I am in the South at a stage race with big names and heavy hitters in my field. They have all been racing since January and are accustomed to temperatures above 95 degrees in March. None of them are recovering from near death and major surgery in the past six months.
Yesterday, I found myself briefly and accidentally, off the front of the field. And, then suddenly having a heat emergency that hit me like a thunder clap. I went from off the front to barely keeping the bike upright off the back. Today, I knew I was going to have problems before I even got to the starting lineup. I didn’t have the wattage, the miles in my legs, or the heat tolerance to hang. Both days, I was in the first group pulled and placed. Dead last yesterday, and close to it today.
But, I’m glad I’m here. It’s been a scorching hot reminder of all of the work I have to do before the track season kicks off, and has provided a metric for exactly how far I have to go to get back to (and, then surpass) where I left off before injury and life threatening illness. I’m glad that we know now, rather than in a few months when it’s too late to fix. Racing in the comfort zone of the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic, where the fields are deep enough but do not wake up till late in the summer, can be a false reassurance of one’s preparation. The struggle of these past two days has left me feeling energized rather than defeated. After this past month of snow and battles off the bike, these days of sunshine and having my legs smashed by stronger racers was exactly what I needed. I’ve let go of what I cannot control, and made the resolution to not give up on what is within my power to influence.
These past few weeks have been humbling, heart breaking and a bit soul-crushing. I have finally accepted that I am still in the rebuilding process, and will be for a long time – both on and off the bike. I’m a different racer than I was before, both mentally and physically. Beyond cycling, I am a different person than I was. In some ways, I’m stronger for what I’ve overcome, but in other ways I am incredibly fragile. It doesn’t take much instability to tip me over the edge into dispair. And, if I’m being honest, that fragility has been terrifying. I’m constantly afraid that I can’t do it, whatever “it” is.
A month ago
It was immediately apparent on the first day of lead out drills during a team training camp that I needed to relearn to race a road bike. It was jarring to be failing to execute the drills that, as a coach, I’ve put newer cyclists through so many times during skills clinics. Not only was my core strength and bike handling at speed different (we have had too much snow up North to find this out yet), but I had overwhelming fear going into the corners. And, I was spooky and squirrelly going into the sprint efforts. I was frustrated at myself, and knew that this disappointing failure to execute a pre-race prep workout was frustrating everyone around me as well. Over those two hours, the corners got incrementally better and we managed to do one legitimate leadout clocking a 40mph sprint through the line.
One successful leadout in two hours.
That night I called my coach, scared and angry at myself for failing to execute basic skills only two days prior to my first crit since illness.
“I can’t corner anymore!!! I used to have people tell me after races that they learned to corner from watching me! What is wrong with me!?”
He told me a story about a competitive shooter who went to a championship competition, and it started to snow. All of the other competitors were mentally shaken by the change of condition from what they were used to. This guy visualized shooting through the snow and repeated to himself, “I am the best snow shooter” until he believed it. And, he went into the competition confidently and won.
It’s a silly story, there’s not much plot. But, it worked. My next task was to visualize criterium corners that I had enjoyed in the past, and try to remember that feeling. And, then to keep telling myself that I was an excellent crit racer until I believed it.
That night I went through old photos on my phone and found a few of myself ripping corners, to remind myself that I could. And, I still can. I woke up the next day, went back out to the park and drilled those corners till I had it nailed. And, then went out to the criterium that weekend and got my happy corners back! I placed within the field, and then built on that with a local podium and a top ten on my return north – reminders that I’m still a bike racer.
It’s been a week
since I was dismissed by that same team, in equal parts because of my commitment to the track season conflicting with road, and because of how much rebuilding of myself there still is to do. The loss of a team, and the loss of teammates and friends shocked my system. The fragility kicked in, and for a little while I stopped believing that I could race again.
At my new baseline since getting back on a bike again this winter, it is often hard to believe that I can accomplish a single training day. On those days, I don’t think I can possibly get through the intervals. I am exhausted, dehydrated, or feel terrible because of medication or not being able to tolerate food. This winter, it was often just having a team that got me on the bike and through a workout. When it was clear that we would be parting ways, I began to crumble. Not only did I miss a full week of workouts following the split, but I couldn’t find the motivation to get out of bed for three days, and almost entirely forgot to eat or drink. The world was too overwhelming and big, in the same way as when I first got home and had to re-acclimate to surroundings beyond the white walls of a small hospital room. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s almost impossible to explain the crushing weight of despair and paralyzing fear that towed me under, like a rip tide.
Thankfully, there are people who don’t give up on me easily, and were persistent enough in their encouragement to get me back on the bike when I didn’t think I could.
I had to find my motivation within myself and remember that I’m good enough on my own. This stage race has solidified that motivation. Coming out of a very deep, very dark month, it would be easy to believe that I’m just a terrible bike racer, or will never be strong enough again. Yet, all of those kind thoughts and encouragements that my friends have been sending my way seem to be kicking in, and the process of visualizing happy crit corners has become a habit. When I struggle indoors, alone on the trainer, I close my eyes and visualize getting over the hill, closing the gap, starts of races, time trials, the tilting left of the track surface, just about everything. I’m finding myself believing that I can do this. My motivation is finally my own, it’s not for anyone else. And, I have my friends to remind me of all of this the next time I doubt myself. I’ve finally embraced the struggle and accepted that I am a different me than I was.
Nobody ever said “it” was going to be easy. And even if “it” sounds insurmountable, I’m still going to try my hardest. The results will catch up with my work when it’s time.