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.