When you stand on a start line and look around you one thing is always the same: everyone looks fitter, calmer, better dressed, and more prepared than you do. You can try numerous strategies to overcome your nerves: a friendly chat, a thousand-mile stare, some tweaks to your gear – but your heart will hammer and torrential questions flood your mind: Should you even be here? Is this the stupidest thing you’ve ever done? Will they laugh?
I’ve learnt two important lessons from my years of racing:
1. Nobody is having a great time while they wait for the gun to go off, everyone has their problems on their way to the grid.
I’ve been reading the fantastic race diaries of pro road women posted on Ella Cycling Tips. At first I was amazed to read about all the shit that goes wong: But they’re pros!… They know what they’re doing!… They have support! Sure they do. The fact is that that’s. Just. Life. And racing is life magnified.
But don’t be relieved yet, because:
2. Knowing this makes no difference whatsoever.
I’ve written about how I’ve worked on getting my body and my bike right for the Perskindol Swiss Epic, but these are really just two parts of a more important project – getting the mind into gear.
As any event approaches, my excitement is always replaced with a vague sense of foreboding and a tendency to fixate on minutiae, like which socks are the best for this weather? Should I let 1 psi out of my front tyre? Am I standing up when I should be sitting down? And so on. With a race like the Swiss Epic I’m plagued with bigger issues, too, like ‘will Mike and I still feel like getting married after the race?’, and ‘will I break any bones?’. The only way to deal with anxiety like this is to plan as best you can and leave the rest to fate.
For type As like me, meticulous preparation is the easy part. The calming part. Mike and I have brought all our race food with us to Switzerland ourselves – about 7kgs of it. I’ve done the training and everything I could to stay healthy on the long trip here, including using so much hand sanitiser that I developed a rash. My bike is prepped and every moving part is new or serviced. Mike and I have raced together enough to know how to lube each other’s chains while we pedal, and I’m confident our relationship will survive, as long as he doesn’t half-wheel me.
Setting goals helps with the nerves a bit, especially if they’re of the SMART variety: i.e. achievable, measurable, etc. Everyone wants to know what position we’re aiming for but whenever we go to Europe we’re reminded that, coming from so far away, we can never, ever guess where we sit. We recognise some names and even know some of our competitors in the mixed category, but there are dozens of Swiss and Euro teams who could be incredibly strong. We think a top ten would be wonderful, but until we get into the race we will have no idea how realistic this is. The only goal we can set is to do the best we can, moment by moment.
But if these are all the things I can control, how the hell do I deal with all the stuff I can’t? The days before a race are, I find, those when I feel most unbalanced, most displaced, and adding international travel into the equation amplifies these sensations tenfold. It took me nearly 40 hours to get from home in Brisbane to Verbier in Switzerland’s south, taking a car, two planes, three trains, a bus, and a telecabine, dragging a huge suitcase, backpack, and bike bag around with me all the way. I’ve had passport emergencies, language difficulties, acute illness that left me wandering Verbier in a daze, and of course jetlag. In the last four days I have encountered incredible kindness and, I am so sorry to say, pointless nastiness. Every situation I get into, every encounter is by nature unpredictable: that’s the beauty of travel – that ever-expanding world of experience – sure. Unfortunately it’s the last thing you want in the lead up to a huge event. What you want most in those precious few days is a sense of control.
Maybe that’s because I know that once the race is on, any illusion of control goes out the window. If training is about methodical, gradual, calculated acquisition of fitness and skills, it’s a wonder it works at all. Sometimes I think the best thing to do to prepare for an event might be to lock myself in a washing machine with a couple dozen rocks, blast some heavy metal music, overdose of an emetic and press go. Nothing, really, can prepare you for the madness of 1000s of jostling, sweating, puffing, yelling, desperate people made mad and unpredictable with the same anxieties you have. But then something happens. After all the bits and pieces that have gone wrong, the tiredness, choosing the wrong socks, the eternity on the start line… the gun does go off. You point your bike, you look ahead, you pedal, breathe, because there’s nothing else you can do. The world shrinks and you become bigger within it. And when it’s really going well, there’s a point of perfect balance in the turmoil.
That’s why I race. It’s where I recapture the centre of my world, and where, when everything comes together, I sometimes find myself cocooned in calm, perfect flow, peace with chaos.
So next time you’re on the start line, and everyone looks fitter, calmer, better dressed, and more prepared than you do, maybe add one more thing to your coping strategies: try patience. All you have to do is wait for the gun to go off.