus ravaging of the media business seems endless, I remind myself that because I endured that 267-mile bike ride, I can endure this. When I want to quit in the middle of the three-day paddling trip on the Missouri River that I’m taking in June, I’ll remind myself that I hit 1,589 tee shots in 35 trips to the golf course in eight weeks, so I can paddle for another few hours. Ryan Roth, co-owner of the D1 franchise, and I have talked frequently of the value of telling ourselves, I can do one more mile, no matter what the “mile” is, even if we have to tell ourselves over and over.
I have also discovered when I’m mired in The Grind that showing up is half the battle. On the day I wrote this story last week, I really, really did not want to do the training. I was tired and cranky and rain had soaked the soccer field where I have been working out. But John’s email about the grind haunted me, so I dragged myself outside to meet my friend Micah and his son to do the tests on asphalt instead of grass, which isn’t good for my ankles, hips, knees or shoulders. But the final is coming up, and I needed to get reps in, so I reluctantly put myself through the paces. And as often seems to happen to me, on the day that I most did not want to go, I put up my best results: I hit my broad jump goal.
The first time I took the broad jump test, I managed only a meager 69 inches, probably because my hamstring was sore from having pulled it a few days before. My first healthy jump was 77 inches. I hit 86 a few weeks ago but stalled there until I found three extra inches on a day I would have preferred to stay home. I have seen that scenario repeatedly in my reporting career—I hit a wall reporting, don’t want to make a call, make it anyway, and that interview yields gold.
I still struggle with The Grind (of course!), especially when I’m not improving, don’t know where the end is or stop caring about either one. I try to remember (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) in those times that the improvement and the end aren’t the only things that matter. The persevering is, too.
Especially when it’s raining.
Or Psych’s on.
Photo by Dirima/Shutterstock.com