“I got a hustler spirit, ***** period.
Check out my hat yo, peep the way I wear it.
Check out my swag’ yo, I walk like a ballplayer.
No matter where you go, you are what you are player.
And you can try to change but that’s just the top layer.
Man, you was who you was ‘fore you got here.”
-Jay Z, Public Service Announcement
I’m sitting at my desk in the darkened headquarters of Elite Endurance Training Systems. It’s less than 16 hours from the third race of my first pro season and somehow I’ve managed a 2-0 average. The minor keys of Jay Z’s Public Service Announcement provide a strange sort of narration to the dark and the mood inside it. Like so many nights before, I find myself contemplating how incredibly different my life is now than it was this time last year. How different it is than it was even six months ago. But I don’t really believe in fate…
The past winter ended up being an unplanned time of definition for me. It was one of the most challenging and changing experiences of my life, a panoptic overwhelm that brought with it a health crisis, a career change, horrible seasonal depression, a dog, a Superfly FS SL (whaa!?), a leap-of-faith upgrade from Cat-1 to Pro, and a new level of appreciation for what it is to devote yourself to training for your sport.
Going back to this time a year ago… I was racing Cat-2, untested and unsure of myself, scrambling for upgrade points so that I could begin my regular season and local racing series as a Cat-1. I wanted that milestone so badly: to go from Cat-3 to Cat-1 in less than a year. I wanted to accelerate my timeline of improvement. I wanted to prove to myself that I could. I traveled all over the Mid-Atlantic for those points, and by the end of April the upgrade was mine. Coming from a background nearly devoid of athleticism, I was proud of myself. I had worked harder for it than I can remember working for anything. And that’s what I suppose this is all about: working your ass off to get to where you want to be, to become WHO you want to be. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what that is, who that is, but I think I’ve settled it — I want to be the kind of person that drives forward against odds, that is constantly digging deep within to find improvement, and I’m not just talking about as an athlete.
Here I encountered a slight issue. I was not good at mountain biking when I first started (and I was only slightly better when I started racing Cat-1). In fact, in the very beginning I was a shit show on wheels. I couldn’t get through anything even the slightest bit rocky, I couldn’t corner, I white-knuckled my brakes in sheer terror on the mildest descents, and I fell… I fell a lot. So. Much. Falling. That first year of mountain biking was pretty much an ongoing tally of bruises, cuts, scrapes, broken fingers, and bike repairs. It wasn’t pretty. My mother wept for my loss of my ‘beautiful legs’ and asked me to put a guardian angel pin into my race Camelbak (I did, and it’s still there today, despite plenty of bitchy and jaded eye rolling over it). Nothing deterred me; I kept going back to the bike. Some switch in my brain had been flicked on and it drove me back. I can’t pinpoint the root of it, even after countless hours spent questioning it, but I had (and still have) some peculiar desire to figure this mountain biking thing out, to try and get good at it. Perhaps because I was (and in so many ways still am) so bad at it that my ego, recoiling in horror, wouldn’t stand for being that bad at anything. Maybe I’m a masochist who enjoys getting a thorough and bone-rattling beat down. Maybe I fell deeply and desperately in love with the shredding motions. I have a feeling it’s a combination of all these things. Without really knowing why, I devoted myself to the pursuit of mountain biking glory. And by ‘devote’ I basically mean ‘I rode bikes a lot.’ I put blinders on to anything that wasn’t cycling related and charged forward. I spent countless hours on the trainer, on the road, commuting to work, driving to trails in the winter, riding (crashing on) the relentlessly rocky terrain of the North Eastern United States. I crashed and failed endlessly… and then I’d do something I could never do before, I’d ride through something that I was never able to. I can’t explain the way that moment feels, but I can say it’s one of the best I’ve ever experienced. There is no easy way to get good at anything, there are no miracles. I am not a mountain biking savant, anyone who rides with me can clearly see that, and I haven’t gone any further because of natural talent or skill. I’ve come this far fueled with blood, sweat, and tears… literally, all of these things in great quantity!
