Bittersweet ‘Bama: Looking Beyond the “Uncontrollables”

I’ve always thought “bittersweet” was such a funny word. I mean, by nature it contradicts itself, which really doesn’t make much sense. But when you have one of those experiences that truly is both sweet and a little “bitter” at the exact same time, you realize just how much sense that term actually makes. And for me, it is the perfect way to sum up my race experience at Xterra Alabama this past weekend.

After some really solid training over the past few weeks, I came into ‘Bama feeling incredibly ready. I knew I’d reached a new level of fitness from my first racing block that had culminated in early April, and since that had already gone so well, I was very excited about the prospects of what I felt I could achieve in Alabama if I had the right day. Of course there’s so much that goes into having the “right” day, and regardless of preparation, fitness or skill, so many things can still go wrong even when they shouldn’t. You can be as ready as ever, and as fit as ever, and still not have the day you’ve set yourself up for. There are just SO many factors that go in to making an entire race come together, and many of them are ultimately beyond our control. This is something we understand well as athletes, and a “risk” we accept each time we get to the start line. But that doesn’t make it feel any easier when that risk becomes reality.

start

The women’s pro field was 17 strong here this year, outnumbering the men’s, and it was stacked deep with talent. It was the most competitive field I’ve faced yet this season, which actually made me really excited, as I tend to thrive in the scenarios with as many great racers as possible around, to push me beyond where I thought I could go. But with so many amazing women in the lineup, all ready to bring our A game and many of us very closely matched in capabilities, I knew this race was going to be a battle. My big “performance” goal was to once again finish on the podium, which I did feel confident I could achieve — but I also knew that with this kind of a field, a good day would be essential. There couldn’t be any big mistakes, any mechanical mishaps, any hesitation or missed opportunities. It was going to take an all-in effort, and I was ready to give it everything I had.

While I do like to have a performance “target” for each race (such as a podium finish), I like to make specific goals that are process-oriented rather than outcome-based, and really stay focused on those. Essentially this is like creating a road map for where you want to end up, rather than just knowing where you want to be but not thinking about how you’re actually going to get there. For this particular race, one of my biggest goals was to really stay in the moment throughout the day, and to never count myself out of the race, no matter what. As I said before, I knew it would be a tight battle out there that would ultimately come down to inches and seconds, and all the ways that those small margins add up over the course of a race. While I had a “plan” of how I wanted my race to unfold and where I wanted to be at certain times, with everything that could potentially throw that off, I knew it would be critical to just keep my head “in the game,” so to speak, and keep fighting for each of those inches and seconds along the way, even if I wasn’t where I wanted to be or things weren’t going to plan.

This is something I feel I’ve struggled with a bit in the past. While I’ve gotten really good at being able to push myself to the limit and well beyond – often times exceeding my own expectations – when it’s just about the things I can control, I don’t believe I’ve always done the best job when it comes to dealing with the things I can’t control… like bike mechanicals, flat tires, etc. Unfortunately I’ve had my fair share of these types of issues, over the last year especially, and while at the time I like to think I handle them well, in reality looking back I know there’s a lot of room for improvement. I’ve gotten frazzled and frantic. I’ve gotten discouraged and defeated. I’ve dwelled on the issues, thinking about all the opportunity I’ve lost, rather than staying immediately focused on the opportunity that still remains right in front of me. Of course it’s a bummer when mechanical problems happen – especially on an otherwise good day. But too often I’ve let these things affect my race more than they actually should. Because the bottom line is that, yes, a mechanical issue will keep your day from being quite as good as it could have been, but that doesn’t mean the day still can’t be totally great. And that’s the part I know I need to focus on. Sure, we can’t always control whether we get flat tires or mechanicals, but we can control the way we react to them, period. And that can make all the difference.

