Monday, March 16, 2020

Looking for a hobby

Last week I sat down at my computer and spent multiple hours putting some thoughts into words about our win at the world championships last month. After the first draft that I banged out in probably 25 minutes, I realized that most of the blog was not about how excited I was to stand on that podium (a lot), nor about what it took to get there (quite a bit), about how great it felt (pretty good), or much about how thankful I was to even be able to do any of this at all (shooketh).

It was mostly me talking about how depressed I felt. Coming back from an amazing week in Berlin, getting tons of dopamine from social media, lots of messages from my friends, and then all of a sudden it stopped and I was home alone eating fish sticks for dinner. Though to be fair they also had fish sticks at the buffet in the hotel in Germany. I think post-big-event let-down is a documented thing.

Anyway, after three hours of edits I just deleted the whole blog because I couldn't handle how whiny I sounded. And then I've had the tab open for the blog for the past two weeks waiting for some sort of inspiration to hit and nothing has come to me. At all. I feel like usually in the past I blogged because I was experiencing constant, severe, emotional turmoil. And at this point, life is nice and I smile at least once a day and it's all from riding my bike and being an adult with the ability to choose my own friends.

I'd take that tradeoff but I don't really write that much anymore and it makes me sad. And when I do write I feel like it's about bike racing which is cool and which I love and which all of my friends and readers (lol) probably love but which I really don't love writing about because if I already did the bike race then why would I want to do it again but in words and slower?

I think the main issue I have with writing is that I feel like I can't get my thoughts into words accurately enough. And I want everything I do to be perfect and the best and if it isn't then I just don't do it. I feel inspired enough to write but then I get to the crux of it and am like ugh, this is overwhelming and I'm just not going to do it at all.

Here's an example of my traditional inspiration and subsequent lack of writing about it. I'm watching Planet Earth and all these freaky cicadas are emerging from the ground. And then they just start climbing a damn tree. And I find it amazing that a critter that was just born literally two seconds ago knows to do that. And then I wonder if a cicada is happy to be a cicada. And then I think about how I, as a human and the pinnacle of life on Earth, am grateful to be a human. And then I feel disdain for the cicada, but only a little. And then I wonder, what if there is life - on Earth or otherwise - that sees a human and feels disdain for the simplistic animality of human life????? That would be crazy. And all of this happens in about five seconds and that's how my mind is running. I think I could write a great blog about gratitude, which is what I ultimately feel despite the shortcomings of humanity, but then imagine myself describing gratitude by likening it to gigantic bugs that come out of the earth every 17 years in huge hordes. So I just describe none of it at all.

I really wish I had something I was really good at - I don't know why I have never seen that thing as sports or my job - but some sort of super niche hobby or interest or knowledge base where I can stand side-by-side with some of the experts in the field and hold a conversation about how much we know about... vintage birdhouses or something totally obscure like that.

Sometimes I think that my thing could be writing, especially since I have two writing degrees, but there are a lot of writers out there and I'm constantly reminded how good they are while I am here complaining about my great life on my blog. Then I get all blocked up thinking about the motions of mother earth and realize that writing will probably continue to just be a surface-level activity, like everything I am interested in while sports take the forefront of my life.

I have been reading a lot of good writing this past year in the form of books since remembering I have a kindle - I don't read real books fucking sue me. I'm not about to bring 30 books on the road with me every three days. And something I have seen time and time again in the books that I seem to be attracted to are these characters my age who are completely lost, just bumbling around their lives not knowing what to do, where to work, how to interact with others, or even really how to get out of bed in the morning. The way these authors accurately capture these characters makes me literally sick. I think partially because I see and understand analogous people that exist in the real world, and also because I  definitely see a part of myself in those characters. The part that finds everything to be so ridiculous that they can't get a grasp on the reality of the world we are living in, where you work dozens of hours a week just so that you can afford to live in the city you live in so that you can work that job. I don't personally do the latter (for now) but the idea of it scares the shit out of me.

Well that was a ridiculous segway lol. Despite always writing about being depressed and scared I am not depressed.

But I think all of that is to say that those authors have really managed to capture the spirit of people my age. Those authors are so good at writing! I wish I was like them. That I could write some earth-shattering piece for no pay on Medium and change someone's life or keep them spellbound in bed at night reading something on their kindle when they are supposed to be training in six hours. Relating to others through words and demonstrating that things get bad for everybody and that no one is truly alone. I guess it just takes time to be that good. Probably about the same amount of time that goes into training for a world championship.

I do wonder how people with full-time nine-to-fives manage to have interests outside of work. If someone has an answer, please let me know. I assume a lot of it comes from being obsessed with something and spending hundreds of hours doing it, at all costs, because they love it. I haven't found that thing yet, outside of riding my bike. It obviously has to be a special thing. Maybe I don't need another thing. Or maybe my thing is crosswords. I think I've finally mastered the easiest version, the Mondays. I'm going to actually have to end this blog now because I would really love to do a crossword.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Think about your heckles

Heckling the pros. Isn't it super fun? You're having an awesome time at the cross course with your buddies. You finished your race, you're drinking a beer, it's beautiful fall weather. Or maybe you're a kid and you've just spent five days cooped up at school and you are ready to let loose. You and your best friends finished your races and your parents are volunteering on course, making the whole event happen, so you have hours to run around and do whatever you want.

The pro race happens, and you get to yell for your favorite pros. There's plenty of encouragement, but also you notice that something weird is going on: some of the shouts are devolving. There are a few borderline statements like "McFadden is going to McFade!" said to someone who is coming back to her career after two hip surgeries. But there's also just downright nasty stuff like "you suck!" and "you're never going to catch those people in front of you! just give up!"

What? Who thinks that's ok?

