Held in a great Lycra fist, stood, bike between my legs and senses so heightened that I can feel each second brush past me (light breeze, held breath, rustling grass, frantic heart); not a place I had imagined being a year earlier. Yet now, whatever happens in this race, I will be collecting the prize for second place in the Female Sport Category of the Midlands XC MTB Series.
I don’t do competition. There was the slacker-league netball team – stopping and waiting for approval after a good pass or interception did not help us win matches (sorry, guys) –and a couple of triathlons and 10k races, which were more about getting fit than being a contender. But each mountain bike XC (cross country) race I took part in this year was serious.
Some might say this was because of the lack of competition I actually stood a chance. I had heard other mountain bikers talking about the small numbers of female competitors – ‘yeah, well, she won because there was hardly anyone in her class’ – but paid little attention. However, from experience I can say that having only a smattering of opponents does not make a race easier. In some ways, it is harder; you must do your best because there is nowhere to hide.
My best was varied. It was gasping, lung swallowing drama for the first few races – flat courses with little that was technically challenging. And I’m thinking, ‘hey, I’m getting the hang of this, may be this is something I’m good at’. Then came Eckington, the downhill course set up last minute when another venue became unavailable; it was mud churned to mincemeat on a hill side. I only just conquered the fear that seized me on the practice lap enough to compete in the actual. I could not control the bike, it skidded, weaved, bounced and even bucked. I ended up being tossed over the handle bars twice. And by then (still shaking) my attitude was this; ‘I can’t do this, what was I thinking?’
While I raced different places and different courses and met different people – those with whom to share the experience and those whom I came to admire – it was the mental ardour that marked the experience of competing. While those first couple of races were a bolster for my ego and the rest cut it back to the size it should be.
An epic drama unfolds inside of me before, during and after a race – the world is at stake, my very existence. I am all protagonists; child, adult, parent, adventurer, destroyer. On the start line the utter terror of failure consumes me. Sickening panic as flight instinct ignites and all I can do to stay there until the signal is given. Go!
Once the race begins, that instinct is useful, but only too soon it becomes overwhelmed.
At the end, once the dust – emotionally and physically – is settling, everything that has happened shifts inside me. Scenery changes, parts switch and I begin to attach meaning. How much I put in. How competently I rode the course. Where I came. I am generating the story that I will retell.
But here is what I don’t tell. Each race is a meditation. And, at the same time it is the surge of all the negative emotion I have ever repressed and a stadium for all voices that embody failure for me. All that matters is the next revolution of the pedals. I exist in that moment to make the revolution happen. For someone who struggles to be in the ‘now’, I am forced there. Give everything to this race and think of nothing before or after. Watch each turn, root, rock. Prepare for each section and keep pushing, even when you think you can’t. But across the quiet there is shouting; voices I hear every day of my life become more obnoxious, louder and more scathing. Memories flash too quick to see; instead they imprint a feeling, a vicious slap, of despondency and disappointment. They are wisps of failures and frustrations pushed down but not forgotten. Stop now. Why bother? You can’t do this. How stupid to even try.
So, when they talk about endurance, my experience from racing is that endurance takes place in the mind as much as the body. And through it, as I keep pedalling, come the clearest thoughts I have ever had. You are capable. You can do this. Right now you are proving you can. Remember this when you want to put pen to paper and write. They are brief, just a heartbeat. But these are the things I can take away. They are better than any prize (except the £80 Altura voucher – thank you Nutcracker!) or moment on a podium.
While it is not yet the end of the summer racing season, it is the end for me. I have other commitments, including preparation for a coast to coast ride next month. Conveniently, the end of my season is a firm stage for the beginning of my blog. It’s about cycling; the adventures and the challenges. It is also me making good on that promise to remember that I can do it and put pen to paper.