Usain Bolt said it so well, “The magic is in the preparation.” I remind myself of this constantly. I repeat the words in my head during training. They are simple yet heavy truth that I’ve heard reverberating in the sports documentaries of nearly every successful athlete out there… every successful person, period. The one thing they all have in common: an insane level of dedication that resulted in an insane level of hard work in training. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kobe Bryant, Usain Bolt, Lance Armstrong, Jay Z, Diana Nyad, the list goes on and on. If you want to learn how to train, look no further, these people clearly demonstrate the mindset necessary for success. Stepping back a moment, I should say that I am not comparing myself to them; I have no delusions of hanging with those dudes on that level. But when I look for inspiration, these are the people I look to, the people I try to emulate. I try to find their drive within myself. You can call it whatever you want, but these people are hustlers, legit. They have hustled their respective games and each of them has found the top. The defining characteristic for every single one of them is work ethic. Kobe Bryant suffers crushing defeat, what does he do? He goes to a local high school gym at midnight, gets the janitor to let him in, and practices long shots until daybreak. That’s all hustling really is: a desire and a determination to work tirelessly and do whatever it may take to get to the top, and an inability to accept failure. ‘Hustler’ is just a synonym of ‘go-getter’.
If you can summon that spirit within you, you become unstoppable. If you extend the timeline long enough, and you can handle the inevitable failures along the way, if you remain utterly dedicated and continue to execute the necessary steps, you will keep accruing micro victories that will eventually amount to a macro victory. It’s simple probability, basic statistics. The more you race and lose, the more the numbers skew to favor a win. You do the hard work and you keep hitting play. I believe this to be incontrovertible truth.
It’s so easy to lose focus of our goals, easy to accept life getting in the way. We all have busy lives with jobs and families and friendships that beg for our attention. The darker part of success, the great separator, is the sacrifice that comes with it. Unfortunately there are only so many hours in a day, and more often than not, success requires sacrifice. Lance Armstrong was a monk for the greater part of his year. He had to be. In a much smaller way, I’ve felt this myself at many points since I’ve started training to race. I’ve felt the absence of close relationships and the loneliness that comes with it. I’ve felt those pangs of sadness in my long, solitary rides, realizing that it’s just me out there. Nobody gets to see the sunset over the skyline with me. Nobody laughs with me at the ridiculous things I’ve seen on the road. In those moments, I try and remember that some memories are special because they belong only to me, and I cherish them for the fact that they are mine alone. With every sacrifice there is a silver lining. I’ve met and developed many friendships with likeminded people, who I feel can understand and relate to my goals and passion. I’ve always been a rather solitary person, but I’ve found rare glimpses of camaraderie within the mountain bike community.
Then, of course, there’s the fear of failing miserably, of showing up and being last. I have to admit, I was always terrified of this. More and more, as I continue racing at higher levels, I am realizing that last place is just another step in the direction of first. Not every day is going to be your greatest day on a bike, and if you’re not prepared to lose, you will never win. If you live in fear of last place, you can never truly put yourself out there. Insert cliché: if you never show up to the race, you can’t win it. Winning feels great, but you have to learn to feel satisfaction and accomplishment in all your efforts, not just the ones that leave you standing on a podium. When I got my pro license (thanks to whoever was drunk at the USAC offices that day), I mentally prepared myself for many last place finishes. I didn’t reconcile myself to them, I am not advocating a defeatist attitude, but I accepted them as possible outcomes, and made a firm decision that I would not let them, if and when they happened, deter or demoralize me. I am always racing for first (even when the prospect of winning is absolutely absurd), but if I come in last, I won’t let it destroy me. Instead, I will learn from it, relegate it to good training for my next race, and move on without further rumination. Adopting this mindset has been liberating in so many ways, instead of showing up to races terrified of a loss, I’m showing up calm and collected and ready to give it my best because I’ve already accepted all outcomes.
Back to the desk and the night and Jay Z. These are the things I’ve kept in my head in the last 665 days leading up to this moment. I never forget how far I still have to go (how far it is to where I’d like to go) and I never forget how far I’ve already come. I keep the vision and the goal constantly in my head (except when eating cookies, at which time, I conveniently forget). There are 11+ of the region’s fastest women signed up for my race tomorrow, a bigger field than I’ve ever had to contend with and I’d be lying if I said I’m not nervous. I’m incredibly nervous, wicked super crazy hella nervous… but I’m ready for the challenge. I’m going to show up and press play. I am going to channel my hustler’s spirit.
Update: I got 6th at that race, a great result considering the competition, and a great start to the MASS series! As a hero of mine once said, “Welcome to the party.”