Heckling is an integral part of the American cyclocross scene. I remember my first cyclocross races: the heckling and the hand-ups were a reminder that this is fun, and I loved it. Pressure's off - enjoy the time with your friends. But heckling is also one of the reasons why European racers don't like coming over here - other than the super hard travel they have to do (like what Americans experience when going to Europe) when they're used to doing all of the races in their backyard. But that's a blog post for another day.

Photo by Ethan Glading
Heckling demonstrates a massive lack of respect for the amount of work that professional riders put into their races. Heckling isn't really a thing in Europe. There's this thing they do there instead called cheering. You don't get many cheers if you're not doing well. But no one on the sidelines, not doing the race, would venture to yell at you that you're bad at what you're doing, even in jest.

My first cross race was a cat 4 amateur race. Of course it was fun. Of course I loved the heckling and the hand-ups. I wasn't fit. I was just trying to meet new people and have a good time. And there should always be that space in cycling. But that's not the kind of cycling I do anymore.

There's a big difference between a pro race and an amateur race. As someone who has done both, within a relatively short period of time, I can say with certainty that that's true. But people in the U.S. absolutely do not want to hear that their race is different than the pro race. They immediately assume that when I say 'different' I mean less important. So, first off, get it straight that that's not what I'm saying. But what I am saying is that pro and amateur races are not the same things when money and livelihoods are at stake in one field and nothing is at stake in the other. Cycling may ultimately seem like an arbitrary activity to many people, and that we shouldn't take it as seriously as we do. But it's what professionals do for a living and that makes it very, very important to us.

Photo by Ethan Glading
Gravel races and fondos where everyone can ride together are massively popular here in the U.S. People want to believe that their ride is the same as the pro's ride. That's totally awesome when you're doing a fun event. Everyone should be able to participate in a fun event and be able to do it together. But when everyone does come to participate - including the pros - there's backlash. Talk about Kanza for the past two years. First, Kaitie Keough rides the whole way with her husband. People criticize her for winning that way - winning a race with literally no prize money or points, and should I mention, no rules whatsoever? If other people could have drafted off Keough's husband, I'm sure they would have. But they couldn't. So they just criticized her instead for making the race "uninclusive." Ironic.

And then this past year when EF sent two world tour riders to race Kanza. I thought the world was going to end based on the commentary I saw online. Spoiler alert: they didn't win. A different pro did. But for some reason that was OK because he wasn't a world tour pro, even though he has world tour numbers. Power to the people! Kanza is an inclusive, participatory, personal journey. But some people shouldn't be allowed to join. A very specific some people. Anyone whose cycling ability makes us feel self-concious.

Cyclocross falls somewhere on the participatory spectrum. Somewhere between the environment of a pro road race and a gravel event. Even if people are not racing with the pros in cross, they're racing the same course. They can go up to the pro tents and chat with their favorite pro racers (technically you can do that at most domestic pro road races here too but people just don't do that, which is weird and a shame on us for not encouraging that). The cross community is very integrated, and that is what cycling should be about. But it becomes less awesome when people take that environment as liberty to yell at the pros and tell them they suck and not get in trouble for it.

Photo by SnowyMountain Photography
I'm really trying to just get at the root of the heckle. I'm not saying life as a pro is this super sad, discriminatory thing because that is ridiculous. But I think heckling of the pros in cross can be problematic because it shows a lack of respect for people who are doing this very seriously. You wouldn't send an accounting student to an accounting conference and have them stand up in the crowd and tell an established, professional, accountant that their work was terrible and that they sucked.

Serious racers are allowed to have fun. We're not too high and mighty for criticism. Professional athletes are some of the most criticized, scrutinized people on the planet. But there is a line between fun heckling and malicious heckling. In the grand scheme of things, pro cyclists face way less criticism than someone who plays a massively publicized sport in an arena where they can hear thousands of people booing at them when they mess up. But we also don't make millions of dollars.

Heckling is not a thing on the road. I think somewhere along the line, someone realized that the environments between road and cross were different, but chalked that up to cross being much more 'chill' and 'less intense' than the road scene. Which is ridiculous because I've experienced a lot more aggression and intensity in cross than I have on the road. Pre-riding with the amateur men is perhaps one of my least favorite things to do. Not having a pro-only pre-ride is terrible. I'm not saying I deserve more respect than anyone else out there trying to pre-ride just because I'm a pro. But I'm also not saying that I deserve less respect because I'm a pro, which is sometimes what I feel happens in cross where everyone preaches mad chillness. If delineations between pro and amateur races were really so unimportant, then why do we have separate races at all? You know the answer to that - you can't want hyper-inclusivity and then complain about getting beat.

With cycling, unlike with other sports, it's easy to access the pros. And I think that makes everyone feel like they could do it - become a pro some day. Which is wonderful. It encourages people to work hard and strive to be better. But it also means that pro cyclists get unnecessarily devalued, and it frustrates people when they aren't able to achieve it.

My theory on the heckle is that it's people expressing their insecurity. The more discontent they are with their racing selves compared to the pros, the meaner they are going to be to them. They want the opportunity to make the pros feel like the average person in a race. They are not yet, or never going to be, at the pro level, and maybe they're angry about that. They're angry that they work a 9 to 5 and don't have the time to train at the level they want. They want to be better but they just aren't. They think the pros have it super easy and life is just jetting around the globe, doing the races we want, making tons of money, and never having to work at a desk.

Photo by Ethan Glading
I'll tell you first of all that the professional cycling life is nothing like that. Most of us have jobs, by the way. Many of us live on very little money. Few of us have families. You might hate your desk job, and I would too. But the life of a pro is not perfect. We take lots of trade-offs. I wish people would stop thinking that and comparing their day job to our day job as a comparison for quality of life. I'm not here to complain about my pro life, but that doesn't mean I have to lie and tell you that everything is super great and easy. I have instagram for that.

