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.