Yesterday was my 34th birthday.
I view myself as an employee of me. Oh yeah, it’s just as crazy as it sounds. I work for myself and every year I like to use my birthday as performance review time. The results are rarely pretty.
See, the same attitudes, mindsets, and unrealistically high standards that often create the extraordinary drive necessary to become competitively athletic to begin with, often dually result in a certain level of disappointment in oneself for never being able to live up one’s own demands. Sound insane? It is. But I see it over and over again in fellow bike racers, in sports documentaries, and in articles on sports psychology. It’s well documented that the thing that makes a good athlete also has a tendency to make a tortured human being. It’s something many of us fight against constantly.
My year didn’t start well, but in retrospect and with all the aforementioned in mind, I wonder if there’s any way it could have started that would have satisfied me. Regardless, in just about every aspect of bike racing this year, there has been a underpinning of disappointment. The early-season California races left me burnt and wondering what exactly I’m trying to accomplish in all of this. I’ve never really had a goal – the idea was simply to race and see how far and how fast I could get, for the novelty of it. Somewhere along the line I started expecting things of myself, and at some point in California, I actually know the exact moment when it happened, I cracked ever so slightly under the weight of my own unrealistic expectations and the resulting disappointment. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, driven by so many factors that I’m still pulling apart and dissecting months later, but it changed me a bit as a bike racer. It dampened my enthusiasm in a way I can’t explain.
I came home from Cali demoralized and jaded but hopeful for east coast racing. Much to my relief, in the nastiness that is North Eastern mountain biking I began to feel like my old self again and slowly started rebuilding my confidence and love for bike racing. My results improved, my spirit began to revive, things began to look up. I was healthy, I was strong and I was on the trajectory I had planned all along. In rocks and roots and drops and bike parking and Kenda Cup podiums, Slavin got her groove back. Side note: don’t talk about yourself in the third person.
My whole season was supposed to culminate in baller performances at Nationals in WV and the final US Cup the following week in Boston. My coach and I had mapped training out back in November with the calendar ending on July 29th — my birthday, Boston.
Boston… It’s my favorite course. Truly a mountain biker’s UCI course if ever such a thing could exist, unlike any other high-level race course I’ve ever ridden. Usually the “big” races have dumbed-down courses that, well, just aren’t very fun if you’re comparing them to mountain biking in it’s most pure and epic forms. Not to say that there aren’t elements that are fun, just that in general the courses are a lot of suffering for very little super-sweet-singletrack reward. But Boston is different. Boston has real, actual rock gardens, made by nature not by man. It has roots and twisty turns and the wonderful east coast ugliness that I’ve reluctantly and unexpectedly grown to love over the few years that I’ve been riding. And they throw in a big (for XC big, if you want to be a snotty elitist) drop that acts like the cherry on top of a mountain bike sundae made of gnarly goodness. Uh… But yeah… Boston is freakin’ money.
When I found out that Nats would be held at Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia, I had high hopes that it would mirror the sort of riding found at Boston. Snowshoe’s rep is so legendary that even I know about it, and I admittedly don’t know jack about the sport of mountain bike racing – I haven’t been doing it that long and for as long as I have, I’ve been too self-absorbed in trying to make myself decent at it to really figure out much else. But I knew Snowshoe was said to be rad, and that people were excited about Nats being held there.
With all of that, I picked Nationals and Boston as my goal races. Everything else was preamble for these two, nothing else truly mattered except in terms of prepping me for the endgame. I trained through the other races, giving them what I had but always in my mind saving that extra little bit for the peak. When a race went badly, I felt the usual disappointment but it didn’t matter as much, because everything was for Nats and Boston. It was all building up to them. The season went on, my watts went up, and I got stronger. I was coming. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that I can’t win either of those races… read on..
I drove to Nats with excitement that I haven’t really felt much of this year. I usually despise being in the car, but I was going to Nats, I was STOKED. Even the car troubles I had en route, the lack of cell service that made those car troubles more stressful than they needed to be, and a much longer drive than anticipated didn’t dampen things for me. I arrived at Snowshoe tuned to level ten ampage, checked in to the nicest hotel room I’ve stayed in for the past two years of racing, and slept like I rarely ever sleep. Everything was right on target. Everything was good.