I'm certain I'll receive some criticism on this blog for people who misconstrue my words as being one of a couple of things:
  • Ungrateful for my life as a professional athlete
  • Elitist against anyone who is not a pro athlete
  • Setting a bad example for young people

Don't worry guys, I'm a step ahead of you. You don't have to comment about any of that stuff because: 

1) I work my ass off to be a pro. This isn't something that's handed to me. I am really proud of my job as a pro cyclist and wouldn't drop it for anything. But to have that opportunity I train many hours a week. To make sure I have the stability to need to rest and recover, I also have a day job and do freelance work. I never miss a workout. I watch my diet, I don't drink, I don't go on fun vacations to hang out with my friends or family unless I can ride while I'm there. I take four weeks off the bike per year, which is probably about the amount of vacation time of standard workplaces, and during that time I'm still working. I moved away from a place I loved to live in a place where the training is good. My relationship ended because I didn't have emotional energy for anything other than my cycling. 

Do I prefer this to a 9 to 5 desk job? Hell yeah I do. I get to ride my bike every single day. There is nothing I love more than riding my bike, training my body, and executing a plan. But professional cycling isn't something that is easy to acquire and maintain. It's work. I'm a little sick of people thinking that getting to be a pro athlete is just some sort of luck or hand-out to the genetically gifted. 

2) If you're not a pro, I truly do not care. No pro is judging you for not being as good as they are. We're judging you based on how much fun you bring to your life and to those around you. The only thing we are negatively judging you for is being a sour sport. No one wants a bad attitude around. Races are the time when we get to express all that we have been working for. It's our chance to do what we do best. If you're going to be rude, don't come around.

My goal is to grow the sport, not to break people down. I manage a cross team with four racers. We work with a juniors team. I'm here to help people get from amateur to pro. I don't receive any money for that. I do it because all levels of this sport are important to me. And if people really want to become pros, there should be opportunities for them to try. There are so few opportunities to do that here in the U.S. for cycling. I want to increase them. 

Maybe you think I'm elitist just because I'm complaining about somebody being mean to me and assuming people will care, or be offended. That with all these luxuries of my pro life that I shouldn't care about a few harsh words that are really just jokes. And you're right. I ultimately don't care about those words because they mean very little. Say what you want to me. But if you get in the way of my race, and the money I spent to get there, I will find you, and make sure it doesn't happen again.

Photo by Bruce Buckley
3) I think I'm setting a better example than the people who are out here complaining anonymously on the internet about professional athletes or telling them that they suck in front of a bunch of children. 

This is - of course - not to say that all heckling is bad. I can take some shit. I don't really care if you tell me that I'm riding slowly when I probably am. You can make a funny pun with my name if you want. You can blast an airhorn and run around on the course in a speedo doing whatever. Bike racing should be fun, and if you're not a professional athlete, why should you have to act professionally at your weekend sporting event? You really don't have to. 

But maybe take one second before you heckle to think about what you're saying. I don't know why heckling would be any different than anything that comes out of your mouth in real life. Don't blow a vuvuzela right in someone's ear as they race by when they drove 12 hours to be there and have been training specifically for this event for six months. This isn't the Tour de France (those guys don't like that either, and yet another blog could be on the subject of keeping people engaged in cycling while keeping the riders safe). There are some lines. I think they're pretty obvious. Would you want to be caught in a video doing or saying something? If not, then don't do it. Professional cyclists live in a world of scrutiny online. Maybe you should think about living that way for one second before you say something nasty. 

And hey, it's up to us to tell you when we feel that's out of line. A heckle you use locally might be just fine there, but not OK for Toon Aerts. So how are you supposed to know? That's what I'm doing here. Letting you know that maybe not everything you can say to your friend racing should apply to someone who's existence is tied in with their performance on the cross course. 

Thanks for coming to my ted talk.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Why I don't like goal setting

One of the fundamental elements of sport is goal-setting.

I hate goal-setting.

It feels shallow, contrived, and like I am doing it to inspire myself. I don't need to be inspired. I've always felt like goal setting was a way for people who were unhappy in their sport to create something fake that they could 'work toward' in order to create fulfillment in something that they really don't naturally find fulfillment in.

Obviously many people find positivity in their goal-setting. That is great. I truly wish things worked that way for me, but I can get really sucked up in negativity and goals traditionally have not been a thing that helps me be positive. Framing my sport as something I do because I love it, rather than something I do because I want to beat other people has established a really strong base for a long career for me (or so I hope). That being said, I am incredibly competitive, and that contrast has always made me a bit confused about goal-setting.

My dislike of goal-setting is two-fold. First, we always did goal-setting meetings in college. They always felt fake as hell. It was one of the first team activities that each year's new captains would organize. It felt, more than anything, like just an activity idea to check off the list. Let's all sit down and dream big together! I'm being a good captain. Check. We would sit in a circle, make posters with pictures of people and things that inspired us, and put our season's 'word' on a hair ribbon. Can you imagine me wearing a hear ribbon???????

Photo by Matt Trappe

My senior year I made the goal of being on the squad of seven that competed at NCAA cross country nationals. I had pretty much thrown my running career in the toilet in college. I was burned out, I didn't care, and I was generally a horrible teammate. I was in a constant state of rebelling against my teammates and all of their stupid team principles. I was very unhappy. But senior year, after finally getting my anti-anxiety dose appropriate, things were going OK. I was having great workouts. I kept to myself but didn't feel like I was a source of conflict on the team anymore. And I PR'ed in the 6k and was our seventh finisher at SEC's, the big tune-up before regionals and nationals. My college career didn't even come close to living up to the trajectory I had envisioned for myself at the end of a great high school career. But I earned my spot to be on those squads my final year. And it felt so good to achieve my season goal, even if it was just one that I had written down to partake in a team activity.

