Last weekend, I flew to Prescott, Arizona to start my first Pro/Open race of the season. At the end of last season, after celebrating victories in all of the local races, several people encouraged me to sign up for the Pro/Open categories for my final two races. I was burnt out and over-trained by that point in the season, but I hung on and finished towards the back of the field in both races. Fine. I rested for a few weeks, then regrouped, gathered my team around me, and planned for the next year.
Six months later, after spending 12-15 hours a week suffering through intervals on an indoor trainer, oftentimes late at night or early in the morning, the race season is here. I did one early-season race in Tennessee at the end of March, was relatively happy with my performance, and hoped for the best at Whiskey 50 with a (much) larger (and stronger) field.
After a slightly stressful drive to Indianapolis, one delayed flight, and a short connection in Chicago, I made it to Phoenix around midnight on Friday. I stayed at a friend’s apartment, had a delicious pancake breakfast, and then met other friends from Tucson to drive up to Prescott for the race. Everything seemed to be going as planned. Until it wasn’t.
I warmed up for the first race of the weekend, a fat tire crit on a challenging course with a massive climb. It would be hard, but not impossible, I thought. Two laps into the race, I changed my story. I was already dropped way off the back, my lungs were burning, and my throat seemed to be tightening. Knowing I would be pulled shortly anyway, I sat up and let the only other rider in my vicinity pass me. As I rolled off the course, thinking I would be able to catch my breath, I couldn’t. I started coughing; each attempt at taking a breath bringing on a new fit of coughing. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity without oxygen, I got to my inhaler, allowing me to take shallow breaths without coughing violently. After training all winter without using my inhaler, I was a bit shocked, but figured I would use my inhaler pre-race on Sunday and hopefully prevent another incident. I went to bed that night still coughing occasionally, but with hopes for a better race on Sunday.
That wasn’t to be. When I woke up Saturday morning, I knew I was getting sick. My ears and head were all stuffy and my throat was sore. I attempted to go out and ride, thinking I might be able to pre-ride some of the course, but found myself struggling to breathe even riding at a moderate pace. This was not going to go well. I turned around and headed back to the AirBnb after only a few miles, finally finding a bit of a rhythm on a short section of trail just before I hit the pavement, and hoping that I would miraculously feel better the next day. I spent most of the day watching some of the day’s races, wandering a local bookstore, and resting.
On Saturday afternoon, I took the opportunity to join several other riders at an Athletes in Action gathering, excited to be meeting other riders who shared my faith and competed at the highest levels of the sport. Looking back, this time was the highlight of my weekend–but at the time, I was still hoping for a good race on Sunday.
After dinner that evening, I went to bed, my moderate cold turning into a full-blown sinus infection with a fever. I hardly slept, struggling to breathe the entire night, and woke in the morning just wanting to go back to bed. If you know me, that alone was an indication I was pretty sick. I don’t ever just want to sleep. I love to go and do and live life. Especially if there is a chance to go mountain biking on some epic trails. But I didn’t on Sunday. I didn’t feel like doing anything.
Feelings aside, I got myself out of bed, went to Starbucks for a dose of concentrated iced caffeine, and returned to the AirBnb to pack my bags and gear up for the race. I couldn’t breathe walking; I knew racing would be nearly impossible. But I couldn’t help counting the cost of being there: the countless hours training, the flights and lodging, the sacrifice of co-workers covering my shifts, the friends in Arizona supporting me, the work of my coaches, my family watching my pup, and so much more. Everything I and others had invested…I had to race.
With that in mind, I posted on my Instagram account: “My race starts in a bit over an hour, but I’m spending some time this morning reminding myself that one bad race weekend thanks to a poorly timed sinus infection doesn’t mean that everything has been for naught. My results don’t define me. I’ve poured time and energy and life into getting faster on my bike this year, but I’ve learned so much that is of value beyond the ability to perform on race day. Perseverance. Commitment. Rest. Pushing through pain. Sacrifice. In the end, however today’s race goes, I am not out here to gain accolades or recognition for myself: my prayer is that my cycling, just like every other area of my life, might glorify God. I’m also reflecting on the many people who have given me the chance to be here: my coaches, parents, co-workers, friends, bike mechanics, teammates, etc. You all know who you are—thank you!! Now, let’s go out and enjoy the ride!”
