Okay, I'll admit it- I was tired. It was the end of July, and I was tired of being on the road, tired of living out of my car, tired of endless long miles behind the seat of my car even more than the endless miles on my bike... tired of being alone.
Now, generally I don't mind being alone; I even relish the opportunity to travel by myself. One of my favorite things about being on the road alone is making up silly car games. My current favorite is having a competition with myself to see how many people I pass on the highway that I can get to dance in their cars (pointing and laughing at my antics gets me one point, dancing gets me two, looking away is a minus two) and equally as awesome, singing cheesy Britney Spears (or other washed-up teen pop icon) songs in a raspy cigar-smoking lounge singer voice into my Iphone voice recorder, playing them back to myself, and laughing hysterically at how ridiculous I sound. I have certainly found entertaining ways to pass the time when on the road alone. But I was fresh out of creativity and Britney songs, and I was wanting some company.
So I was feeling pretty psyched at that moment to be heading towards Salida to race the Colorado Road State Championships. I was driving alone, but I was going to race in support of my teammate and close friend. She had just come back to racing from having a baby, had worked her ass off to get back into racing shape, and I wanted more than anything to help her get on the top step of the podium at the state championship road race. We had rented a house for the weekend and I was excited to race with her again, and most of all excited to spend a fun weekend with her and with her husband and young son. I had spent much of the season traveling and racing alone, and I was so excited to have the whole weekend ahead of me with my good friends.
Halfway through my drive, my friend's husband called, with worry in his voice. She had been fighting a strange gastrointestinal problem for a month, and it had finally come to a head. She was incredibly sick, and against her wishes because she so badly wanted to race, her husband had made the best decision he could to take care of her. They were turning around and heading home and to a hospital. They would not be going to Salida for the weekend.
Mixed up with my concern for my friend was the sinking feeling that I was, once again, alone. In a house by myself for the entire weekend of racing. Normally, I would be fine with it- I rather enjoy quiet time by myself. But this time, on top of the emotions of worry and fear for my friend, it was too much. I felt my mood sinking into the depths as my shadow side came out and my crappy attitude got the better of me. "What are you doing here? You're not even a road racer- if you're not racing for her, you have no point in being here. What will you do now? You have no teammates, and now no purpose in this race. You don't even care how you finish, you were racing for her, and now you don't even have a chance in hell. Go home." I nearly turned around. I wanted to go and be with my friend, even though there was nothing I could do for her. I wanted to go home and not race my bike on the road. I wanted to be anywhere but where I was.
But I kept going. Something kept my foot on the gas and my eyes fixed on the mountains ahead. I drove on, in silence, with the windows rolled down. As I made my way through beautiful central Colorado, dark clouds built and swirled above me. I heard the low rumble of thunder, and bright lightning raced like brilliantly colored snakes across the sky. I could smell the intensity of the impending storm, and it sent a rush of energy through my body."What are you doing here? You're here because this is your dream. You say you want to be a professional bike racer; now is your chance to prove to yourself that you mean it. It's your chance to prove that you're not going to tuck your tail between your legs and run away when things get tough. That your commitment to your goals does not depend on other people. That your dream means enough to you that you're willing to do it alone, if that's what it takes. You're here because this is YOUR dream."
The next day, I won the road race. As I stood on the top step of the podium, I gave a silent tribute to my friend. I would have given most anything to have cheered for her up there in my place. I walked away with a smile, not because I won, but because I knew that I had done the right thing, for her and for myself. I went out there and raced my bike. Regardless of the outcome of the race, I was proud that I lined up at the start and crossed the finish line. I was proud that I didn't quit when it got tough.
I learned that sometimes the most challenging part of the journey isn't always the race itself; sometimes it's the getting there. Whether your dream is to race your bike, to complete your first century ride, to make it up the daunting hill in your neighborhood, to change careers, build your own house, start your own business, travel the world, raise a family- it doesn't matter. It's your own commitment to your dream that must drive you. This is YOUR dream. No one will do it for you. Others may support you and cheer you on, but at the end of the day, if it means enough to you, you must have the courage to go out and get it done- alone. Hopefully with a smile. :)
Enjoying the sunshine, off the bike.
"Okay ladies, I'm turning back here. Three hours is it for me today- coach's orders," I said, as I once again felt myself pulled between my friends and my training plan. And I parted ways with my three riding partners and spun slowly back home as they headed for the hills to do a final hour of climbing.
There is nothing harder for an athlete, or for any ambitious person, than "dialing it back." The most difficult, and most important, lesson I have learned in training for bike racing is that harder is not always better. Sometimes, less can really be more.
I am lost in thought on my solo spin back to Boulder. My mind turns back to late July of 2010, when I was in my second full year as a road racer. I had just won the state criterium championships, and I was floating. My ambitions were at an all-time high, and my ability to make rational decisions about training was at an all-time low. I felt strong, I had tasted victory, and I wanted more, more, more. The more I ride, and the harder I push, the stronger I'll be; was the theme stuck in my head.
Then I cracked. I was training for my last race, the Steamboat Stage Race. Four days of tough racing in the mountains around Steamboat Springs. It would be my first race with the elite women, and I was excited. But on that particular Friday afternoon, I found myself sitting on the side of Flagstaff road above Boulder, having some form of nervous breakdown and on the verge of hurling my beloved Pinarello off a cliff. I was exhausted, burnt out, and overtrained. I raced at Steamboat, but I hated every second of it. I puked, cried, mentally beat the crap out of myself, and got dropped. During the criterium, all I could think was "please let this be over soon." I drove home, put my bike away, and didn't look at it for close to three months.
The next season I hired a coach. Alison was the best thing to ever happen to my cycling, and the lessons I have learned from her have been invaluable in the rest of my life as well. I had no problem training as hard as she asked me to- but again, the hardest thing for me has not been motivating myself to work hard; it has always been reining myself in and not doing too much. It is SO hard to be out on a ride, be feeling super strong, and still head home when all I want is to keep going. It is SO hard to skip riding on a beautiful spring day because my training plan says "off."
But in the long run, I am learning that it pays off to be smart. Ending up sick, burnt out, and hating my bike and life in general isn't much fun. Getting dropped in every race isn't much fun, either. Feeling consistently healthy and strong is pretty fun. So is racing well.
Last season, I made the commitment to stick to my training plan and train hard on my hard days, easy on my easy days, and really rest on my rest days. I learned that instead of feeling bummed about missing a beautiful riding day, I could enjoy taking my dog to play fetch in the park or laying in the grass and enjoying the sunshine while reading a book or visiting with a friend. I made the commitment to make eating well and getting enough sleep a priority.
My discipline paid off as I felt increasingly stronger week after week, race after race, from April through September. My race results showed it as well. I didn't get sick once during the season, and there were no breakdowns on the side of the road. I felt unstoppable. I learned firsthand the value of slowing down and sticking to the plan. I gained invaluable trust in my coach and in myself. This has been a long, hard, slow lesson for me; sometimes I still fail at it, and I feel that just now, after four years of training and racing, I am really beginning to fully understand. It has taken a lot of self-restraint, but it has been worth it.
And now, while I still feel the pangs of my desire to keep pushing when my friends are continuing on and I am turning back, I do it with a sense of comfort in knowing that I am doing what is right for me and for my own goals. I know that when it comes time for me to roll up to the starting line in April, I will be ready, I will be rested, and I will be strong.
Inspiration for this story: my coach, Alison Powers. Thank you.