Then my coach told me I wouldn't be racing at regionals. They took another runner, who had completely botched SECs by going out in the first mile of the 6k in 5:00. The reasoning was that she had a better body of races from the full season, which was objectively true. But I had been gradually improving and was ready to peak at regionals and nationals. And I didn't get to race. I went back to the locker room and tore up my goals poster and threw it in the trash. I got selected to race nationals but ran like crap. I was checked out at that point.

The second reason I don't like goal-setting is that more often than not, goals do not come to fruition and then I feel like a failure. I don't like to feel like a failure. So the easiest thing to do is just to not set goals at all.

Photo by SnowyMountain Photography

I don't like to set process goals either. I certainly find a lot of happiness in the process. I like to train, and I like to see my numbers and times improve. I like to find little achievements throughout the season. But I don't think you need to set mental objectives and checklists in order to achieve things throughout the year and enjoy doing so. I have enough checklists to complete at work and at home. I don't need to turn my training and racing - a time when I can leave other elements of life behind for a few hours - into a box to tick.

But I've inadvertently set a big goal without even meaning to.

I want to win a gold medal in the team pursuit in Tokyo.

I've realized that the only way to do this is to set the damn goal. You don't just happen upon a gold medal at the Olympics. I don't really want to tell people about my goals, but there is psychological merit in doing so. Sure, the failure will certainly seem greater if you set goals, tell everyone about them, and then don't achieve them. But I don't think there is any way to meet a task this large without planning for it.

Ultimately, I suppose 'planning' is what goals boil down to. And for whatever reason, I don't mind framing goals that way. Each road season I sit down with my coach and I tell her that I want to win Winston-Salem and Nationals, and we plan training accordingly. I don't enter any race with the mindset that I won't be standing on the top step of the podium. That all being said, I do try to be completely realistic. I wouldn't make those goals if I didn't believe that I could achieve them. I don't think anyone makes goals that they don't think they can achieve. They make big goals knowing they need to improve to get there, but they know they can commit to making that improvement happen. Sometimes the timeline might be off, but through trial and error, you figure out what is going to work and what isn't, and then you reframe.

Photo by SnowyMountain Photography

Sometimes you have to lower your goals. It's a terrifying thought, but it's true. Bike racing especially is tricky. Some goals you just can't set. It's hard to say at the beginning of a World Tour stage race that "on day 3 I want to make it over the mountain with Leigh Ann and then lead her out for a podium spot." If you've ever done a bike race, you know that things never work like that. Successes often happen completely unplanned, and sometimes you just can't fall asleep the night before the race you care about the most. Or you have shit legs. Or you crash. Or get a flat. Or you're just there for fun and you get the biggest result of your career. All sorts of stuff happens and that's truly what makes bike racing special in my eyes.

But I had a dream the other night that I won a World Cup cyclocross race. And that feeling of throwing my hands in the air as I crossed the line was insane. And then I woke up and was like, well that was disappointingly just a fucking dream. And then immediately after I was like, I have to do that someday.

Photo by Bruce Buckley

I am just one rider in a pool of riders who all want to go to the Olympics next summer. I have so much work to do to improve and make the Olympic team that I gave up my first love, cyclocross, a year ago to focus on this. And people train for years toward a goal like this. I'm not delusional. Just getting to the Olympics is one step. Winning a gold medal is something completely otherworldly. Some could argue that the Olympic experience is enough. But I don't want enough. I want to win.

Goal-setting has always felt cocky to me. Like you're telling people you can do this thing that you haven't backed up yet. But Gwen Jorgenson set her eyes on the gold medal in Rio and did it. And now has her eyes set on a gold medal in the marathon - a completely different sport - and has not been ashamed to tell everyone that. Even her teammates, who also have that exact same dream but with a lot more experience and miles in their legs. Her trajectory hasn't been great so far, but I don't know if I would bet against her.

Track has been a riot. Even if I don't meet my Olympic goal, I won't have seen this period as any sort of waste. I think when achievement is the sole aim of a goal, you can obscure all of the great things that happen along the way. I try to keep that in mind every time I step over the bike - any kind of bike. Goals are important, but I know that they're useless without happiness to propel me from good to great.

Photo by SnowyMountain Photography

So, I still don't know entirely how I feel about goal-setting. I don't think it's something I need to do to perform well and it's definitely not something I need to motivate me to ride my bike. But I feel like when the stakes are this high, you have to retort with something equally high. You have to know you want it. And I really want it.

I want to win a gold medal at the Olympics. I want to wear the rainbow bands. I want to win a World Cup Cyclocross race, a spring Classic, and a national championship. Goals that every cyclist has. I don't yet know how I am going to get there, but that's what I want from this sport. Just letting you know.

Photo by SnowyMountain Photography

Friday, September 6, 2019

Life on the road as a professional cyclist - time and place

I suppose that in 2016 when I quit running, I didn’t think I would find myself, three years later, in a hotel in Bolivia preparing to compete for Olympic points on the track. A completely different track of course. I’ve traded mondo for wood and spikes for cleats, and now have to control a very fast and stiff bike while basically laying on my stomach.

I had never traveled out of the United States until I started racing a bike. And then, in the past two years, I’ve traveled to Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Peru, and now Bolivia. It’s pretty freakin cool. While I may be spending most of my time training, racing, and working, as opposed to getting out and seeing all of the sights, I do get an intimate glimpse into all sorts of lives outside of the ones I’ve grown up considering to be normal.

I’ve also traveled across pretty much every state in the U.S. for racing. I still haven’t been to Alaska, Hawaii, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Kansas, West Virginia, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Delaware, Massachusetts, or Vermont, but I’ve raced (either on the bike or on foot) in all others. Driving through a state does not count as visiting a state, IMO, otherwise I think I would be at 48. 

