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- Worth A Visit
My cycling career began seven years ago today. It was the second race of the Wednesdays at Wakefield mountain bike race series, but my first race ever after only owning a mountain bike for a few weeks. Clipless pedals still freaked me out. I distinctly remember the race not being very fun; it felt like taking an activity I enjoyed and adding urgency to it. Why would I want to do that? Life is urgent enough; why do I have to ride fast too?
But then the results were posted and it turned out that I’d finished 3rd in the beginner women field. WHOA. I placed, which meant I was actually decent (!), but also that two women had ridden faster than me. I collected my bronze medal and free water bottle and then went on to let cycling take over my entire life and now I ride professionally.
It’s been a wild seven years. I can barely remember life before cycling; if you told me eight years ago that I was going to walk away from law school, become a professional athlete, and purposely blend spinach into my drinks every day, I would have laughed in your face. But here I am. It both scares and thrills the crap out of me to wonder where I’ll be in another seven years.
I’m still the treasurer of Potomac Velo Club, the group that puts on the Wednesdays at Wakefield series, which means I drop by the races every summer to distribute prize checks and collect registration fees. While I was there tonight, I handed out medals and water bottles to the three women on the podium for the beginner women’s race. All I said to them was ‘congrats, nice job, good work,” but what I really wanted to say is, “This could be the beginning of the most wonderful thing you’ll ever do with your life.”
There have been a lot of things that have gone wrong this season. I’ve struggled, cried, freaked out, and lost my head a few times, but in the end, I have come to this: I love to race my bike. It is easy to love racing when it is fun, when things are going well, when your results and your physical health are glowing. It is another thing entirely to come to the brink of quitting, to fail repeatedly and be totally broken down, and then claw your way back and decide you still love racing.
I still love racing. Love training. Love riding. I am still here.
Some people will probably remember me as the fragile person that imploded for several months this year. The rider with the eating issues who cried at race starts and backed away from challenges. I can’t change everybody’s minds. You can’t win ‘em all.
But hopefully more people will see that to fall apart and then willingly rebuild is an awesome thing. To nearly walk away and then decide to come back and embrace the sport fully feels to me like a deeper, stronger love than what I felt when everything came easy. I know now that I can love bike racing even when I suck, when I am afraid and weak and publicly humiliated by my failures.
Each race start since Philly has helped to reconstruct the foundation of the racer I used to be. I suffered, swore, gritted my teeth, even cried a little from pure exhaustion, but I wanted it again. To be part of the action, to work hard and support my team and be in the race. When I came home at the end of last weekend, it was with genuine excitement that I found and registered for a race for this upcoming weekend. There was a time a few months ago when I didn’t know if I’d ever feel that way again.
To my teammate Olivia, I want to say this: Admittedly, you can be kind of a bicycle dictator. I wasn’t kidding when I told Tayler that you scare me a little. But you have also been such an inspiration recently, because no matter what, you always show up and race your heart out. The fire and passion you bring to every race start has made me realize that we are so lucky to have these opportunities and we should make the most of them all. We joke that every race is your favorite, but I honestly feel like there’s some truth in that. You find a way to love each one and fight through it 100%. I want to be like that. While you have your scary moments, I am learning to appreciate them as you pushing me to be the best I can. Please don’t stop. It’s finally working and I’m so grateful.
I like bike racing again! It didn’t happen overnight; rather it was a progression from the Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic through the Air Force Cycling Classic to the end of the North Star Grand Prix. But that’s a story for another post (which is code for “unmotivated to write about feelings at the moment”), so instead here are some photos from the weekend. I would put them on Instagram, except that I am making a point to never have an Instagram account since it seems to really bother a lot of people that I don’t. Sorry. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Vimeo, and Gmail will have to suffice. Oh, and it is not true that “bitches love Pinterest” because frankly I am ambivalent. Foodgawker, however, is another story entirely.
Anyway. Photos from Philly:
If you read the last post here, you know that things this season have been challenging. There have been tears, defeats, disappointments, and a half dozen occasions in which I was chased by terrifying dogs on rural roads while thinking UGH JUST BITE ALREADY. It has been a difficult time.
