These final days of the college semester where I work are
always intense. Kilns need to be fired, classes need final exams,
final critiques, and parting words that inspire students to "go forth and
conquer" in life. The gallery never fails to produce an exhibit that calls for a dramatic opening and reception.
Today felt like the Iron Cross in October--the last "official" race I entered this season. It was a 62 mile cross bike race in Michaux State Park in PA. It took me 7 hours to complete, and I was nearly the last one to finish. It was the most painful, exhilarating, and silly race I have ever done, and even after experiencing a flat, unfixable brakes that I had to remove for each climb to maximize wheel spin, and taking a wrong turn that added 4-5 extra miles, I can still say that above all, I had fun.
My first race--the Leesburg Bakers Dozen this past April--was unintended. After taking nine months off from riding, it was meant as a
one time kick in the pants, an all night study in preparation for an exam-- the kind of learning you know is not going to stick with you longer than 24 hours. But it lit a bonfire under my ass.
The moment I stopped riding, nine months before, must have brought on a silent, and very unexciting, conception of sorts. It kicked off an incubation--some weird, slow re-emergence of that gut felt and undeniable connection for riding that I recognized the instant I got on a mountain bike years before.
Now, when I look back on the past months, starting in April, there were a ridiculous number of endurance races (7-13 hrs each), epic length rides and trips with friends. Each one became a thought, then a commitment, then a reality, with no grand plan.
I can honestly say that I never once "raced" this year. I paid entrance fees, I rode, I took pictures to document that my friends and I were indeed there. I credit Jon, who was a new friend at the time, for teaching me the beauty of "not training." I experienced no performance anxiety, or stress about needing to do well. I have no idea how many laps I did on the 12/24 hr races, or my times on the others. The mornings before the races I was feeling on fire with anticipation, which of course dwindled rapidly on the first climb of each day, but I continued with purpose, and some twisted sense of masochistic joy.
As an innately competitive, and goal driven person, my first year of racing some years ago was centered and purposeful. But I had a full time job (that I loved), and a house(that I hated, but still owned), and a full life(one that I had worked hard to build). Pinning any sense of identity on racing, as a new mountain biker with little time to devote to my new sport, was a doomed, but inevitable venture that carried with it a hard won set of lessons that eventually shaped my life.
That first year, I did well, but I was a sport racer in a very small field of women. As I started "training," I jumped forward, not only in race class,
but in expectations of myself & expectations I perceived from others. Riding became a chore, with goals and finish times and mileage concerns. In short, it became "not fun," and I lost a part of myself--the insanely adventurous part that experiences life deeply & purely--in the process.
When I returned to biking, and my friends, this past spring, it was with a very clear intention: "Race, ride, whatever, but KEEP IT FUN." I had to define "fun" using very clear emotional boundaries, rather than the the traditional definition as "enjoyable, agreeable, and nice." It had to include an understanding that there would be some discomfort, as it would be difficult to ride solo or single speed solo or fixed gear for any length of time without a degree of pain. But subconsciously it made sense.
The only race I terminated due to its "unfun" status was the Cranky Monkey 12 Hrs of Quantico race, where I entered in the solo women's category--single speed. The race held emotional baggage from the year before, but more importantly, this year I was alone without fellow Outlaws.
The strange thing was that I knew lots of people at the race, and had plenty of friends with which to partner, cheer on and lean on, or drink with, but I felt very alone. They were parts of their own groups. This race was complicated for me; my teammates would have understood without explanation. On my last lap I realized something important--my independence sometimes diminished my ability to connect with those I cared about most. Riding for the wrong reason kept me apart; returning to riding for the right one opened a new place for deep, and unexpected, connections with my riding friends. I had deeply missed them.
12 hrs of Lodi, 24 hrs of Big Bear, and, most notably, the SM100, felt much like today. Each one opened with stress about the getting to the start on time. Each continued on, with intermittent exhaustion and 2nd and 3rd and 4th winds, as I tried to keep from looking at my watch--to allow the day to shape on its own. But each ended with the same emotions--relief, exhaustion, and a heightened sense of what it means to be alive.
On the way home today, this hellacious day, I stopped at Walmart for some things that I knew only Walmart would carry. This is saying a lot, as I loathe shopping there. I wish I could say I am informed enough to carry some educated or political resentment against the store as my reason, but my opinion is based on service. Waiting in line feels like waiting for my mutt Pointer to fetch a ball--it just ain't happening in this lifetime. I remain hopeful that Jon will elicit the coveted "fetching" response in hapless Roman, but I am not holding my breath.
But tonight, as I left Walmart, still bleary eyed from the day, I actually smiled to myself, and found myself walking towards the cheery bell wielding Salvation Army guy holding a dollar in my outstretched arm. This must have been prompted by some strange holiday spirit that pervaded the evening; I found what I needed, the service was expedient and the cashier had been friendly and helpful.
Pulling up to my townhouse, parking on my festively lit Frederick street, I thought to myself: if Walmart can actually deliver service on a hectic holiday evening, maybe Roman WILL fetch the ball next time. Maybe I will do another SM100 where I am not praying to the roadside lizards to take away my suffering. Maybe not.
But I do know I will work another day like this, and when the alarm goes off that morning, I will think of the ending of today, of all the finish lines I have crossed after days of grueling single track, and I will know that I will get through it, and it is what I am here to do.
No 100 mile races, no ridiculous commutes, no full moon road rides, no snow rides in the city, etc would have been possible without those quiet months. Does that make it all worth it? Without a doubt.