All of this travel has exacerbated a couple of ideas of mine into full-blown ideaologies, ones that I am working very hard to commit myself to. 

First, is minimalism. I’ve gotten two of my teammates to watch the Netflix documentary, and I don’t think either of them finished it. So I guess I kind of suck at preaching it, but I think I am doing a good job of living it. I can spend six weeks on the road with everything I need inside one suitcase, one backpack, and one bike bag. Everything that I bring with me is quality gear that I get great use out of. As they say in the documentary, I don’t have many things, but each thing I have is my favorite thing. I’ve dumped at least half of my belongings at home. I try to think of the source of stress in my life, and I would say 90 percent of the time it comes down to things: maintaining my things, buying things, re-buying things, running errands to move things around, and cleaning the things in my house. It’s such a damn waste of time. So, it’s all getting tossed.

Especially traveling here in South America, I see people who live and work from literal shacks that butt up against the track complex. They wash their clothes and hang them on a line to dry. They grow their own food. They build their own house on the hillside. I also read Sapiens this year, which I thought was a total gimmick of a book for the first chapter and then got completely sucked in. A big thesis in the book was the premise of evolutionary happiness with simplicity: fewer people around you, fewer societal norms to bog you down, and fewer responsibilities outside of caring for yourself. 

Which brings me to my second point: reducing screen time. We all know that screen time is proven to reduce happiness. When I find myself bored in between races or training sessions, I’m just scrolling around in my phone when I’m not working. Relaxing right now doesn’t entail being present with myself or some sort of pleasant activity, it entails scrolling past all of the ads on instagram telling me what I should buy or with which new things I should equip myself. Through meditation, reading, stretching and taking care of my body, and decreasing screen time, I am trying to get better quality relaxation.

This is all relevant to cycling because I feel like my life is constantly in flux, either racing or traveling to the next race, punctuated by small blocks at home of training and generally trying to recuperate by being alone. Travel and being in lots of different places doesn’t really bother me - if it did, there is no way I would make it as a professional athlete. But not getting alone time and not forcing my mind to recover from constantly being ‘on’ around staff and teammates has been a real challenge. 

This definitely affected me this year on the road. I didn’t want to help load the van, I wanted to get a work task done so I could relax and focus on the race. Last cross season too, I was tired from a full summer on the road, and hadn’t really expected what kind of a toll that would have on me later in the fall. Form was good, but mentally, I was struggling to stay positive. 

I’ve never had a hard time maintaining motivation. I love to ride my bike, and that’s all the motivation I need. But I do get tired and have a really hard time remaining positive, which obviously affects everyone around me. I am hoping that these deliberate changes to raise my positivity are steps in the right direction to balancing a year-long race calendar. I’m not doing a great job at either of them yet, but I am working hard to make sure that I start to put myself first. If I can’t do that, then there will be no part of me left to contribute to a team environment. And, as we all know, cycling is about as team-oriented as you can get - especially the team pursuit.

For those of you who are curious about my new adventure on the track, I’ll tell you this: it’s one of the most intense, most fun, and most difficult things I have tried on the bike. It’s like being in the peloton times a million. One little mistake and not just your race is over, but the races of three others - races belonging to three athletes who have made this their life. The mental focus it takes to control the bike and use perfect technique is 100 percent. You cannot be thinking about a single thing other than the task at hand. Same with the training. It’s incredibly specific and intense, two things I really liked about track running in high school and college, but two things that require being all in. 

This means that it’s been incredibly important for me to decompress. I am really loving it here in Bolivia because it’s quiet. In Lima we were in an athlete village where noise constantly bombarded us. It was damp and cold and there was no place to just sit upright and quietly get some work done. Even in most places in the U.S., we’re constantly in the midst of traffic noises, commerce noises, and the sound of life chugging away at full speed ahead, constantly marketed-to and pressured to be involved in some awesome, new, fun thing. Here there are noises of birds and cows and dogs and wind. There’s not constant music and yelling and sniffly noses and dampness. I am starting to feel a bit relaxed, which is something I have found pretty rarely in my sporting career, and in my day-to-day life. I’m on edge a lot and, while it’s made me a driven and focused athlete, it’s also very tiring. 

One of the things that helps me relax is riding my cross bike, and I am very sad to not be doing cross this year. I did realize last year that I despise racing on fast, dry, courses. So, I won’t miss that, and I won’t miss losing at those races, which did take a lot of fun out of cross for me. When I return to cross, I think I will be able to better balance it within the context of my other sports, and just skip those stupid, dry, early season races anyway. I want to be able to give my full focus to whichever discipline I am doing. I think, in the future, that means starting cross later and really being prepared. That applies to road as well. I feel like for a lot of this summer, I know where I could be, but did not have the time to prepare, partially because I was racing instead of training, and also because I was trying to immerse myself in a new discipline, when attaining the standard I wanted to on the road needed my full attention. 

The main thing I miss about cross is being alone in the woods. I still do a lot of my recovery spins on the gravel or on the trails. It’s about the best possible thing you could do on the bike, in my opinion. But I won’t be home this winter as much to ride my single track. Riding in the woods is one of the things that lightens the load and makes it that much easier for me to occupy the mental space I need to be in in order to race well and go to events with as little stress as possible. I am really going to miss spending designated time there all fall and winter like I have done in the past, although I will certainly slip out any time that I am home and that it makes sense. 

For me, my best performances as a professional come when I am happy. But, unfortunately, I think there are also a lot of myths out there about what makes a professional athlete perform well: that you have to love to suffer (bullshit), that you have to be a certain weight (debunked), that you have to set specific goals (anxiety-producing). The #1 thing that makes me ride well is when I am having a good time. And when I can get a lot of confidence from nailing my training. I like to see perfect training translate into results. It just makes sense. I don’t need to rely on magical mental powers to get me through any race when I hit all of my intervals at race pace. If I do it in training, I can do it in the race. It’s scientific, it’s simple, and it’s easy. The only thing left is to make sure I am as happy as possible, because then stress can’t get in the way of me executing what I have executed week after week on the bike in training.

