It’s been quite some time since I’ve written a blog for MarathonMTB.com. Far too long, in fact, if you read the fine-print on my contract. But it’s not by accident. The last time I wrote just after National XCM Champs I managed to compose a cheery-ish, superficial post that sufficiently, I thought, masked the utter exhaustion and bitter disappointment I really felt.
It was all tied up with the accident I had in March last year. The accident that I determine over and over is completely behind me, but whose effects last on and on, tendrils of disappointment and ugly memories slithering into every day. To be fair, it’s hard to forget an accident you haven’t really recovered from. My fickle, retaliatory shoulder is a daily reminder that I won’t be getting the pre-accident body back. I’ll never reach for a mug without hesitating again!!
But back to my story. From the moment I realised that my accident was a little bit bad (and this took me 48 hours at least), I sold myself a story about a comeback. A comeback that would end in glorious success at National XCM Champs in 2018. I’d planned to back off the serious athlete routine and just race for fun after that 2017 season, but now I felt that to make the accident okay, to make it go away, I had to prove something. Eight days after getting out of hospital my surgeon told me I could sit on the home trainer. What a nice man! And sit on the home trainer I did. First 10, then 15, then 20 minutes a day. Just enough to keep me sane (okay not really) while my best ever fitness drained rapidly away.
From that day I didn’t stop. Rehab, gym, home trainer, outside riding, first race back (I couldn’t lift the trophy over my head), a stage race (I took my walking stick!), then I broke a vertebra in another race (two days off is plenty! I can still ride!). And I trained. Training, gym, rehab, training, gym, rehab. I rode endless threshold laps of the Nundah criterium circuit where the accident happened. Every time I rode past the spot where I hit the tarmac I distracted myself with a pleasant, soothing fantasy of winning something. Something big. Of the ultimate comeback. A big win that would tip the cosmic scales back into balance. That would make life fair again.
This story was so satisfying, so sustaining, that it kept me training without a proper break for over a year. In fact, if you don’t count the accident as a break (and it really didn’t feel like one), I trained for 20 months straight. But as XCM Champs grew close I realised that the Ultimate Comeback was just a really nice, highly motivating, comforting, and somewhat hubristic blanket. A fairytale. I knew there was no way I was going to win XCM Nationals unless everyone else took a wrong turn into a sea of thumbtacks. Things got kinda hard.
I’ve always loved getting up early, but for months before XCM Champs I had to drag myself out of bed every morning with every shred of (the considerable) self-discipline I’ve got. Let’s say I limped towards National XCM Champs (and several races beforehand) warped, cracked, and leaking from huge holes in my self-image. The comeback fantasy had driven me to get back to where I’d been, nearly, but it was no longer helpful and I had to let it go. It was like letting a ship with your favourite puppy and a million dollars on board sink. The new goal became just to make it to the start, and that became excruciatingly hard. Goal achieved, I rode around at a ‘safe’ pace and came in fourth. And felt nothing. Then I took a month off.
The next big comeback
But guess what? Here I am, three months later, and I feel great. Amazing. I’m enjoying life more fully than ever, loving my training, and incredibly excited about upcoming races and travel. I guess the real purpose of this post is to share the story of how I turned things around.
So you know I had a big, long rest. A month! I still rode a bit, just when I felt like it, and as time went on I felt like it more and more. I relieved myself of all pressure to scare myself stupid learning new techy skills and did my favourite ride – an off-road, largely fire-road loop of Mt Coot-tha right near my house with a cool, slalom-like descent. I’d pop in one of those for fun, then ride to work with a smile on my face. Nice!
I’d had a great relationship with my coach over the last year-and-a-half but we parted ways after XCM Nationals. I’m a Level 1 coach myself and the break was amicable and mutual. I wasn’t coping with the training load and had started to do my own thing. My coach was increasingly busy in his job and with athletes who needed his help more. It was strange starting out as my own coach again, but over the last few months it’s become a really magnificent process. I love the extra flexibility, love analysing my own data (and I love data). Most of all, I’m enjoying doing things my way.
‘My way’ has also changed. With the injuries I carry and the number of times I’ve been overcooked I’ve had to become flexible and, gosh it hurts to admit it, gentle. Really gentle. I’m going to put it out there that my FTP is a good 20 watts lower than I’d like it to be, but damn I feel good. And geez I’m looking forward to racing. And wow my relationships, my (full-time) work, and those bloody injuries are going well. If that’s the trade-off, I’m okay with it. In fact, you can keep your 20 watts. I’m thrilled.
During my break, Mike and I lost three people from our mountain biking circle. All of them way too soon. Then I had a proper fright from a ‘suspicious lump’ under my arm and a week of tests and waiting. It turned out to be nothing, but nothing makes you hit the reset button more than a good long look at mortality and the meaning of life. The meaning of life being to enjoy family, friends, the outdoors, travel, and all the ups and downs life throws your way.
I have an amazing training partner, personal mechanic, lover, logistics man, wrong-side-of-the-road driver and personal chef in my husband. This refresh in my routine and attitude has brought us closer together. Being an athlete is an incredibly selfish existence. An athlete with an unachievable goal they hold onto is a pain in the ass. I’m pleased to say I’m currently not a pain in the ass. Ask Mike.
This has been a time of reflection. I came so close to walking away from everything bike that I’ve had to look back at why I do it. No. I’ve had to change why I do it. Achievement is empty, in the end. The second I came 20th at World XCM Champs in 2016 all I could think was ‘That’s good, but I have to come back and get top 15’. Achievement’s a hungry, hungry demon that just gets greedier and greedier the more you feed it. Well my demon is leaning up. Lately, I’ve been looking back and focusing on what I have achieved, and I’m so proud of myself.
I’ve gained a lot of perspective. Life is here to enjoy. To live to the full. I still believe I live life most vividly on a bike. I’m still competitive and driven. But now I know that the real comeback for me isn’t hitting power targets from before the accident or climbing a podium, it’s releasing myself from bitterness and disappointment and flogging ambition and just enjoying what I’ve got. If I’ve learned anything, it’s how easily that can disappear.