Full Spectrum: On Heartbreak and Glory, and All the Spaces In Between

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the up-and-down nature of sport… The peaks and valleys it constantly throws into our path and the stark contrast among them… The devastating heartbreak and ecstatic triumph, and the challenge of navigating the spaces in between.

With so many high-caliber, and high pressure, events on display these last couple months, from the Olympic trials to the UCI mountain bike World Championship to the Olympic games, I’ve been watching with fascination, awe and empathy as the best athletes in the world give every ounce of energy and heart they’ve cultivated over an entire career – or an entire lifetime — in pursuit of that one fleeting moment of glory.

I’ve watched dreams ripped away from the most deserving of competitors; years of effort, preparation and enthusiasm snatched right out from under them. I’ve watched as athletes outdid themselves, unlocking their potential at the perfect moment and achieving the performance of a lifetime when it mattered most. I’ve watched the raw displays of emotion as they lay it all out on the line, both in success and in failure. And I’ve seen how quickly and how easily those can be interchanged; how one minor circumstance can create such a drastically different outcome. How a mere fraction of a second, the smallest of technicalities, one tiny miscalculation, momentary lapse of judgment or nervous hesitation can mean the difference between devastation and elation. How one person’s stumble becomes someone else’s opportunity. How someone can give absolutely everything, race brilliantly and courageously, and still come up just inches short.

And I’ve felt it all, too, in my own experience.

The nature of sport, and its ability to make or break us in an instant, can be brutal. But it can also be magical. The possibilities are endless, all the way across the spectrum. And I suppose not really knowing what may happen out there on any given day, no matter how good or how prepared you are, is really a big part of the allure. It’s what keeps us coming back for more, even after our hearts have been broken. It’s why we continue to put it all out there, again and again, no matter how much we’ve been beat down or defeated. Because there’s always the possibility that something completely different could happen tomorrow. There’s always the possibility of achieving something magical.

So what really stuck with me and inspired me most about watching all these events this summer was witnessing how when somebody fell down, they got back up. Even as they saw their dream slip from their grasp, the fire never vanished from their eyes. Behind all the pain and the disappointment, you could still see the desire. The determination. The tenacious spirit, undeterred, eager for its next shot at redemption. That, if you ask me, is the definition of a great athlete. That is the key to success, and it is the greatest lesson sport has to teach us. If you fall down, get back up. Continue to press forward. Continue to believe in the possibilities ahead, and don’t slow down in your pursuit of them.

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Each time I see someone exemplify that fighting spirit, it hits me on a personal level. Because it’s the one thing I can relate to more than anything else in watching the world’s best at the pinnacle of their sport. And throughout my own career as a triathlete, this is the one lesson I’ve learned again and again. And this season has been no exception.

Every race this year, I’ve come in feeling prepared, strong, confident in my capabilities and content in knowing I’ve done all I can to be as ready as possible. But sometimes you do everything right and something still goes wrong. Sometimes your legs just don’t show up, your mind isn’t clear, or something beyond your control compromises your day. I think the latter is perhaps most frustrating. There’s nothing you can do but push on as best as you can, but you are always left to wonder ‘what if…?’ Even though you know you left it all out there, you can’t help but wonder what might have been had everything gone the way it was supposed to. You can’t help but feel like you finished with untapped potential, and that’s a darn tough pill to swallow.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to do so several times this year — as is so often the case in a competition where you’re trying to put three sports together and nail them all, with so many opportunities for things to go wrong. From struggles with heat acclimation in Costa Rica, to getting caught up in a start loop crash at Sea Otter XC, to lack of traction in the mud at the Bonelli XC and Xterra Switzerland, to nagging foot injuries rearing their ugly head on the run at Ironman 70.3 Raleigh and Xterra France… there have been several times this year when I felt like I was held back by something not fully in my control that kept me from having the race I was capable of. I felt frustrated and disappointed each time because I knew I had more in me, and I wanted to be able to show it. I felt like I wasn’t getting my opportunity, and I wondered when it would be my time to put it all together and not have something standing in the way.

But here’s the thing: there will almost always be something. Sure, there are perfect days out there, but they are so rare. Most of the time, we won’t get those days, and we have to figure out how to make the best of the rest of them. And in the end, it doesn’t so much matter what happens out there. What matters is how you respond, what you take from each scenario, and how you use it to help you move forward. While my races this season have run the gamut in terms of luck, fortune and challenge, this last streak of racing has been the picture of extremes, and I’ve realized more than ever just how true that is.

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When I returned from Europe, I had a quick turnaround for the Xterra Mountain Championship race in Beaver Creek, Colorado – my third of four scoring races on the Xterra Pan-Am tour. I could go on and on about the difficulty of this race and how much I seem to struggle with it, but suffice it to say that my last go-around here had been terrible. Like, next level awful. I struggled exceptionally and my performance was horrendous. So I had a lot of demons in my mind coming in this year, but I was eager to kick them and prove I could prevail on this course. And when it was finally game time, I began doing exactly that.