Swim
Photo: Pax Tolosi

When I got my flat tire in Alabama, I was having a damn good day. The race was shaping up just about perfectly for me, and all the potential for that podium finish was there, right within my reach. I had a good swim, sticking right in with the group I needed to. On to the bike, my “bread and butter,” my legs felt strong, and I was pumped to do some good work and keep making my way up the field. I was just out of contact from my buddies Maia and Liz after T1 (who ended up finishing an awesome 4th and 5th place, respectively!), but quickly worked my way up so we were all riding together. I knew I was right where I needed to be, and I felt comfortable, calm, and in control. I planned to make a charge at an upcoming spot a bit later in the bike course, and felt really confident in knowing I still had the extra gear I needed to do that. Things were shaping up well!

When we hit a fire road section with more room, I went around to move to the front, feeling that we needed to pick it up a bit, with several other fast women riding close behind. I took the lead and began to push the pace. But just a few minutes later, I started to feel myself sliding around the corners, and realized my tire was almost flat. [Just to clarify, I have great tires — truly the best in the business in my opinion — but this is a rough and rocky course, and flats are always an especially high risk here.] I felt that familiar sink of my heart and my spirits, and started to think about what a bummer it was that this was happening at such a critical time. But then I remembered my goal, and told myself to snap the heck out of it, stay focused, and stay in the race! I pulled off the trail, losing the contact that I knew was so crucial to maintain. I didn’t see any obvious tears in the tire after a good inspection, so I took the gamble of simply filling it up with CO2 rather than taking it all the way off to put in a tube, which is a much slower process. But while it was quicker than it otherwise could have been, I still lost precious time, and more significantly had to watch as rider after rider slipped by me, seeming to put my goals further and further out of reach. When you’re just stuck on the side of the trail while your competitors push forward, every second feels like an eternity — particularly in such a tight race when every second is so crucial!

Ride Pax
Photo: Pax Tolosi

Nonetheless, I kept my mind straight and worked to stay focused in the right direction. I pushed the thoughts about the flat tire and the lost time and the “why did that have to happen to me?!” out of my head, and focused on the things I needed to do now to get back as much time as possible. There was still lots of race left! Before I knew it, I’d ridden my way back up to two of the women who had passed me by, and then soon a third and a fourth. I felt good about the comeback I was making, and stayed positive and hungry. Unfortunately, though, I also noticed that my tire pressure seemed to be steadily decreasing again, and before long I could feel that I was barely pushing any air underneath me. The small puncture in the tire must not have quite gotten completely sealed when I put the air in, and now it was almost totally flat again! I had no more CO2, so I just kept on going, hoping it would maintain at least a little air and I could hang in as long as possible. I pushed up the remainder of the long fire road climb, barely realizing that my legs were getting more and more exhausted with each pedal. (Pushing extremely low PSI uses a LOT more power than riding on a normal tire, and seriously drains your energy!). By the time I reached the top, I was fully bottoming out on any small rock I rode over because I had so little air left, and I was starting to really worry that I may not make it to the finish.

Blood Rock
The bottom of the “Blood Rock” section

Though it was admittedly tough for my ego, I made the smart decision to not try to ride down the most technical section of the course, Blood Rock, which came next. I dismounted and ran the full descent, knowing that riding it with so little air would have almost certainly ripped my tire completely, and/or damaged my rim — and then I’d definitely be out of the race for good. I tried to get back on again at the bottom, but the tire was now too flat to be rideable. We were still only about two-thirds through the bike course at this point at best, and I started to panic. With no more CO2, I had no way to fix the flat again. I was now at the mercy of my fellow competitors, who I hoped might possibly share a spare CO2 with me, but frankly I wasn’t holding my breath. (Competitors are allowed to help each other out on course including sharing tools, but it doesn’t happen often, as it slows the other racer down and also puts them at risk for getting stuck in the same situation if they end up with a flat tire or mechanical problem of their own!). Several riders came back by, but no one stopped. Then more riders… but no stops. At this point I was losing huge chunks of time, and I thought for sure my race was over.

But then came my friend and fellow pro Katharine Carter, who totally saved my day! She stopped on the descent — losing her momentum, and precious seconds — to give me her own CO2 so I would be able to finish the race. This was certainly not something she had to do, or was expected to do. But she did it anyway, simply because she felt it was the right thing. I was absolutely FLOORED by her incredible show of sportsmanship, and it was frankly the highlight of my day. I felt so fortunate to be able to carry on, and found new motivation to keep on fighting and be sure I finished the day with a smile. I knew I’d lost a huge amount of time and several places, but I reminded myself once again that it was still a tight race, the margins were small, and I was absolutely not out of contention! I was determined to keep on fighting for that podium, or at least see how close to it I could get!

My legs felt pretty tired through the rest of the ride (probably worn out from pushing such low pressure for so many miles, and also now nice and tight from all the time standing still!). But I was still in the race!! I gained back two of the three women’s spots I’d lost during the second pit-stop, but I lost one more spot in the last couple miles as the fatigue took over my legs. I hit T2 in 8th place, with 9th and 10th essentially right on my heels. I knew 7th place (and the last money spot!) was still within striking distance, and wasn’t sure how far off 5th and 6th were, but I made a promise to myself at that point that I wouldn’t consider anything to be out of reach. I was going to fight to the bitter end for every last second I could muster!

Somehow once I started running, I found another gear and some untapped energy, and I suddenly felt really strong. It was BLAZING hot and so, so tough out there, but I found the legs (or, more likely, the heart!) I needed to get through it, and ended up having a great run. I was able to push into 7th, maintain that position to the end, and even close up quite a bit of time on the next spot.

In the end, the podium proved to be just out of reach. I finished just one minute out of 6th, and only two minutes off of 5th place and the final podium spot. 3rdand 4th were only another few minutes further ahead, and I believe that without the mishaps and all the time and energy lost to them, I would have been right in the battle for those spots. After all that, I had still come so close…! (And this is where the bitter and the sweet mingle so perfectly in co-existence). But in a field like this, you simply can’t afford to give a single inch, let alone multiple minutes. As it was, though, when I crossed the line, I was honestly thrilled with 7th place. It had taken absolutely everything I had to earn that spot, and I couldn’t have been more proud of the effort I put in to achieve it, especially given all the challenges along the way. Above all, though, I’m most proud of how I dealt with the adversities out there, which was the one thing I knew I actually needed to practice most. I never gave up. I never stopped fighting. I never counted myself out. I gave all that I had. In that sense, I accomplished everything I set out to.

Looking back, it’s so hard not to think about what could have been. It’s tough not to fixate on the time lost, the “misfortune,” or that small sting of disappointment. I was so very ready to have a great day, and all of the potential was there. But just as during the race I had to make a conscious choice to focus on where I was in each moment and what I could do from that point forward, rather than where I felt I should be or could be, I know that now in my evaluation I need to focus on what all I was actually able to do, and not what held me back. This wasn’t quite the day I imagined. I didn’t end up where I wanted. But I gave everything I could, and I did it as well as ever. We really do have so few chances each year to prove what we can do out there on the race course, so each time something gets in the way it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. But all things considered, this really was a great day.

Ultimately, I can draw so many positives from what I was able to do last weekend. A couple years ago, I was absolutely ecstatic with 7th place finishes, when everything went perfectly. So to now be in a place where I can have multiple mishaps and still finish 7th, in the most competitive field of the year so far, is a tremendous show of progress that I am absolutely psyched about! And while I didn’t quite get to show everything I’m capable of out there, I saw that potential for myself, and I know I’m right where I want to be. I’m feeling better than ever about my ability to make the most of all the things I can control, and now I know I can indeed handle the uncontrollables well, too.

While ‘Bama had its little bit of bitter, the aftertaste is nothing but sweet. I am grateful for a strong performance, and I am confident, motivated and absolutely fired up for the next opportunity to do it all again!

As always, I owe a huge thanks to the many supporters and incredible partners who always stand behind me and keep me moving forward: JLVelo, Clif Bar, Unleashed Coaching, Salomon Running, Catlike, Xterra Wetsuits, Maxxis Tires, Wahoo Fitness, TrainerRoad, and Zealios Skincare. I feel fortunate every day to have such an amazing “village” of support, and some of the most truly wonderful competitors to share all of these experiences with.

Laura, Sabrina and I

Liz and I
Photo: Pax Tolosi
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