After coming home from the Joe Martin Stage Race, I intended to take some time away from racing to clear my head. I did take a break…if you consider the 12 days I was scheduled to be home prior to flying to the Tour of California Circuit Race a break. I went to California because the ticket was already booked and it was an opportunity that I felt like I shouldn’t miss. It was a fun trip, so long as we don’t count the hour in which I rode in circles with 108 other women while making unhappy faces and feeling miserable.
Then I came home and decided to go forward with racing the Wilmington Grand Prix the following weekend, because continuing to bang my head against the wall was working out so well. And it was actually a success! In a manner of speaking, that is. The race itself was a disaster. I had a mental meltdown almost immediately upon starting, floundered aimlessly, got gapped off early, and made my most significant contribution to the race when I rode onto the sidewalk to stop a car that was pulling blindly out of a parking garage onto the course.
Erica Allar got 2nd place for Team Colavita. She is awesome. I love knowing that I can fall over dead mid-race and she’ll still make it happen. Being chased by feral dogs while riding with her sucks, though, because on the fastest day of my life, I’m still getting eaten first.
Anyway, the race was a complete dud for me and afterwards everybody was like, “So, how about that break…?” And I got a little teary and wrote sad things on the Internet and had a lot of tequila and mourned the death of my cycling career.
But then I woke up the day after and was PISSED. For the first time since this slump started, I felt angry about messing up the race and throwing away the opportunity to be part of the competition. I used to be a fighter, even when I was in over my head and sorely lacking in skill; what kind of rider had I become, content with sliding backwards in the field and entirely out of the race? I spent a long ride that day dissecting what I’d done wrong at Wilmington and encouraging a small, healthy degree of self-loathing. It felt like a switch flipped, like I’d finally gotten fed up with being in the dark hole.
Since then, I’ve taken various steps to get ready to return to racing. I’m trying to better manage my eating on and off the bike so I’m not held back by lack of fuel. I’ve dropped in on group rides to get comfortable letting others put the hurt on me and learned to fight back. I’ve practiced breathing through the anxiety that ramps way up in those moments and started to feel calm under pressure again. I’ve stopped crying every eight seconds.
I also stayed home from the National Championships and watched the race online from my kitchen table. While it felt nice to have a relaxing weekend of riding at home, watching the race was hard. I went from feeling glad that I wasn’t climbing Lookout Mountain to wishing I was, because climbing it badly is still more satisfying than watching other people live your dream. When Alison Powers made her move at the end and crossed the line to take her second title of the weekend, I was so jealous I wanted to reach through the screen and poke her in the forehead. Not because I wanted her victory (well, duh, of course that too), but because I wanted to be there and wanted that feeling of riding so hard and feeling accomplished as a result.
So I think it’s time to race again. People around me are (understandably) questioning if I’m rushing this, but I don’t think so. It’s like the placebo effect in a sense; if I stalled out this season because my head wasn’t in the right place, and now my head thinks we’re in the right place, doesn’t that mean this could work? In other words, if I believe I’m ready to compete, isn’t that enough?
This weekend is the Philly Cycling Classic. I’ll be there, and this time I intend to race my damn bike.
Today is stage three of the Joe Martin Stage Race. I’ve written cue sheets, packed race snacks, laid out today’s kit, and pinned race numbers.
Also, I’m not racing.
At the end of yesterday’s stage, I jumped off the course onto the sidewalk 200 meters from the line, passed the finish area, and circled back to turn in my race number to the USA Cycling officials.
“I’d like to turn in my number and withdraw,” I said with conviction I didn’t entirely feel.
They looked surprised. “Are you sick?” one of them asked.
It was a reasonable question, one I’ve asked myself over and over lately. “Um, yes,” I replied, “in a manner of speaking.”
And that was it. Now I’m spending the next two days supporting my team from the sidelines before going home to regroup. Yesterday’s race was a good note on which to step out; it was a beautiful day on a good course and I was able to help a teammate and be needed and useful. After so many races where it felt like I was sliding backwards and growing increasingly disheartened and deflated, it was a positive step. I even thought about crossing the line to officially finish, but didn’t trust that I wouldn’t then be tempted to start again today. “Just one more race,” I’ve said repeatedly, while continually discovering that rock bottom can actually get deeper. By not finishing, I removed the option to start again.
So now I’m at this point where I have things to figure out. What’s wrong with me? Something is clearly not right. I’ve been fighting this feeling for weeks, even months, and it’s not getting better. The time has come to stop trying to push through and start trying to dig out.
