**This post was originally published 7/9/16**
In planning for this season, I put a lot of thought in to what I really wanted to get out of my year, and what I truly wanted to achieve. Then of course I had to think about how to make it all happen, and design a racing schedule that best served my objectives. As all who are familiar with my racing, writing and general philosophy on life know, I try my hardest to keep the “results” on the backburner, stay focused on process goals, and always look toward the “big picture.” While each race is important and I do typically create unique and specific goals for each one, I really like to approach all my races as part of a collective, overarching goal and always keep that bigger purpose in mind as priority number one. This way, I always have something more far-reaching that I’m working toward, and each individual event is essentially just a stepping-stone along the way.
Ultimately, what I want out of my racing career is to become the very best athlete I can possibly be, to take every potential opportunity to grow and learn through that process, and to embrace and experience the journey in its entirety. I want my pursuit of sport to be driven and defined by progress, growth, purpose, passion and experience — more so than titles, podiums, hardware and accolades. I want to get the best from myself, whatever that may mean and regardless of the result it yields, and I want to push as hard as I can to make it happen. The big challenge with this, of course, is that it’s intangible and doesn’t really have a “finish line.” If each day you’re trying to be better than the day before, then essentially you’re constantly striving for more. But I’m okay with that idea. I embrace it. And I know that as I continue to improve and accomplish more as an athlete, I will also continue wanting to be better. But that drive is what gets me fired up to give 100% each day, what keeps me pushing through the tough times, and what keeps me looking toward the future with a sense of promise, optimism and desire. It has also been the primary factor in the choices I’ve made throughout my athletic career.
In the quest to become our “best” selves, whatever the context may be, we all have unique approaches. Personally I get the most from myself when I’m pushed the hardest, faced with the biggest challenges and set against the best competitors. When the going gets really tough is when I’m most able to find a way to get tougher. It’s when I find the most fire within myself, dig deeper than I knew I could, and surpass my expectations. I’m not sure why, but I just enjoy challenging myself to the greatest extent, and in that same vein I am really able to embrace being an underdog, understanding that racing against people who are better than me makes me be better too. I believe strongly in the value of trading short-term rewards for long-term gain, and most of all I believe that the “magic” truly does happen outside your comfort zone.
So, again, as I planned for this season and thought about which events and training would best serve my “ultimate goal” and enable me to learn, grow and benefit most as an athlete, I decided there were two main components I wanted to focus on: pushing my limits, and gaining experience, in the most well-rounded sense of the word. So I set my intentions on expanding my horizons and expanding my comfort zone. Of course I wanted to turn in some good results this year to show progress in my racing, both for myself and for all those who support me, but most of all I wanted to continue stepping up to even bigger challenges and rise to meet them, even if it means the rewards aren’t as obvious or as immediate. In the end, it all comes down to that insatiable drive to keep on being better than yesterday.
That’s why I decided to start my season out in Costa Rica, despite knowing how much I struggle with heat and humidity. Because the only way to overcome the heat is to face it. It’s why I decided to make the step to professional mountain bike racing and compete in my first UCI elite races this spring. Because even though lining up with former world champions, Olympic medalists and some of my biggest idols in a sport I am still relatively new to racing independently made me feel like I might pee my pants, I knew it would make me a better mountain biker than anything else possibly could. It’s why I chose to go back to the only race I’ve ever not finished, Wildflower 70.3, and why I refused to let it get the best of me this time around despite feeling eerily similar on the hot run as the year I got heat stroke and had to reluctantly depart from the course at mile 6. And it’s why I decided to go race in Europe.