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Photo by Jesse Peters // Xterra

I felt strong physically and mentally, and I was executing my race exactly as planned. It felt like I was watching the great day I knew I had in me unfold before my eyes, and I was pumped! I’d made it through what I think is an especially tough swim at altitude, and through all of the relentless climbing on the bike, with good legs and a strong mind and had gotten myself into a very solid 4th place position. I was ready to finally hit the 3 miles of downhill into T2 and then bring it home on the run. But then, I got a flat tire. Right at the start of the descent… After all the effort and all the energy and all the near-perfect execution to get myself into a position I was so happy with, I got a flat on the fastest part of the race. Long story short, I couldn’t get it repaired and ended up riding the rapidly leaking tire, then riding on the rim, and then running, the entire downhill section into T2. I lost several minutes of time, two places, and my whole day turned upside down. I gave it all I could on the run, despite feeling completely defeated, and ended up 6th on the day. But I was so disappointed because I felt like my potential had been ripped away from me.

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Photo by Jesse Peters // Xterra

This certainly wasn’t the Olympics, and my consequences were relatively minor, but on a personal level I felt especially devastated after this race, and I’m not even totally sure why. Perhaps it’s because I’d doubted myself coming in and finally felt like I was overcoming those doubts, or maybe it’s because for the first time I felt like I was doing everything right here. Who knows, but for whatever reason, this one really stung. When I used to coach Nordic skiing, we would always tell the kids to take 15 minutes to really reflect on the race, let themselves be sad/happy/disappointed/elated etc. and really go through all the circumstances and think about where they did well and where they could have done better, and then move on. I reminded myself of this and thought how sensible it was in theory, but I just couldn’t practice what I preached this time. I just couldn’t seem to let it go, and was so stuck in the “if only that hadn’t happened…” mindset.

But I knew I had to look ahead. I had to focus on the positives, knowing I was in great shape and knowing that a really good day was indeed possible, and take that confidence with me for the future. I had to let go of the sense of loss I felt from missing out on this opportunity and start thinking about how I could capitalize on the next one. So I allowed myself to move on, and made a conscious decision to use that gutted feeling to propel me forward. Because every time you miss out on something, it just makes you want it that much more.

And then came the Donner Lake Triathlon. And Xterra Dominican Republic. And then Xterra Lake Tahoe. At each of these races over the past six weeks, things came together just a little bit more. I felt stronger at each start line, and even more so at each finish. Time after time, I continued to surprise myself, each race feeling better than the last when I didn’t quite think that was possible. Things certainly weren’t perfect on any of these days… I still have a lot of work to do, a lot of weaknesses to address, and hopefully a lot more room for improvement. But on each of these days there was nothing holding me back from my potential. Things worked out more or less as planned, with no major technical issues, no med tent visits, no big strategic errors or equipment failures and most importantly no feeling after crossing the finish line that there were a bunch of things I should have done differently. I was able to leave it all out there and finish on empty, for all the right reasons. And that is really, truly the best feeling you can ever ask for after a race.

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These past three races have definitely been some of the best, most solid racing experiences I’ve had, right on the heels of one of the most frustrating, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Ultimately, I think Beaver Creek was actually a really defining moment for me this year in that while it was perhaps my biggest disappointment, it was also critical in helping me find the confidence to know what I am capable of, and the desire to realize it. And as I look back, I see so clearly how every race so far this season that left me feeling less than completely satisfied has had its place in leading me up to this point now, where I’m seeing so many positive signs of progress, and I feel confident there’s still a lot more to come.

Because every time something’s gone wrong, held me back, or I’ve just come up short, it’s left me that much more hungry. It’s helped motivate me to dig that much deeper and keep pushing for more. And through those ups and downs I’ve learned to see every experience, positive or negative, as a lesson, as a piece of my foundation and an important part of my journey. I’ve continued to be reminded again and again, and as I’ve said so many times before, that every setback really is an opportunity for a comeback.

Looking ahead, with the Pan-Am Champs right around the corner and Xterra World Championships on the horizon, I’m so excited about the possibilities. I feel like I really have a lot of momentum behind me to continue building on, and I finally know what I am really capable of. I have all those lessons of almost an entire season — and so many years before — in the bank, and I plan to carry them all with me out there on these two biggest stages of the year, and draw on them for motivation and inspiration. I know I’ve done all I can to be as prepared as I can possibly be, and I’ll be ready to make the most of each opportunity and face each scenario head-on as it comes, good or bad. I will remember that I have the power to choose my reactions and control the way that I move forward.

I will continue to be inspired by the image burned in my memory of some of the world’s best Olympians falling and getting back up, and all the times I’ve done so myself. I will continue to believe in the value and power of being bold and courageous, in the audacious nature of digging in with every fiber and laying it all out on the line, uninhibited and unafraid to fail, even knowing all too well that there is always the possibility of disappointment ahead. Because that possibility of magic still remains there, waiting for us. I’ll be looking for mine among the gold and red leaves of Snow Basin this month, and the warm sands of Maui in October, and I sure hope that I find it. But regardless, I’ll know that for every misstep, for every fall, flat tire or disappointment, there’s one more little spark added to that fire inside. And at some point, when the time is right, those flames are going to build up so high that they can’t help but burst out, and light up the whole sky.

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