Hotshot Brain

Five years ago I signed up for a bike race at a ski resort in northern lower Michigan made up of 14 miles of moderate terrain (by Michigan standards) with a few sporty sections of the only real “downhill” I’d ever ridden up to that point. 

I signed up for a category that required two seven-mile laps; my first seven-mile loop was a healthy mix of “four-lowing” (in other words, crawling) uphill and braking so hard on the downhills that my forearms were cramping. At the end of the loop—instead of completing my second lap—I gave up, convincing myself that if I tried another loop I’d probably get hurt or (insert some other contrived excuse here). 

I ended up getting disqualified, despite thinking I could get away with one loop and just be downgraded to the beginner category. The race organizer told me straight up: “you didn’t finish, so you don’t qualify.”

To this day, I think about that fkin bike race more often than I should—namely, the fact that if I’d just spent another hour walking or trudging or biking super slow, I wouldn’t have been disqualified and, most importantly, I would have finished. 

This anecdote came to mind a few weeks ago during what we call “critical 80”, where we spend two weeks working out a bunch while doing all of our necessary classroom training to be available for national fire assignments. Every shot crew does it—runs are five or six miles and invariably fueled by competition with your crewmembers; hikes are done as fast as possible with a pack and chainsaw up 1400 feet of elevation in just over a mile (read: steep), and our Crossfit-style workouts seem to have the singular goal of rendering us useless for the rest of the day. By day four, everyone struggled to get out of their chairs and walked with the awkward, labored gait that only comes with hiking and running and squatting more than you thought you could.

Amidst all of it, I noticed something different in myself. While doing roughly my 230th pushup on day two, I considered the possibility of just cutting a few out. “No one will notice,” the insufferably lazy part of my brain, fed by Netflix and two months of unemployment, said. “Just do 35 out of 50 this time around, give yourself a break.”

I did the full reps anyways. And when we were asked to do 50 more an hour later, I did those too. And the part of my brain that thrives on laziness grew just a little bit weaker.

This is an important part of hotshotting, I guess—the weakening of that part of your psyche that would really just like to chill out for a second, please. On hikes, you keep moving even if you have to make ungodly noises to summon the energy to get your left leg over a root; runs and workouts aren’t bad, but if you know you’ve got a little bit left, you use it.

I understand this sounds really intense, and I guess it kind of is. But if hotshotting has taught me anything, it’s that anything less than fully givin-er—even if it requires guttural noises and going to bed at 7:30 to recover—is your own loss, a giving-in to that part of yourself that would love to stop, would love to lay in bed, would love to quit. And if that bike race that I can’t remember anything about other than that I didn’t finish taught me anything, it’s that not finishing when you know you could have is a shittier feeling than any amount of belabored uphill walking could ever be—shittier than the worst shift and shittier than the hardest workout. Besides, I’d rather remember knowing I couldn’t have given another ounce of effort than remember the time I finished before I was done.