What happens in a year when organized rides and races are cancelled or postponed due to a global pandemic and how do you maintain motivation to train when your objectives may not be that clear anymore? I addressed this in the previous post from my personal and professional perspective. I also asked a couple of the athletes that I work with to put down their thoughts on this issue from the past few months. Below is Emily Alexander’s perspective. I started coaching Emily in the Fall of 2014. She is now the most “tenured” of the athletes that I work with and I am honored to also call her a friend.
Emily has come a long way in the past six years both physically and psychologically. She has had a number of light bulb moments of understanding such as getting to know the flow in a race or the purpose of a workout or how to push just a little bit more. Last year was especially exciting for a number of reasons. One in particular that I was psyched to see was that she was able to leverage personal achievements into helping her team mates on her local team. Now instead of just trying to finish races she could have an impact on them and help her team mates race more as a TEAM and not just as individuals riding around in the same jerseys. I was psyched to see her confidence building and was looking forward to what 2020 had in store for her. We mapped out a plan for some of her objectives over pizza and a few cocktails in January. Some challenging group rides followed in February and then the first race happened in March. This first race did not yield the team result she and her team mates were hoping for but it did provide a great teaching opportunity and it was a start that showed potential for the rest of the season.
And then the second race the following weekend was cancelled because of this thing called COVID-19. Then the next race was cancelled, and the next and then the entire season.
I will let Emily take it from here.
I put my thoughts and feelings into boxes. Sometimes I do this to hide them away or protect them, but more often it’s to see if they can withstand the isolation thus allowing me to be ambivalent about the things I don’t want to deal with – feeling hard or heavy – until the next time I open the box. In April, that’s what I did with the idea of being a bike racer.
Being a bike racer – or being dedicated to the pursuit of anything at a high level – is a selfish endeavor. Rationally, I know making decisions that are in my self-interest are not a bad thing – I have become relatively secure in my work, routines, and friendships through such decisions. But I have now had half a year to consider how much my commitment to training and racing has allowed me to avoid and ignore boxes full of personal perceived inadequacies.
I have allowed personal relationships to flounder because I haven’t given them the time and attention they deserve. I have remained in unfulfilling professional situations because they fund my lifestyle and hobbies. While I have been a willing participant in these behaviors, it is in the void left by the loss of a race season that has torn my vision from my head unit. Entranced by efforts and intervals to take in my surroundings – I find myself unsure whether I have been the way I want to be.
I found bike racing during a time of massive change in my life – I had moved across the country to a city with a very different social culture than where I grew up, where I didn’t know anyone. I was in a long-distance already-failed-relationship with a guy I thought I was in love with and eventually – through meeting the criteria of always “being there” – would still share a collective future. Bike riding and subsequently bike racing became my way into a social group I wanted to associate with and my way out of sitting at home pining and leaning on other, more destructive habits.
I don’t regret the choices and perceived “sacrifices” I’ve made. They have led me to a cadre of friends that are the closest I’ve had since elementary school – people I think of first when I’ve thought of moving for a job change. They have introduced me to acquaintances, coaches, and mentors – like Joe – who I now look to for guidance regularly. They have made me ask – unfairly or not – if the potential partner I’m considering is someone I want to bring into any of those circles. But I also realize I have been using bike racing to escape from my proverbial “house” when the curtain or – on rare occasion – a whole room catches fire – providing me a quick escape. To return later and retouch the damaged sections – hiding singed walls behind fresh paint, a method that worked well until March of this year when the whole house almost exploded.
During that time, the whole world was on fire. My work was stressful – the price of our commodity plummeted, and our supply chain was holding on by fraying threads as we watched consumers panic buy and then panic yet again when shelves were not restocked in a suitable time frame. My social life was stressful – my small group of friends suddenly isolated from each other by a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” Order. My family and friends from across the country all wanted to know “what was going on in Seattle”. All of this, on top of the possibility of still racing later in the year. That possibility should have felt like a grounding force, but it was a grounding rod that attracted all the stress-energy and sent it straight to the foundation.
In January, Joe and I had a season planning meeting over pizza and whiskey. Talking through my overall goals for the year, the events in which I wanted to compete, and how we were going to approach managing fitness to target competing in LeadBoat in Colorado in mid-September. We started calling it “Grand Scheme 2020” and it was going to be one of the longest and most diverse racing calendars I had yet to experience.
Then in March, as the first races and events were getting postponed – and then cancelled – I was everything but excited about riding my bike at all. I spent most nights sleeping on my couch where I would fall asleep shortly after starting a movie too late in the evening that was usually preceded by a glass – or three – of whiskey to wind down from the day. I was spending so much time thinking that even “mindless intervals” weren’t working because they were no longer that. The thing that once allowed me to “check out” for a bit became the thing that was making me even more neurotic. I was in my head more than ever – caught in my house, panicking while trying to pull open a door that needed a push.
I didn’t know how to tell Joe that inside I was struggling more than I have in a long time. The race season’s potential was still out there, just hanging, and I didn’t know how – let alone want – to keep my racing mind sharp when everything else in life felt so consequential. It was during this time that I started asking why I thought bike racing was so important? It is not my job; it is a hobby. There is no reason to do it other than I like doing it – or I thought I did. It wasn’t until after all of my races became canceled that I finally heard Joe telling me the door I had been frantically pulling at needed a push, and on my way out the door, the idea of being a bike racer went into a box, mostly.
I’m not “training” anymore; I’m riding and finding the things that fill my soul with hefty pours of fulfillment and contentment without comparison. To give those the time and space they need – they deserve – I’m going with the flow of the current situation. I need some structure to respond to, so I still see a workout in TrainingPeaks almost every day. Rather than “prescriptions” I know that these are mainly suggestions that Joe is making – and they vary based on how I’m feeling or if I decide on a week’s notice that I want to climb half the height of Mt. Everest or ride 200 miles in one day with friends. They offer the safety net – old habits die hard – of some mindless effort to still want to jump when everything else feels overwhelming.
I still fight with myself around my perceived obligation to “do the workout” while following even a loose training plan. For example, I spent 3 hours convincing myself it was OK that I wanted to go for a hike instead of a long ride a couple of weeks ago. It’s through these moments – while sometimes uncomfortable – I’m finally learning, as with my relationships, just because I love something doesn’t mean I have to like it all the time.
At the end of April, I started experiencing riding – and life – in a new way. With encouragement and nudges from Joe, I embraced going for rides I would have never considered due to training or the racing calendar. I started taking whole days off the bike for the first time in months, so that I could make and spend more time (even physically distanced) with friends, or go for hikes I’ve never thought to do before. And then – one by one – carefully opening boxes of thoughts and feelings left shut and actively ignored for years. Always a little timid after all this time, but more prepared to wrestle with whatever I might find inside.
I started to check on my idea of being a bike racer recently. Peeking in the box now and then and taking pieces out to play with. Feeling the life within the parts that I do allow myself to touch so that I can understand what I want to keep and come back to when racing does inevitably return. Because until I open it up again – and open myself up to it – I won’t know.