Disembarking The Sad Train

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.

Posted on in Cycling, Life, Sadness 1 Comment

This is a post I wrote a month ago

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.

And yet.

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.

Posted on in Cycling, Life, Sadness 4 Comments

A Month with Team Colavita in Photos

Rudy Project Hypermask Colavita Awesome

Mary and I showing just how hardcore we are(n’t) in our Rudy Project skull sunglasses before the Sunny King crit.

Blue Ridge Parkway Team Colavita Service Course

The view from the Team Colavita service course at our house on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is not an inch of flat terrain in that region. NOT A SINGLE FREAKING INCH.

Colavita Rudy Project Hypermask

We believe in representing our sponsors in a dignified and professional manner.

Road Trip to Charlotte Bayer Steele

Headed into Charlotte for the weekend to do some crits.

Us in Charlotte 6 months

Andrew and I were able to be together in Charlotte to celebrate our 6-month wedding anniversary. Despite having race obligations, we were able to take a moment to celebrate by having a massive pile of Italian food and a coffee date.

Stranded Bayer

A string of bad luck was punctuated (ha!) by a flat tire that left me stranded on the side of the road when my CO2 inflator failed. I handled like a professional; by that, I mean I sat on somebody’s lawn and cried while waiting for the team mechanic to come rescue me.

IMG_0122

We help each other get fired up for early morning races with motivational text messages.

Easter Basket

My wonderful parents sent an Easter basket filled with treats down to Winston-Salem, where I sat around nursing my injuries while inhaling the candy eggs and mini bottles of alcohol they lovingly included.

Mary with Chevy Duck

A night out on the town in Bentonville, Arkansas, home of the first Walmart. This town was so picturesque that it almost seemed fake. I even got to see llamas frolicking in a field, which made me think of this and laugh endlessly.

Scoots Before TT

Nothing is more fun than loading the bikes on the roof of the van in the rain on the way to the Joe Martin Stage Race time trial.

Team Colavita Before TT

Apparently we manage to have fun despite the rain. Whitney fueled up for her ride with Twizzlers while I settled for my eighth cup of coffee.

Colavita Dinner at Olive Garden

The team and the crew from Bike Bentonville taking over an Olive Garden. Mary ordered us bottles of wine according to the criteria that “they are from Italy!”

Team Colavita in the Van

The wine treated us well and made us very excited about Olive Garden.

JMSR GC Podium Colavita

Thanks to the efforts of the team (and the cookies I baked, of course), Laura finished 2nd and Mary finished 8th overall at Joe Martin. GO TEAM! And now I am home again.

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Learning Experiences From Today’s 4-Hour Ride

1. Pack more food than you think you’ll need. Carrying an extra gel that goes unused is not a hardship when the alternative is spending 3.5 hours wishing you had more food while looking at trash on the side of the road to see if it contains any scraps.

2. When you stop at a water fountain, test to see if it works before chugging the last of your water.

3. Bring money. There is never a bad time to have $5 in your pocket, especially when you are an hour from home with no food or water.

4. Use the ‘pull your bibs to the side and squat’ method only if you want to soak your shorts and glove in pee.

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The flogging will continue until bliss resumes

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.

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