Amazing is the New Realistic (guest post)

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:

efta championship 2015

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).

Manning Up to Stage Race (Guest Post)

I recently participated in a 7-day, 220+ mile mountain bike stage race in the heart of Pennsylvania. It’s called the “Transylvania Epic” (TSE): epic because it’s rugged, rocky, and boasts almost 27,000’ of climbing for the week; Transylvania because you get to meet a few vampires and along the route, and Dracula himself may occasionally hand you up a beer.

Rachel and Leslie vmpire teeth

The week is hard, intense, and a lot of fun. I wrote a stage-by-stage report of the race here. But that was preaching to the choir. A more interesting question is: what are the benefits of doing a stage race at all?

The same could be asked of any extended endurance race. It isn’t obviously better for your health to train for and complete an event that breaks down your body brutally and repeatedly; in fact, some studies indicate that prolonged endurance training has deleterious health effects. It also isn’t obviously better psychologically to place yourself in a situation, as I did, where you are competing mainly with professional athletes you’ll probably never come close to even on your best day. So what are the incentives?

One thing is definitely challenge. Everyone has a different perspective on challenge, of course, but the TSE is something almost nobody could just show up and do. It requires a comfort level with mountain biking that may take years to develop, and it requires enough training to allow your body to tolerate back-to-back hard efforts. Because completion of this event is a little elusive, it is something to cherish, a physical triumph you can look back on with pride. This is probably all the more so if you complete these events as you get older and still kick some ass.

That’s all true, but for me there is another prize from stage racing: I get to treat my body as a specimen and a machine. And I love that.

Like many women, I have not always had an easy relationship with my body. I’ve spent a lot of time—far too much time—criticizing it, despairing over it, feeding it chaotically, depriving it, and generally neither cherishing nor rewarding it. My relationship with my body is not bad now, but I still find something satisfying in being literally forced to listen to and place the needs of my body first.

For example, there have been some posts here on workout fashion. I like the topic and read the posts with interests, but for stage racing it is not much of an issue. At very least by stages 3 or 4, I guarantee you will not wear a clothing item for any purpose other than function. You will avoid anything peripheral and you simply will not care if one jersey looks better on you than other: you will choose the one that best allows comfort and performance (at least provided it isn’t too stinky).

TSE kits

Then there is food. Before doing the TSE, my friend/coach recommended I try to consume 700 calories an hour during the races and also eat a decent size meal straight afterwards (followed, sometimes quite soon afterwards, by dinner). I wasn’t going to be able to do 700, but I aimed for 500, which is more than double what I usually consume per hour on a training ride. This meant careful calculation of drink mix and energy foods, and literal force-feeding when the race was done. That sounds unpleasant, and in some ways it definitely was, but it was also extremely interesting for me to be in the position of not being able to consume enough. Especially when my post-race meal was mac’ and cheese. I’m what they call a hearty eater, and the challenge has always been knowing when and how to stop. Finding that I needed to eat more (for performance) than I could manage was an unusual feeling. I found that I didn’t really like it: it made me feel weak and less powerful than optimal. This led me to appreciate, once again, that my body needs to be fueled, and sometimes it requires a whole lot of fuel to work well.

Finally, stage racing lends an overwhelming simplicity to life. Your focus is on riding and then how best to recover from riding, which mainly involves eating and resting. There is little additional drama. Nobody cares about your hair, your clothes, or the rapidly growing stubble on your legs. You generally do what is the most comfortable and productive for yourself, all week. In short, if you weren’t already, you get to be a man. By which I mean a stereotypically laid back, self-centered and unselfconscious man. Whether or not that person actually exists, you get to occupy his psyche. And it certainly is an agreeable place to hang out, at least for a while.

Endurance racing trims down some of the emotionally draining anxieties of life because your focus is on fighting physical depletion. I’ve found that other multi-day athletic events such as bike tours and backpacking trips bring a similar freedom. But for me racing is a little purer, because the exertion is that much greater. I still can’t really say whether it’s actually good for you. But I think the perspectives you’re forced into are valuable. And it certainly is addictive!

Addendum: we recently had a piece here on randonneurs and sleep deprivation. This isn’t quite that. The more sleep you can get during the TSE, the better! It is another way to nurture your body into giving its best performance. I have friends who enjoy 100 mile mountain bike races, and have not been tempted. Six or maybe seven hours is as long as I like to spend on a bike. But perhaps I should try it. Is everything I love about stage racing simply intensified by more and more hours of exertion?

Rachel is a plaintiffs’ class action lawyer in Boston, MA. She was formerly a philosophy professor, and likes to think she remains a philosophical thinker. She rides all sorts of bicycles, but her first love is mountain biking and she races regularly at the amateur level. She is also leader of Team LUNA Chix Boston Mountain Bike, which leads bike rides for women in the Boston area.

TSE finishers plaque