“Do I have what it takes?”
Ever wondered that about something or other in life?
After a rocky start to the season, I’ve been asking myself that about racing. The learning curve to turning my passion into a career has admittedly thrown me for a loop. Ok let’s be honest, who knew there was a learning curve to eating cake? But that old saying “wanting to have your cake and eat it too” is always said with a hint of disapproval. Perhaps through these subtle tones, society has primed us to function better in an environment of lack than in plenty, or perhaps it’s just human nature to doubt whether we deserve to succeed and deserve to be happy. Here I am, at a most fortunate place in my life, wanting desperately to know if I can make it, something I thought I’d already answered for myself cominig up through the ranks with a full time job.
I’ve had to slow down and to be a bit introspective, and along the way I’ve gotten into reading, something that is always vastly more useful than I like to give it credit for. It just so happens that someone has written a pretty good piece precisely about “having what it takes.”
The will to suffer and endure not only separates average athletes from elite ones, but it separates talented elite athletes from their peers as well.
Turns out, viewing the year as a piece of cake, even if only subconsciously, was wildly off the mark. The answer to “Do I have what it takes?” is something sobering to the effect of, “How willing am I to suffer?”
Jesse offered the following perspective:
Taking time off of work and focusing extra hard doesn’t automatically make you faster. You still have to race with angst and fire. You have to break it down and simplify back to just attacking the course, fighting out of every corner and being aggressive. Bike racing is fun, it is not complicated, but it is not easy either.
Having a satisfying year is not so much about the opportunities but rather the effort put into it. In the words of a good teaching friend of mine, “if you want to have self esteem, you’ve got to do something in order to earn it.” Being willing to suffer is not just being able to suffer passively, but it’s being able to push yourself hard enough to create the suffering that you then must endure. It takes something special, that X factor, just to be able to punish yourself to that point.
One of the first things that attracted me to ‘cross was being mercilessly humiliated by it! I was in exceptional marathon shape, jumped into a ‘cross race, and promptly got dropped 400 meters in. In the 3/4 race. Now THAT is a sport, I thought, something that could so instantly and categorically crush any delusions of fitness and grandeur.
Throughout my first years competing, the angst and fire that fueled me was the “proving I can do it” and the “against the odds” sort. Those causes were like rocket fuel that blasted me forward, but now that I’ve earned my front row start, gotten the routines dialed in, have the good fortune to have an amazing team to support and take care of me, I feel like I’m floating in space with my fuel capsule detached and plummeting back to earth. The old X factor is gone: the odds are no longer against me with a difficult schedule or no team support.
Now the fire is the responsibility I have to my team.
That responsibility has been just a bit overwhelming as I want more than anything to represent Optum, and our sponsors Diamondback, SRAM, Challenge, Mt. Borah, Clif Bar, well. I feel so incredibly lucky to have their support. However, in the end, what makes it all worthwhile to me is the work I put into it, the sacrifice and the effort to do everything possible to perform at my best. Sorting through all of these changing emotions has been a process, and if the results and podiums were coming this year, I’m pretty certain I would not have stopped to think about it.
It’s disappointing times like these that bring to light the questions I need to ask myself. It’s led to a number of great conversations with good friends and family, and my brother-coach Jesse, who all encouraged me to to let go of those expectations and disappointments and just get back to the basics of “attacking the course, fighting out of every corner, and being aggressive.”
The Providence KMC Cyclo-cross Festival is always one of my favorite courses, and Rich Fries’ 2014 edition was no exception. Saturday’s course sported the first mud of the year, a plethora of challenging fly overs, off camber turns, steps, and swoopy curves.
My youngest brother Caleb filled in for Taylor this weekend, and he and Chris had everything set up and ready to go for our 4pm drizzly start. We opted for the Lymus mud tires, since rain was starting to fall. My start was not so great, but I began to pick off riders each lap. I worked up to 9th, and was in the hunt for the next group ahead when my effort up the slatted flyover came up short and I didn’t make it all the way up. This did not end well. I ended up tumbling onto the steep slope and doing a cartoon-style claw as I slid backwards. It was as ungraceful as it was publically witnessed, and put the kibosh on my catching efforts.
I held off the chasers behind however, and finished in 9th. Teammate Kerry had a strong start but suffered a flat far from the pit and had to battle back.
The truth is, I tried to “get back to the basics” without giving up my preconceived acceptable result. But, after Saturday’s race, I gave up. It was clear that no matter how hard I clung to those expectations, they weren’t making me any faster. Sunday arrived sunny and crisp, and it seemed to invite racing bikes for the pure joy of it. Again the guys had things rolling when I arrived. I had discussed a slightly different warm-up routine with Jesse to work on my start readiness, but apart from that enjoyed catching up with friends and family at the venue. Stephanie Wetzel and I did a warm-up lap together, and I tried to steal some of Tim Johnson’s lines. It was a perfect reminder of what is just so amazing about cyclo-cross: friends and family milled about, the best riders in the world warmed up in tents next to those with rookie tattoos, soon to be competitors pre-rode together, gave each other hugs, and laughed together. The announcers threw so much enthusiasm into their work that it felt as if the sky were fallig nonstop from 8:30am to 6pm.
Aside from the indomitable Katie Compton, each week the other top women riders have been different. The women’s field is so varied and strong this year, it’s exciting and it also means I need to work harder.
After a slightly improved start on Sunday, I settled into a chase group with my good friend Gabby Durrin and my new friend Erica Zaveta.
We worked together throughout the race, taking turns at the front of the group, and keeping each other honest with our efforts. In the final lap, we began to plan our finish strategy. Erica stumbled over the fan-like stairs and Gabby and I got a small gap, then I attacked on the final hill and gained a small distance from Gabby. I finished 8th, just one place better than Saturday, but happy to have fought hard and enjoyed the racing tactics.
Kerry had a solid race finishing 14th in a strong men’s field.
So, yeah, these results are not at all what I’ve hoped for, nor what I know I am capable of. But I’ll keep on keeping on, and working hard, until they are.
Until then, I am incredibly grateful for the cheers, the encouragement, and the friendships that I have through cross.