How does this happen? I’m living the dream, right? Somebody pays me to race a bike all over the country. I have a great team, kind and wise mentors, and friends that make me laugh so hard I nearly pee in my chamois. By all accounts, I should be filled with enthusiasm and joy.
Forty-five minutes before my start time at the Joe Martin time trial this past Thursday, I packed up my backpack and was about to ride 40 miles down the highway back to the team house where I planned to get a rental car and drive away. Our team mechanic wanted to take off my bottle cages and put on race wheels, and I was all, “NO! DON’T!” because I couldn’t ride all that way on race tubulars carrying no water. He was like, “What are you talking about? Don’t be ridiculous,” and then changed out the wheels and the next thing I knew, I was at the start line thinking WHY DID I NOT LEAVE.
There have been a lot of races like that lately. Warming up for the Sunny King crit weeks ago, I couldn’t figure out how to get excited about anything other than getting it done. Doing my openers on the morning of the Charlotte crit, I started crying and couldn’t stop. I also cried at the start and in the shower after the race. Cried before the start of Belmont the next day, too. That was especially awkward because I got a call-up to the line and was leaking tears from under my dark sunglasses. Often I can’t even figure out why I’m crying or why the idea of racing my bike makes me want to run away.
If somebody moved the finish lines to my house, I’d win everything.
This past winter was hard. I spent a lot of time tearing myself apart, pushing my body to do more because nothing ever felt good enough. Even after the worst symptoms of the eating disorder passed, I still spent every second preoccupied with food and anxiety. This has not changed, even months later. Getting sick multiple times only compounded matters. When the time came to leave for Tucson at the beginning of March to get the season started, I fell apart, sobbing at how badly the winter had gone and how much I had hurt the whole time. I wouldn’t be as mean to my worst enemy as I had been to myself for months.
I thought getting into the season would bring a welcome distraction from the internal battles and that I’d settle back into racing and remember how to be strong and healthy. But early season fitness is rarely confidence-inspiring; you go for it and expect to feel like the racer you were before and it’s hard to remember that it takes time to get back to that. When I struggled, the bad feelings were right there waiting. My confidence was in shreds. I doubted myself, my training, my diet, my choices, everything. I made changes, struggled more, doubted more, and now here we are.
Even now, it feels like I should be able to make things work. Now that I’m not about to start a race, it feels like, duh, just get fired up and go! How hard is that?! But when the race days come, it feels impossible. There is no confidence, no fire, no motivation, no excitement. Just feelings of dread and anxiety. It doesn’t feel like winning or even doing anything worthwhile are possible – my goal is just to finish and even that feels hard.
I can’t understand why. There has been a lot of stress in the past seven months: personal defeats and struggles, outside noise and changes, lots of time on the road. I guess it has all added up to this now: I need a break and to figure out how to believe in myself enough to go out and race hard. The deafening noise has to stop for a moment so I can reset and begin again.
My team has been so supportive over the past few weeks. My director has let me take the time and space I need and the other riders have dealt gracefully with all sorts of emotions. When it got to the point where I was crying over everything and having laughably bad luck – as in, smashed my head on the team car roof rack, crashed before the start of the Winston-Salem UCI road race, had a panic attack on a group ride and sprinted away from everybody while shedding layers of clothing – people gave me the space I needed to lose my shit and then get it back together again. My husband even came down to North Carolina for two consecutive weekends to be there with me. I couldn’t ask for a better support system.
But unfortunately, nobody can fix this for me. I don’t actually know how to sort this out, but I know it’s going to be something I have to figure out myself. The surface question is how can I love racing again, but the real question is how can I love myself again? It sounds so stupid and trite, but I think that’s the real underlying problem. After months of self-doubt and self-flagellation, of worrying about food and poking at my stomach and punishing myself with workouts, how can I find confidence?
I wish more athletes would talk about their experiences with this kind of struggle, but all I see are occasional mentions of somebody “taking time off to address a health issue” or something else vague and politically correct. Few seem to be interested in showing doubt or looking weak, which is understandable. But honestly, I don’t care how I look. I care how I feel and how I race, and neither are going particularly well at the moment. So I share these problems with everybody because what have I got to lose? Maybe you’ll have a suggestion. Maybe you feel the same way and are happy to know you’re not alone. Maybe you’ve been through this before and figured it out and want to share your story. Or maybe I just helped you pass five minutes of your workday, in which case you’re welcome. Thanks for reading.