I got up on Wednesday and rushed to get on course to check things out. Much to my surprise, I was having an extremely tough time breathing. My heart rate soared to LT numbers with barely any effort at all and I began to worry. Too many days off? I had taken 3 days after Eastern Grind to sort of taper and make a full recovery but such a huge loss of fitness in only three days??? It didn’t make sense. I tried not to panic. No cell service, I couldn’t call my coach. A friend told me later that we were at a higher altitude, nearly 5,000 feet. I was relieved by that information more than scared of it, I had four full days to acclimatize. I never for a second thought asthma would be an issue. I’d had it under strict control all season with the exception of Bonelli, which was just an unforeseen allergy issue. Not one episode since. I had been doing everything you’re supposed to do to prevent flare up. I worried about how stacked the field was, about cracking, about feed zone, about the course, never about asthma. Speaking of the course… I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed after that first ride pre-ride. Long, steep (and boring) fire road climbs, long fire road connections, mostly doubletrack, very little single track, and perhaps most bizarrely (for the location, at least) – man-made rock gardens. In a place legendary for it’s terrain, we were racing on fire roads and man-made rock gardens. It made very little sense to me. I tried to remain positive and hope that the promise of rainy weather would make the few “genuine” sections of the course more interesting. My heart rate seemed better on Thursday but I tried not to ride too hard, my legs didn’t seem to be recovering. I took off Friday completely to try and let my legs fully bounce back and planned to do a chill refresher of the course day before race. Massive amounts of rain Thursday and Friday caused chaos and everything got moved around and I ended up missing the practice time Saturday. When I tried to sneak on the course, I got yelled at by a sad, mean, spectator who reminded me that there was a race going on. Whatever race it was didn’t seem to be an issue, being that there was no one anywhere to be seen, even the USAC volunteer on the sidelines said I was fine, but I decided that it was better not to risk having her make a big deal (she seemed to be the spiteful type) of me riding outside of practice hours and I pulled off course. I’d have to go into the race Sunday without trying the course wet beforehand. In the end, it didn’t matter one bit.
Because on Sunday the race went off and I went from being in it, to very quickly out of it. Within the first 2 minutes, on the first climb, I triggered an asthma attack that I would consider in the top 2 or 3 of asthma attacks I’ve ever had. I was suffocating on air and I knew with absolute certainty I was not coming back from it. I dropped places, fast. My mind and heart and legs all hummed and revved and wanted to go, but my lungs were drowning in nothing. There were just too many climbs, and all of them too long, to get a chance to reel myself back in. As soon as I would start to calm my breathing down, another climb and the lungs would implode again. By the time I got to the downhill rock garden at the end of lap one, the rock garden I had specifically voted to keep IN the race at the rider’s meeting the night before, I was riding sloppy with a finger on the panic button and gasping for air. I went into it like I had a hundred times during practice, but only about a third of the way down jerked my front wheel the wrong way, a bad way, and washed it out. I flew sideways, arms out to catch myself, but nothing there to grasp. My head cracked against a rock with blunt force I’ve never experienced before. My first thought was, “F***. That was my head.” I rolled over in pain. Out of instinct and habit, I (almost) immediately got back up to get myself and my bike out of the way for the next rider, even though there was no next rider. I pulled everything off to the side of the rock garden and sat there seeing stars. People rushed over to me, asking if I was ok. “I’m ok. That was my head.” I could feel that I had done something that was bad but I was dazed. The crowd of spectators were silent, horrified. Ever needing to deflect any pity with humor, I turned to them and shouted “I’m actually REALLY GOOD at riding rocks!!” Laughter. Thank God. It’s not as embarrassing if I’m laughing with them. But I’m GD mortified. Laugh it off. Ringing. I mutter to the USAC woman that I’m going to pull out, I ramble about the asthma attack and that I’m in last place anyway, I might as well just pull out now. My bike is bent sideways, my helmet is cracked. She tells me I’m not last.
“You aren’t last.”
“How is that possible?”
“There’s someone behind you.”
Suddenly, I feel an urgency to keep going. I don’t know what I’m thinking. That if I’m not last, maybe there’s a way for me to fight back some places? I can get back in the race? Maybe my brain was bruised. Spoiler alert: my brain was totally bruised. Someone bent my bike mostly back to straight and I got back on it just as the girl who was behind me passed by. I pedaled off to catch her, to not be last.
After a second lap of not being last, they waved me off the course just after the start/finish. I nodded, pulled off, pedaled over to a corner where I set my bike down oh-so-gently, and cried like the WORLD’S BIGGEST B**** for a solid 10 minutes. The USAC official who had waved me off the course came over after about 5…
“Are you OK?”
:::inaudible muttering about goal races mixed with sobbing:::
“It’s going to be ok, if you need anything let us know.”
She squeezed my shoulder and walked away.
USAC employs some very good people.
I finally finish crying, walk over to her, thank her, and stumble down to the pit to let Nick’s mother know she doesn’t need to do my feed anymore, she can go home. She tells me this will make me stronger, I believe her. My head hurts. I feel weird. She tells me I should really get checked out at the med station before I try to drive home. Again, I believe her.