Leading in to my trip, I got a lot of questions about why I was choosing to race two Xterra Europe events instead of continuing to focus solely on the Pan-America Tour. I’d been fortunate to have a great start to the tour with very solid results at both Costa Rica and Alabama (2nd and 3rd, respectively), putting me in good position to contend for one of the top spots in the overall rankings at the end of the year. That opportunity is not lost, as we only need to count five races of a possible 10 in our final score for the overall rank (so I will still have just enough!), but it is certainly advantageous to go to as many events as possible to give yourself the opportunity to count only your best scores, and of course to be a factor in the outcome of the race and potentially displace points from others. So the questions were totally reasonable, and I admit that I myself questioned my plans a few times as the trip approached. Going to Europe ultimately meant I’d miss both Canadian stops on the Pan-Am tour, as the Ontario race took place while I was gone and the Victoria race is this Sunday (but it would be a really irresponsible decision to go just three days after traveling all the way back from Europe, given the toll that long travel days take on the body). As it happened, both of these races ended up with relatively small elite women’s fields, and while you certainly never know what will happen on a given day, I believe I would have had a good opportunity to score great points at both of these events, perhaps even earn a new career-best result, and also come home with a paycheck. Not easy to let all of that go…
But, I wanted to continue to think long-term, put immediate rewards aside, and stay focused on what would help me be the best athlete in the long run. And in that regard, I am 100% confident I made the right decision by taking the opportunity to experience racing in Europe. I love competing on the Pan-Am tour, and I absolutely love the people I get to share those races with. It’s an incredibly positive, close-knit community made up of some of the most wonderful, talented, strong and admirable women I know, and I look forward to the reunion with them every time. But it’s also extremely familiar and extremely comfortable for me, having already competed on some of the courses several times, and racing the same core group of competitors at most all of the venues. These women are fast and tough, and they have pushed me to the brink and beyond time and again, bringing their A game at every race to lead to some of the hardest, most intense battles I’ve had on a race course. They are exceptional competitors in every way, and I know they will continue to push me to be better throughout this year and many seasons to come. But sometimes I think it’s good and necessary to break away from the familiar, to try out a new and different challenge, and to go up against other competitors who will test you in different ways. Sometimes you just need to expand your comfort zone, and expand your horizons.
Racing in Europe provided me with all of that and more. The courses were insanely tough, and the conditions even tougher. The competition was tougher still, with some of the biggest elite women’s fields I’ve seen anywhere, and depth that I believe rivals World Championships. I was challenged in ways I’ve never experienced before, and as tough as it was in the moment, it was also amazingly beneficial. At the first race in Switzerland I was completely out of my element, riding in conditions unlike anything I’ve experienced. It was the muddiest, wettest, slickest course I’ve ever seen, and truly made for the hardest riding conditions of my entire life. By the second lap as things got wetter and slicker, I felt like I was off my bike more than I was on it, which is totally foreign to me! It was just so different from what I know — so unfamiliar and uncomfortable (so, perhaps exactly what I wanted…?!). It was hard to embrace the challenge, and I let my struggles get the best of me, leading to a disappointing performance and a 15th place finish. But I learned more than I ever expected, and in hindsight I saw how much I gained from the experience and how much stronger it made me.
Switzerland was the longest (in duration) Xterra I’d ever done, and certainly one of the toughest… until France! This course truly upped the ante on the “tough” factor, with some of the most challenging biking of any Xterra in the world, a very difficult run course and a mass start swim that was pure mayhem. And of course, more mud! And as much as I was blown away by the competition in Switzerland, the elite field in France was even stronger and deeper. It was hard not to feel like a little fish in a very big pond, but after Switzerland I was able to come in with a totally refreshed and more knowledgeable perspective. I was much calmer and more prepared, not intimidated by the difficulty of the course or level of competition, not afraid of the unknowns, and most importantly willing to embrace the unexpected. I was ready to give it my all and let go of the rest, to take full advantage of the opportunity to test and push myself in new ways, and to get as much out of the experience as possible. And after 4 hours of full-throttle, tight-battle racing that was every bit as tough as expected, I accomplished those goals and turned in a race I could be really proud of. I finished 12th on the day, just a few minutes outside the top 10. But more importantly, I once again felt like a whole new athlete thanks to the experience I’d gained.
These races, and my whole journey in Europe, brought challenges so different from those I’ve faced closer to home. They pushed me out of my comfort zone in a whole new way, and forced me to not only step up physically and mentally, but also to fine-tune my perspective and keep my mind open to the opportunity and possibilities in front of me. And I’m so glad I figured that out, because while these were some of the most difficult races I’ve done, they were also some of the most rewarding. Taking the leap to break from the familiar and experience a new racing scene taught me so much, both on the racecourse and off, and truly enabled me to grow and progress in a way that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. The experience was invaluable, and such a great reminder of the importance of pushing ourselves to seek out new challenges. And while I didn’t return from Europe with medals or prize money, I believe I came home with something much greater. For so many reasons, I am a better athlete today than I was before I left, and in the end — at least for me — you really can’t ask for more than that.