The Off Season

I’ve flipped open my MacBook to write an entry about the 2011-2012 cross season a few times now.  The first time, I started off on a tangent about a risky spelunking trip I took in Oregon in 2001.  Somehow the mental tricks I needed to calm myself in the caves reminded me of the mental tricks in cross.  The second time, I started writing about the Patriot debacle in the Superbowl (yes, this has been a long process) which held some loose parallels to having had a lackluster race at Nationals.  The third time, I started writing about an 8-day juice cleanse, again somewhat connected to my trying to feel better about the season but still not about cross racing itself.  Why couldn’t I just write about cross?  What exactly was I avoiding?

The truth is, as much as I look forward to chicken pesto pizza and espresso cheesecake to kick off the off-season, and as much as I need the break from chest-searing 30/30s and long weekends away racing, the structure of the season keeps me sane. Eating wild-caught fish with kale and quinoa, executing 3 hour rides in 40-degree rain and heading to bed by 9:30 is calming because it is straightforward, predictable.  Keeping my body feeling healthy is kind of like picking up around the house – it makes me feel good about setting off on whatever is ahead for the day.  In the off-season, I get a little off-kilter.  I crave a lazy day not worrying about getting in a ride, but as soon as I relax about the training, before I know it, I’m in line at the bakery buying chocolate chip cookies – and muffins and scones – and I’ve mindlessly watched Desperate Housewives on Hulu well past midnight.  Without the structured extremes of the season, soon I feel like a sagging helium balloon, round and squishy and not very useful or attractive.

“You know, it doesn’t have to be graceful… getting out of a season or back into one,” a friend kindly reminded me.

But sometimes I just want to get back into the routine and feel the calm that it restores.

On the one hand, training and racing provide the competitive outlet and the mellowing endorphins that keep me balanced.  I laugh and smile more and enjoy the company of others more when I’ve gotten in my hours of sweating for the day.  Managing to combine social banter and adherence to watt zones with other crazy cyclists makes the hours go by quickly and we motivate each other to give the extra push on a hill or interval that leads to getting faster.

On the other hand, training and racing demand such a commitment of time and energy that can detract from other aspects of my life.  Meeting up for lunch happens only and if there is time after training and only and if there are leafy greens and lean protein on the menu.  Heading out to late-night festivities… well that just basically doesn’t happen during the season at all.  I could stay later at school to host a club, coach a sport, or provide extended extra help sessions.  I could take more time to fix my hair and makeup to look prettier.  It’s a choice I make to devote my prime hours to stimulating mitochondria growth and improving my lactate buffering system.

Beyond this logistical dilemma, there is a dichotomy between who I am as a racer and who I am as a “normal” human being to negotiate.  On the racecourse, I intend to be as fearsome and cutthroat as possible.  Show no fear, no weakness, and don’t let others get into my head.  This competitiveness has always come far more naturally to me than I’d like to admit.  Being vulnerable and open, however, scare me as much as descending S curves in huge pelotons.  What if someone thinks I’m pathetic for not having it all together?  Of course, my sensitive side, as shy as I am about sharing it, allows the smiles, tears, grimaces, and laughter that make racing rewarding.

Transitioning from one me to the other gets messy and ungraceful, which is probably why I’ve been so loath to write anything after the season.  The off-season is a time to be more human, in a sense, and to reach out for connection rather than ride away the stresses of life.  A time for reflecting, socializing with friends and loved ones, reassessing goals and desires.  It’s an opportunity to look in the mirror and ask if I’m the racer and the person that I want to be.

This past season was altogether a really positive one for me.  On a purely competitive note, I improved consistently each week, even made it from off the radar entirely onto the infamous Cyclingdirt rankings to #12.  I won a few races, podiumed frequently, and competed in my first gran prix races.  The fact that Nationals was a poor race for me was tough to process – even though the season was successful overall, Nationals is the last thing I, and others, will remember, and the most esteemed race of the year.  Going forward I can learn from that and be more mindful of eliminating the stressors that could have affected my race.

However, I’m fortunate to also have spent some great times making memories with some fantastic ladies!  Traveling to Delaware, Kentucky, and Chicago/Madison were highlights of the year.  We grew as a team as well, learning to work together and collaborate against the competition.  Sadly, the two teammates with whom I got to race most closely with this season have moved across the country, and I’ll miss them at the local series.

After eating all the cookies, scones and muffins I can reasonably do so while still claiming to be an athlete, and after getting over the hemming and hawing about actually reflecting on the season, I’m ready to embark on a new year of training and racing and tomorrow I compete in my first “race” of the season, an indoor time trial.  Hopefully I’ve learned a little bit more about how to be both “racer” me and “human” me, or at least how to be ok with the messy process of figuring that out.

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