When I clumsily walk into the main office area asking where medical was, some USAC officials start to explain how to get there and as hard as I tried to comprehend the directions they were giving me, I kept repeating them back wrong. Seeing that I was a bit out of it, one of the USAC staff got up, put an arm around me and guided me to medical. And it wasn’t a close walk, but he walked me all the way there. He stayed with me nearly the entire time. He was amazing. USAC employs some very good people.
And the staff of Snowshoe, also above-and-beyond amazing. They were thoroughly convinced that I had a concussion, wanted me to go to the hospital. I refused. They offered to house me overnight so I wouldn’t have to drive home. But anyone who knows me knows that I can’t travel on Mondays. I had to go home. Realizing that I was going whether they wanted me to or not, they instead let me use their shower and get cleaned up so that I wouldn’t have to spend 9 hours in the car covered in mud and dried up tears.
I talked to the woman for a while about bike racing. She looked up my discontinued cracked helmet on Google and assured me I’d be able to find another. I did eventually leave. I drove home in the dark, in the rain. I cried for what seemed like hours.
I’m not ashamed to admit this to you. I’ve invested my heart and soul into bike racing; for the last four years I’ve given it nearly every ounce of energy I had. The let down, the failure, the lackluster finish to a lackluster season… even if it seems silly, I felt gut-wrenching sadness over it all. I know there’s bigger problems in the world, and I know life goes on. Still, I’m not ashamed for crying over it. If you knew what I’ve put into just getting this far, you’d understand. You don’t go from being a complete non-athlete, a former smoker, the person I was my whole life, a person you didn’t know and have never seen, probably can’t imagine because that person is so different than who you see now… to racing pro, even if you’re not all that good, without a lot of ugly behind the scenes work. I’m not sorry for any of it, I don’t regret a moment of it. But Nats made me realize that no matter how hard I work, I’m probably only ever going to get so far given things that I just can’t control, and that realization hurts. I had a long drive and a lot of time to think about it, cry, and let it go.
There have been a few times when I’ve spoken to girls who are thinking of upgrading to get a UCI pro license. Every time I tell them the same things: not to rush into it, to wait, to enjoy where they are a little longer before they move up to that next level. Set a larger goal, like Nats, as a cat 1 and achieve that first. Because it’s a very big jump… and… 1) Once you upgrade your license, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to downgrade it for a long, long time. It’s a sort of permanent move, so it’s good to be sure you’re 100% ready. 2) National-level (UCI) pro courses aren’t the same kind of mountain biking that makes most mountain bikers eventually fall in love with the sport. They’re often very little singletrack, a lot of fire roads, and man-made rocks. They’re short and brutal and not a ton of “fun”. 3) The competition is really, really freakin’ hard. There’s no phoning it in and unless you’re one of a select few, you’ll probably never be on a national UCI pro podium. The rest of us are pack filler, fighting with each other for the middle, or even worse, the back. And you’ll work harder than you’ve ever worked just for that. The glory of winning will be gone, the bubble burst. If you want to race UCI pro, you can’t just be doing it because you want to feel cool and say that you’re a “pro.” You need to have an extreme, somewhat masochistic love for competing and you have to be mentally tough enough to accept (the illusion of) constant failure. OR, you have to look at it differently: not as a contest that you can win, but a way of measuring your own personal growth. The latter is the healthier, more sane way of doing things but it’s not easy. That’s what this whole four thousand plus word rambling dissertation is about – I see over and over again that many of us, myself included, struggle to adopt that “winning isn’t the only thing” mindset. After all, who doesn’t want to win? Winning feels good, it’s addictive. It’s why people sandbag and dope and cut courses. Winning feels good. At the root of things, it’s why people race. But there is more to racing than just winning, if you look really hard. And that’s my current status. I love racing bikes, I can totally handle not winning, but if I’m going to never win, perhaps I should do a type of racing that I enjoy more while I’m doing it. Now I need to figure out what that is.
With the torrential downpour that plagued my drive home, I got back to New Jersey pretty late Sunday night. The whole way back, I thought about Boston, about redemption. I was… out of it, to say the least.
When I laid down, I started to feel sick. The room was spinning, I felt like I was going to throw up. After hours like that, I finally fell asleep.
