4/27/14. Well, I did it. First race since my injury/surgery in the books. Whew!!!
The race went pretty much as I expected. I was nervous as hell about my shoulder and just about getting back out there after so long. I have definitely lost some confidence riding aggressively on singletrack- racing, really- and I knew there would be a bit of that to work out.
The day before the race there was a wicked blizzard on the course. I felt bad for the amateurs who were out there racing on Saturday, they were really hardcore and some of them ended up with hypothermia. I'm not sure I would have been so into that. But as luck would have it, the day of the pro race was bright and sunny, though chilly, and the course was tacky and fast. I was glad as it had been extremely loose just two days prior.
When the weather cleared Saturday evening, I went out to do a bit of preriding. I had my first real crash since my injury crash. It was a good one too. I hung up my bike in between some rocks going fast, and flew off into the rocky gully below. Tuck and roll. Dang me! It was sort of exciting and I stabbed myself in the quad with a rock, but otherwise I was fine. I tok a deep breath and tried not to let it shake me too much. It was good to get that first crash out of the way- I had been dreading it, although I had crashed my bike a thousand times in my life without incident, until that one time. This time wasn't so bad. I rode the section a few times cleanly but didn't feel confident, so I practiced doing it with a fast cyclocross style dismount and remount. I timed myself and it actually didn't cost me more than two seconds. This was a huge lesson I learned from my Nationals crash: It is good to have options.
The race on Sunday morning started at a pretty mellow pace on the pavement. I settled in to mid-pack and watched for people going up the road. Last year there were attacks going pretty early on the road climbs, and I was ready, but nothing went until we turned on to the 4WD road. Then the pace got hot and things broke up instantly. I was still sitting about mid-pack, and then we hit the singletrack going fast. I instantly got tight and nervous and started blowing corners. Oops. I backed off a bit and let myself get used to the feel of riding at speed with lots of other racers around me.
When we came to the rocky section where I had crashed the day before, since I was already feeling a little shaky, I decided to take the safe route. I leapt off my bike mid-stroke, one step before the section. I was up and over the obstacle, throwing my leg back over my bike and pedaling away without missing a beat or throwing off the rider behind me. Good, that was easy. Cyclocross skills come in handy sometimes.
Descending loose, steep terrain with tight switchbacks has never been my strong suit, and I lost quite a bit of time on this long descent section as I was still riding pretty tentatively. I knew if something was going to be hard on my shoulder or throw me off my bike, it would be this section. I made it down fine and now I had some catching up to do as I was passed by quite a few riders on the loose descent.
At the bottom of the long Skull Valley road climb I settled in for the grind. It was hot by this point and unfortunately I had hit the climb alone, so it would be a long and lonely slog. I was able to stay focused, and I started making up time and passing some riders. I resisted the urge to surge when I saw that I was catching someone, thinking to myself don't burn your matches, save them for later. I got my feed from Jess near the top of the climb, and saw a rider ahead of me shortly before the singletrack. Now was the time to burn a match. I surged, scooted past the rider and on to the last section of trail. This was my favorite. I was ready to have some fun.
Somewhere on that road climb, I remembered how to ride a bike. This second section of singletrack felt like a night and day difference from the first one. I was riding fast, with confidence, and feeling the flow of the trail, riding playfully and catching air off small rocks and bumps. I have not had that feeling since I have been back on the bike, and it felt good. It felt natural... like coming home.
When I finished, I was happy to have that first race behind me. My time was much slower than last year's, and my placing was not wonderful, but I was happy with the way I rode and the decisions I made along the way. I knew I was going to be tentative at first, and I couldn't fight that and pretend it didn't exist. I had to let it work itself out, and it did. I knew that it would. My shoulder felt good and strong and gave me confidence that all the work that I have put into rehab is paying off. I was able to stay focused mentally and remain steady even when I didn't feel confident on the terrain, when I knew that riders were passing me, and on the long hot road climb alone when I had to slowly work my way back.
I am glad to have this one in the books. It feels great to be back after nine months away. I know that it can only get better, and I am looking forward to the rest of the season. I appreciate the wonderful support I have gotten from all of my sponsors, from my coach Alison, and from my friends and family out there rooting me on from "home." Thanks for giving me this amazing opportunity to live this incredible life.