A lot of cyclists at this level burn out from all of the travel. You’re in and out of airports in 48-hour blocks. There’s no family time. You don’t maintain a lot of friendships. You don’t get much alone time. Often you feel like you are reduced to an athlete and nothing else - a machine that executes a plan. Eating becomes monotonous, you don’t see much sun while you’re in a hotel room or riding the trainer. So many people think the professional athlete lifestyle is so glamorous. That traveling the world could in no way be worse than working in a cubicle. That we should constantly be gracious and humble for our genetic gifts (even though we make 1/100th of some who are genetically gifted at understanding finance or consulting). And all of that can become so incredibly unhealthy if you don’t take care of yourself. So, that’s what I am trying to do. I want to have a long and sustainable career in this sport - in multiple disciplines. 

Right now, for the first time, I'm becoming a specialist. There is no way I could improve on the track without doing so. I'm really excited to push my limits this fall and see what the focus can do for me. But more than the training, the specialization, and the immersion, is the absolute need to remain a non-specialized human. I think athletes are becoming hip to the idea that we're more than just athletes. I'm elevating that process by having a good time. By getting rid of all of my stuff and not looking at my phone. Me is taking care of me!

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Adopting meaninglessness as a way to lead a more fulfilled life

I've come up with a couple of tenets for life in the past year and a half. I don't know if people should universally adopt these tenets because they aren't necessarily uplifting, but they all boil down to the idea that everything we do is completely meaningless. I like the idea of meaninglessness because it relieves me of a lot of pressure - both external and self-imposed. Take one second to imagine with me that the idea that meaninglessness might not actually be that bad of a thing. Hear me out.

It's exhausting to search for meaning in everything that we do. Most of the time there just isn't any meaning to find, so we're constantly unfulfilled. It's really hard to live that way, just constantly wondering when something better and more meaningful will come around - that great job, that perfect partner, the result at a bike race that will change the course of your career. If we can just work a little bit harder. If we can struggle enough, we'll eventually get a shot do something with a purpose. I'm so fucking over all of that.

So, instead of seeing meaninglessness as Nihilistic, in my opinion, accepting that there's just very little importance in anything that we do actually helps me take enjoyment in the moment and in the things I am doing. Understanding things as generally meaningless helps me eliminate some of the stress that comes with trying to mold ourselves into this ridiculous work and responsibility-obsessed culture, and allows me to really focus on enjoying my time and making sure I use it to build the best version of myself.

In society, we use the fabricated concept of meaningfulness as a tool to judge others. We're expected to love our 9-5 jobs. We're expected to be doing something for an abstract cause like freedom, or progress. We're expected to be relentlessly positive in the face of failure because what achievement would even mean anything if you didn't go through some sort of struggle to get there?

I want our achievements and failures to indicate that we worked hard, or we didn't. That we were smart, or we weren't. That we built ourselves for the tasks we have chosen to do, or that we haven't finished building the foundation yet. Not everything has to be special or meaningful. I don't know what's wrong with things that just are. I don't want to waste my life searching for something completely abstract, like 'meaningfulness.' I mean, I feel like most people don't know what anything means, yet they're trying to cram all of their experiences onto a scale of meaningfulness that helps them dictate their self-worth.

I know a lot of cyclists struggle with the idea that their cycling is selfish - that they're abandoning their friends and families for something dumb, like riding a bike. I wouldn't say that shooting heroin is worthwhile just because you enjoy it, but racing your bike is certainly worthwhile because you enjoy it. Our culture constantly force-feeds us the idea that you should 'love what you do' but simultaneously tell us that we should work hard and limit fun to our spare time. Who can reconcile that? I'm pretty tired of trying, and I've decided to give up some of the expectations of our world in order to enjoy myself. These bullshit myths we've created about finding meaning in every element of our lives is putting insane pressure on people to pretend to be happy.

When I relinquish this perceived need for meaningfulness, I begin to find freedom from the perpetual unhappiness and frustration of trying to live up to someone who is really great and awesome and well-rounded. Instead of trying to accumulate wealth, status, or success, I find that I can instead pursue the things I actually enjoy without judgment - both from the outside and from within. Doing something like bike racing is important because it's what I want to do - not because it's meaningful or important to society as a whole. By casting aside the pressures of purpose, I can find validity in my own happiness.

You might think that in forgoing a chase for meaning or purpose that one necessarily gives up on ambition. But this is completely untrue. By seeking happiness and removing the intense meaning we arbitrarily prescribe to the events and activities of life, I can actually begin the process of achieving more than I ever could when constrained by doubt and the impossible task of only doing important things. Who can live with that kind of pressure?

This all sounds nice in practice, but it's going to take a long time to live by. This new philosophy may have come as a way to cope with some of the struggles that I've had as I gain experience as a cyclist.

This is my third year racing a bike, and I hope to have many more long years ahead of me. Last year was amazing. I had no expectations, no guidelines, no realities to conform to. But now, as I learn more about the sport and how everything works, things do start to fall into a place, and I want to make sure that I am guiding myself into the place that I want to be. Prioritizing my happiness, instead of prioritizing meaningful results, is what is going to allow me to get the results that I want. I know this process works for me. So I need to take active steps to prepare myself to be happy. And that starts with looking out for myself and working on my own mindset, but also recognizing when dumb expectations are ruining my ability to enjoy myself.

