How Years of Losing Taught Me To Win

Tips for Staying on the Pathway to Audacious Dreams

By Josh Whitmore,
2018 Masters MTB Marathon National Champion
CTS Coach

It’s hard to tell people about your dreams, especially the far-flung wild ones. Are you crazy for even considering them? Are they too audacious? What if you don’t achieve them? I can’t say I truly communicated to anyone how much I dreamt about winning a National Championship title. The truth is that I wanted it badly. I yearned to cross the line first and wear the stars and stripes for the entire year as a National Champion. Despite knowing how important it is to make your goals known in order to be accountable to them, I still didn’t tell many people because I doubted it was even possible.

My first emotions after crossing the line and winning the Mountain Bike Marathon National Championships seemed… odd. I just felt relieved it was over, that it wasn’t hanging over my head anymore. Soon, it sank in that I actually achieved the goal I had been working towards for several years, the thing that seemed way off in the distance, taunting me. I actually pulled it off. Honestly, I was shocked, but also proud with a deep sense of satisfaction.

In the end, let’s be real here. It’s just a bike race. I didn’t cure cancer or solve any global crisis. However, the things I learned along the way have made me a better person, a better coach, and better able to guide others on their journeys. I believe some of these things can also help you achieve your audacious dreams, whether they are athletic goals, career goals, or just general life goals. Here are a few of them.

Love the process

Pinning a dream on a race result like a National Championship is risky. A lot of other people are aiming for that top step. Although it feels great to do your best and finish well, setting a win/lose outcome goal adds to the pressure. There’s only one National Championship per year (in a particular event). What if it takes years to finally win it? What happens if you never win it? Well, then you better have had the best time ever during the process.

We often preach to athletes to focus on process goals. Months or years of preparation have to be done on faith that you can only control yourself and your training, and if you’re the most prepared you can be then you can do everything necessary to put yourself in a position to win. Even so, you still have to just hope that all the things outside of your control go smoothly. Take pride in accomplishing all the small steps along the way. Savor the process of improvement. Be careful not to attach your sense of self worth to the place you get in a race, but rather your work ethic, commitment, and ability to tackle challenges.

Accentuate Strengths and Minimize Weaknesses

Long ago I realized my body and athletic potential aren’t entirely optimized for cycling. I’m heavier than most elite cyclists and my power numbers never rank as exceptional on power profile charts. That means I can’t go uphill as fast as many of the elite riders I race against, and I can’t simply rely on being able to pedal harder to beat them. So how did I win a National Championship? I won it on the downhills. I was simply faster and more efficient in technical sections of the course. Other riders would pass me on the climbs. I always passed them back on the next downhill.

All those years ago, after realizing I couldn’t just pedal harder, I intentionally looked for alternate routes to achieve my cycling goals. I worked hard on improving technical skills, tactics, and efficiency with pacing. Turns out I was really good at those things, better than most.

I found a way to use my strengths to neutralize my weaknesses. That doesn’t mean I gave up on my weaknesses however. I also dedicated myself to improving my fitness level. I concentrated on losing weight. I did the hard intervals in the middle of winter when all I wanted to do was go home and get warm. Despite never reaching superstar numbers, my power to weight ratio improved and I went uphill faster.

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When chasing audacious dreams, look for your strengths that can help prop up your weaknesses. If you are good at something, strive to be fantastic at it. You’ll probably love accentuating it. Let it be your trump card. At the same time, dedicate a majority of your effort to improve weaknesses. Don’t shy away from them because you don’t like working on them.

Near Misses Are The Greatest Motivation

I’ve been competing in National Championships of different cycling disciplines for 25 years. You could say I’ve mostly “failed” at winning one. Last year at the MTB Marathon National Championships, while riding with the front group late in the race I suffered a complicated flat tire that forced me to abandon. The sting of disappointment stuck with me and provided the extra motivation I needed this season to do the extra work it took to make measurable improvements.

It is often said you learn lessons from failures that help you succeed in the future. I’m not sure I learned anything from that flat tire. But I did learn from being so close to achieving my goal, from being in the position to win, and still losing. Frequently I’ve found this to be true for the athletes I coach, as well. The races or goals that barely slipped away often provide the greatest motivation to come back and try again. It’s almost certain you’ll have to try several times to accomplish audacious goals, and the closer you get, the greater the motivation to keep trying. Use the motivation from failure to your advantage to double down on your next attempt.

Use Your Journey To Help Others

Overall, one of the things I love about being a CTS Coach is the ability to help guide athletes along their journey. Everyone’s goals may be different, but there is a sweet spot where the goal is audacious enough to challenge people to greatness while remaining at least plausible. I also love how the journey positively affects other parts of their lives. For example, my quest to maximize technical riding skills led me through the Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association certification process. Now as one of the highest level certified mountain bike instructors in the country, I get to teach riding skills to individuals and instruct our MTB skills camps. Advancement in my career as a coach was an added benefit of doing what it took to achieve my audacious dream.

Lastly, I challenge you to think seriously about what motivates you to achieve greatness. Do you feel stuck in a rut? No clear direction? Maybe an audacious dream is just what you need to pull the best out of you. Be warned, the journey is perilous, but I guarantee you’ll be a better person in the end, no matter the outcome.

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Comments 27

  1. I’ve read elsewhere that almost winning leads to more gambling addiction than actually winning. Might explain the motivation that comes from almost winning at sports as well.

  2. Congratulations Josh,

    I’m looking for my first one, too (ITT)! It’s been a long time trying as well… and the competition keeps getting stronger

  3. Really inspiring, thank you.

    I have a goal to ride 40K in less than an hour in the state time trial championships. I’m a small rider and I’ve never put out big power numbers so for me it is quite a goal. I’ve been afraid to really go for it and do everything it takes. But I think it’s time I did so.

    1. Nice North! Sounds like you’ll really have to optimize your aerodynamics and pacing strategy to get that one. Good luck!

  4. Congratulations on an amazing achievement and a well written article. You have touched an important point about goals, sometimes you can get so close that you can taste it but you must have a plan to deal with near failures. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks for the insights. As a 76 year old relatively new to the sport and just grounded by my pulmonologist and cardiologist i appreciated the lessons of learning to emphasize your positives and minimize your negatives. First or last i will be the happiest rider.

    1. Art, I’d say that’s the most important part in any case. It’s all about having fun and doing what makes us happy.

  6. I admire your tenacity and pointing out what it takes on the mental side to achieve goals. Great article and congratulations on your Stars and Stripe!!!

  7. “Be careful not to attach your sense of self worth to the place you get in a race, but rather your work ethic, commitment, and ability to tackle challenges.”

    so hard….

    1. I think that’s important because in bike racing, we don’t win the race very often. Much healthier mentally to have that as a goal but judge ourselves based on the other.

  8. Congratulations Josh! I met you at the climbing camp in Brevard last May. You rode with me on the first day. This is a really great article. Thank you for sharing your story. It will help me to achieve my big goals.

  9. Congratulations, Josh on your awesome achievement. You are the best coach ever. Thanks for helping me achieve my goal.

  10. Josh,

    Great article. Thanks for sharing in public thoughts that we tend to keep to ourselves. I really appreciate your candor and willingness to be vulnerable in order to accomplish goals.

    Congrats again!


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