Processing the events leading up to my crash and resultant injury has been- well, a process. At first I had no regrets. I am used to leaving everything out on the course when I race, and am accustomed to putting myself deep into the pain cave. I am not afraid to suffer. Phrases like “if you’re not crashing, you’re not trying hard enough” and “always give 100%” and “live each day/race each race like it’s your last” floated through my head. All clichés that we have all heard, from friends/fellow racers/magazines/our own heads, and sure, they sound great- until they become reality.
Then, all of the sudden, the brain comes to a screeching halt. “Race each race/live each day like it’s my last?” Why in the hell would I want to do that?! If I was a backcountry skier and I thought like that, I’d be dead, buried six feet under in an avalanche. I love bike racing. I feel more alive racing my bike than anyplace else I have ever known. I am finally racing at the professional level, which is something I worked hard for, for years. Why would I want ANY race to be my last? After many conversations with my coach, my boyfriend, trusted friends, and myself, the lesson finally sunk in. Yes, I am a strong bike racer and especially a strong climber. Yes, I know how to suffer. Good for me. None of it matters if I’m not smart about it.
When I coach, or teach physical therapy clients in the clinic, many of whom are athletes as well, I coach them on making good decisions when dealing with an injury. I remind them that longevity is important; that they have to lift up their eyes and look past the short-term inconveniences of holding back or laying off of an activity, and into the future of having a fully functional, strong body again. Yes, it sucks when you are the 18 year old senior star of the track team and you have to miss an important meet tomorrow due to an injury that you might be able to push through for a day, but is it worth it just for one day, for one race? Do you want to run beyond this race? Then you have to take all factors into account and make good decisions.
I teach people this concept every single day. It is second-nature to me. Yet, when faced with the same decision myself, as an athlete instead of a coach and healthcare provider, I made the same mistake. I put it all on the line for one race- yes, it was national championships, but I was not in contention for a podium spot- and I risked my entire racing career, my career as a physical therapist, my ability to pay rent and put food on the table, and my credibility with those who depend on me, look up to me, and trust my advice. I risked all of that for one race.
No spot in a race; be it eightieth, tenth, or first place, is worth risking it all for. I want to be a bike racer for a very long time. Not for one day. And to do that, I need to do my best to make good decisions that will lead to my longevity in the sport. Yes, crashes happen in bike racing when you are pushing yourself to your limit. Injuries happen. It is part of the game. But there is a difference between crashing because you screw up on the bike and crashing because of a mindless bad decision. Being smart, knowing when it isn’t worth it and when to dial it back, just a little, is more important than just being strong and willing to suffer.
Because of this experience, I know that there is no excuse for not practicing every option for getting over and around an obstacle so I know exactly how much time and energy will be spent on each one. I need to micromanage my terrain- like one would do to mitigate avalanche risk while skiing in the backcountry. Now, I know that if my strength is climbing, great- I still need to know the course and think ahead: If I know there is a technical section coming, I cannot pin myself so hard on the climb that I cannot be focused and calculated through the rocks and trees. Can I still dig so deep on a climb that my eyeballs turn blue? Sure, but not when there is technical terrain ahead that will take a great deal of focus. I will need time to recover.
Above all, I now understand the need to be mindful of every decision that I make in a race, or in life- however small it may seem, or however driven and ambitious I may be. No decision lives in a vacuum. Everything has consequences. Are they consequences I can live with? Are they going to lead to my returning to race another day? How can I continue to race hard and push my limits, but not go over the line so that I seriously injure myself? All questions that I will have to answer in time, in every moment, in every race. I firmly stand by the idea “Always do your best.” Sometimes, however, your “best” does not always mean your hardest. Sometimes, it means your smartest.
I have come to understand, very personally, the difference between living for the moment and living in the moment. Living in the moment is all about being present and having an appreciation for what is happening right now. Living for the moment can potentially lead to making bad decisions that are only based on instant gratification. "Of course," one might say. Duh, this should be obvious. And it is- until we are faced with a stressful situation, and we forget. And it doesn't even have to be negative stress. It can certainly be fear, pressure, insecurity- but it can also be immense excitement, happiness, or a seemingly great opportunity that can cloud judgment and cause us to make emotionally based, short sighted decisions.
Imagine standing at the top of a mountain after a long backcountry approach, on skis or a board, being tempted by beautiful fluffy powder below. The excitement builds with the whoops and hollers of your buddies, and it is easy to mindlessly forget that you could be potentially staring straight into the mouth of the avalanche dragon, and that it is of the utmost importance to make rational decisions. In this situation, you could truly be looking at life or death. Other situations in life may not be this extreme, but they are impactful nonetheless. Live in the moment, appreciate life- absolutely. But keep your head on. In the heat of the moment we cannot forget the bigger perspective, in sport and in life.
So what now? I struggled with the decision about surgery for weeks. No, I don’t want to have shoulder surgery. Yes, it’s going to suck for “a long time.” But in the big picture, it’s really not a long time. It is half of one year- a full year at most until I am back to full strength. At the end of the day, if I want to continue to be an endurance racer, and a physical therapist, the best decision is for me to have the surgery, fix the problem, and focus my energy on healing.
I can’t change the decisions I have made in the past- in racing, or in life. What’s done is done, for better or for worse, and I have to put it behind me. I am human, and I make mistakes just like everyone else. What is important is that I learn from it going forward. I can make smart, mindful decisions about my life, my health, and my body- starting now. It is never too late.