I know that in order to be competitive, I need to devote a lot to cycling. But I'm terrified of going all-in. Going all-in is more of a mental state to me than a literal one. I find such a pull to give my heart to this sport, fully and completely, but I'm afraid to do this because the disappointment I feel when I perform badly is so crushing. The thought of making myself vulnerable to the hope of success and then failing is crippling. I feel like cycling is simultaneously the most meaningful and completely meaningless. How can something without meaning make me feel the way I do? But how can something like riding a bike carry so much meaning?

Imagining cycling as meaningless could just be a protective mechanism so that I don't dive too deep into this and see the thing I put all of my hopes and dreams into shatter someday. Because you see it. You see people who are as carefree as the world one day, and then out of cycling the next. I do not want to become that person.

As Tad quoted from The Rider yesterday, about non-racers: "The emptiness of those lives shocks me." Think about that for a second. Is that not the most terrifying thing you have ever heard? To know the excitement and purpose that we experience on the bike each day, and then to have that end, and be a droning member of society for the rest of our lives? I have to imagine that is how Rebecca Twigg feels, one of the greatest American cyclists in history, now wandering homeless in Seattle because nothing else in life measures up to the uncertainty, slight danger, and fulfillment that cycling provides. I am terrified to make myself vulnerable to that.

Cycling has felt like that this year. After last year I made myself vulnerable to the glimmer of success. After hating myself as an athlete for years, I had last year and I thought: "could things possibly work out?" While this year I'm more consistent, fitter and stronger, more technically able, I've had no miracle result. Nothing like last year that says "I want to be one of the best road cyclists in the world, and someday, I could actually get there."

I waver between thinking you have to have this kind of emotional investment into cycling to have the success you want, to thinking that you have to just relax and have fun. You certainly should be having fun regardless. And I think being able to relax is a key component in the longevity of any career in athletics, otherwise, you will burn yourself out before you even begin. But where does meaningfulness lie? Is it worth trying to make this mean something? Does it have to mean something special to feel a full spectrum of emotions and to achieve great things in the face of huge failures? Can't it just be?

I always hated how on my college running team we would wear hair ribbons that said some cute meaningful word on them, like 'heart,' or 'team,' or - heaven forbid - a bunch of skinny girls wearing a ribbon that said 'hunger.' I just wanted to run. I didn't wan the fanfare, or the dreams, or the meaningfulness. I wanted to see what my body could do after I trained it, and I wanted to enjoy the experience of pushing my limits and bettering my times. And I wanted to compete and beat other people. I don't want some sense of meaningfulness or forced direction to push my cycling career away from me. I want to take those turns fast, see those moments when a team plan somes together perfectly - those miracle days - and wake up the next day to do it all over again, with my teammates.

It's not always going to be perfect. In fact, it rarely works out. It's really fucking hard and I'm more often than not heartbroken wondering 'what if?'

What if? We would have won, or we would have been right here where we are. There's nothing meaningful about that. It just is.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Gratitude helps

Most of my thoughts day in and day out are spent mired in crippling self-doubt and OCD. I'm not doing well enough at work. If I won a race it's because the field was weak. My face looks like a potato. While these qualities ultimately push me to reach as high as I possibly can (I'm constantly searching to get away from these feelings of inadequacy by improving), they're also not the most pleasant.

My most recent episode of this was winning what is arguably the U.S.'s highest-ranked road race. I was over the moon for about 5 minutes and then they called me to the pee tent where they make sure I'm not doping. There's nothing more humbling than peeing in a cup. But there's also nothing that makes you feel more guilty, even when you're completely innocent.

What if my drink mix was contaminated? What if someone swapped my mix with an illicit bottle to sabotage me? There's no way I deserved to win this race, something must be up.

Of course, these thoughts are psychotic. I don't even take supplements because I'm so paranoid about contamination with illicit substances (which in and of itself may also be paranoid behavior).

And ultimately I've literally burned myself out of these thoughts this past week. I've thought about them so much and checked my USADA profile so many times in the last 5 days that I just can't fucking deal anymore and my brain has kind of short-circuited and stopped stressing about the issue. I was also about to start my period last week which makes everything in life so much worse. But man, for one second I would just like to be able to sit and relax and not have a bunch of completely self-fabricated problems on my mind. You know what I mean?

I sat down in bed tonight and for about 2 seconds I felt this amazing wave of relief. I opened my computer and for no reason was just so thankful to have it. This feeling of gratitude is one I am trying to harness because it is powerful. This weekend, in the delirium of panic I created in my mind about probably only being fast because I was unwittingly taking some sort of banned substance, for one moment I had the opportunity to see my life through a lens of gratitude.

If cycling were to get taken away at any point for any reason, I would like to remember my months with this team as some of the wildest and most amazing experiences I have ever had. Last year at this time I walked by the Supermint van at Tulsa and thought that those girls were the coolest fucking people that ever existed. And here I am now. Hanging out. Having FUN. Racing our bikes and driving around the U.S. every day. It's so amazing.

The past 2 years since I've ditched the anti-anxiety meds, I've tried to learn a lot about restructuring my thought patterns. My natural state is wild and erratic and angry and confused. But just by sitting with myself and looking inward, I've been able to find a way to harness all that blargh into something directed and positive. Well, I'm working on doing that. And gratitude is a big piece of that puzzle.

I get so absorbed in my own thoughts that I lose touch with what's right in front of me. I think there are a lot of people that would kill to have the chance to live the way I do right now. To be out on the road every day, on the fragrant trails in NC, at shitty little gas stations in NM, tearing shit up in the dark in OK. I want to be here for that and creating nonexistent worries in my mind to fixate on is not the way to do that, even if it's one of the reasons I'm a good athlete.

You know?

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Honestly I hated Christmas

If there is anything else I should be spending money on this month, please let me know. Currently sitting in a rental car which is the third vehicle we have driven today, yet we have only made it 2/10 of the way home from Chicago to Asheville. It’s amazing. On the way to Chicago for Christmas, our van breaks down. Never mind that it literally just went through an inspection and checked out, and then I spent $200 on tax, tag and title for the van and waiting at the DMV for a North Carolina license that doesn’t even serve as a federal ID. The van decided that since we got it for free, we were going to pay.