I was at a dinner party a few weeks ago and ended up in conversation with a girl I’ve always admired. While I was stuffing cookies in my face like there might not be food again (literally, I threw up a little in my mouth from being so full and then ate three more, nothing wrong here), she was telling me about doing hot yoga at a studio nearby and how it has really helped her both physically and mentally. Suddenly it came to me: I had to do hot yoga. Right then. Or at least as soon as possible.
That translated to the following afternoon, several hours after finishing an incredibly cold, uncomfortable 3.5 hour ride. That’s a good time to try a 90-minute hot vinyasa yoga class, right? I prepared by Googling “yoga tips” and reading them while eating the last third of a jar of Nutella.
Armed with an old yoga mat left at my house by an ex, a cycling waterbottle, and a dish towel (since the website said to bring a towel and I figured they meant for dabbing sweat off one’s face), I headed to class. When I walked into the studio, it was like climbing into my oven, except that my pans are not clad entirely in brightly-colored lululemon apparel. My pans and I have that in common. Class started with everybody on their mats chanting three Oms, and I had to resist the urge to giggle and snort.
Then we started moving and I had to resist the urge to keel over dead. There was a LOT of moving, so much moving that my head felt fuzzy from the effort and the heat. I quickly realized that when they said to bring a towel, they didn’t mean a dishrag to refresh one’s face; they meant bring a huge swath of fabric to soak up the tsunami of sweat pouring off one’s body onto the mat. Within minutes, I was slipping all over, clawing at my mat with fingernails and toes for traction. A nice man (because it turns out that in yoga class, everybody is nice) eventually tossed over a spare towel and saved me from further humiliation. Well, slipping-related humiliation, that is. The yoga practice itself made me feel awkward and gangly and I kept wanting to announce to the room, “I’m good at sports, I swear!”
It was hard to remember that nobody else gave a shit about my yoga performance.
I settled in a bit as the class progressed endlessly and started to enjoy the experience. Sure, I felt like I was going to hurl a few times and my legs were burning, but that’s not unlike the joy of cycling, right? When the teacher called on us to chant three Oms to close our practice, I got a bit emotional from the moment (although that might have just been relief). Then everybody said “Namaste!” and clapped, and I felt almost happy enough to hug the people next to me, except they were drenched in sweat and smelled like old socks.
After that, I was hooked. Yoga made me feel limber, stronger, and refreshed. Think of all the toxins I was sweating out! Maybe I should even do a juice cleanse! Hooray for the natural high! I am so freaking Zen!
I went nearly every day for the following two weeks. When the studio was closed for a day due to snow, I panicked and then did yoga at home for an hour while listening to an iTunes radio station of gongs. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my chi.
Well, almost nothing. The shoulder injury I’ve been nursing for years started to hurt almost constantly. Lifting my arms became problematic, so I compensated by using the other arm more, both in and out of class. The collective fatigue of heavy training combined with 60-90 minutes of yoga each day also started to build, to the point where I had trouble sleeping, felt constantly hungry, and looked like I hadn’t slept in a month. People would comment, “Gosh, you look exhausted…” and I would think Excellent, I’m doing such great work! I even rearranged social plans to fit my yoga schedule and would insist on going to class even if a ride left me so gutted I was sprawled on the couch trying not to barf.
Unsurprisingly, I stopped feeling calm and refreshed from each class and started feeling like I had to grit my teeth and power through it. The teacher would say we were going to hold a pose for five more breaths, and if she started counting too slowly, I wanted to slap her with my dish towel. Other students would take harder variations of poses than I could handle and I wanted to push them over out of rage. You can do a handstand, GOODY FOR YOU. TRY DOING INTERVALS FOR TWO HOURS ON THE TRAINER, ASSHOLE.
I reached a breaking point last Friday. My bad shoulder was throbbing as always, but then the other side started to hurt. Stabbing pains in my chest through the back of my shoulder blade nearly brought me to tears during class, and I spent the rest of the day barely able to breath, laugh, or use either arm. I decided to take the next day off from yoga, and then the following day, and then the day after that.
