Don't Call it a Comeback | 2021
The “Covid pause” from racing and all things we humans otherwise consider societal normalcy coincided with my 40th year. While that alone is by no means something that would set off alarm bells, elite racing much past your thirties isn’t in the cards for the majority of professional athletes. The masters category seems to have been bumped up to begin at age 35 but ten years ago -- when I was vying for a title in Masters Worlds -- it began at age 30. Technically that gives me a full decade of racing at the elite level with a masters designation and with some incredible examples out there of racers I have always looked up to I never thought twice about it.
But the year off changed how I approach things. I trained hard last spring, full of motivation and dedication to Mountain Bike Nationals and the upcoming cyclocross season. Nationals was one of the first dates to go after weeks and weeks of delays and general confusion due to Covid. Training is something I always enjoy but always when it’s consistent, productive, and goal centric. Knowing that in the upcoming years I may want to wind down the stress from a full schedule of racing with the goal of building towards a lifestyle that allows a little more give and take, I was full send into seizing the moment, (and the forced social isolation) using training to build and see how strong I could get myself.
The race cancelations really knocked the wind out of my training sails and my rides dwindled off to a summer of long adventures and a priority on enjoyment; basically the perpetuation of endurance and base miles. My fitness tapered off alongside the knowledge that when I could get into a hospital, I would desperately need to get my ailing shoulder reattached following the fifth and sixth dislocations I’d have that summer.
My peak form came and then faded off into a distant memory, there was an option to head to Europe in the fall after all the American cross races announced their cancelations but Europe racing is its own breed of stress; adding restrictions, Covid testing, travel visas, additional fees, and confusion over border crossings to the list and you have yourself an athlete on the most competitive stage in the world in a very unproductive race mindset.
So a full year passed and then some without any start lines. My last being a small local fat bike race late in February 2020. February 2021 came and went, a few options opened up to race but I was just weeks out of surgery, sporting a sling and knowing I had months of PT ahead of me. Racing is my thing, I can’t picture my life without it but this new calm had settled on me, allowing for more variation in my day to day, less structure and more time to reintroduce myself to the post peak Covid, freshly reopening world.
I agreed to team up for a small early summer 24 hour event with three other friends at a new to me location, I signed up for a lap of Firecracker, the beloved 4th of July favorite with my adventure buddy from last year. The motivations to train didn’t come. Maybe I’m just too old? Maybe I’ve been doing this long enough it’s lost its appeal? Training is HARD, maybe I’ve had enough?
I wonder these things and then I go out to ride, causally throwing in some of my favorite interval sets. They hurt, it sucks, I suffer. But then I’m up the hill an hour or so later, that feeling of exaltation and elation, full of endorphins and dopamine. Dang that felt good. My form is not there. I avoid the rides where I know people might pass me, the trails where the agro amateur masters weekend warrior men like to make a race out of my recovery day, I feel like a shell of my former motivated self.
I go to the 24 hour race. Team relay races are the pinnacle of intrinsic drive, motivation comes as if magic from wanting to contribute to the group effort, to give your best for your teammates. We brave the heat, we crush the laps, we suffer through the night, we make it to morning, again wondering why we do this. I remember how much I desperately love to sleep eight hours or more each night. I realize I can still go fast, albeit not for as long as when I’m truly fit. I find some motivations, I leave inspired but still uncertain. How will a fall of cyclocross racing look like? Covid isn’t over, I’m long since vaccinated but travel is stressful. The U.S. announced cyclocross races but bike parts are hard to come by, sponsors who have product NEED to sell it, companies need to stay alive in this weird period of economy interruption and supply chain woes. Marketing is a bust if you have nothing to sell. Plus I’m 40 now, who wants to believe I can get out there and make an impact in a marketing scheme?
The doubts in my head are not unique, nearly everyone experiences them relative to their reality. I do well to push them aside, to present myself otherwise, to give my outer voice the confidence to be strong, to allow how I present myself to become the reality I need to face the world. I work to see how other people see me in the air that I put off, I then be that person, strong and determined, with only minimal doubt or fear.
Sometimes that filter accidentally flips off, be it early mornings, late nights, from generally fatigue, or the distractions of pre-lap jitters. I’ll let that inner voice come out and share the monologue …the one not meant for others. And in return I get feedback I could have predicted; feedback that my personal standards are not in line with a general awareness of a diverse population, not taking into consideration that my baseline is still above average. The standards I’m holding myself to still deserve an appreciation for standing out, only am I the one who thinks my best (or right now my less than best) isn’t stacking up.
If I were to take the line right now with a field of elite racers realistically I know I wouldn’t be there in speed, skills, efficiency, focus, or endurance. I’d be off the back stressing over not training hard enough or living up to my potential. But that doesn’t give me an excuse to be less or entitlement to complain, it only means I’m not ready now. Will I be at that place again in the future? Despite the years progressing? I have no doubt. The feelings of top end fitness is like a drug, including the process to get there. It takes commitment and sacrifices and there are times in your life when you just don’t have time or the focus and that is okay.
My identity is established, even if it wavers in my head. Motivations do define us but it is okay to fluctuate, that is the nature of life. The only important thing is that you come back to a baseline of satisfaction, you find joy and self-fulfillment in your actions, and that you support others in their quest for growth and self-actualization. My fitness will come, along with my motivation, or it won’t and that is okay too.