April 26, 2014. I am in Prescott, AZ for the Whiskey Off-Road 50 mile mountain bike race. My 2014 racing season is underway.
I can't believe how quickly time has passed. When I had my season-ending shoulder injury back in July of last year, and when I had surgery in October, racing my bike seemed very far away. But nine months since my last bike race has passed quickly, and here I am again.
In a way it feels like it went quickly- but in so many others, it feels like a lifetime ago that I last toed a starting line. I feel like a completely different person than the one who lined up in Sun Valley on July 6 of last year. The thing about a major injury is that the down time forces you to re-evaluate everything in your life and often you emerge with different priorities and sometimes, a new sense of purpose and clarity.
For me, having to go through a major injury, surgery, and rehab gave me a valuable insight into what my patients, clients, and athletes go through when they deal with an injury. I can no longer say "yeah, I get it" from an outside perspective. Now, I really get it- all the way. I understand all the ups and downs of dealing with injury: the small successes that can feel so huge ("raise my own arm day" was one of the most exciting days of my life); the relentless determination of just putting my head down and getting it done, focusing on my rehab and on the things I was capable of doing; and yes, the occasional frustration and despair when I looked up and realized that I was still so far from where I wanted to be.
I am still not at one hundred percent- my shoulder still has a ways to go in terms of strength and endurance, and my fitness is a little behind where it normally is at this time of year since I couldn't tolerate riding a bike for very long until February. I had to switch bikes last minute as I realized that I would not be able to race on my beloved hardtail 29er anymore- it is just too much stress on my shoulder to not have suspension. And, unfortunately, my new bike did not show up in time. I am lucky that I have a great shop sponsor, Rock n' Roll Sports in Gunnison, that let me use a demo bike.
But, against all the odds and at the end of my nine-month hiatus, I am here. I will dust off the cobwebs, line up at the Whiskey 50 tomorrow and roll out for my first mountain bike race since I was injured. My goal for the race is only one: to win my own mental game.
There are three things that I know to be true for me in racing:
1. Mental toughness is, and has been for a long time, my greatest strength as an athlete. Time spent learning to stay calm and focused in precarious situations during mountaineering pursuits in a previous life developed that in me, and it works to my advantage in bike racing.
2. Mental toughness, for me, is not easy and is not a given- it must be consciously practiced. I am not perfect and I have moments of weakness and doubt like everyone else. But practice makes permanent.
3. I have learned that if I am not in the right place mentally, it doesn't matter how strong I am physically- I have nothing. If I defeat myself in my head, I might as well just go home.
Being away from racing and off my bike for so long has inevitably left me rusty in all of my skills, including the mental ones. Fortunately, these are skills that can be practiced in the rest of my life as well. I can certainly say that I am a much stronger person because of my time spent racing a bike. So, my test now is to see if the skills translate back. I have a lot of "distractions" right now- my body and my bike are not completely dialed and perfect. It is a great situation for me to go one of two ways: to either let all of these things get to my head and mentally crumble, or to block out the distractions, stay focused, and ride my best despite the odds.
I am honored to be able to return to racing tomorrow, and I am fortunate that I have had so many good people on my side to help me get here. I especially need to thank Rhett Griggs from Griggs Orthopedics for doing such a great job repairing my shoulder; Trent and KayLynne Ezzell from Heights Performance for taking care of my rehab and getting me back on the bike, Donny for encouraging me to keep my head up in the times that I was frustrated and for giving me the freedom I needed to focus on training and rehab, and my coach, Alison Powers of ALP Cycles Coaching for doing her best to get me going again and making up for lost time in training. It has not been an easy road, and I know that I have a lot of work left to do, but I am happy to be back.
Last year, the Whiskey Off-Road 50 mile was my very first race as a professional rider. I was so excited and felt like I had the whole world opening up in front of me. I wore race number 3. Yesterday, at packet pickup, I checked in and was handed my race number... 3. Maybe it's coincidence. Maybe it's a sign of a fresh start, with the challenges and setbacks to my body and mind of the past year behind me. Maybe I get another chance to do it right. If I can start by winning the mental game in my own head, I will consider my race tomorrow- and the trials of the last nine months- a worthwhile success.