Once again I am faced with the prospect of bike racing -- and feeling the nerves, the jitters, the doubts. I am sure most racers have these concerns and worries at the start of the season. But most racers I know are also actually racers -- they train; they work out at a gym (they can afford a gym membership, and maybe a coach). They have not yet encountered Middle Aged Belly (or they've overcome it somehow). They aren't beset by a million little physical and mental realities that keep them from becoming a more dedicated athlete (how would my getting more serious about this affect my relationships with my non-athletic family and friends? How would I cram in the time to train and still have enough energy to hold down my job? How on earth could I overcome the Crohn's to a point where I could look and feel like all those other racers surely must feel when they race -- strong and sleek and fast, and able to keep going and come back for more?)
I dreamed of how I would prepare for short-track and then for 'cross; I plotted out a schedule of yoga, and intervals, and longer training rides. Then life got in the way -- asthma attacks and Crohn's flare-ups; a partner who I wanted to spend time with; a job that demanded my energy; various trips and then the High Holidays and finally a trip to Interbike -- and my entire season of training basically went to hell. And here I am, showing up for cross practice and able to last barely an hour before the wheezing and fatigue set in; and yes, looking in the mirror and seeing my odd-looking body with the long skinny legs and little belly pooching out and my back swaying ridiculously as if there were a heavy marching drum permanently strapped on. This is not the body of a bike racer. I know; I've seen what bike racers look like and for all my best efforts and the team kit, I do not look like that -- or feel like that.
But the thing is, there must be some crazy stubborn streak in me, because here I am gathering my kit and gear and working on my transportation options for the local races I will enter; and although it's suicide I have gone ahead and catted up to my Masters age group where I will likely get flattened, rather like a not-so-flat pancake. Why on earth do I go through with this when, by all appearances, it looks and feels so futile?
I do it because of something that keeps re-occurring to me, sometimes it is made apparent again when I describe it out loud to a friend. The reality is I will probably never win a race outright, never win because I made a holeshot or successfully passed and reeled in a string of weaker, slower racers. There are few, if any, weaker and slower racers than me out there. But every time I enter and complete a race, every time I am able to make myself ride the whole damned time, an impossible 45 minutes of forward motion and breathless, crazy suffering -- when I cross the line the last time, no matter how many (or few) laps I complete I have won something. I have beaten my history, and in some way my body, too.
I have slain, for another week at least, that still, small voice that has haunted me since earliest childhood, the one that sneers, "wimp, crybaby, wierdo...", the one that has watched me shrink back from physically-risky games where children delight in beating the crap out of each other to see who the weakest one is. That voice has followed me and hounded me almost my entire life. But so, too, has my childhood dream of athletic greatness, of strength, of power -- a dream that I might one day be as tall as my sister and as strong -- or as strong-looking, anyway -- as my parents (I would find out much later that neither of my parents was actually all that physically strong, or healthy, but I digress).
The day I decided to follow my dream to its logical conclusion, I stared down my Crohns'y, asthmatic, spindly-legged self in the mirror and shot back, okay, so this is what I've got to work with... how far can I go with it? And since then I have discovered -- I continue to discover -- that I haven't gone all the way yet. There is more I can do. There are more races I can enter, and complete. Maybe it's about beating other racers for other folks, but for me it is about beating myself, and my history, every time I choose to race. That is why, ultimately, my placement in the pack is almost irrelevant. Sure, it'd be nice to win by actually passing someone else, but that is secondary to why I'm there in the first place. I am there to find out what I can do, how hard and how far I can go.
And so I keep getting back on my bike and riding my brains out. Maybe one day I'll collapse from exhaustion, or I'll be pulled from a race for medical reasons, and that will be that. But that day has not come yet, not by a long shot. So here I go, as hard and as far as I can. It's 'cross season, and I am looking forward to days of breathlessness, of wheezing, of mounts and dismounts and stutter-steps, the slap of cold mud on my backside, cowbells in my ears and dark afternoons of sideways rain.
It's 'cross season. Bring it on.