We spent the money on the tow to, and hotel in, Lafayette, IN. The van was kinda fucked, but whatever. We made it home to Chicago in a Uhaul because out of the 500 rental car places in Lafayette, there were no cars left. We’d pick up the van on Tuesday after Christmas when it’s all ready to drive on home.

Christmas is merry, we’re jolly, only a couple minor incidents, Santa came, my morale is great, I feel awesome, I’m pretty depressed but that’s probably just because I haven’t spent a single second alone where I wasn’t either drunk or outside in 5 degree weather.

I haven’t worked in a few days, I spent a ton of money to get here and then on $6 city coffees and $19 drinks in bars that overlook the fog and ice and snow that blanket the city to the point where you can’t see the city. I’ve spent or will spend a bunch of money on Christmas gifts. Already this month I bought new glasses, a bike bag, a bunch of new bike parts, a bunch of non-van car repairs. Things I convinced myself I needed. But it doesn’t matter because I’m leaving Chicago en route home with a new herb grower, fizzy water maker, little wooden house that smells like pine, a glass orb with a feather in it, chocolate, 6 bikes, some costumery, a bike stand, a pink hat, some beads, lots of socks, another cycling cap, a box filled with notes I’ve collected for my entire life, idk and some other stuff. We moved this stuff from the house to the Uhaul, the Uhaul to the van, and from the van to a rental car when after approximately 1 mile of driving the fixed van, it broke down again because Pep Boys didn’t install the belt correctly but of course they closed the minute we left the shop. Maybe they’ll steal my box of life notes that we left in the van. I hope they like the little pieces of trash I’ve hoarded. We’ll see them again when we take another 16 hour trip back to Lafayette later this week.

To top it all off, we broke down outside of a Moe's. I went inside and ordered this disgusting cheese bomb that I asked to eat at the restaurant because we were waiting for the tow truck and it was freezing. But instead the Moe's worker – who barely said ‘Welcome to Moe's’ like they’re required to by Moe's law – put my food in a plastic to-go container that was 8x the size of the food and then I just had to throw it away, like the consumerist trash of my month.

I read a great article about this dude who changed his life when his car broke down and he started riding his bike everywhere instead. And I literally sunk into myself when I thought of all the money I have put into my cars this month. Yes, cars. I have two of them. I also have a beautiful Soma that I spent a ton of time building and that is begging to be ridden but I don’t ride it because I would rather drive less than two miles to wherever, probably to go to yoga or do something active and perfectly ironic. I would rather struggle for 30 seconds to get my iPhone out of my pocket while buckled into a seatbelt, put my coffee in the coffee holder that is just slightly too small for the coffee cup, and fiddle with my aux cord. Car culture. I work for a cycling nonprofit and I am unwittingly a proponent of car culture, and I justify it by calling commuting ‘junk miles’ that would compromise my training. 

I suppose I sound super bitter here. That might be because I am super bitter atm. Currently I’m listening to a commercial on Pandora about getting away from the stress of the holidays by sitting in your car and smelling your Glade car air freshener. On Christmas morning we opened presents for an hour and then sat in a sea of paper and cardboard and bows that were literally purchased just to look at for a sec and then tear apart and throw away. Does that blow anyone else’s mind? Why couldn’t we just all sit together and drink coffee for an hour? I read a WSJ headline that said people will return $90 BILLION in Christmas gifts over the next couple of weeks.Why are things this way?

Remember the Grinch, where little Cindy Lou Who was wondering where Christmas went? She was like ‘I just want to give love this Christmas!’ and everyone was like ‘We’re loving! Look, we just give the Grinch this new car to make up for a few decades of cruelty, but also we’ll make sure to subtly ostracize him! We’re loving tho.”

This seems to be refrain every year around Christmas. None of us go to church or celebrate Jesus. But Christmas comes to a close and we’re all sad but really we’re just sad because for whatever reason, something about Christmas didn’t really live up to our expectations. Maybe it was grandma with dementia who spread chocolate all over the walls of the bathroom. Maybe it was your sibling who got you the wrong color of boots and for whatever reason you can’t really place, you’re incredibly angry about it. Maybe it’s because your boyfriend’s family actually really loves Christmas and so you just have to do it because you love them. Or maybe it’s that when your car breaks down around Christmas, you have to wait for four days to get it fixed. Christmas highlights our dependencies on things and spoils time that we should be enjoying with the ones we love, not stressing about making everything perfect and full of things. 

This year is the first where I have come to full realization that I just hate the holidays. I travel all year round, and I really just want to be home for once. And home for me is my own home. Not my parent’s home, or where my family is. It’s literally my house. Where I live with my boyfriend, and would love to just spend two or three days alone with him and relaxed, instead of worrying about whether I will be able to pay rent and bills in January.  

NPR gets it. They are currently playing some of that piano solo Christmas music that perpetually has this tinge of sadness. They’re saying ‘listen to this music and embrace how you really feel about this holiday.’ The tow truck driver dropped us off at Pep Boys for the second time today and said “maybe I’ll get to go home now.” It was well below 10 degrees. And it took everything in my power to not say “yeah I fucking want to go home too but we’re eight and a half hours away with a broken car that should have been fixed in the four days it was sitting here.” We’re now paying for a rental car that in all honestly, Pep Boys should be paying for.

But heaven forbid complaining when we live in a society that has 24-hour gas stations, snow plows that are good enough, five hotels at every exit with vacancies and online reviews because capitalism!, un-recyclable wrapping paper, drive-thru Paneras, bubbly water, people you can pay to put up your Christmas lights, and socially mandated family time every year at the end of December.