It seemed like a good goal.
So at 8:40, I lined up on the start line after a half-hearted warm up. The first few miles out of town was kept extremely neutral, so I enjoyed riding in the pack and even talking a bit with some of the riders around me. Then, as we moved further up the paved road climbing towards Prescott National Forest, the pace began to increase and my oxygen intake began to decrease. Knowing that if I had even the smallest hopes of finishing the race, I would have to conserve my energy, I dropped back off the group. It didn’t help. My heart rate was red-lining—way too early in the race and I just couldn’t get enough oxygen to bring it back down.
As I rode on, my head only got foggier and more clogged from the sinus infection. I found myself having to get off and lift my bike over obstacles that I should have easily been able to ride, simply because I didn’t have the power to push through them. Even on the downhills, my judgment was sluggish, and I made poor line choices and slowed down unnecessarily, hoping to prevent a crash. My initial goal of being competitive had gone out the window as soon as I realized how sick I really was, but I had really hoped to finish the race and at least have fun riding some cool mtb trails. Even that goal was quickly disappearing as I weighed the potential costs of a bad crash due to poor judgement and found myself struggling even to hold a line–and not having any fun at all.
When I reach the aid station at the 18-mile marker, I called it a day. I could hardly stand, and it wasn’t because my legs were sore. They weren’t. But my whole body ached from the inside and my head felt like it weighed a million pounds. The blood running down my leg from a minor crash several miles earlier didn’t even bother me; I just wanted to sleep.
DNF. Did not finish.
Seeing those letters next to my name seems like a label of failure. Of not being good enough. Of not measuring up. Of being an impostor–not really a racer at this level.
But as I reflected back on the weekend, I realized that none of this was true.
Again, I posted on Instagram: “After the disappointment of getting sick and being unable to complete (or compete) my race this past weekend, I’ve spent a bit of time reflecting on some of the best advice my volleyball coach gave me years ago (before I ever considered racing bicycles!): “Volleyball is a game of mistakes. What separates the great player from the average player is the ability to make a mistake and move on: to just play the next point.” Life advice that motivates me to look forward instead of dwelling on the “what ifs” (since I couldn’t control getting sick and I can’t redo the past anyway), to take my rest week seriously, and take note of what I can do better next time (or even just in the next race).”
I also remembered a conversation with my cycling coach that had taken place in late November as we planned for this season and looked at this race and others, races that would stretch me. He asked me what my goals in racing were, noting that if I wanted to race at this level, that I wouldn’t be able to focus on winning like I’d been able to in the previous season. It is easy to enjoy racing when you win every race you enter. But that won’t happen at an elite level. He was very clear in telling me that if my only measure of success was to win, or even just to podium, then I would leave each race disappointed.
At the end of the day, attempting to balance racing and training to race at an elite level with teaching, work, church, and even just every day life carries a cost. It requires sacrifice of time, money, and even relationships. Some days, when a race goes well, it will seem like it is all worth it. Other days, like this past weekend, it is easy to think that it is all a waste. But if I’m going to count the cost, I need to count the reward as well.
Racing has allowed me to have a voice of influence in encouraging other women and girls to start mountain biking: to be confident and enjoy being active. Racing has forced me to prioritize the things that are truly important to me: my faith, my family, and those friendships that keep me grounded. Racing (and riding mountain bikes in general) has challenged me to work on my nutrition, build my strength, and overcome fears. I have made new friends, learned to rely on a team, traveled new places, and had loads of fun.
Even if I don’t win even once this year, I think its worth it.