It has been three days since my last yoga practice. Forgive me, Shiva, for I have sinned.
To be honest, I miss it. Not just for the exercise or the stretching, but for the feelings of calm and happiness it first brought. I squished those feelings with my aggressive approach, like a child who accidentally snuffs the light out of the firefly he loves. I couldn’t just do some yoga, I had to do ALL of the yoga, and now I’ve put my body in the position of being unable to do any yoga at all.
This makes me sad. I want to go back to the studio, sit in the oven, and have the self-control to just stretch, enjoy the moment, and not feel like I have to chataranga better and harder than ever before. It would be nice to find a way to be a normal person that does not feel compelled to take the things I want to do and club myself over the head with them. Not least of all because I paid $50 for a month of unlimited sessions and those sessions are just dangling there in space, droopy and unused.
There is a lesson to be taken from this experience: everything in moderation. This is a concept with which I am generally unfamiliar. Sure, I’ve heard of it, but the execution is difficult. Look at the beginning of this post – all of this started while I was eating myself physically sick on cookies. If only I could learn to have a few cookies, enjoy them, and then step away, I suspect life would be much more enjoyable.
Until then, I will allow my injuries to be my guide. At least until this Ibuprofen kicks in.
I’m in the air on the way to Fort Lauderdale, FL for team camp. People have spoken recently as if this marks the beginning of the season, but I’m not ready for that yet. This off season has been long and filled with challenges, but I’m not ready for it to be over. The beginning of the season means big things: nonstop travel, long stretches of time away from home, and expectations to perform. There’s a time and place when all of that feels normal, but that’s called the beginning of March.
Nevertheless, this is the beginning of something. The same team but with new riders, new leadership, and new sponsors. It’s comforting to have familiarity while exciting to have changes. At this point last year, I was a wide-eyed and eager neo-pro with no idea of what to expect. Showing up at camp felt like the first day of high school; I wanted to fit in and be cool while dropping watts and impressing everybody. Instead, I got norovirus, threw up on the driveway a few times, broke the plumbing, went to the ER, and was the weird girl that put raw egg whites in her recovery drinks.
I still do that. Live dangerously, always my motto.
Last year’s camp didn’t go as planned and I cried in the car on the way home from the airport, both out of disappointment and because my insides still felt like a nuclear wasteland. But as the season progressed, things sorted themselves out (as did my digestive system). I found my place amongst the team and it started to feel like home. While everybody still thought I was weird, it was okay and even welcomed. Well, either that or everybody is really good at keeping me in the dark.
I’m excited to get back to that place where I travel all over with my quirky adopted family like a spandex-clad circus, and happy to come into it with the benefit of last year’s experience. I’m not worried about trying to be cool or ride like I’m going to grow up to be Marianne Vos. All I want to do is show up, see my friends, make new ones, and blend all the raw eggs I can.
Also, I now know to live in mortal fear of norovirus.
But while this trip feels like an adventure and some kind of start, I’m not ready to let go of the winter yet. The polar vortex can go to hell (insert joke about freezing over) and I’m over bundling up and shivering through rides, but I still feel like a work in progress and need more time. My eating issues have been better – no throwing up or restricting excessively – but food is still a minefield and source of endless anxiety. People have been so supportive and I couldn’t have made this much progress without their wisdom and nudging. But I want more time to feel more confident about eating everything it takes to get through a long, hard season successfully.
I’m also not ready to say goodbye to Andrew just yet. Of course the season starting won’t change anything or really mean goodbye, but things will be different. Spending so much time apart is difficult and makes both people work harder to stay connected. We’re just over three months into our marriage and so much of the time has been focused on my eating disorder, several bouts of respiratory illness, the holidays, and that time I accidentally stabbed myself in the hand. I need the extra month between camp and the real start of the season to be at home, enjoy the perks of being married to my best friend, and find ways to enjoy life in spite of the challenges we face. Andrew makes me so happy and I want more of that before I join the traveling bicycle show for six months.
So camp will be great and I’ll share details and stories of the experience here (sure, if there are pillow fights, I’ll let you know but don’t hold your breath). But I’m also excited to return home to savor the final weeks left before the ride really begins. I suppose that, much like Florida in January, this is a good place to be.