The devil is in the details, or so they say, and it can certainly be true of sports. Both because athletic achievement takes many hours or years of dedication and training, but also because of the multiple ways we have of measuring ourselves, evaluating our progress (or lack thereof), and assessing just how well we stack up against others. From within this framework, it becomes quite difficult to appreciate—or even see—one’s own accomplishments. There are so many folks who are faster; heck, even our younger selves were faster! Women are usually quite proficient in spotting our own shortcomings; we can be less good at applauding our hard-won sporting expertise.
Last year I was reminded of this when I registered for a mountain bike race I have done several times in the past, but that nonetheless seemed impossibly intimidating on the day.
I’ve been a bike racer of some sort or another for almost 20 years: I believe my first bike race was in the fall of 1996. It was a collegiate mountain bike race, and I finished somewhere in the middle of the B women. After that I did road racing somewhat seriously for several years and less seriously for a few more, then reverted to mainly mountain bike racing in around 2007. I have now been competing in the amateur “expert” (Category 1) division for several years. I have won some races, but generally I average mid-pack. I don’t mind this. If I were always winning the expert field, I would just upgrade and get my butt kicked at semi-pro. There is always someone faster. There is always someone more skilled. But I love racing nonetheless. It pushes me, focuses me, makes me take a few risks, and gets me to ride places I wouldn’t otherwise go.
But I am “realistic” about my performances: occasionally a non-biker (or non-racer) friend will say something to me along the lines of, “that’s amazing that you race for such a long time,” or “I can’t believe you go over rocks like that.” I’ll thank them, but I’ll secretly believe they’re wrong: nothing amazing about it, I think, plenty of us do it, and I don’t do it particularly fast. (Those people who beat me: now they’re the ones who might actually be good. Or those who didn’t beat me, but who only recently started riding. Well, you get the picture…) Also, I might think: it’s just bike racing. It’s nothing really important.
But maybe those friends are right. Last year, I cut back on racing and even more on training, plus I started it all late in the year. I had a new focus: I was trying (still trying, along with half of Boston, judging by the popularity of creating writing classes) to write a novel. Of course, undertaking this has exposed me to all sorts of different ways in which my efforts are lacking. There are new experts; new heroines. When you’re trying to write a novel, you’re awed by novelists—they are the ones who have beaten the odds and realized that dream.
This meant that I arrived at a favorite race of mine (for those who know the circuit, it’s the Pinnacle) last year feeling severely out of the swing of racing. It was already June, but it was my first race. Most others had a few under their belts by then. My bike had a couple of small “issues” I had forgotten about (because I hadn’t ridden it much). I wasn’t trained. I hadn’t stopped riding: my commute is long and makes it reasonably easy to fit in road rides during the week, but I hadn’t really done much more than commuting. The course is a pretty tough one: laps are 5-6 miles up and down a big hill (it’s called “pinnacle,” after all), with several technical sections. I would have to do three laps. Even on my best day it would be over two hours. I remember arriving at the venue, registering, looking around at my fellow racers, all of whom appeared to be fit, ready, with fully functioning bicycles, and thinking: I don’t know if I can do this. I’m not ready. I’m too much on the racing fringe right now. I’m getting too old for it.
I did complete the race, and actually enjoyed it, mostly because I love the course. But in some ways it wasn’t too pretty. I did have to lean heavily on my years of experience to get me through: technique, pacing, and tenacity. It really brought home to me that this sort of racing takes serious commitment, training, and skill. Those are not things you develop overnight. There aren’t too many people who could just show up and ride the way I’d ridden (I shall breezily ignore the preternaturally talented). I thought, maybe having the ability to do these long, grueling, difficult races actually IS kind of amazing. (I also have a new-found admiration for those who have been side-lined, for whatever reason, and who fight to get back into their sport.)
I’m still busy pursuing my writing goals and weekends this year have already taken a turn unlike years past, in that I spend a great deal of time plonked in front of the computer and much less on my bike (I try to fit in more rides midweek). This is good news, I suppose, for any potential novel, but I miss the weekends that used to be a blitz of physical activity. I feel it: my body feels less conditioned and much less challenged. It’s led me to wonder: how would life be for me now, mid-forties, if I hadn’t discovered a sport I love? I suspect it would be much worse. Those who have known me a long time will attest that I’m not a particularly “sporty type”; I’m pretty happy lolling around reading or writing, preferably with a beer. But biking has its claws in me and I’m very thankful it does.
Most of us at this blog have at least one sport or activity we’re committed to and that makes us happy. I say: don’t forget how amazing that is! (Stop exercising for a while and then be daunted by what you were doing if you need to!) You probably didn’t just roll off the couch and do it. You’ve probably been at it for a while. You rock. Celebrate it, and what it’s done to enrich your life!
Fittingly, or perhaps ironically, I can’t decide, after I was done writing this blog post I got today’s mail, and found this had arrived:
The Pinnacle is part of a series, and I won the series for my division last year! “Participation points” play a role for sure, but it’s another nice reminder that my sweat and toil added up to something!
Rachel is in-house counsel for the City of Lowell, MA. She was formerly a philosophy professor, and likes to think she remains a philosophical thinker. She rides all sorts of bicycles, but her true love is mountain biking. She races for Bikeman.com (which sadly fails to have an analogue at bikewoman.com).