Monday. I can never get out of Mondays. Last October, I broke my right thumb on a Sunday, spent most of the night in the ER waiting to get a spica cast, and subsequently spent about 13 hours the following Monday typing out schedules with my good left hand and the index finger of my casted right hand. It’s my job and there’s nobody else to do it when I can’t, so I always have to do it. And the Monday after Nats was no different. The computer screen hurt my head and I felt like like death. Toward the end, I started throwing up. For hours, throwing up, back to typing, then more throwing up, then more typing, then more throwing up. It was not a good day. But I did get the schedules out! 🙂
Still, this whole time, in my mind I believed I was going to Boston. LOL.
Tuesday. Headache, nausea, but no throwing up. Told myself I was right on schedule, on the mend! Because I missed Sunday and Monday, I had no choice but to look at a computer screen all day again to catch up on my regular work. By the end of Tuesday, my head hurts really bad. Taking a shower makes me feel dizzy and sick.
Wednesday. My dad has been calling me all week. He’s annoying me about getting my head CT’d because he thinks my brain is bleeding. I tell him all of this is normal, he argues that it isn’t. “If my brain was bleeding I’d be dead,” I say, but he persists. Finally, I call my doctor and they tell me to just go to the ER. I go and they CT my head and neck. Guess what? My brain isn’t bleeding. I still think I’m going to Boston. The doctor tells me that under no circumstances should I go to Boston. I shouldn’t ride a bike at all. I still think I’m going to Boston anyway. Running around all day makes my head hurt. I go to bed and sleep for over 12 hours.
Thursday. I wake up with a headache. I’m starting to think that I may not go to Boston. I haven’t ridden my bike since Sunday. I feel so strange, so out of it. But I still pretty much think that I’ll end up racing in Boston.
Friday. Still feeling weird. I say that I might not race Boston, but now I’m telling myself that I’ll still go just to watch. In the back of my head, I’m thinking that if I go up to watch, maybe I’ll feel OK and I’ll just jump in and race. I still have a headache, but it’s dull and it comes and goes. I sleep another 12+ hours.
Saturday. I don’t go to Boston.
I love mountain biking but there’s a very strange attitude within the sport of cycling that you’re some kind of hero for showing up and racing when you’re injured. Like, being injured gets used as a preemptive excuse for a sh*** performance. If you’re injured enough to need to talk about your injury, you probably shouldn’t be racing. You’re not a hero for showing up in poor condition and racing anyway, you’re sort of an idiot. I’m saying this but I’m just as guilty of it as anyone, I’ve raced injured a LOT. In my mind, I was exercising the doctrine of HTFU, the holy grail of cycling mantra. “You must race no matter what. You must harden up.” Why do we have that mentality? Why do we feel like we’re heroes for showing up in rubbish condition and throwing down a poor performance? You’re not a hero. Go home, get better, and come back with your A game. Don’t show up broken and then make a bunch of excuses. One of the best things my coach ever taught me was that you don’t make excuses. You don’t make them before and you don’t make them after. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone on the start line preface their race with some BS excuse… except maybe hearing someone do the same on the finish line. If you don’t got it, go home. I mean this, it’s absurd. For most people doing this, it’s not the Olympics. For f**k’s sake, you’re not even getting paid. You’re a hobbyist. Go home and come back when you don’t have any excuses.
That’s not an excuse. LOL. That’s a rant.
I don’t have an excuse. I didn’t race because a) I didn’t want to race that way. I just didn’t want to, period. I didn’t want the race I’d been building for and dreaming about to be another disappointment because I showed up and couldn’t give my best or even a fraction of it. I didn’t race because mentally I just can’t handle being a garbage bike racer two weeks in a row. If that makes me weak-minded and a coward, so be it. Could I have raced? I’m sure I could have. But I knew that I would be garbage and I didn’t feel like being garbage again. b) because unfortunately, I had made it way too obvious to the people around me that I was in bad shape all week and quite honestly, I know that if I had raced I would have been letting the people closest to me down and causing them unnecessary worry on my behalf. My dad was horrified when I told him I was thinking of racing, my best friend was gently pushing that I shouldn’t, and my coach flat out forbade it. I could have ignored them all and just done it anyway, but feeling how I felt physically, I conceded their point.
And in the end, I’m glad I didn’t. I watched the Instagram stories and felt properly sorry for myself, envied the girls launching off the a-line drop that my DH friends make fun of (snobs), and then I let my dad take me out to dinner for my birthday. It was the first time in the four years since I picked up a bike and decided that it was going to be my thing that I haven’t ridden on my birthday. Instead I got sangria drunk with my dad. And ya know… it wasn’t all that bad.
Today is Sunday. It’s been a week since I fell on my head. I feel better today. Today I rode my bike.
And if you’ve gotten this far and are somehow still reading: my performance review actually went well this year.
Here’s some pics from MFin National Championships: